A Beautiful Life Lesson From My College Professor


“A good story is a worm-stick,” my professor says.

We are sitting in his office, a room with white walls, one window, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf just to the right of me. I’m studying the spines of books—every shade of blue, maroon, green, grey, brown, burnt orange.

“What’s a worm stick?” I laugh. A strand of brown hair falls in front of my eyes and I push it behind my ear.

My professor shifts his chair back from his desk and turns to face me. He’s wearing his usual dress pants, shiny black shoes, and striped polo shirt. His hair is black, sprinkled with grey. His mouth and cheeks have laugh-lines.

“Picture a rainy day,” he says, “The worms all come up from the ground and cover the sidewalk.”

I glance out the window. Outside, it is a beautiful fall day. The leaves are crisp and yellowy-orange. The sun is glinting through them, casting leaf-shaped shadows his desk.

“Your story is like these worms, all spread out on a stick. The worms are the plot points of the story.”

His face animated and bright as he tells me this. His hands gesture in the air giving me the image of this rained-on stick, these plump, brownish-pink worms finding their place along the slick bark.

“The worms are the plot points, the moments of the story. And your story becomes all of these moments strung together, not in order necessarily, but all of importance to what you’re story is actually about.”

I nod. I love his analogies, how he can take the simplest, or even the strangest of concepts and bring them to life in metaphor.

It is my senior year of college and I’m studying Creative Writing and English Education. I want to be a teacher, a recent revelation. But I also, more than anything, want to be a writer.

Winter of last year, I went to a reading by my professor. It was his first year at my college, and I hadn’t known yet what to expect. He stood up at the podium for a moment as he introduced himself, then he promptly stepped away and began his reading.

It was his expression that captivated me, his energy in reading, speaking, even day to day classes. There was something about his demeanor, the way that he could hold an audience’s attention, the way he connected with me.

My professor turns back to face his computer, apologizing about a quick email he needs to send. I spend the time studying his office. There are a few posters along the white walls, papers and opened books across every surface, and pictures of his wife across his desk.

“Do your wife and kids hate it here, too?” I ask, when he turns away from the computer. I know that he hates the sharp cold of Northern Iowa winters. He has told me several times since I introduced myself to him at his first reading. I was timid then, unsure of my writing process. I walked up to the podium after his presentation and asked him how he wrote. He said, simply, “Just write it. Too many people worry about the revising. The revising will come. It’s a part of the process. Just write it. Sometimes the best writing we produce is in that first draft.”

He is from Colorado, a state of both snow and sunshine. A place where the wind doesn’t bite at your skin, and the town isn’t a mere 5,000 people.

He chuckles. “They hate it here so much they left.”

His words hang in the air for a moment like leaves caught in a shift of wind. I glance down at his hand—no ring. I look at the pictures again. In my favorite picture, his cheek is pressed against his wife’s. His forehead is scrunched in a childish expression. His wife is staring straight ahead, beautiful, with auburn hair and the touch of a smile. It captures his personality perfectly: a man that is always laughing, always enjoying life.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” he says, “That’s how these things go sometimes. Two people want different things. And it’s always more complicated than that. But, that being said, watching football alone every night on your couch does get old.”

I picture him, maybe in an old college t-shirt and sweatpants, sprawled out on a faded leather couch with a six pack of Coors Light and a half-eaten pizza. I can’t see him drinking Coors. I also can’t picture him unhappy.

“I understand,” I say. I think of my previous relationship: ex-boyfriend from California, and me, halfway across the country with a triple major and a boatload of future plans.

I glance out the window again, study the color of the leaves in contrast with the still-surviving green grass and light blue sky. To me, the world in endless. Post-breakup, I’ve been given new strength, a sense of selfish purpose, and the hope for the future, wherever it may lead me. I’m suddenly struck by my professor’s completely different mindset. The fact that we can be in two polar opposite mental places within in the same room fascinates me.

I look back at him. He is a thin man with a smile that can make you forget about the fear of graduate school, student teaching, and midterm grades. He has a mind that can develop an image to explain anything—a poem is an opened cadaver ready to be explored, lost love is like a wandering puppy in an abandoned alleyway. He has a mind that can pick apart poetry and analyze a story to its essential bones. I wish I could tell him this, wish I could explain that in the past year, he has made me believe in my voice and taught me to never doubt the sheer beauty of a first draft. He has made me realize that life is full of worms—moments—good, and the ones we cannot control. But no matter where we end up, it will still be wonderful. It amazes me that perhaps all this time, he has felt the opposite.

He checks the clock on his phone and we’re both surprised to find that it’s class time. He grabs a stack of papers and leaves for the copier; I gather my books and backpack and close his office door slowly behind me.

In a few minutes, we will both enter the classroom—the stuffy classroom that smells like the combination of a gym locker room and a soggy dog. We will talk about fiction writing, and he will bring up the metaphor of a worm-stick. The laugh-lines around his mouth will be deep. He will make the students smile. No one will know that he returns to an empty house, a half-eaten pizza. He won’t know that I think about that moment in his office for several days, and that later, I will write him to life.

And I will start with the worm-stick.