Teaching Lessons

The Art of Gentle Criticism

By Lee Smith | September 12, 2016


The deepest thrills of my life have often come from writing—a moment perfectly captured in an image of me at 19, more than 50 years ago, climbing up the steep, grassy hill that separated the campus of Hollins College, a women’s school in Virginia, from the line of small brick houses up on Faculty Row. I am headed to my creative writing workshop held in the basement den of my professor, Dr. Louis D. Rubin—“Mr. Rubin,” we always called him. It is that magical time of day in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley when night is falling—the gloaming, a word I have just learned in my English poetry class. As I climb upward through the gloaming, I press against my beating heart 15 mimeographed copies of the story I finished writing the night before at 2 A.M. This story IS my beating heart, and I know even then, even in the very moment of it, climbing that hill to class, that I am as fully alive as I will ever be my whole life long.

This has turned out to be true. It is all due to Mr. Rubin, who changed my life, as he changed so many others. Exactly what went on in that workshop, which I attended for three years? Who was there? Not only Mr. Rubin, wreathed in cigar smoke, dark eyes popping behind his black eyeglasses, but also about a dozen other undergraduate girls, several graduate students , and other faculty members who were also writers—real, active, published writers, still alive! Before Hollins, I had thought all published writers were dead. We were expected to critique their work, too, just as we critiqued each other. Imagine that! Heady stuff! Mr. Rubin himself sometimes read us a story in progress or a new poem of his own. This was important. It meant that we mattered, that our opinions were valuable, that we were all in this together. He never gave us writing assignments or “prompts,” as they are called now. He assumed that we were in that group because we had something to say—and so we did. Mr. Rubin’s workshop was a safe place: nobody would ever be embarrassed, or humiliated, or put down. What needed to be said would be said, but gently, often with humor, in a way that the writer could accept. Or not.

Mr. Rubin established the tone: our work was read and seriously considered, as if it deserved the utmost attention. The theme would be discussed: What is this story really about? Often the answer was a big surprise to the writer. There would be jokes, beer, laughter. Writing was serious, but we should not take ourselves too seriously—an atmosphere I have since tried to replicate in every creative writing class or workshop I have ever taught. We were a gang, a cohort, a karass … and it didn’t end there. He kept up with us for the rest of our lives, freely giving recommendations and advice that I especially needed, as a wild girl prone to bad decisions. Mr. Rubin died at 89, a couple of years ago. It’s still hard for me to realize that he’s gone now or that so many years have passed since I climbed that grassy hill in the gloaming with my story clutched to my heart.

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