Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part Six

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.

Sixth in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

(Part Five)

There’s something ironic about students who get lousy grades all the way through high school ending up as teachers, but when you think about it, who better? After all, we know all the tricks of avoiding doing work in subjects we thought were dull, and “just getting by” is the mantra we all chant until we find something that sparks our interest. In between there is the torture of summer school, the pain and suffering of quarterly grading periods, and strenuous attempts by parents to get their kids to do their homework. It was a constant struggle, and by such struggle our lives our shaped. So it was only natural that I turned to a profession that shaped me. Besides, teaching runs in my family. Two of my great aunts, three uncles, and countless cousins have entered the profession. One of my uncles gave up a promising business career to become a teacher in California. So there has always been something tugging at me in some way to be a part of the educational system, either genetically or, as some might say, pathologically.

I spent the winter of 1976-1977, before I finished my masters, looking for a teaching position. I contacted several agencies that are renowned for finding qualified teachers for private schools, and they took me on as a candidate for teaching English and drama. Even though I had taken only a couple of courses in college English, a produced playwright is deemed capable of explaining the intricacies of grammar and composition, and besides, someone needs to direct yet another high school production of Our Town. I interviewed at several schools across the country but landed nothing, and by the time I was done with my second summer at camp, I was out of options. I went home for a month or so, then packed up my Ford Granada and drove out to Santa Fe to visit an uncle and his family who were living there for a year while he was on sabbatical. I arrived in Santa Fe in October 1977 and promptly fell in love with the desert and the mountains; it was like being back at camp, except it was exotically different, with the sharp reds of the hillsides and strange desert plants taking the place of the evergreens and glaciers. I stayed with my relatives for a few weeks, and then found a house to share with a couple of other guys. I met a teacher who was running a one-room private school in an industrial park and volunteered to teach there until I ran out of money. I taught everything from sixth grade English to high school algebra (my own worst subject), and learned that teaching is not as simple as reading out of a textbook and dodging spitballs. But by doing algebra and grammar from the other side of the desk, I learned an awful lot – probably more than the students. Suddenly algebra made sense: it’s a language with nouns, verbs, and modifiers, except it uses numbers. English grammar has its own peculiar logic, but it can be bent to the will of the writer with skill and purpose, and word choices become ever so important. I was just beginning to get the feel for it when the reality of being broke hit hard, and I left the school to take a job as a chairlift operator at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. That was fun, but I knew that I needed to get back to teaching.

I kept looking for teaching jobs. I spent the year after Santa Fe doing a myriad of things, including a stint as a news reporter for a small-town radio station in Michigan, and now it was July 1979, a time when schools had long ago hired their new faculty. I was desperate – I didn’t want to move back in with my parents (and they weren’t thrilled with that prospect, either). Then out of the blue there came an offer from a private school in a medium-sized city in the Midwest to teach English. I loaded what I could get into my 1974 Jeep Wagoneer, found a furnished apartment in this city, and there began what I hoped would be a long and satisfying career in education.

At first I loved being in the classroom, getting to know the kids, trying to find out what were their strengths and how I could reach them. I was taken under the wing of several veteran teachers, and I tried as hard as I could to find the one way that worked for me. But there were lessons to be learned; the most important being that teaching, especially in private (or “independent”) education is more than lesson plans and knowing your field. It also means learning the hierarchy of the political aspects and acting accordingly. Forget your degrees – to some parents you’re a servant, just like the housekeeper, and the kids pick up on that. Some teachers play that game very well, but I don’t; I’m either too dense or too stubborn. By the end of the school year I was painfully aware of the fact that I was not fitting in to this particular type of teaching, and I also wondered if perhaps I should set my sights higher, such as college teaching. But for that I needed to go back to grad school, and I wasn’t ready to quit…yet. It took another two years before I finally threw in the towel and decided to try for my doctorate..

Just like at St. George’s, writing became my refuge. A friend offhandedly commented that my play, The Hunter, sounded like it would make a good novel. I batted the idea around until the storyline became clear, and then one weekend I sat down at my IBM Selectric and within two hours I had ten pages. It became my all-consuming vocation – when I wasn’t doing my schoolwork, I was writing. Elements of my teaching and camp experiences came into the story, the characters taking on the characteristics of people I knew, growing from the images of the kids I’d first imagined on that day in 1976. I kept most of the plotlines, but expanded on them and plowed ahead, filling in the spaces that had been only suggested in the play. Two years and a year into my first year of graduate school at the University of Colorado, the novel was finished.

Now what? Well, of course: send it to a publisher, sign the contract, get the huge advance, do the book tour, enjoy watching Hollywood fight over the rights, watch Tom Cruise take the role of Elliott, and accept the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Then wake up and realize that everybody and their dog was writing the Great American Novel. Take a number, get in line, and file the rejection letters alphabetically.

But something had happened between that first weekend of writing and the day I wrote “The End.” I found that I loved the process more than anything else. I loved seeing the characters grow and take on their own lives and guide my fingers as I wrote. They became a part of me, which is only natural since they are me. When I was done, I didn’t want to let them go. Publishing became less important to me than the process, and after a fitful attempt at finding someone interested in publishing it, I put the novel in an empty stationery box and put it away, content in the knowledge that I could, if I wanted to, write a novel. I didn’t care if anyone ever read it.

Next time: the play’s the thing.