When these things happen

On the first day of my first-ever creative writing class (at Southern Adventist University), the woman at the end of the conference-style table announced, “My name is Helen Pyke. I’m a mother, a writer, and a breast cancer survivor. I like to get that out of the way up front, even though it means you’ll spend the rest of the semester staring at my boobs, trying to figure out which one’s real.”

In the course of that class, she gave me the only piece of writing advice I ever give anybody else: You have to be a stripper and a streaker. Interpret this as you will.

Mrs. Pyke and I didn’t always agree on everything. Our primary bone of creative contention was that she’s always thought I should be a poet, and I’ve always thought she was crazy because there isn’t any pay in poetry and I’d rather write monster stories, anyway. Since Mrs. Pyke (primarily) writes Christian fiction, monster stories were never super-high on her reading agenda, but to her credit, she never treated me like an ass for loving them and she never discouraged me from writing them.*

Mrs. Pyke became the first published author I ever knew up close and personal. And at least once a week, sometimes more frequently, she’d host the entirety of the “English Club” at her house — a lovely gingerbread Victorian that suited her damn near perfectly. She would cook for us and tell us stories, many of which featured her husband, Teddy (who typically lurked about during our sessions), and her sons, Doug and Greg. She used her family members as personal illustrations for how your characters ought to sound like real people, with real questions, quirks, and surprises.

I’m not sure why that last bit stuck in my head — the bit about “questions, quirks, and surprises.” But it came to mind with a stomach-wrenching cramp of deja vu when I read an email this morning from an old friend of mine, my teacher’s long-time protege and assistant … because on October 5th, Mrs. Pyke’s husband and oldest son were murdered. Their bodies were only recently discovered, and her younger son has been arrested for the crimes.

You can find a news piece on the story here.
I have absolutely no idea what to say about this.

I simply cannot fathom this kind of personal tragedy, and I spent all morning trying to decide what, if anything, I should say to her in the wake of it. I mean, whether or not we always saw eye-to-eye, and whether or not we’ve seen one another in person for several years, she was still an influential part of my formative writing experience and I always liked her personally. She’s one of the nicest women in the world — an archetypal mother hen who bore a startling and appropriate resemblance to Mrs. Santa Claus; she quite happily took up the roles of sponsor, mentor, chef, and shoulder-to-cry-on for all of her students.

I seize up when dealing with sad people. I’m a fixer — not a soft, water-resistant shoulder. If I can’t take some steps to repair whatever is causing the sadness, I get awkward and stupid. I say grossly inappropriate things, fumble through sympathies, and generally make the situation worse — which is why I didn’t give her a call, even to leave her a message. I probably would’ve freaked out, tripped over myself, and blurted something like, “Gosh, Mrs. P … I’m real sorry about the murders and everything.”

Instead, I sent her a brief email. I’m a long way away, I know, and we haven’t really chatted in ages, but I figured it was worth a shot to mention that I heard about what happened, and I’m thinking of her.

Maybe she’ll never get it; maybe she’ll delete it, or maybe she’ll reply and we’ll exchange a few lines again. I don’t mind if she doesn’t respond, and I’ll certainly understand if she doesn’t. But I hope she reads it at least, and I hope she knows that I remember, and that I’m sorry, and that she’s in my thoughts, prayers, and all the rest.

* To get my first taste of hardcore anti-genre bias, I had to leave my tiny private Christian college … and take a creative writing class at a state university where I was a graduate student. That course went … badly. It ended in a screaming fight in the professor’s office, wherein he told me that I was an idiot and I’d never sell anything as long as I wrote this trash, and furthermore — he was changing the rules mid-semester so that if I ever turned in any more genre fiction, he’d fail me out. So don’t believe everything you read about nice ladies who write Christian fiction. Some of them are more open-minded and encouraging than some of the smug agnostics with doctorates.

4 thoughts on “When these things happen

  1. I can’t imagine myself in this situation. FWIW, I think you did the very best thing by simply reaching out to her. It means something that you at least got past the personal paralysis of that horrific news and held your hand out to her.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I’m the same way you are, a fixer. Not at all a good listener. (I seem to recall reading a piece, maybe it was by Saul Bellow, but about someone in that situation, who just went over and polished all the households shoes. And then did the dishes. And took out the trash. It’s the things you can do with your hands. Simple but important.)

    I just wanted to say thank you for these stories and for sharing your experiences, both as a person and as a writer. They make me feel a little more connected to the world. A little less like a freak.

    Anyway,thanks. /awkward

  3. I’ve been in a strange place like your teacher, and not yet been in your place with respect to all this.

    I call such a situation a “strange place” because I don’t know what to call these situations that won’t scare other people away.

    When I was there, I appreciated supportive thoughts from people I used to know and people I knew. I didn’t always reply, because there was a bit much going on and the luxury was lacking. But those thoughts helped.

    I remember late one night only being able to sleep by reciting in my head the names of all my well-wishers.

    I don’t know if this is the case for your teacher. But, well, that was my experience from the other side of the fence, as it were.

  4. I think she’ll appreciate the note, though she may not be able to respond. Grief is weird like that.

    As for your university anti-genre experience, that’s pretty much my worst nightmare. Sigh. And I just started graduate school at my state U. I guess if you survived my nightmare, I probably can also if it should occur.

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