Two Local Writers' Hard Work, Talent Rewarded
September 4, 2005
By David Milofsky
In "The Education of Henry Adams," the author comments that "A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence ends." Nice sentiment, but not everyone is as generous with respect to teachers, who are frequently blamed for everything from ADD to students failing to find employment.
Of course, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere between these poles. Most teachers spend months and years waiting for what educators call "the teachable moment," when the light goes on and true communication can occur. In creative writing classes, the process takes longer and sometimes never happens. While in most subjects it's a reasonable assumption that a good student will accumulate a certain amount of knowledge in a course and move on, in creative-writing workshops, what a student normally learns is how little he knows, how many errors he's made and how far from his conception the completed story really is.
No one likes to hear such things, of course, and hurt feelings, bad prose and occasional threats go with the territory for instructors. Creative-writing teachers, who at the college level are generally published writers themselves, quickly learn to lower their expectations and provide encouragement when they can.
Every now and then, however, something wonderful happens and a rising tide raises all boats where student morale is concerned. This being so, it's a pleasure to be able to report the recent successes of two writers who've done time in my classes: Aryn Kyle, a graduate of Colorado State University, who recently won the prestigious $10,000 Rona Jaffe Award; and Ronna Wineberg, who graduated from the University of Denver School of Law and will have her first book, "Second Language," published this fall.
Kyle, a 27-year-old wunderkind who took an MFA at the University of Montana after leaving CSU, is well on her way after publishing her first story in The Atlantic magazine and following that with publications in Georgia Review and other magazines. All this has not exactly translated into a life of ease, however, and Kyle is back in Grand Junction, where she supports herself by painting houses and doing online tutoring while she works on her first novel. "I love teaching," she says, "but it's hard to get a regular gig without a published book."
Still, she is aware that she's far ahead of many of her peers. "Success is great," Kyle says, "but I feel exactly the same as I did before. At the end of the day your problems are still your problems."
Kyle credits her teachers and fellow students for much of what she's accomplished. "They were hugely helpful," she says. "It may be that some people can just sit under a tree and write, but it took me a long time just to understand what a story was.
"I loved Fort Collins. I don't think there are many English departments like that. Everyone was just so encouraging, always laughing, and we all went down to Denver at the end of the year for (the) Evil Companions (literary award ceremony). It was a special place for me."
Nevertheless, she's moving on. Having won a fellowship from the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony, Kyle will spend most of September there before traveling to Manhattan to accept the Jaffe award. "It was such a relief to win that," she says. "When they called on the phone, I just started to cry because I'd applied for all these other fellowships I didn't win."
One gets the feeling she should get used to the feeling.
Ronna Wineberg traveled a more circuitous path to success. I met Ronna almost 20 years ago when she enrolled as a special student in one of my classes at the University of Denver. She had worked in the Arapahoe County Public Defender's office before taking a break following the birth of her first child. "I always wanted to write," she remembers, "but I never studied it seriously in college. Then when I was a public defender, I found myself writing stories in my office. I went to the Aspen Writers' Conference and one of the instructors there suggested I take a course, which is how I ended up at DU."
She quickly discovered, however, that writing wasn't all pleasurable exploration. "I wanted to do a simple thing," she says. "I wanted to write a story that conveyed emotion. But I found this was incredibly difficult to do. One of my teachers told me that if you wanted to write, you had to decide you were in it for the long haul, and so that's what I decided to do."
Like Kyle, Wineberg found writing workshops made things more tolerable. "It gave me access to other students and excellent professors," she says. "But I really feel that having a profession, like a teacher, lawyer or social worker, is easier because it gives you a diploma you can hang on the wall that says who you are. As a writer, all you have is yourself and that blank page to fill up with whatever resources you can come up with."
Why not return to the law, where she'd already been successful? " I found law to be too structured, too limited," she says. "When I write, something happens, something meditative, and I become a different person than the one I present to the public otherwise."
In time Wineberg began to find her voice, despite family demands and moving twice before ending up in New York City. She published stories in many magazines, won a scholarship to the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and become an editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. She's also served as an adjunct professor at New York University and is a fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Having signed up for long haul, you'd think she'd give herself a break now, perhaps sit back and enjoy the fruits of her success. But Wineberg is cautious. "Now the book is out in the world and anyone can say whatever they want about it," she says. "I'm going to have to develop a thicker skin. And I'm also aware that other writer friends don't have a book yet so that creates kind of an uncomfortable disparity."
Speaking as a former instructor of these two gifted women, I can only say I wish all of my students had similar problems. Writers are dreamers and idealists, which is what makes them special, but this seldom translates into fame and fortune. Still, there is nothing wrong with feeling satisfaction when students break through disappointment and rejection and persevere to the point of making their way into the world, even a world as inconstant and unpredictable as publishing is. And I have a strong feeling that with these two, at least, what we're seeing now is just the beginning of what will be rich and productive careers as writers. Hard work and talent rewarded. We can all feel pretty good about that.
David Milofsky is a Denver novelist and professor of English at Colorado State University in Fort Collins