After I had Martha DuBose for tenth- and eleventh-grade English, she petitioned the school to allow her to give a creative writing class for senior English. She stipulated that it would not be open to just anyone; she would select the students she wanted to invite. I was one of only thirteen students she selected that first year. Simply being selected thrilled me, but I had no idea what to expect.
On the first day of class, Mrs. DuBose distributed a lengthy syllabus that included projects we had to turn in before the end of the year. In early September I found it hard to think I had to turn in so many things before June graduation. More than fifty years later I don’t remember the list exactly, but it began something like this:
Ten short stories
Four one-act plays
Two first chapters of two separate novels
One three-act play
Seventeen free-verse poems
Twenty narrative poems
Four magazine articles
We could turn in any and all those projects at any time, but we had to complete the list by specific date before graduation. Mrs. DuBose never mentioned the list again. Instead she spent every class examining and discussing subjects related to writing poetry, essays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles, and more. Her favorite phrase was, “I want pithy, pithy, pithy writing.” Today I joke and say I thought she had a lisp, but in truth, I did not quite comprehend that she was telling us to write tight. By the end of the year, though, I had a better idea, and I saw my writing improve with her red-ink comments on everything I turned in.
To my personal surprise, I also realized I was not the procrastinator I thought I was. I turned in all my required projects long before the end of the year and earned valuable feedback on each one. I entered quite a few of my polished projects into the competition of the school’s literary yearbook, and to my surprise, my works dominated the book when it came out. It wasn’t the first time I had seen my byline, though, because Mrs. DuBose had inspired me not only to write for the school newspaper, but also to become the editor for the Spanish Honor Club newsletter. Yes, it was written in Spanish.
Mrs. DuBose set me on the path to creative writing, but working with and under good editors helped even more. My father was one of my toughest critics, and he earned the right. He ran a business brokerage business with affiliates around the world, and when I was in my twenties, I worked with him for about seven years. While Daddy handled the sales and mergers of businesses, I interviewed business-owner clients and wrote their business profiles. I also edited the business profiles that affiliated brokers sent in, and Daddy always edited me. With Daddy’s clever deletions, I saw my wordy profiles of 2,300 words magically turn into tight reports of 2,000 words. We made a great team. I could spell better than he could, but he could slash and burn my wordy script, leaving only pithy, pithy writing.
Later when I read Hemingway, famous for his tight writing, I was not impressed. My father could have edited even Hemingway’s books down to bare bones.
Since those early years I’ve been mildly influenced by others, but Mrs. DuBose and my father, Mike Rothberg, were the early influencers in my life who made me the writer and editor I am today.
Who influenced you early in your writing life? How did those people influence you? I’d love to hear your stories.