I was the worst writer in my MFA program my first year. I know this thought isn’t unique, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. My confidence was shot. I was lost as a writer and so concerned with impressing my teachers and fellow students that I had abandoned whatever it was that made me worth accepting into the program in the first place.
The following summer, I attended the Prague Summer Program, where Arnost Lustig was my workshop teacher. We began each class with jokes. We wrote a fable every day. We read (after a fashion) Aristotle’s Poetics. We discussed fairy tales and fables and Arnost’s favorite writers—Kafka, Borges, Mann, and others. Our writing assignments were short, read and critiqued aloud. Arnost would ask questions like “Is it interesting?” or “Was this funny?” Interesting! Funny! These are workshop questions?
The only assignments we turned in were fifteen lines we’d write about the previous class. Aside from assuring us that they wouldn’t be shared with the rest of the students, there was little guidance. I believe he read them, but he never commented, never even returned them. My first one started with something Arnost had said at our initial meeting—Suddenly and from out of nowhere there came a bad wolf. This was how I felt: surprised, vulnerable, challenged. Rereading those lines, I understand how badly I needed to hear the questions he’d asked—Why are you a writer? What would you say to earn your way into heaven? I see how quickly even Arnost’s sentence rhythms infected my own. I shared these assignments with a friend from that class, and she called them my love letters to Arnost. Though I didn’t know it then, she’s right. I hope Arnost saw that as well.
Arnost passed away in February. He wasn’t the only great teacher I’ve had—I’ve been blessed in that department—but at a time when I was overly concerned with questions of form and point of view and style and finding my voice, he was there to remind me to tell a story. When I teach Intro to Fiction, that’s the class I try to teach. I know I come up short, but I can’t be the only one trying to pass on Arnost’s lessons. Maybe between the lot of us, we can come close.