I was fortunate to have a real mentor at quite an early age who helped to transform me from a would-be poet to a real one. I had been in a few other workshops and had always aspired to be a writer, but not one of the workshop leaders or professors I had experienced up to that time really touched me until, halfway through undergraduate studies, I transferred to Hollins College, in VA.
I had been told by a former professor who had chanced to attend Hollins' Literary Festival that this school was a paradise for writers, a liberal arts college focussing largely on shaping poets and fiction writers in its undergraduate and graduate programs.
It was quite a leap for me to go from an inner-city branch campus of a large university to a small, select, and expensive school like this one, but my grades and application permitted it, and soon I found myself on a beautifully manicured southern campus, a former antibellum plantation, where, as a working class Jewish girl from Philadelphia, I felt as out of place as a kangaroo.
It was not until I walked into Richard Dillard's Wednesday night workshop that I finally came home. Here was a room full of lively student writers, fully engaged in the business of learning the craft. At the head of the table, subtly orchestrating the three-ring circus of the workshop, sat Richard.
I had never had a teacher like him before, who managed to combine intelligence and wit, warmth and the kind of deep knowledge of the subject he could effortlessly impart with the crook of a finger. I breathed in not only what he had to teach about writing, but also what he was teaching without a word about being a teacher, something until that moment I hadn't known I wanted to become.
There were traditions here, unspoken rules about how to speak about others' work, how to think about one's own work, that I needed to learn. All of us hoped for nothing more than praise, but praise was, we learned, beside the point. It was not the reason were writing. That was all about the process, finding a way to see the hours we poured into transforming a wisp of words, a phrase or a rhythm, into a way of life.
Though it has been many years and many workshops later, I still remember how at Richard's enthusiastic urging, we climbed the green hills toward the campus stable for a field trip to see the Budweiser Clydesdales, which were temporarily visiting the campus.
The enormous beasts with their legs the size of tree trunks filled up the stables with their presence, looking down on us imperiously with their intelligent eyes.
I don't remember what was said there, but I still retain the impression that I was taking in sustenance to last a lifetime. And as we solemnly trooped back down the mountain, I knew I would never be the same person again.
It might have been around the middle of the first semester of workshop when my work took a turn and I started on the road to becoming a serious writer, someone who till this day, aspires to make a world out of words. It was all the more amazing because I didn't see myself being shaped, glazed and fired in the kiln of that workshop.
Since then, I have become a student of yoga, and have studied with teachers who aspired to be gurus. None ever came closer to deserving that title than Richard, who with a look or a word could communicate so much.
He has taught me much more than writing, but the art of kindness, of paying attention, of loving this world and the company of others as they ought to be loved. And I want to thank him for that.
Causes Robbi Nester Supports
Anti-slavery and human trafficking
Advocating for disabled children