What Ellis gave us

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A 4-page critique on a 9-page story; that was Ellis!

I have a folder in my filing cabinet called ‘Ellis Avery’. It’s filled with my semester’s work in her Master Fiction class 10 years back, and, more poignantly, the notes she’d handwritten in the margins. It also holds several manila note cards on which she wrote abundant critiques of our writing.

For me, that class was a game changer. I was an older student who’d already had several careers and raised a child to adulthood. Although I’d published few stories and poems, I had a dream to write more, do more with it, and to give more heart to my characters.

Ellis’ class was perhaps the inspiration I needed. She gave herself generously when she critiqued our writing, and gave even more through her confidence in us as writers.

On the first day, Ellis told us to get a pack of note cards and to fill one a day, 7 days a week. When we met for our weekly evening class, we each read out loud our favorite one for the week.

I loved her comments so much I saved them.

I valued her comments so much that I saved them.

There were many exercises, of course—things to read and stories to write. Ellis also gave us strong tools on how to critique each other’s work– evaluative, prescriptive, reflective, and descriptive critiques–and she expected us to teach as well as learn.

I might get in trouble for posting this copyrighted photo by David Levensen, but it is so beautiful.

Ellis Avery in 2006. I might get in trouble for posting this copyrighted photo by David Levensen, but it is so beautiful.

That semester, I was in hell with my father’s Alzheimers, and Ellis’ compassion for my work on the topic meant a lot. She was often late for class, and after a few weeks I worried that she might be overworked, rushing from somewhere else (in fact, she was racing from another class she taught uptown). But her entrance was always a relief; regardless of her own issues, she brought a calming, focused presence. She also wore amazing outfits. Ellis was fashionable! There was the sleeveless scoop-necked cotton blouse matched with a two-tone pleated skirt. And the retro tweed blazer with notched collar and tiny pockets that fit both her personality and long, graceful frame. Imagine my surprise to find out she made her own clothes!

I kept in touch with Ellis for a few years after class; the following year I took a semi-private tutorial with her in her West Village apartment. As my parents began to need more care, however, I had to stop. Still, her daily haikus ended up in my Facebook feed a few times a week, each one like enjoying the bursting scent of a fresh flower. And her novels are on my shelf  to revisit anytime.

Ellis, much of you still lives inside of us and in the characters we create. Thanks to you we know when a scene is stronger in point-of-view, which ‘darling’ expressions are working, when to eliminate episodic structure, and most critically, how to write with wisdom, compassion and love for our characters.

With love and hugs, thank you.

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