Doug Thayer: My Second Writing Instructor

I just read in the news that my second writing professor at BYU, Doug Thayer, passed away. I only took one class from Professor Thayer, but it came at an important point in my writing life. I took my first creative writing class in the winter of 2000, right off my mission. I had a good time in it, and I enjoyed writing and thinking up stories, but I got a B+. I know, you’re thinking so what. To me, that somehow meant I wasn’t good enough. I took it as a sign that I could do okay as a writer, but not great.

I decided not to take another class.

In hindsight, how dumb was I? I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was only 21 at the time, so perhaps I can blame it on my brain not being fully developed? In any case, I chose to focus on English analysis, and not the actual creative writing side of things.

Except I kept writing. I knew it wasn’t great. I knew I had problems, but I just had too much fun doing it. And I’d go back to my apartment and write anyway. Nothing really serious by my standards today, but I kept tinkering around with things in my spare time. And after a while, I realized it wasn’t going away, so I began to reconsider my decision. A B+ wasn’t that bad, after all, and it had been my first time taking a class like that. Maybe I could get better.

Doug Thayer started things off with a bang. He was gruff and often came across as irritable. He told us all that he didn’t like reading “fantasy or anything like that,” and so he didn’t want us to submit it. We were to turn in stories and then workshop them as a class. This was my first real exposure to a writer’s group format. He would have us read selections, and then he’d pick the selections apart. I never quite knew how he was going to come down on a piece.

I loved the class.

Interestingly, I also wrote some of the most depressing stories I’ve ever come up with. Because I was trying to avoid writing fantasy or genre fiction, what ended up coming out of my fingers was sad, “serious” fiction. A couple who lose their child. An abused woman. Dark stuff that’s not really like anything I write these days.

Professor Thayer liked what I wrote. I got an A in the class, and I determined to keep at it and take even more classes. Though I’d want to take classes that would allow me to write genre fiction, if at all possible.

Honestly, I learned a lot about how to critique a piece well from that class. I learned to say what I thought, and not what I thought the person I was critiquing wanted to hear. I learned my opinion has value, especially if I can back it up with examples. I learned to take criticism in the spirit it was intended: to help me improve. It set me up for the trajectory my writing career has taken.

Who knows what would have happened if I’d gotten another B+.

In any case, I was sorry to hear of his passing. I didn’t know him well, and I doubt he would have remembered me, but as is so often the case with teachers, he made a much bigger impact on my life than I ever made on his.

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