“Gandalf was, without a doubt, the most problematic student I’ve ever taught”


The untold tale of a celebrity mage

Gandalf was, without a doubt, the most problematic student I’ve ever taught. He took my W103: Introduction to Creative Writing course and, like many, had little writing experience. On the first day of class I’ll have students say where they’re from, how long they’ve been writing, what major they’re pursuing. There were the usual journalists and high-school poets, but when it came to Gandalf, he answered, “I come from a time before this Earth was created, a time before you knew what writing was.” Great, I thought, another egocentric writer. I asked again if he had any writing experience, suggesting such things as letters, journals, even text messages. He pretended not to hear me, whispering instead to an ant crawling along the windowsill.

He was an oddity amongst the students. He always carried a large staff, and his grey robe getup made for an awkward fit in the institutional chair desks. Once, in Buenos Aires, I saw a great condor in a cage. There was barely room for it to fully stretch its massive wings. Wedged between the plastic seat and its attached particle-board desk, Gandalf resembled that oversized condor.

He was notorious for his chronic lateness. Early in the semester, I took him aside after class and asked for an explanation. “I’ve been battling the Orcish hordes that threaten our southern border,” he said. I told him that was not an excuse. Gandalf regarded me from beneath the brim of his large, pointy hat, his bushy eyebrows knitted. Then he raised his staff. Around us, wind began whipping the papers off my desk; a piece of chalk flew across the room and shattered against the wall. He circled the staff quickly above his head and banged its base against the tile floor. Immediately I found myself standing on the precipice of a black volcanic cliff. To my right rose an enormous mountain that sent seething red lava churning towards us, and from its mouth emerged hideous winged, scaly beasts with the dead eyes of fish, baring jagged teeth and claws. They flew at us, screeching with the voices of the damned. Then, just as quickly, we were back in the classroom, Gandalf packing his long-stemmed pipe and me clinging to a desk. I excused his tardiness.

It wasn’t long before the other students became resentful of Gandalf’s presence. His method of critiquing peer stories was particularly fracturing to the workshop. Work he greatly disliked, he returned in an unreadable state. Through the centre of the manuscript would be an enormous burn hole, as though the pages had been struck by lightning. During the discussion of a rather moving story dealing with a father’s struggle to connect with his estranged teenage daughter, Gandalf made discursive comments such as “Does this writer know anything of the Dark Lord?” and pestered the poor student until he admitted that, indeed, he knew nothing of the Lidless Eye.

More problematic was Gandalf’s own work. Over the years of teaching writing, I’ve had to read my fair share of clichéd, badly written schlock. Gandalf’s work, however, was staggeringly bad. I include here a section of his final story, entitled “Crazy Weekend”:

The wizard strolls down the hot hot beach and looks at all the hotties. “Aww yeah,” I think, “this is gonna be the craziest weekend EVER!” The wizards gonna get one of these girls to take off their tops. Which is crazy!! How’s he going to do it? Well I’ll tell you how. He just goes up and says, “Kazam!” and pop, off goes the top, and the girls titties are right there, and there big. Real big!

I expected the workshop to be difficult. Admittedly, I’ve found that many young writers get defensive when their work is edited, and there was much to critique in Gandalf’s piece. I hoped Gandalf would prove me wrong and show us the grace and wisdom of his years. A well-meaning boy named Sam was the first to make a comment. He said he found the characters to be undeveloped and unsympathetic.

“Burn!” Gandalf yelled — breaking the rule that the author remains silent until the end of the workshop — and raised his staff in the air. A massive lightning bolt sizzled from its tip and set Sam aflame. The workshop grew unruly, with Sam rolling on the floor to put himself out. Roberta Matthews, our resident prose poet, dumped her water bottle on Sam to extinguish the flames. The workshop grew quiet after that.

It was Gandalf who eventually broke the silence, looking to Jennie Walker and asking what she thought of his story. Jennie was one of the more honest and gifted writers I’ve worked with. She was truly adept at bringing her characters to life and always willing to politely point out the flaws in her peers’ work. She looked at the notes she’d left on the margins of his story. She was still looking down when she suggested that “sentences like the one about the ‘hot hot beach’ with ‘all the hotties’ might benefit from more physical description.”

Gandalf stared at Jennie, his brow tweaked. “Physical description?” he asked in a low voice. Then he raised his palm in the air as if holding some great orb. Across the class Jennie and her desk rose into the air. He kept her suspended above our heads, taunting her to “describe the hotties” in her own words, until she admitted there was plenty of good description in his work. After that, all of us told Gandalf it was a really nice story.

We were all relieved when Gandalf left our class at the end of the semester. And I thought little of him until I saw his story “The Coolest Car” in The New Yorker. The piece was as awful as anything he’d ever written in my class, and included lines like “She was so hot that the wizard rolled down his window with the electric window button on a type of black Jetta that you don’t even know about yet because they haven’t even released it yet.” I was incensed. A month earlier The New Yorker had rejected another of my stories — for this? I made a call to an intern I knew who worked in their editorial department. According to her, Gandalf had turned the floor of The New Yorker into “a liquid burning hell.” Since then, I’ve seen his work in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares and Tin House. His story “MILF” was recently selected for this year’s Best American.

Personally, I’ve given up. I just got another rejection from Glimmer Train this morning. I content myself with teaching and writing my stories for no one but myself. It’s funny, what I find myself wishing nowadays is that I’d simply asked Gandalf to teach me how to turn the walls to lava or keep a student suspended in mid-air. I can still picture Jennie up there as the rest of us sat, speechless and frightened for our lives. We were in complete and utter awe of his talent.

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