The pivotal character in the story of “us” is a potent English professor at Georgia State University.
In 1994, a disparate band of students met in a 10 a.m. creative writing class at what was then DeKalb Community College, in Dunwoody. There was an Operation Desert Storm veteran, a hipster, a goth kid, a model, a pothead, a college drop-out, a waitress and several others. The only thing we seemed to have in common was we didn’t have anything in common.
Helming the class was Anna Schachner, who didn’t seem much older than us. She was prone to sitting on her desk with her legs crossed; she was comfortable and confident, very approachable and wicked smart. It was a thunderbolt of a class – it was short, burned bright and still echoes to this day.
Last Tuesday night, my wife and I went to the Georgia Center for the Book in Decatur to listen to Ms. Schachner discuss her first published novel, “You and I and Someone Else.” We went because Ms. Schachner is a fine writer and because we were invited, but it was also a mini-reunion of sorts. You see, Lori and I met in that class.
Perhaps that is why throughout my prolific academic career, it was the only class I looked forward to attending. But there was something else.
Ms. Schachner’s teaching style was more conversational. Much of the instruction was through discussion and debate about creative writing: devices, voice, consistency, characters. The rest was doing: writing and reading.
She critiqued our works constructively and had us critique each other. We read some of our pieces out loud. It was a safe space in an environment that from the outside looking in wouldn’t appear to be. We took chances as a result and shared writing that was deeply personal, uncomfortably so on several occasions.
We quickly became a tight-knit group. We spent an inordinate amount of time together away from the class. It was in that collective Lori and I stumbled into one another.
College is a fleeting time, community college even more so. After a few quarters, we went our separate ways, except for Lori and I. Over time we lost touch with nearly everyone.
Ms. Schachner, though, remained an integral part of our story. Whenever someone asked us how we met, there she was.
Lori and I married, had a child and bought our first home in Buckhead’s Peachtree Park neighborhood in 2001.
One afternoon as we were pushing young Thornton around the neighborhood in his stroller, a woman was being walked by her dog in the opposite direction. Lori recognized Ms. Schachner immediately. When we were students we had gone to her house for a dinner, but I had lost track of where it was to the fog of time.
It was in Peachtree Park, where she still lives to this day.
For the next seven years, we were neighbors. She was still teaching English, and was the editor of the award-winning Chattahoochee Review, and I – perhaps her most incompetent student – was the editor of this newspaper.
I haven’t found many characters like Ms. Schachner, who I now have to refer to as Anna, even though that is damn near impossible. To me she’ll always be called “Ms. Schachner.” She is piercing, honest, always searching for the truth, but incredibly friendly and warm at the same time. She is a natural storyteller, who has spent her career teaching others the finer points of writing.
And she has written a great deal. She is known best up to now for her short stories. She was a finalist for the Pushcart Prize, which honors the best short stories and poetry in American literature.
This is the first time she has written a 300-plus-page tome. At the discussion at the Georgia Center for the Book, “You and I and Someone Else” was described as “Southern,” which is appropriate, as Ms. Schachner was born in Charlotte and moved to Augusta when she was just 12. A comparison was drawn with that giant of Georgia literature, Flannery O’Connor, though I imagine Ms. Schachner would make me take that out. But I didn’t say it, and neither did she.
I am looking forward to reading her new book. Both Lori and I credit Ms. Schachner with instilling in us a deep appreciation for contemporary literature. But more importantly, we will forever be in her debt for that crazy creative writing class more than two decades years ago.