#COLLEGE and other lessons (as told in literary prose)

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww……

I really needed that.  One glorious week (and some change) to recharge.  What did I do on my vacation away from the North Shore?  Obviously, I took a week-long college course.

You see, folks, when you live in a vacation destination, often times your vacations are what others would consider “classes” or “homework.”

Nah, I’m just kidding.  I mean, I believe that to some extent, but this ‘vacation’ was a little more practical.  In conjunction with picking up my first wave of books, I attended a little class called the Mississippi River Creative Writing Workshop at Saint Cloud State University.  The experience was…unparalleled.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.  Because it wasn’t “all work, no play.”

In fact, there was a lot of play.

I woke up early Father’s Day morning, eager to hit the trail to Annandale and see my dad.   I slept alright, although truthfully the butterflies were already fluttering.

While my family and friends departed Grand Rapids for the more familiar turf of the North Shore, I headed south towards my hometown, something both welcoming and alienating at the same time.

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I felt a little like Empire Strikes Back to me.  (Shocker, right?)  Luke parting ways with the Millennium Falcon, heading for Dagobah, a place which he knew he had to go, but for a reason Han and Leia really didn’t get.  My car was my X-Wing, my R2 was…well, I guess it was my new Leonardo action figure.  Either way, I was off on a quest.  Maybe people thought I was just taking a Creative Writing class to brush up a bit, or because I wanted to show off my newly-published novel to my former professors.  They weren’t wrong, per se, but for me, deep down, it was a dry run to see if going back to school was even a possibility.  I hadn’t set foot in a college classroom in seven years.

For seven years, I told myself that going back to school was out of the question.  Even something as small as a workshop or single course was an impossibility.  So this was a big deal.  For the first time in seven years, I truly felt renewed.

Was I too old for this?  Too broke?  What were people going to be wearing?  Where was I going to park?!  I had plenty of time to contemplate all this and more on the verdant drive south.  Rolling hills of green–not mountains.  I saw the beauty of being able to see the opposite shore of a lake; a sight that’s pretty easy to forget living on Lake Superior.

When I finally hit town lightyears later, my dad was eager to take me out to dinner.  I gave him his gift, and warmed as he looked over the back of the box, smiling.  He actually liked it.  The surprises didn’t stop there, either, as my dad ordered a steak at the restaurant.  That part isn’t the surprise, the surprise is that he liked that too.  As is!  In nearly 30 years, I can’t remember my dad sending a steak back to the kitchen less than twice.  It was a Fathers Day miracle!

We finished up our beers, and headed home.  While I was stuffed to the gills and ready for a nap, I took to the road again and met up with my old pal Bethy.  She’d been holding on to my books for me, graciously organizing the pre-orders, and periodically sending me pictures of the books (and short videos, and size comparisons).  As loyal an assistant as I could ever ask for.

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At her dining room table in the fading daylight, I just stood staring, taking in the sight.  100 books with my name on it, 100 covers.  For the longest time, we just sat on her porch, her with a glass of wine, me thumbing through pages that I’d never seen before but imagined thousands of times.  My first book, I kept thinking.  This is my first book. 

This is it.

Still in a little bit of shock, I blinked away the stardust and glamour, looked at Bethy and said:

“I need to go back t0 school shopping.  Is Target still open?”

As it turns out, it was not.  Apparently, I sat staring at those books longer than I thought.  Fortunately, Wal-Mart never closes.  Thank you, night owls and shopping addicts alike, for keeping a 24-hour department store open so that I could get some LEGO Star Wars stickers and those click pencils I like so much the night before class starts.

Along the way, we reminisced about our college experience–nobody knows College Mikel better than Bethy–and about life in general.  How it’s changed, and how it hasn’t, and how it might.  The evening was very fitting, in a way.  For a few hours, that gap between when I left college and the present was sutured.

Back in the loft at my grandmother’s house, I clutched my new fully-loaded backpack to my chest and dozed off into a sleep crackling with equal parts anxiety and electricity.

Class started at 10:30 a.m.  My alarm was set for 6.  I woke up at 5.

I might as well have been pedaling the Flintstones car as I flew up to St. Cloud.  I sucked down a Campfire Mocha at the same Caribou I was at when I was offered my book deal, and then headed over to campus.

Needless to say, I got an awesome parking spot.

At first, I wasn’t sure where I parked in relation to some of the more memorable SCSU landmarks, but I took it as a good sign when I headed up the street and found myself staring at my old dormitory, Hill-Case Hall.

Suddenly, I was 18 again.  My parents had just dropped me off and I was about to meet my mysterious new roommate, the infamous Ben Sailer.

I was able to sidestep the dorm, but I can’t say I was immune to its magnetic pull.  As I was several hours early, I let that pull take me on a tour of the Atwood Center, a building that any SCSU student was intimately acquainted.  I toured it top to bottom, like I was traversing a fabled castle spire.  There was the line Kell and I used to stand in for lunch, waiting for that iconic old woman to ask us, “Meal Plan or Husky?”  And here was the checkered venue where I heard Jack Driscoll read from his book of poetry shortly before I interviewed him for the University Chronicle.

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And this was how my morning went, veiled in nostalgia, until finally 10:30 rolled around.  The classroom was unlocked and I, along with a couple other early birds, filtered in.  I found a desk–my desk–and settled in, trying out slouches and rigid postures alike.

I was nervous, no getting past it.  Even with no GPA on the line, my knee was bouncing, my knuckles white as I clutched the sides of the desk.

You’re an author now, Mikel, I tried to tell myself.  You can handle one writing workshop.

My former professor, current author, and assembler of the event, Bill Meissner, entered the classroom.  He’d hardly changed.  His hair might have been a little whiter, and he may have squinted a bit longer at his notes, but it was still him.  The same airy, quiet delivery that stabbed like thunder through student chatter, the sparrow-like dart of his gaze.  As he took roll, he seemed to remember me, at least generally if not specifically.  I also realized there were a some familiar faces from my upperclassman courses, even after all these years.  Was it possible I hadn’t been gone as long as I thought?

The class took on the familiar flow as Bill led us through discussions and prompts.  The Star Wars analogy continued:  Bill was more like Yoda than I realized in his teaching style.  Do or do not, there is no try.  I really was on Dagobah after all.

We made it through our first author, Susan Power, a woman filled with passion and humor and who was more than willing to listen to our excerpts and questions.  I can’t even describe to you the feeling of being an up-and-coming writer, sitting informally and chatting with a real, professional author about the craft.

I left the classroom with my new pals Trav and Krista, chatting about writing, homework, and the prospect of the next day.  After all, this was only our first of seven authors we’d be meeting.

I was home.

As I mentioned before, it wasn’t all work.  The first night in town, my old college buddy Kell came to St. Cloud for the day.  We bought some Ninja Turtle action figures, threw back some brewskies, recorded a podcast, and retold college stories that might as well have happened yesterday.

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Kell has always been the voice of logic in my life.  My skeptic.  My rock.  When I first told him I was going back to school for a workshop and wanted to cram an entire college experience into one week, I thought for sure he’d snicker, roll his eyes, and tell me it was a careless use of money.

I never expected him to drop everything, take the day off of work, drive up to St. Cloud, only to stay in the seediest motel I’ve ever stayed in, just so he could say he was there for me on my first day of school.  A better brother I could never hope for.

And he wasn’t the only one that came out of the woodwork.  Over a whirlwind, 4-day blur, I saw lots of my “extended family.”  Movies with Joe, disc golfing with Brett, happy hours with Illy, a beergarita with Cassie.  After class wrapped each day, it was a veritable This Is Your Life – St. Cloud Edition.

As the workshop went on, I met prolific writer/human shot of espresso Marya Hornbacher, heard an exclusive excerpt from Alexs Pate, talked sensory detail with the award-winning Margaret Hasse, and very proudly gave a copy of Coming of Mage to another former professor/current author Shannon Olson.

Note:  Not only was Shannon Olson the biggest crush I had on any teacher, she was also one of  my key motivators in getting a book published–whether she realized it or not.  Seven years ago, as I wrapped my Senior year at State, Shannon read my fiction final.  It was a 70-something page story about a surreal few days in the life of a college grad attending the funeral of an old roommate.  The assignment was supposed to be only 10 pages, tops.  She said she’d grade me on the first 10 pages.  A week after class, she emailed me telling me how she’d read the whole thing and how she couldn’t put it down.  She said I should look into getting it published.  Great, I replied.  Where?  But I never got a response.  Even though I always wondered, I saved that email for seven years, looking at it whenever I inevitably got down on myself and my writing career.  In hindsight, it was a silly question to ask a busy professor/author, and, in a way, I’m glad she never got back to me.  Even though it was a cliffhanger, it was a hopeful one. 

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 The workshop wrapped with Jenny Milchman, a fiery little mystery author.  She told us about the long struggle to get her debut novel, Cover of Snow, published.  She really blipped on my radar when she mentioned social media and how important it was.  She talked of the three roads to getting a book published, and gave us the secret to a surefire query letter.

Then, we went out for chicken wings.

No, seriously!  As if the workshop itself wasn’t phenomenal enough, the whole class, bonded by our shared crash course in creative writing, took to a local pub for a social hour.  It was the Twilight Zone.  It was the surface of Mars.  To the left of me, a classmate offered me a pitcher of Bud Light.  To my right, Jenny–an author praised by Lee Child and Harlan Coben–and I chatted about blogs, the North Shore, and sequels over appetizers.

Then, from across the table, Bill Meissner–author of the phenomenal Spirits in the Grass and a man who I still wondered if he actually remembered me–leans in and recites a line from a story I wrote for his class seven years ago.

All the accolades, and contracts, and copies, and publicity aside, that was the moment that I will never forget.  The minute you realize that something you wrote stuck with somebody after all that time.  That’s when I started to feel like an author.

I’ll tell you this:  I’ve never really attended a writing workshop before, but I can’t imagine any of them are like this one.  From the varying authors, to the casual classroom, all set along a beautiful stretch of the Mississippi, this was a truly an experience that I can’t imagine going without.  I strongly encourage any up-and-coming author–or even a long-standing one stuck in a rut–to take this course next summer.  Apparently, Bill is only heading up two more of these, and his style is not to be missed.

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*          *         *

Two days later, I’m back working in the restaurant, up to my gills in hungry customers that could could care less that I took this class, that I had this experience.  They just want their cheeseburger, and I can’t blame them.  I’m hungry too.  My uniform itches, silverware needs to be polished, and even though I need to use the restroom, Table 15 needs 50 CCs of Ranch dressing–stat!

An older couple walks in.  They recognize me immediately:  they were the very first table I waited on few years ago and they’ve been back every summer.  They give me a warm hug and their eyes grow watery.  They remember I told them I had a book in the works, and they’re here to buy two copies, provided I’m willing to sign them.  The frantic atmosphere of the restaurant slows a bit and heads turn as I bring two books to their table.  They ask me to have a seat while I put my autograph on the inside covers.  The couple laughs and pats me on the back.  They tell me they’re proud of me.  And then I bring them their cheeseburger.

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