As a 10 year-old, watching The Karate Kid, I fantasized about crossing paths with my own Mr. Miyagi and being mentored in the mystical art of kicking butt. Bullies and tormentors beware! But despite my extensive travels over the next two decades (peeking into the maintenance offices of every medium sized apartment complex I passed during my journey), I never met my own personal sensei. When I had just about given up on this childhood fantasy, along came my acceptance into the MFA program at Converse College. Strange as it seems, I was able to become Daniel-son Larusso while studying creative writing.
Instead of being terrorized and intimidated by my bigger, stronger peers like the young Ralph Macchio, I was being beaten down by agents and publishers and grad school acceptance boards. Before being mentored by Mr. Miyagi, Macchio’s character threw karate kicks that he’d learned at the YMCA; similarly, before registering at Converse, I was throwing sentences together with techniques I had read online. I found that the likelihood of a YMCA trained MMA fighter winning a UFC championship was as likely as my composing a best-seller as a self-taught scribe.
Fortunately for me, the director of Converse’s low-residency MFA program does not require new students to be beaten to a bloody pulp before he assigns a mentor. My mentor was listed on my class roster as Leslie Pietrzyk. The last name wasn’t Miyagi, but its spelling was just as bizarre, so I figured I could make do. After Leslie was featured in one of the residency’s evening readings where she shared an original piece of short fiction, I had my Miyagi moment, witnessing the talent of my soon-to-be teacher. She wasn’t pummeling my would be attackers into submission, but she was showing her chops, chops that more than matched her resume that included several novels published by major houses.
Over the ensuing four months, I completed my course requirements and sent my work via mail to Leslie. Along with essays, every couple of weeks, I sent an original piece of fiction for her to review. She would send me an email with a quick reaction to my story and then mail the original manuscript back with her extensive notes covering each page. My frustration level after reviewing Leslie’s notes on my first story most likely rivaled Daniel Larusso’s after his days of painting fences and waxing cars for Mr. Miyagi. But like Daniel-son, I forged ahead. And while the notes that continued to come throughout the semester were heavy on what was missing and things not to do, I felt my desire to write and write well growing.
A few weeks before sending away my final assignments of the semester, I had a phone conference with Leslie. If we had sat face to face, I would have used a pair of pencils to catch a fly out of mid-air, for I am still searching for something in my skill set as a writer that I might one day do better than she. I asked about publication and distribution by major journals and elite publishing houses. What did it take? What do I need to learn? Leslie dismissed writing for publication in the same way Mr. Miyagi railed against fighting in the All-Valley Tournament. I guess writing is like fighting in that they should both be about life and death not about trophies and awards and sales.
I’m quite sure I can wrap up my first semester in the MFA program like the 1984 summer blockbuster. Ralph Macchio got the trophy – I got my passing grades (I hope). Macchio got Elizabeth Shue - I’ve got way better with my smoking hot wife.
Where do I go from here?
Second semester, where I hope to take what I learned from Sensei Pietrzyk and keep kicking butt.