Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part 2

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Second in a Series

(Part One)

Eighth grade sucks.

Or at least it did for me, and from what I can gather from my friends and my few years of teaching, we’re all agreed that it’s the toughest year in school. It’s the last year before high school, puberty is in full rage, and you really are between childhood and maturity. I was never a great student for all sorts of reasons, and that school year of 1966-1967 just brought it all to a head.

My parents were at a loss to get me motivated, so they decided that perhaps if I went off to a boarding school, just as my siblings had done, that kind of structured environment would somehow help. After touring several schools in New England, I was accepted at St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island for the fall of 1967.

To make a long story short, it was a disaster mostly of my own making. I was homesick, I found the academic load crushing, and I was a kid from small-town Ohio in the rarified air of New England preppiedom and an easy target for the inevitable bullying that happens at an all-boys school. Within a month I was miserable, and since I had nowhere else to turn – television was not allowed and my parents, in an attempt to coerce me into studying, had not allowed me to take my stereo with me – I spent hours in the library reading nothing that had anything to do with schoolwork. I also became more stoic – learning not to react to the torment – and I turned that anger into writing. I filled notebooks with short stories, rarely finished, and most of them describing revenge against my tormentors. English was the only class where I consistently got good marks.

But that wasn’t enough, and after one year I gave up and returned home to my old school where I was welcomed back as if I had never left. And what a difference that year made. While my grades didn’t show it, I was enjoying school more and I made more friends. I found Jenny Hankins, an English teacher who actually cared about my writing and encouraged it, poring over my scribblings with a fine hand, always cajoling me to do better even as she told me that what I was doing was very good. And she turned my anger into something more useful, making me examine the characters for their motivations; if I wrote about a bully, she made me explore what made him that way. She focused on looking at the objective – what made people the way they are and how others reacted to them. She also ignited an interest in reading plays – she gave me my first look at the works of writers like Samuel Becket and Ionesco – and when the school decided to put on a production of John Patrick’s The Curious Savage she prompted me to try out.

Whether it was in class or on the stage, I couldn’t get enough of theatre. Shakespeare daunted me (and he still does), but modern works such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Robert Anderson and the avant-garde stuff emerging on the off-off-Broadway scene fascinated me. I even began to try my hand at writing a play or two – mercifully never produced except for a skit or two – and I found a group of friends who also liked doing it. As it happens in all high schools, I found my clique. When it came time to think about college, I knew what I wanted to major in, and thanks to the drive and determination forged at St. George’s and the encouragement of Jenny Hankins (now Barthold), I entered the University of Miami bound and determined to become the Next Great Thing in American Drama. As they say, the best laid plans…

I’ll get into college drama in the next part.