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It’s not often you have someone who REALLY hates your writing in a workshop, but it can happen. It happened to me at Harvard Summer School so many years ago. I think I’d blanked it out, but when my Harvard roommate Shiho, from Japan, visited me a couple of days ago it brought these wonderful (haha) memories back. But the truth is, Harvard Summer School is not your average summer vacation.
Why go to Harvard Summer School?
We all have our reasons, but I went to Harvard Summer School because I was curious about the whole Ivy League lifestyle. There were other reasons, too. The main reason was that I wanted to improve my writing, and what better place than Harvard. For another thing, I like loooong summer courses and this one lasted about 6 or 7 weeks. And I wanted to check out Boston. My course was a writing course and I was the only person in it who wasn’t local. Also, almost everyone else in the class was on Prozak. Just saying.
One slightly-built woman with shoulder-length hair told me how much she was looking forward to reading my writing. I liked her very much. Then came time for my chapter to be critiqued. She didn’t say much during class but afterwards she gave me my chapter back scrawled with changes, corrections, insults and derisive jokes-at-my-expense. There was a”tra-la tra-la” in there somewhere, but I can’t quite remember it’s purpose.
Oh, the shame of it all – my Harvard Summer School disaster
So I went back to my dorm room and cried. And cried and cried. I was trying so hard, and I guess my writing was really bad – at least that’s what I had always suspected and that’s what had now been confirmed. It didn’t matter that the professor had emailed me and offered to mentor me because he thought I had promise. All I really heard was “TRA LA TRA LA” in my sorry aching head.
So I went to the professor’s office and cried. I wasn’t trying to cry. I was trying to ask how to deal with negative comments. Not one of my prouder moments. Poor Shiho, my roommate, who is a very sensitive woman, didn’t know what to do. Hey, Shiho! Sorry about that! My professor said to ignore it so that’s what I tried to do. It was also about this time that the good looking crew of buff Danish business students started to dislike me. Maybe there’s a connection. Maybe they heard me crying in the next room. (Actually, the whole dorm probably heard me. I was howling.) Whatever.
In retrospect I’m more embarrassed by my (over) reaction than by someone hating my writing. Mortified, actually.
The summer school plot thickens
When it was the woman-with-shoulder-length-hair’s turn to have her writing critiqued the professor disagreed with her about something, I think it was point-of-view. If my memory serves me correctly (which it doesn’t usually), it got quite tense. The woman stop coming to class and complained to the higher-ups about him and then my professor had to go and defend himself at some sort of tribunal (he was found innocent). In the end the woman began her own workshop and invited some of the class members to join. And guess what, I wasn’t invited. Ha ha ha. Nor I suspect, was the professor.
An insane summer. But that one small part of it (well, two, if you count the Danish business students also disliking me) seems so insignificant now. I also have some great memories and feel compelled to mention them:
The best things about Harvard Summer School
1) The library Spending hours and hours down in the bowels of the cavernous Harvard library on hot sultry days. I was obsessed with reading books from the Spanish Civil War and this library had (pardon the pun) stacks of them.
Once I found a crumbling book from the 1800s slamming Pope Innocent X, calling him a depraved and corrupt man who had slept with his sister-in-law. You may know Pope Innocent X (or not) from the famous Velazquez portrait. Coincidently, I was working on a novel about art forgery in Spain and a missing Velazquez portrait.
2) Hanging out Whipping around a dark and empty dining room in Harvard at night on a scooter along with a German guy and the one Danish business student who didn’t dislike me. (The other Danish business students didn’t like him either – tough crowd, those Danes.)
3) Tennis Playing tennis night after night on the Harvard courts with the Head of the Ukrainian Summer Program and her friend who worked at the Ukrainian Embassy, then going for coffee in Cambridge Square.
4) The Welsh Countess Also playing tennis with an older Welsh countess who could whup our butts without breaking a sweat. A quick aside: a male friend of hers in Wales had cracked her rib from hugging her too hard and she’d been too polite to ever tell him.
5) My flatmate Hearing Shiho defend the dirty American practice of sitting on the lawn when another Japanese student criticized it. “I sit on the ground, too!” she’d said. She always was a loyal girl, our Shiho, and it was nice to see her again. I think she fit in better than I. Unlike me, she ended up spending two more years at Harvard. And you know, if I had the chance to go back to Harvard Summer School, I would.
Read more about travel and writing at Why travel and writing are lovers
Well, HungryThinkingFeet (great name) – At Harvard Summer School I stayed in the grad dorms which might have been nicer than the ones you’re considering. They were large and not too hot and – sorry, I never tried to use a blender – but I don’t remember being told not to. The reason I enjoyed it (and often hated it) is that you are completely immersed in the experience. It’s a gorgeous campus and the dining hall is like something out of a movie.
Why though? I heard it’s really hot. And is it true we can’t bring our own appliances? Like, I’d like to use a blender in my room.
I would absolutely stay on campus. No question.
Hi, I’m thinking of going to HSS this year! And I’m debating whether to stay on campus. Could you help me with my decision? Is it worth it? Is the food in the halls really good? When I want to eat out with friends, will I be spending a lot? What can I take in the dorms? Should I just find off-campus residences? What do you wear in Harvard? Especially considering the class I’m taking is under Management, so it’s a bit more formal than say the Arts courses?
Hope you can help!
I am way too embarrassed about my crying incidents to EVER give details. You are so brave. (One involved a senior partner in a venerable law firm). I will say no more…but how mortifying unbidden tears can be.
I wish I had gone to Harvard Summer School. I will have to send my kids. I hope you finish the book on art forgery so I can read it.
Kate, your tear stories are too funny. I think I’ll have to blog about crying, inspired by you. And Shiho, yes, you were the inspiration for the Harvard post. And congrats on your engagement!
It was great seeing you again!
Sorry I couldn’t help you at all at that time – but now I am a little bit satisfied with myself, knowing that even I can inspire you.
You know, you never hear anyone talking about crying. I had to laugh with recognition when reading your story. It brought to mind two particular crying incidents in my life – one when I left a job and gave my final hug to the big wig and just burst into ridiculous tears (i hated that job & still don’t know what I was crying about) and another when I went for a job interview that I was completely unqualified for and in which at one point I actually asked them why they had called me in to interview with them knowing I didn’t have said skills. I made it through the interview, but burst into tears the minute I got into my car and cried the entire way home. I still remember the feeling of humiliation.
Would love to hear more about your days in the library – I’m a library geek myself.
Thanks Jeannie, aka Nomadic Chick. The half-finished novel from Harvard Summer School is sitting on a shelf somewhere along with a couple of others. Must find the time!I’m sure you’ve got many tales of your own out there in China.
Oh my friend, how I miss your rich, rich stories.. .full of characters. How is that novel writing coming along? Nothing is as vivid as our real lives, right?