A Mentor Who Rarely Liked What I’d Written

His name was Enrique and he was in charge of the Spanish audio room at UCLA, where I begrudgingly went as a freshman to put on ear phones and listen to the Spanish I was trying to learn. He would correct my pronunciation, he would try to be helpful, and from the look in his eyes, he knew what I knew: that I would never learn the language.  But he offered to tutor me and I accepted. I discovered in him a wisdom I hadn’t found with my professors, and when I once confessed that I was a writer–or, at any rate, that I hoped to be a writer–he asked if he could read something I had written. So I gave him a few stories. He read them critically, and pinpointed the flaws. I gave him some essays that I had gotten A’s on. He read them with amusement and said my teachers were being generous. I gave him some poems. He found them trite. Over months, and then years, as I advanced from being a naive freshman to a more sophisticated sophomore, junior, and senior, I continued to show my efforts to Enrique, and he continued to tell me that I wasn’t impressing him. My English and history professors liked and praised my work, but I knew that their expectations were a lot lower than Enrique’s.  I had told him I had wanted to be a writer, and he took what I said seriously. A writer must work at writing, he said through his unwillinglness to praise anything I’d written. And then one day I brought him a single page, single spaced, about 500 words, on a subject I barely recall now, but it was abstract, dare-I-say Kafkaesque? He read it quietly. He lit a cigarette and smoked it. He looked at me. “This,” he said, “is the first thing you have shown me that is good.”  That is all he said. But it was enough. All these years later, as I’ve continued writing, as I’ve made my living writing, I still think of Enrique when I’ve written something I think he might like. I’m not sure that he would, but I’d like to think that I might give him pause.

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