The quality of today’s story is both moving and instructive.
“Teach Me Goodness”
[Slice of Life] • 13,579 words
On the last day of school before summer vacation, Cheerilee informs her students that she’s going to pursue her doctorate in Fillydelphia, and won’t be returning as their teacher in the fall. Her friends and students alike spend her last night in Ponyville bidding farewell and showing their appreciation for her, each in their own unique way.
But one student, in particular, has a hard time coping.
FROM THE CURATORS: While we recently featured another story about Diamond Tiara connecting with an unexpected mentor, we found ourselves unable to ignore this Writeoff Association gold medalist — and the way it took its premise in a very different direction, focusing on the emotional journeys of Tiara and her teacher. “This was just a satisfying read full of wistfulness and heart,” Horizon said. “Cheerilee’s inner conflict is earnest and moving, Diamond Tiara is equally well painted, and the side characters steal the show with their appearances.” Present Perfect cited one of those as a highlight of the story. “There is a perfect moment in this, when Rarity gives Cheerilee her parting gift,” he said. “I say ‘perfect’ because the way the events and Cheerilee’s emotions are described perfectly mirrored my own. The revelation of the gift brought tears to my eyes, and then I had to laugh along with Cheerilee at Rarity’s remark. That’s powerful.”
Along with its solid range of characters, we were impressed by the story’s emotional balance. “The whole thing is just tear-jerkingly sad, but … I love the humor,” Present Perfect said. “There’s not much, and it’s very incidental and almost entirely thanks to the CMCs, but it helps keep this from being dour while not overshadowing the serious emotions at play.” And the story seamlessly demonstrated some rare skills, AugieDog said: “I’m normally a huge perspective ogre, grouchily grousing when authors try to shift between characters during the course of a single story because so many authors fail in that attempt. But the shift here from Cheerilee to Diamond Tiara is handled in exactly the right way, letting them illuminate each other and bringing out the overall theme.”
“Teach Me Goodness” is also “an example of a really well-done revision,” AugieDog said. “The original version [which is included as a bonus chapter] is good, but the longer version digs into the material that was only hinted at in the first draft and expands on it to enrich the whole piece.” Not only was that instructive reading, Horizon said, but it illustrated some daring choices in the editing process: “What impresses me most is that the revision moves the climax, upending the pacing of the entire story — and yet works as well, if not better. It’s rare to see that pulled off.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Posh discusses mothershuckling, author-eating jackals, and menthol-starved cynics.
Give us the standard biography.
I don’t want to tip my cards too far — I hope you don’t mind — so the most I’ll say is that I’m in my 20s, post-college, and I’m fond of food that has cayenne in it. I discovered MLP in the months leading up to season 2, and very quickly fell in love with the show. Against all odds. Yeah, still not sure how that happened.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I am a lifelong Spice Girls fan.
Alright, I’ll stop being a cheeky clown. Had to get it out of my system. Heh, actually, my penname when I first started writing in the fandom was The Posh Mothershuckler, which comes from the title of The Posh Mothershuckling Dangle-Dongler Hour. It’s a verbose rewrite of the obscure video game Hotel Mario told using text-to-speech programs. I cut it down to just “Posh” after a while.
As for why I chose that … I honestly could not tell you. I think maybe I just discovered the video around the time I signed up for FiMfic?
Who’s your favorite pony?
You may as well ask me who my favorite child is. (It’s Gunther. He’s the one who gets to go to college. Matilda will work in the coal mines.)
It was Applejack for a really long time, which is why she’s so prominent in the early chapters of Pony Gear Solid (am I allowed to mention other stories? I don’t want to self-promote too much …). At some point it shifted to a two-way tie between Twilight and Rarity. Twilight’s adorable and precocious and charming, and Rarity’s just a wonderful ball of histrionics and personality.
What’s your favorite episode?
You may as well ask me who my favorite child — oh wait, I already made that joke.
At this point, it’s probably Amending Fences. It felt really real to me, you know? In a way that the show generally does not. I like the way it showed Twilight having such a profound impact on someone else’s life without even realizing it. I like the idea of Moondancer being a reflection of what Twilight might have become if she’d never had the chance to make friends. And Moondancer’s speech at the end is just a huge tear-jerking punch to the gut. Beyond that, it has a lot of funny moments and continuity nods that made me nostalgic for the old days of the show. In particular, the whole thing with Twilight showing up in Moondancer’s book, and the latter’s reaction to it — that was a very funny, very imaginative sequence.
Before that, it was Secret of My Excess, which was also written by M.A. Larson. All my favorite episodes were written by M.A. Larson, I think. I miss M.A. Larson. It’s a shame he was eaten by that jackal.
What do you get from the show?
Cheer? Chipperness? Watching it makes me happy. It’s a charming, cute, uncynical 22 minutes of television, which is pretty uncommon compared to my usual fare. I can’t really say that it’s had a huge, meaningful impact on my life, however; I’ve never self-identified as a brony or gone to conventions or been inspired to collect the merchandise. I mean, the fandom has influenced me, inasmuch as it got me writing again, and that’s been a big part of my life since then. I guess you could say that MLP was the gateway drug for that? Heh.
No, but even though the show isn’t, like … an integral part of my life or my identity, it still has the potential to resonate with me in ways that I always find surprising (see my thoughts on Amending Fences and make what inferences you’d like).
What do you want from life?
Oh my, but that’s a weighty question.
One of the reasons I wrote Bonnie was because I was a teacher, for many years, and within the last several months, I had to stop; I had to leave it behind. And that’s difficult for me, because for all those years, I defined myself as a teacher. I built my identity around that. At the worst of times, when I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going or who the hell I was, I could at least say with certainty “well, I’m a teacher, and I know that much about myself”. I don’t have that anymore. There are other fields I can go into, other career paths, but whatever I wind up doing, I doubt that it’ll be something that I would want to build my identity around.
So, you ask me what I want from life, and I guess my answer is to know what my life is for. To find something that I can point to and say “I’m a this, this is me, this is my contribution to the world, this is the rock on which I’ve chosen to build my house.” Maybe I go back to teaching and that becomes who I am and what I’m about again, or maybe I find something new.
I don’t know what it is or what it will be. Finding out what it is — that’s what I want from life.
Why do you write?
That’s another hard question for me to answer.
I started writing as a teenager, and at the time, I think I was writing for personal validation. To be noticed, to be appreciated. Time wore on, and I stopped writing. I don’t really know why, but I didn’t start up again — writing anything again — until I got into MLP. I don’t think my motivations were quite the same as they were when I first started out, though. If you asked me what drove me to write and post MLP fanfic on the internet, I would not be able to give you an honest self-appraisal. Like falling for the show, it just sort of happened.
I took a two-year hiatus from writing, for a number of reasons, and now that I’m back and more or less in the swing of things again, I think my motivations for writing have changed again. I said above that I had to quit being a teacher, and that whatever I do next in my career, I doubt it’ll be the sort of thing that I can use as the central pillar for my sense of self. So I guess that, nowadays, I write in the hope that, maybe, that can be who I am. That I can say “I’m a writer, I write things, that is what I do.” That I can add something substantive to the fabric of society by writing.
Maybe that’ll only happen once I start writing stuff that could actually be brought up on dates — after all, nothing scares a girl away faster than admitting that you wrote a novella where cartoon horses cry all over each other. :P
I guess being a serial killer might, actually.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Writing is hard. Writing is hard, hard work that won’t always be enjoyable. There will be times when you get stopped up and the words won’t come out right and no matter what you do you can’t make your story make sense; you will beat your keyboard and grit your teeth and probably even cry a little and tell yourself to quit writing forever because you just can’t do it.
That’s a good sign. Harlan Ellison once said that writing is supposed to be hard. If you’re having a hard time, well, that’s part of the experience. Know that people who have been writing for their entire adult lives face those same struggles. Know that George R.R. Martin sometimes thinks he should have been a plumber instead of a writer. Be like him. Don’t be like me. I quit writing for two years because I couldn’t figure out how to make one chapter of one story go forward. I am a bad, bad role model.
Don’t put your work next to a more successful author’s and compare them — that will only depress and discourage you. Don’t try to ape other writers; read, read voraciously, and learn from the people you read, but don’t try to be them. Develop your own voice. Don’t just imitate someone else’s.
Listen to your critics — really listen to them. If you get a hundred glowing reviews and one that’s full of nitpicking, don’t dismiss it as an aberration — your story is not good by consensus, and that person’s insights can potentially help you a hell of a lot more than oodles and oodles of praise. It might hurt to read, and in the end, it might not even be all that helpful, but hear that person out. You won’t know unless you give them the time of day.
Nine times out of ten, your critics aren’t critical because they want to tear you down, and their criticism is given in good faith. Remember this: They want you to be better, and they can help you be better. You don’t owe it to them to hear their criticism. You owe it to yourself. And as a corollary to that: Stay humble. Stay grounded. Don’t let your ego bloat beyond your ability to control.
There’s the standard stuff, too, of course — find editors, listen to your editors, don’t burn bridges with your fellow writers, don’t be discouraged if you don’t become an overnight sensation, never get involved in a land war in Asia, and don’t put dead possums in Somber’s mailbox (unless he asks … he’s … he’s kind of an oddball).
The original version of this story won a Writeoff gold medal, but after the contest you revised it to almost double its length. What did you focus on during that revision process, and why?
Fleshing out ideas that didn’t get fully developed in the Writeoff draft, and writing a stronger depiction of Diamond Tiara. Addressing one helped me address the other.
There were things I wanted to do with the original draft that, sadly, I could not in as thorough or complete a manner as I would have liked, because of the constraints of the Writeoff’s word limit. That led to me cutting some corners when it came to Diamond Tiara’s character development and general portrayal; that’s why Cheerilee doesn’t read those essays that I set up at the beginning of the story, and that’s why DT leaves Cheerilee with a letter on the train platform rather than having a conversation with her. I never really liked that; it felt cheesy to me, so one of the first things I decided to change was that scene at the station, to give DT a feeling of closure and resolution, and to give the story a more satisfying emotional climax. The idea of DT writing a letter expressing her feelings to Cheerilee was reworked into the scene where Cheerilee reads the essay from class that morning, which feels like a more natural place for it to go.
I also wanted to give DT a stronger portrayal than she got in the Writeoff draft. One of the criticisms I got on the story after posting it to FiMfic was that DT didn’t feel much like DT, and I think that’s because I didn’t give her an opportunity to emerge from her depression or to demonstrate the strength of character she’s built post-Crusaders of the Lost Mark. So the other major change I decided to make to the story was to rewrite the final scene, to show Diamond demonstrating kindness and virtue rather than just having Cheerilee insist in her narration that Diamond’s become kind and virtuous.
(I also tied it in with another one of my stories because I am a cheeky clown.)
There was also supposed to be a subplot about Cheerilee saying goodbye to Big Mac that I really enjoyed writing, but I felt it distracted too much from her relationship with DT, which was supposed to be the story’s focus. I’ll post that material on my FiMfic blog, for anyone who’s interested in seeing what it looked like, and I’m thinking of reworking it into its own story, with McIntosh realizing that he loved Cheerilee, regretting that he didn’t tell her before she left, and trying to move past his feelings for her.
What do you think of how the show handled Diamond Tiara’s redemption? Where does this story’s depiction of DT fit with that?
Diamond Tiara was not a character who I paid a great deal of attention to before Crusaders of the Lost Mark. If you’ve watched children’s TV at all over the last three decades, then you’ve seen DT’s character a dozen times. She was an iteration on an archetype, and even her change of heart was kind of iterative. I liked Crusaders, though, and I would be interested in seeing how the show handles her change of heart, which I don’t think it’s really done as yet (although I haven’t seen much of the current season, so maybe it has and I’m just not aware of it).
What I liked about her change of heart was that it came about because of an identity crisis. She didn’t know who she was; she just acted like an extension of her mother. I see Diamond as someone whose trajectory in canon involves finding out who she is and forming an identity distinct from her parents, and that’s where the DT that I wrote is at: someone who struggles with her insecurities and has a lot of pent-up regret over the person she used to be. That also means finding a different role model instead of her mother — who better than Cheerilee, who’s sweet and kind and the best teacher we she could hope for?
In the story, she’s pretty far along that road — she helps The Help and has cocoa with Cummerbund the butler, and mouths off to her mother when she acts patronizingly, and lets Scootaloo hug her — but she’s still holding on a little too tightly to the idea of needing someone to model herself after. I think that’s part of the reason why she’s so reluctant to say goodbye to Cheerilee. She doesn’t believe she has the strength of character to really strike out and be her own girl without someone to actively model herself after, and if I write a follow-up to Bonnie, I think that might be the idea that I go with: Diamond tries to find a Cheerilee surrogate.
What’s your favorite piece of Cheerilee headcanon?
That deep down inside of her is an Edna Krabappel who’s one empty pack of menthols away from taking over.
That’s, heh, an exaggeration, but I really love moments in the show where Cheerilee shows some kind of frustration with her job or with her life. As much as I liked teaching, as fulfilling as it was, I find Cheerilee’s occasional exasperated eyeroll or ear-flop in response to her students to be so, so relatable. You just know there’s a hard-drinking cynic locked away somewhere in there.
What was your own most powerful childhood experience with teachers?
I had a pretty significant slump in high school where my grades were bottom-of-the-barrel and my personal life was a chaotic shambles of drama — y’know, basic teenager stuff. At the time, I had this very weird, unconventional English teacher with a reputation for having a quirky, freewheeling, yet extremely likeable teaching style and personality. My brother had him took a few years before, and I’d heard nothing but positive things. But he also had this attitude of frustration toward me, constantly. It was the kind of frustration you’d usually have toward an underachieving student, but there was also a lot more to it than that. Every now and then he’d go out of his way to make some kind of goodwill gesture toward me (once, we passed each other in the hall, and he just handed me a bran muffin without saying anything or even breaking stride, and never mentioned it again), and then other times he’d look at me or speak to me with this intensity that, in hindsight, I think was disappointment.
One day, he had me come talk to him just before class started, and he laid into me with this long, loud lecture about how my grades were garbage and I was underperforming in class. To be honest, I’d heard it all before, so I halfway tuned it out, until he said something along the lines of “I had your brother too, and I like him, and he was smart, but you’re smarter. I’ve read your work. You’re a fucking genius.”
(Am I allowed to swear? I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear.)
I’d gotten the “you have so much potential” lecture from many, many people before, but no one had ever expressed that sentiment to me. No one has since. I didn’t really know how to take it. All I could really do was blush and grin like a nincompoop (I still don’t really know how to handle praise; you should have seen my face when Bonnie placed #1 in the writeoff).
I turned things around after that. I finished the year with a C-average across my classes, up from a D–, and rounded out the rest of my high school with … not quite aplomb, but I got through it well enough to move on to college. I think I owe it to him, I really do. We haven’t spoken since that year of high school (he left for another job after that year), but I sometimes wonder if he’d be proud of the way I turned out.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t know how Bonnie placed gold in the Writeoff. I don’t know what drew so many people to it or why it’s gotten the kind of acclaim that it is. I don’t know what it’s doing in the RCL, and I have a hard time understanding how I even came to write this interview.
But, clearly, you all disagree. As did the voters in the Writeoff, as did everyone who tossed it an upvote or a positive review. I’m very grateful to you all; you have no idea how much more confident I feel about my writing after all of this. Thank you to everyone who participated in that Writeoff; I learned a great deal from reading your work and your critiques for one another. Thank you to horizon and PresentPerfect and anyone else who saw worth and merit in this story and allotted it horsepoints. Thank you to my editor, DannyJ, who didn’t have anything to do with this one (and who hasn’t even read it yet, I think), but whose help on my other work is nevertheless invaluable. Thank you to the readers who stuck around even after two long years of kept-you-waiting-huh-ing on my part. And, uh, thanks M.A. Larson.
Now. Go read Solitude for the Modern Businessmare. If ever a story deserved horsepoints, it was that one.