a note for mr. hillman
I had Mr. Hillman for AP English my senior year of high school and he was the toughest teacher out of all senior-level classes. Students in his European Literature class, of which I found myself a member, would write upwards of 60 papers in a year, be required to read close to 30 novels, and he was notorious for his "First Day of School Test," when his students were tested on the contents of their summer reading, which included Beowulf and all of the Canterbury Tales. It was no joke, but everyone who took Mr. Hillman's class would always say "I'm so glad I did, all of those papers taught me how to write and write well."
I always did well in Mr. Hillman's class, but I never really put much effort into it. Writing came easily for me and I've always been a voracious reader on my own. But, I remember reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the first time and being completely enraptured. As expected, we were assigned to write a lengthy paper after reading the novel, and I actually started this one in advance, rather than pull another all-nighter the night before. I loved the book - it's still one of my all-time favorites - and I remember putting painstaking effort into every word of that 10-page paper. I marked up my copy of the book (with pencil of course, I'm not a heathen), scribbling notes in the margins. When the paper was finished and I passed it to the front of the class, I knew I had done well. For the first time, I loved what I wrote.
A week later, Mr. Hillman told us that our papers would be graded by the end of the day and we could swing by his room to pick them up. When the final bell rang, I walked to my locker, threw my books in the door and made my way out to his classroom, which was on the way to the student parking lot. I knocked on the door softly and peered in.
"Hey Mr. Hillman, I'm just here to pick up my paper."
"Nish, come on in! Let me grab it. Have a seat, would you?"
I had no idea why he needed to talk to me. This was unusual. I normally walked in, grabbed my paper (which always had a red "A" on the front page), got the basic "good job" and head nod from my teacher and went on my merry way, nothing more.
He shuffled through his pile of papers on the desk and pulled mine from the stack and handed it to me. As expected, a red "A" was on the front page. I smiled and Mr. Hillman leaned on his hands against the edge of his large desk across from me.
I flipped through the pages, noticing that there were no marks on them. He always made notes in the margins of my papers, commenting on a "good point" or "well-stated" sentence. This paper was empty, the margins bright white, no markings of any kind except for the "A" on the front.
I looked up at him and asked, "Was it okay?" For the first time, I was nervous. I finally put a lot of effort into a paper and now I sat there across from him giving me a stern look of malcontent.
"When were you going to tell me you're an excellent writer?" he asked.
"I'm sorry?" I replied, confused. "What?"
"Nish, this paper wasn't just okay, it was excellent. In all my years of teaching, I've never seen someone your age write at this caliber."
"Oh." I was shocked. I didn't really know what to say, I just sat there like an idiot, mindlessly bouncing my leg up and down in that uncomfortable desk chair.
Mr. Hillman said something to me that never left: "You're a writer, Nish. You probably don't see it now, but you are. Don't let your gift go to waste."
Like your standard awkward high school senior, I shrugged my shoulders and cast my eyes down and said "Okay," due to the lack of more eloquent words to say. I grabbed my backpack and slid my graded, blank-margined paper into my English notebook and made my way for the door.
"Thanks, Mr. Hillman."
I was (and am) perfectly content with being a blogger. Trying to pack a punch in a thousand words or less is a challenge that I love and blogging has given me so much, not the least of which is community.
It's been a year and one month since I got a mysterious email from a guy named John Blase. I was stepping off a jetbridge and into the SLC airport after being with my family while my youngest brother was in the hospital. John contacted me through the form on my blog and he asked, "Have you ever thought about writing a book? If so, consider yourself solicited." He worked for a publishing house in Colorado Springs. We chatted on the phone later in the week and from there, a tiny snowball started down the hill.
A few weeks later, I signed with a literary agent (the greatest, in my opinion), then began the process of writing a book proposal. This stage took me months - eight, to be exact. I slowly, carefully, deliberately scratched out information on my primary audience, chapter summaries and overviews. I researched competing works and asked my influential friends to write endorsements. I sat in the SLC library and prayed, prayed, prayed that I would be given the right words for my sample chapters.
I finished my proposal in November and we shipped it off to publishers.
Offers started coming in and my head started spinning. Was this really happening? Is this what I want? Am I sure I want to write this book? Am I just contributing to noise? Do I really have anything to say? Who is going to watch my kids so I can write? Oh crap, is that a contraction? (I was 9 months pregnant in December.)
Then, my agent called me to tell me that an offer came in from an editor that I dreamed of working with. She's worked with some of my favorite authors on some of my favorite books. (She's also from Oregon and a Ducks fan, so that immediately sold me.) It was a big offer - they wanted me to write two books.
I hung up the phone and looked at Erik, he just stared at me from the couch. I told him the news through my unbelieving laughter. He sat there with his mouth open as wide as my own and I immediately dropped my phone, put my hands over my face and cried.
I didn't know this was a dream I had until someone planted the idea in my head that I was capable of doing it. Sitting in that classroom one afternoon, well over a decade ago, I never would have guessed that my professional title would one day be "Author."
So, Mr. Hillman, if you're reading this, I'm happy to report that you were right. Yesterday, I signed a contract with Zondervan Publishing to write two books over the next two years.
I'm a writer. Thanks for telling me all those years ago.