Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Greatest Gifts (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Randy and me on my wedding day
While I definitely had some memorable teachers when I was younger--Mrs. Leadford, my first grade teacher, who transformed me from the kid who cried through the first day of school to the kid who helped other kids with their reading; Ms. Walden, our grade school librarian; Mr. Goldberg, my high school philosophy teacher, who was brilliant, entertaining, and taught me how to think critically and argue really, really well--I actually met my greatest teachers in the last decade or so.

The first was Randy Albers, the chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. I started there in September of 2000 when I was 21 years old. This was my second go at college. The first time around, I'd attempted to major in sociology and push my desire to write to the side, but that didn't work and my creative writing teacher at that school was awful, his feedback basically amounting to "You write about drugs. You're like a female William Burroughs. Have you read William Burroughs?" I thought I would be better off teaching myself how to write, so I dropped out and um... drank a lot. (Maybe I was the female Burroughs or Cheever or something...) I went to Columbia College to get serious about fiction. I took my first class with Randy in 2002. At that point in time, I wrote a lot, but had a very shaky grasp on revising and polishing. Randy and I had a one hour conference wherein we completely dissected about five pages of my work. We talked structure, line-editing, all of it. My story suddenly clicked in a way I'd only dreamed about and I fell in love with revisions that day. I also enjoyed working with Randy so much that I decided to stay at Columbia for grad school and I begged him to be my thesis advisor. He and another one of my favorite Columbia professors, Patty McNair, got the first chapter of that thesis into the hands of a visiting agent, and when she said she'd love to see the manuscript when it was finished, Randy was there to help me whip it into shape. He worked with me over the summer AND while he was on sabbatical and provided me with detailed, handwritten notes (I should have received and honorary degree in the deciphering of handwriting). He is my greatest mentor and one of the main reasons a book called I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE exists.

IWBYJR and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA would not exist at all if it weren't for Jennifer Heddle. She was the editor who bought those books and whose notes made them great. Randy taught me very well, but there was still a lot of "purple" and "awk" that Jen had to break me of as well as my habit of using all caps instead of describing emotion. And speaking of emotion, my books are often described as "raw" and "unflinching" but the thing is, I definitely flinched, especially when I had to get into Louisa and Kara's heads. Jen was the one who made me go there. She's also the one who helped me fill in the gaps at the end of BALLADS and write an ending that I'm truly proud of. I'm forever indebted to that woman and thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with her.

Our latest Rookie Yearbook! Out Oct 21!
There are a group of editors/mentors/goddess who are still helping me stick my endings, narrow my focus, and dig deep into the hard emotions. Those would be the woman I've worked with at Rookie over the past three years: Phoebe Reilly, Danielle Henderson, Lena Singer, Amy Rose Spiegel (whose thoughtful and skilled edits made "Heart Labor," my latest piece for Rookie about working through emotional abuse more powerful than I even dreamed of) , and above all, Anaheed Alani. I write extremely personal essays about my real life for Rookie. A lot of times I peter out at the end and draw obvious conclusions. These women don't let me do that. They ask the difficult questions and getting me really thinking about what I'm trying to say. We'll go back and forth sometimes six or seven times--Amy Rose and I spent hours working together in Google docs to nail every single word in "Heart Labor". I regularly refer to working for Rookie as Grad School Part II. That's how much I'm learning, how hard I'm working on my craft. But my Rookie editors aren't just teaching me about writing, they are helping me to make deep personal discoveries. Case in point, this essay, "Stranded Soldiers," which Anaheed actually pitched to me based on what she'd noticed about my writing and my life. I know I'm  not the only who Anaheed has worked so closely with--all of the Rookie writers adore her and she has mentored all of the other editors. I don't think there's even a word for what Anaheed does. It's more than teach, mentor, edit, it's more than therapy or life coaching. It's all of those things...

Oh wait, there is a word. She is a gift. And so are Randy, Jen, Phoebe, Danielle, Lena, and Amy Rose. I am so lucky to have them in my life.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, William Burroughs. I thought I'd found a Burroughs art piece at an auction once...but no such luck. What cool "gifts" these guys are...