I had her for only one class, Expository Writing, and I don’t remember much about her. She wore lipstick that shimmered. Her face was shiny-clean, framed by curly red hair and scarves. She smiled often, but she was not bubbly.
In the past, the names of my two or three favorite former teachers rolled of my tongue like unspooling thread. They were teachers whose enthusiasm for learning was contagious, making them obvious contenders for the deserved Favorite Teacher title.
Ms. Jenewein was never one of them, until fairly recently.
A few years ago, I stopped to consider that, whenever I thought about my writing, I often went back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s class. We had to interview someone of our choosing and write a profile article. (Apparently, I liked that assignment. See: True STORIES.)
I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. It was informative, well-organized, and concise. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.
Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.
Um, excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. It was done, and done pretty well. I’ll take the B, thank you.
I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”
“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”
The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”
I have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. It’s not as easy as it sounds, far from it. But it is the absolute best guiding principle in writing. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.
There are loads of books out there that use many pages explaining how to become a good writer. I haven’t read them all, but I can tell you most of it is probably crap. (I’m not talking writers’ memoirs, which I love.) Partly because, as with most things, the beauty of the writing is in the eye of the beholder. But also because it doesn’t take 150 pages to list the three things one must do to become a good writer: Read–a lot. Write–a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.
Ms. Jenewein could have just scrawled a “B” on my paper and been done with it. She certainly had enough essays to grade to keep her busy. But she didn’t. She told me it wasn’t good enough, that I could do better, because I could. Without her, it might have taken me a lot longer to figure that out—as long as it took me to realize she was one of my favorite teachers.