WITS Voices: Do Writing Savants Exist?
March 19, 2020
By Peter Mountford, WITS Writer-in-Residence
This year’s two-week fiction-writing residency—my ninth, I believe, with the eighth grade class at Blue Heron Middle School—was my favorite to date. There’s an inexplicable magic to these groups, something of a class culture, and some years, the students are more guarded, wary, and their writing reflects that.
This year was far from that, with wildly different stories, often funny: a little girl who wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that her parents, who have always insisted that there’s no such thing as the tooth fairy, have actually been capturing the fairies in jars and getting money from them. In another, a self-serving princess, who thinks she has everyone else’s best interests in mind, is trying to seize the throne after her father’s death. In another, reminiscent of Don Quixote, a young man hits his head, and when he wakes up, he’s convinced he’s his Scottish ancestor on a quest for a set of magic bagpipes.
And, this year was the first time I’ve ever had a brush with what you might call a “writing savant.” I didn’t really think such a thing existed before, but there she was: an eighth grader whose prose could easily stand up against any of the MFA students I teach.
In my own writing, I’d recently described a madrona tree as follows: “The madrona with a smooth pale green trunk partially exposed under papery, peeling red bark.” Fine, serviceable.
Now, here, in this eighth grader’s story, I found this: “A massive madrona spread in lacy formations across the thick heather sky, its outermost branches reaching dubiously across the water. The bark curled in rusty twists from the pale underbark, and it made a sharp crackle as Charley pulled herself into the branches.”
After a sharp intake of breath, I muttered, “Well, okay… that’s quite a lot better than how I described a madrona tree.”
The student looked at me with mild curiosity, and I took a deep breath and read on. The whole story was like that. All seven pages.
Feeling almost alarmed at the talent, I read passages like: “Thick rivers of students poured from the high school, pooling on the battered grass. As their raucous yells ricocheted off the walls, a tall girl walked out of the wide doors. She moved with a purposeful, swift stride, her blue backpack slung carelessly across her shoulder.”
Of course, I’ve taught many brilliant writers before—superb, lyrical writers who assemble a pile of great sentences by the end of a story—but this was everywhere, constantly, deliberately, and she did not appear to be breaking a sweat, at all.
Obviously, I didn’t teach this student to write like this. But now that I was there, I wondered what my job was with her? Step back, and wave her along with a: “Keep going in that direction!” Maybe so?
When she finished revising her story well ahead of the rest of the class, I gave her a series of difficult prompts, briefly marveled at the results, and then spent the rest of my time focused on the other kids, who loved writing and had great ideas, but weren’t already within striking distance of writing publishable stories. She started writing another story, same deal. So, I just stood back waved her past.
No doubt in ten, fifteen years I’ll open up a newspaper to find a hyperventilating book review of a “searing debut novel” set in Port Townsend, and I’ll turn to my partner and say, “Oh, she was in my class once.”
And she’ll say, “Really, you taught her?”
And I’ll laugh and say, “Oh, no, no, hardly—if anything, it was the other way around.”
Peter Mountford’s debut novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in fiction, and his second novel The Dismal Science was a NYT editor’s choice. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, and elsewhere. He’s currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program.