FAITH • by Frances Howard-Snyder

Miriam examined the canvas from different angles. Perfect? Almost perfect? What would her old teacher think?

Half an hour later, she nodded to acquaintances as she crossed the banquet hall. Then, seeing Tostermann at a distant table, she changed direction. He was even more substantial than before, a great bull of a man, his physique a visual rendering of his personality. His granite head had few lines, and minimal hair loss. The glasses were new, she noted, but essentially he was the same. She wanted to reach him, move fast through the small talk, and get to her news.

Even before they’d first met, she’d been aware of his mystique. The other architecture students had described his brilliance with reverence. And his scathing critiques. “Don’t get on the wrong side of Burned Toast, they’d told her. He’ll toast you.”

At first she’d been unimpressed.  Tostermann was large, unblinking, given to Zen-like utterances of “I don’t understand,” that implied not his own lack of comprehension, but a lack of comprehensibility in the essay or utterance so dismissed.

Miriam had watched and listened, learning in spite of herself, and occasionally had challenged the teacher, boldly risking a ‘toasting’. He’d responded by showing her where she was mistaken, but occasionally by acknowledging that she was right. The effect was devastating. He won her over with his laser-like critiques combined with these fragments of admiration.

In turn, she’d laid down her mind, eager and receptive, soft as warm wax. Recognizing the tribute, he’d pressed himself into her impressionable surface, leaving a precise inverted image of himself. “You have real originality,” he’d told her once. “Follow your instincts.”

“Miriam!” he said now with economical warmth.  After a detailed description of his own work, he asked the anticipated question. “What have you been working on?”

She had a ready answer, but looking into his face, she remembered her nerves as a graduate student. She swallowed, licked her lips and then blurted, “I’m doing another series of paintings.” She hoped that he’d ask to see them and then give her a shred of his precious approval.

He frowned. “You are not cut out for painting, you know. You should stick to architecture. That’s where your real talent lies.”

She drew back. Of course, the paintings she’d shown him ten years before had been naïve. But since then…

“But I’ve been working hard, getting better all the time.”

“The last paintings you showed me were very wooden. Why paint amateurish paintings, when your training and your talent all lie in architecture?”

“But my new work,” she murmured. “It isn’t wooden. It’s… My father likes it…” she concluded lamely.

The teacher gave her a look. “Well, he’s your father.” He left the rest unsaid. Her father would be blinded by doting affection or too soft-hearted to tell her the unpleasant but necessary truth, that she was making a fool of herself with this endeavor. Tostermann wouldn’t even take the trouble to look at her pictures.

She wanted to justify herself. “I love painting,” she murmured. “It engages all of me, my senses, my emotions, my intellect, my morality. With architecture, only part of me…” It was an old habit of love, to want to reveal all aspects of her innermost self, even the weakest and most absurd, and to be loved for them.

“Don’t you hear how self-indulgent that sounds?” he snapped. Noting the look on her face, he added in a kinder tone, “You’re a grown woman now. You need to set aside childish things.”

She felt the old temptation to allow the wax of her mind to soften under the blaze of his heat, to allow the sharp edges of his seal to press into her and shape her.

But then she recalled the flame that burned inside her when she painted, and warmed and filled and lifted her. Could he see that? Had she somehow failed to communicate how much this mattered? Was he that blind? Or did he see, and simply choose to spit on her dream?

He’d always been cruel. She recalled his cruelties to other students. A young man coming out of the men’s room with red eyes, a young woman dropping out of the program, after Tostermann had demolished their work. She hadn’t taken these small tragedies seriously, she remembered with a painful blush. She recalled how his cruelties to herself had stung initially but then had served to emphasize the moments of kindness that had followed. The savage criticism had spoken to her of hidden depths of suffering the great man struggled against. But now she wondered whether she had misheard.

“Have you sold any of your paintings?” he asked with seeming innocence, as if the question were not the first premise of a proof.

She felt torn. The teacher was the most brilliant person she knew. She’d wanted to tell him about her new vocation because, she now realized, her confidence depended on his good will. Could he be right? Who was she to contradict the genius, she who couldn’t even point to one sold painting as proof?

When she didn’t answer he turned to another topic, telling her about some young woman he found promising. Miriam closed her eyes and called up an image of her latest painting. She imagined how it would look through the teacher’s eyes, its flaws dwarfing its beauty. Perhaps she should abandon the dream.

But then she took another look. The flaws could be corrected and the beauty retained. The teacher was blind to her pain; why should she trust his vision of her work?

“She made this most amazing suggestion…” he was saying. He looked like a stone Buddha, as solid, as impervious, and as irrelevant.

“You’re right,” Miriam said. “I have grown up.” She stood, scraping her chair harshly. “And now I have a painting to finish.”


Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy. She is currently working on a novel.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.3 stars • 3 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • I like this a lot but feel the middle, in which Miriam is working out the conflict between her and her teacher in her mind, is too long and belabored. Love the ending, of course.

    • RosenLogic
      I think the middle is "too long and belabored" only if one is simply interested in discovering the outcome. The middle is a sort of first-hand glimpse of the nuanced thinking of a person in tune with her emotions, desires, and intellect. This is both interesting (to watch), valuable (to learn), and important (to reach the outcome). As to this final point (importance), if the middle were shortened then the ending could very easily feel like she's decided out of defiance and not maturity.
      • I am not one who reads in order to discover the outcome. I know what the "middle" is for. I just felt that in this story the middle started to drag. Maybe the middle could have been cut by 20 percent or so. Then there would have been no dragging, for me. This is one reader/writer's opinion.
  • I like this a lot but feel the middle, in which Miriam is working out the conflict between her and her teacher in her mind, is too long and belabored. Love the ending, of course.

    • RosenLogic
      I think the middle is "too long and belabored" only if one is simply interested in discovering the outcome. The middle is a sort of first-hand glimpse of the nuanced thinking of a person in tune with her emotions, desires, and intellect. This is both interesting (to watch), valuable (to learn), and important (to reach the outcome). As to this final point (importance), if the middle were shortened then the ending could very easily feel like she's decided out of defiance and not maturity.
      • I am not one who reads in order to discover the outcome. I know what the "middle" is for. I just felt that in this story the middle started to drag. Maybe the middle could have been cut by 20 percent or so. Then there would have been no dragging, for me. This is one reader/writer's opinion.
  • RosenLogic

    It’s interesting that Miriam is still taking her old mentor’s advice of “set[ting] aside childish things” though in a way Tostermann doesn’t expect: taking his advice means setting aside her childish, “whatever he says is gold” perception of him.

    • joanna b.
      perceptive comment, RosenLogic
  • RosenLogic

    It’s interesting that Miriam is still taking her old mentor’s advice of “set[ting] aside childish things” though in a way Tostermann doesn’t expect: taking his advice means setting aside her childish, “whatever he says is gold” perception of him.

    • joanna b.
      perceptive comment, RosenLogic
  • MPmcgurty

    I’m not “simply interested in discovering the outcome” of any story, and I also found much of the middle long and belabored, and redundant. There is much to recommend it – “She felt the old temptation to allow the wax of her mind to soften under the blaze of his heat…” – but there is much to edit. The paragraph beginning “He’d always been cruel” is an example.

    A few syntax issues, e.g., “But then she recalled the flame that burned inside her when she painted, and warmed and filled and lifted her.” Or “Tostermann was large, unblinking, given to Zen-like utterances of “I don’t understand,” that implied – not his own lack of comprehension, but a lack of comprehensibility in the essay or utterance so dismissed.” Aside from syntax, I’m not sure “I don’t understand” is Zen-like.

    Some of the best flash I’ve read is the result of an author writing all of a story out and then pruning the hell out of it. Using the fewest words to get the same reaction. The author has talent, but this story needs pruning.

    • Chris Antenen
      I learned the 'pruning the hell out of it' lesson and stopped trying to write within the thousand. Pruning actually makes all writing better, not just flash.
  • MPmcgurty

    I’m not “simply interested in discovering the outcome” of any story, and I also found much of the middle long and belabored, and redundant. There is much to recommend it – “She felt the old temptation to allow the wax of her mind to soften under the blaze of his heat…” – but there is much to edit. The paragraph beginning “He’d always been cruel” is an example.

    A few syntax issues, e.g., “But then she recalled the flame that burned inside her when she painted, and warmed and filled and lifted her.” Or “Tostermann was large, unblinking, given to Zen-like utterances of “I don’t understand,” that implied – not his own lack of comprehension, but a lack of comprehensibility in the essay or utterance so dismissed.” Aside from syntax, I’m not sure “I don’t understand” is Zen-like.

    Some of the best flash I’ve read is the result of an author writing all of a story out and then pruning the hell out of it. Using the fewest words to get the same reaction. The author has talent, but this story needs pruning.

    • Chris Antenen
      Pruning actually makes all writing better, not just flash.
  • Paul A. Freeman

    I found this a bit of a non-story, going forward at a snail’s pace. Miriam had a father complex over Mr. T, wanted his approval, didn’t get it. Not much else happened except Miriam flouncing off at the end.

    • RosenLogic
      You've not been to grad school, I take it. More than a father complex nor simply approval, Miriam was looking for the insight of an expert in visual design (architecture, art), someone who has already helped shape her into excellence (by his own admission regarding one of the forms of visual design). Further, as this man is a recognized expert his reference can make or break her career, even in a field only related to his actual field of expertise. Either to consider this mere approval seeking or to think she only has a father complex is to misunderstand the intricate dynamics at play.
      • Paul A. Freeman
        I bow to your wise words and university education.
        • RosenLogic
          Hey, Paul, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be elitist and I see that I came off that way. All I meant was that given this background knowledge cool features of the story become clear--Miriam is struggling with the loss of faith in her mentor and at the same time struggling with finding faith in herself.
  • Paul A. Freeman

    I found this a bit of a non-story, going forward at a snail’s pace. Miriam had a father complex over Mr. T, wanted his approval, didn’t get it. Not much else happened except Miriam flouncing off at the end.

    • RosenLogic
      You've not been to grad school, I take it. More than a father complex nor simply approval, Miriam was looking for the insight of an expert in visual design (architecture, art), someone who has already helped shape her into excellence (by his own admission regarding one of the forms of visual design). Further, as this man is a recognized expert his reference can make or break her career, even in a field only related to his actual field of expertise. Either to consider this mere approval seeking or to think she only has a father complex is to misunderstand the intricate dynamics at play.
      • Paul A. Freeman
        I bow to your wise words and university education.
        • RosenLogic
          Hey, Paul, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be elitist and I see that I came off that way. All I meant was that given this background knowledge cool features of the story become clear--Miriam is struggling with the loss of faith in her mentor and at the same time struggling with finding faith in herself.
  • I agree with Paul’s comments mostly. Some of the writing was really good, but I didn’t find much else of interest in this story. It was way too predictable and it didn’t have to be. The ending ruined most of it for me.

    I think a re-write with some pruning and a different ending (and title) would make this an excellent story.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I agree with Paul’s comments mostly. Some of the writing was really good, but I didn’t find much else of interest in this story. It was way too predictable and it didn’t have to be. The ending ruined most of it for me.

    I think a re-write with some pruning and a different ending (and title) would make this an excellent story.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Forrest

    Really enjoyed this story, I think it did an awesome job at balancing the story with the idea the story was written to explore which is something I often struggle with in my own writing. Great job!

  • Forrest

    Really enjoyed this story, I think it did an awesome job at balancing the story with the idea the story was written to explore which is something I often struggle with in my own writing. Great job!

  • joanna b.

    i liked this story. i knew it was a bit wordy as i read it, but i was interested in the words. i liked the way the teacher reversed his “I don’t understand” comment to place responsibility on the student. that may be what makes his comment Zen-like. of course this was written by a teacher and she gets it so right. 4 stars.

  • joanna b.

    i liked this story. i knew it was a bit wordy as i read it, but i was interested in the words. i liked the way the teacher reversed his “I don’t understand” comment to place responsibility on the student. that may be what makes his comment Zen-like. of course this was written by a teacher and she gets it so right. 4 stars.

  • Chinwillow

    I hate to be a shadow dancer but I agree with Denbe, MPmcgurty, Paul, and Scott….There, that was easy:)…. more coffee please…

  • Chinwillow

    I hate to be a shadow dancer but I agree with Denbe, MPmcgurty, Paul, and Scott….There, that was easy:)…. more coffee please…

  • Chris Antenen

    I just couldn’t get into this. A lot of guessing at the motives of self and others doesn’t make a story for me. Miriam’s conflict didn’t need a thousand words Out of context, I really liked the way the she let us see into her evaluation/description of “Burned Toast.”

    The ‘story’ part has possibilities with more humor. Who hasn’t realized at one time or another that someone else’s opinion is just that — someone else’s opinion — and felt a little silly to have given it more thought than it was worth. If Tosterman is an architect, why should his evaluation of her painting carry such weight? The story’s premise fails here.

  • Chris Antenen

    I just couldn’t get into this. A lot of guessing at the motives of self and others doesn’t make a story for me. Miriam’s conflict didn’t need a thousand words Out of context, I really liked the way the she let us see into her evaluation/description of “Burned Toast.”

    The ‘story’ part has possibilities with more humor. Who hasn’t realized at one time or another that someone else’s opinion is just that — someone else’s opinion — and felt a little silly to have given it more thought than it was worth. If Tosterman is an architect, why should his evaluation of her painting carry such weight? The story’s premise fails here.

  • Ron David

    Two phrases I loved: “she’d laid down her mind” and “economical warmth”. I gave this a “five”. I like “message fiction” but even when I like the message, its fictional side can easily lose me and other readers. This message held my face close to the screen. My only criticism is of something that is already excellent but I think could be done even better, That is the pressed wax metaphor. If I were the author I’d look at it again in a month.

  • Ron David

    Two phrases I loved: “she’d laid down her mind” and “economical warmth”. I gave this a “five”. I like “message fiction” but even when I like the message, its fictional side can easily lose me and other readers. This message held my face close to the screen. My only criticism is of something that is already excellent but I think could be done even better, That is the pressed wax metaphor. If I were the author I’d look at it again in a month.