The Best Writing Teacher I’ve Ever Had -->

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The Best Writing Teacher I’ve Ever Had

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When I think about my former college writing professor, Sister Mara, one day in particular comes to mind.

I had made an appointment to visit her office—a room with a desk, sofa chair, and hundreds of books. It was the middle of fall semester, when her students’ final essay projects were just getting under way. A bit behind on my own essay, I once again felt the need to bounce ideas off of the most famous English professor on campus.

As usual, I was buzzing with a mixture of energy and nerves.

A good writing teacher... | Walden Writing Center Blog

Sister Mara is not an intimidating woman. In fact, she has the persona of a caring, unassuming great aunt who happens to have a doctorate in literature and be an accomplished writer. She is usually smiling, and when she’s not, she’s probably thinking about how to best offer her help and advice.

So when I say that I was nervous, I don’t mean that I was nervous because I felt intimidated. I was nervous because, well, I hadn’t exactly made much progress on my essay for her Writing Essays class.

I’m sure you know the feeling—all those ideas, all that research, all the good intentions dancing around your head—all falling out window the moment you face the blank page.

So, braced with a notepad and pen, I sat down on Sister Mara’s couch and attempted to engage her in introductory small talk.

She smiled, and asked the question I was hoping to delay for as long as possible. “So, how’s your essay coming along?”

My response, which I’d rehearsed to no avail, came out like a Slurpee dumped onto the sidewalk. “Well actually, I was just thinking yesterday how my third draft is just not working, and how there’s just something not right, and just this morning I came up with another idea—“

“NIK,” she said emphatically. Not a shout, but a firm plea for me to stop talking (in retrospect, I don’t blame her). “I don’t want to hear about any more ideas,” she said, still smiling. “You have lots of ideas—all very good ones. So now you have to choose ONE, and stick with it.”

And that was that. Our meeting was adjourned. Sensing my eagerness to escape the writing chair, Sister Mara did what all good writing teachers do—she sent me back to it.

I went to a Catholic university (hence the presence of monks and nuns) that stressed the importance of community, hospitality, and the need to trust and rely upon one another. Even with all that support, there were many times that I felt inexorably alone. During one of those times, I had gotten lost while hiking through the 2,400-acre forest that surrounded my campus. During all of the rest, I was writing.

A good writing teacher reminds you of a great irony—that writing is an act both solitary and public, performed behind closed doors and, once encountered by a reader, completely out in the open.

Sister Mara retired in May after more than 50 years of teaching. As she writes in her 2009 memoir Going Blind, she inherited a genetic disease that has blinded many of her family members and that may lead to her own blindness as well.

Even without seeing, she gave the gift of sight to thousands of students like me, who were able to see not only their writing, but also their purpose and existence, in a new light.

Nik Nadeau

Writing instructor Nik Nadeau now lives in Boston. He spends his free time "reading, speed skating, and writing about Asian American topics."

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