The picture to the left here is of an English professor of mine, Tom Campbell. He was probably best known for his work with medieval literature, but I never took that with him. I did take linguistics with him, but that is not what I remember him for.* No, I think we remember each other best for his creative non-fiction course, otherwise known as the personal essay.
*Nor he I. If he remembered anything about me in linguistics, it was that it took for-freaking-ever for my textbook, which I had to order from Amazon, to come in. In fact, both books I had to order through Amazon took way too long to come in. I no longer order anything from Amazon if it's on a deadline.
The personal essay is a popular genre nowadays, and it seemed to really be coming into vogue right about the time I first took this class. I gather (mostly from Wabash's articles on Dr. Campbell) that when he first started teaching this class, this was a little known art form, but one he had reveled in throughout his academic career.* When I first took it, it was a half-semester course, and I absolutely loved it. It may well have been my favorite class I had taken at Wabash to that point. To that point in my life, I had never really even conceived non-fiction as being creative. My writing had always been pretty firmly in the realm of fiction, as part of my other creative writing classes, or descriptive non-fiction, as with every other paper I had ever written in my academic career. Or articles I'd had written for the newspaper. It had never occurred to me to blend the two, even when I signed up for the class.
*It should also be noted, as it is in the linked article, that Dr. Campbell was supposed to be another kind of doctor. He referenced many times in class that he was supposed to be a medical student, but he dropped out of that and kind of fell into literature. He also talked about being a shoe salesman and how awful that was, but that seems much less relevant here.
Truth be told, I had no idea what I was signing up for. I hadn't heard anything about the class, I hadn't had Dr. Campbell before. I just needed a half credit, and this happened to fit into my schedule and my minor. I went in hopeful, because it was a writing class and I loved writing classes.* Even so, that class wildly surpassed my every expectation. One thing that was different about that class was how Dr. Campbell put himself out there for all of us. He read us essays he had written to give us examples of the sort of thing he was looking for with the different assignments. That was something new, and I appreciated it. His essays were good, but they never felt like they were above anything we could achieve. And don't misunderstand me, that is not a knock on his work. It was the most encouraging thing he could have done for us. I'm sure by the time I got to his class, he had carefully chosen what example essays worked best. But hearing what he had written gave me, at least, a definite sense of, "Okay, I may not have been doing this writing. But I can do this writing, and I can do it well." And, I feel, I did do it well.
*Except poetry. I mostly learned from that class that I know very little about poetry and I truly don't care to learn.
That half semester went by quickly, as all things in college do. I took my other classes, got to senior year, and got geared up to graduate. For my final semester, Dr. Campbell gave me one of the greatest gifts he could have.* The essay course was being changed to a full semester course, which changed the numbering on the course. Which meant I could take it again for full credit, just like it was a brand new course. I could not possibly have signed up fast enough. And I am so glad I did. The full semester gave that course the room it really needed to breathe and to let us all develop as writers in a genre that not many had access to before this class. I maybe got to see this more than most as I got to see how the class developed in both set ups.
*Though I sincerely doubt it was for my benefit.
I don't remember all the topics in that class, but I know things ended up getting heavy with practically all of us by the end. It turned into a lot of hard, brutal reading by our final essay. And I say that in the best possible way. I think we all learned just how powerful a tool this could be to work through our own baggage, and we all jumped at the chance. There were a lot of talented writers in that class, too. I can very distinctly remember after finishing the last round of reading all these essays Dr. Campbell taking a big, deep breath and letting it all just fall out of him, summing up the experience for the whole class. To paraphrase the mound meeting scene in Bull Durham, we were dealing with a lot of shit. So cathartic for all of us, but it was noticeably heavy. In fact, those essays were not supposed to be our last, but Dr. Campbell decided it was best if we canceled the remaining essay and just had us all focus on turning our latest submissions into razors. A sage choice by a sage man.*
*For what it's worth, my particular essay dealt with the very recent, at that time, death of an infant. More on that later.
While changing the course number of the essay class might not have been for my benefit, he did do at least one thing during my academic career that was solely for my benefit. In his position as head of the English department during my senior year, he inserted himself into my oral comps board. I don't remember who the English representative was supposed to be, but it was going to be a woman, which would have made my board entirely women. I don't believe I would have thought anything of it, but Dr. Campbell thought that could be unnecessarily intimidating. I was somewhat relieved because whoever my English person was supposed to be, it wasn't somebody I had a real rapport with. Most of my writing classes had been with either Dr. Joy Castro, who had left Wabash after my junior year, or Dr. Campbell. So I was happy to have a friendly face, no matter what the gender.* I wish I could remember more about how that actual conversation went. Most of what I remember was me trying to link the narrative forming skills I had learned in creative writing to my history writing, and at one point I started to talk myself into a loop, but I managed to get out of it. In any case, I took note of what Dr. Campbell did for me, and it certainly endeared him to me for life.
*My history person was Dr. Michelle Rhodes. I had a lot of classes with her and I felt like we got along well. But she was definitely the most intimidating figure in the history department. She was who scared me while I sat in her office waiting for the other professors to arrive. It also made me downright giddy when I checked back with her and she told me I did very well. If she was telling me that, I knew it was the truth.
College days became the past, and I moved uncertainly into the real world. I went through some tough times, but I found inspiration from an unlikely source in Dr. Campbell. I first came back to visit him to get a copy of that last essay I wrote for him. I remembered it being pretty good and I had thoughts of publishing it.* I had, unfortunately, lost my copy of it, digital or otherwise. He thankfully still had a copy, but that ended up being the secondary concern. He was wondering how I was doing as a person, and it wasn't all good news. I was struggling to find my niche in the world, I worried for my future. I frankly didn't know what I was ever going to do or how I was really going to make a real living in the world. Which is probably why I turned back to writing. I needed to know I was still good at something, even if it did nothing to secure my future.
*The version he had, sadly, was my first draft rather than my final product. I just read that essay again for the first time in years, it is still generally a good essay. The middle section needs a decent bit work, which I remember from the workshop at the time. The first section is fine, but it needs tightening. The last section is still quite possibly the best writing I have ever done. I don't think I would change a word other than a couple small typos. Maybe I will edit it (and change some names) and post it here. I don't know, though. It's still intensely personal.
Dr. Campbell had nothing but encouragement for me. He reminded me of his own struggles transitioning away from med school and about how he had lucked into Wabash. He told me about the book that helped him through his struggles, What Color is Your Parachute? And as comforting as hearing the stories about establishing himself in the world were, he above all offered belief in me and my abilities as a writer. He told me that I had a strong voice in my writing, a descriptive and clear method that would carry me far in whatever field I might find myself in. He encouraged me to keep writing for myself, too. He thought it would be a real shame to let that talent wither away. They were awfully kind words at a time I needed them most. After a somewhat lengthy conversation, he had to get to a meeting, but he made sure to email a copy of my essay to me. I have held on to that email ever since.
It became a bit of a ritual for me to visit him every time I was on campus until he retired. I remember that last meeting, which turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. Things were slightly better for me, though I was still not settled by any means. That wasn't the conversation that day, though. He was more reflective on his career, which he should have been and I gladly absorbed it. "35 years," he told me. "In some ways, it feels like it was a lifetime. In so many others, it was a blink of the eye."
Then he was gone. He succumbed to cancer two years later. I was shocked, I didn't know he had been sick. I had so many times thought about reaching out to him, but it was one of those things I just never got around to. And now I never would. Even his Wabash memorial happened when I was out of town. I felt (and feel) like I totally missed out on getting closure. Which is completely selfish of me, I know. I was just another student to him, no doubt. I am sure he was the sort of teacher that would have taken the time out for any of his students and provided the encouragement he provided me. But it's true. I have thought about Dr. Campbell quite a bit since he passed away, and it gets frustrating to me. I just want so badly to let him know, "I'm okay now. I did it. I'm married. I'm in a job I like with a school I like and people I like. I have a wonderful daughter. I've written books. I did it. Thank you for believing in me."
It won't go anywhere, though. All I have left is that solitary, brief email from him. And I'll be damned if it's going anywhere.