Who is your Mr. Rogers?

And no, I'm not talking about the dude on TV in the cardigan who wanted to be your neighbor.  I'm talking about my Mr. Rogers, who was my English teacher in tenth grade.

Mr. Rogers didn't have a TV.  He wasn't married.  He didn't have much of a sense of humor.  He'd been working on a novel for, like, ten years.  He was quirky and unconventional.  His class was as much focused on nurturing creativity as it was on studying literature.  We didn't just study writing, we actually wrote.  And even more than that, we learned to revise what we wrote.

One of our assignments that semester was to write a short story.  We had a month to do it, and one whole class each week was going to be dedicated to just writing.  Imagine that!  A whole hour each week at school, WRITING FICTION.

On a Friday a month later, we handed in our stories.  The following Monday, Mr. Rogers called us up to his desk to give us our "preliminary" mark in private, followed by a two-minute verbal critique.  We were given a choice:  take the mark we had and be done with it, or revise and resubmit based on his feedback for the chance to improve our mark. 

Being the keener that I was, I chose to revise and resubmit.  My mark went from a 45/50 to a 47/50 – not a big leap, but worth it to me because I saw how much better his feedback made the story.  His suggestions went something like this:

  1. Listen to the rhythm of your words.  Short sentences mixed with long sentences "sound" better.  Too many short sentences can be choppy, and too many long sentences can be tedious to read. 
  2. You suffer from "comma-itis".  Go ahead and break your sentences in half.  They won't die.  
  3. Always stay true to your characters.  Never let them say "frig" when what they really mean is "fuck".  

Guess what?  It's advice I still follow to this day.

I don't know what happened to Mr. Rogers.  I don't know if he's still teaching, or whether he ever finished that novel.  But of all the teachers I had from grade school through university, he's the one I remember the most.  I was inspired to write this post because a blogger friend of mine, Milo James Fowler, is also a teacher, and he just started a creative writing workshop at his junior high.   

Milo, if you're reading, kudos to you!  You're about to change lives.  You're about to become some lucky kid's Mr. Rogers.  Minus some of the quirks, of course.  Imagine that!

The final mark and critique... click to enlarge. This ended up winning a spot in the school anthology -- but of course the editor made me change "fuck" back to "frig".

Who is YOUR Mr. Rogers?

(Don't forget to check out Killer Chicks, where today we're discussing Shakespeare and his talent for writing dark, dark fiction.)