Writing Lessons

The Horse’s Mouth

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By Jill McCorkle


 

If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Or that is what I took away from my writing class with Max Steele in 1978. He always had wonderful and insightful things to tell us. He said that even numbers are analytical and odd numbers, emotional, and so when making lists or deciding on the number of scenes, we should try to go odd. He had us draw a horse the first day and then analyzed what he could expect from us over the course of the semester. One boy, clearly in there for what he thought might be an easy “A,” had chosen to draw his horse from behind. Max said, “I rest my case.” My horse had great big eyes and ears but I had failed to draw a mouth, and though that might shock a lot of people who know me now, in that setting, that was an apt picture of who I was. I had not found my voice but I was eagerly watching and listening to all that took place.

And then one day he told us that we would never be the writers we should be (or, he added, the people we should be) until we fully dealt with our mothers. I have thought about that for years, slowly making my way into his camp of thought. It fascinated me that some of the last work of his life—after many years of not working—did in fact include his mother, and I find myself now in a place where I try to imagine life from my mother’s point of view and by way of that, to see myself from another angle. I often say to students when discussing a story, where’s the mother? And, amazingly, a door often swings wide open.

Jill McCorkle is the author of six novels and three short-story collections. She teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University. Her sixth novel, Life After Life, was recently published in paperback.

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