This week I’m thinking about education, far more than usual. The reason is simple. Exactly one week from today, I’ll be meeting a new group of community college students who have decided wisely that getting an education is their best move. With them, I’ll be standing on the brink of now and the future. It’s a new beginning for me and a new beginning for them.
As an educator, my role is to provide students with the knowledge base they need in English, especially American Literature, Appalachian Literature, and Creative Writing.
Aside from equipping them with the needed knowledge base, my goal is to turn them on.
“Turn students on to English? No way!”
“When pigs fly,” someone else squealed.
I understand. I have understood since I started teaching. From the first day that I enter a classroom at the start of a brand-new semester, mine is an uphill battle. But that’s perfectly all right. I love challenges. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature can help them discover their own worlds and the worlds around them. I have every confidence in the world that by the end of the semester my students will see that language and literature matter. “He can inspire a rock to write,” wrote one student in my early teaching career at Laurel Ridge Community College.
Nonetheless, I am aware that I may not have one student who is majoring in English. So, while I am passionate about language and literature and while I know that I can turn my students on to those subjects, I feel an equal responsibility to be passionate about education. I want my students to believe that education–their education–matters.
Sometimes getting them to believe that is an even greater challenge than turning them on to English.
I have to meet that challenge, too, right from the start, because I know that the community college graduation rate nationwide is about 62%.
I celebrate the students who make up that percentage. And I celebrate the 30% of community college students nationwide who transfer to four-year colleges and universities.
Yet, while celebrating all those students, I want to do my best to reach out to the others who might not be part of the 62% graduation rate or the 30% transfer rate unless I convince them that an education–their education–matters.
Why an education matters is abundantly clear to those of us who are educated. Career options. Job security. Expanded earnings. Networking. Professional connections. Increased happiness. Friendships. Better health. Even longevity.
I could include statistics to support those claims. I won’t. Candidly, they don’t do much for me.
And, candidly, when I talk about the practical benefits of an education–and I do–eyes glaze over and my students search for imaginary exits, especially when I start bringing in statistics to support my claims.
On the other hand, when I switch my focus to the softer side of why an education matters–the side that allows me to be personal and passionate–vision returns to glazed eyes and students return to the classroom that they just fancifully exited.
Sometimes–actually almost always–I’ll start the soft-side conversation by asking my students how many of them are the first in their family to go to college.
Usually about one third of their hands go up–a response that’s consistent with national data for community college students.
They seem to take notice when I tell them that I am a first-generation college student, too. They really take notice when I share some personal information about me. Son of a West Virginia coal miner and his wife, a Pilgrim Holiness minister. Grew up with three books in my home—the King James Bible, Webster’s Dictionary, and Sears Roebuck Catalog. Made it to the halls of the Library of Congress, which for 25 years became my home, with more than 20 million books. Then to the halls of Laurel Ridge Community College which for the last 23 years has been my home, where I’ve taught more than 7,000 students. Without being boastful, I want them to hear and see firsthand how an education transformed my life. I want to convince them that an education will transform their lives, too.
They get turned on more when I tell them that with an education they can go anywhere because they will be experts in their field. These days, I seem to have more and more students in health sciences, so I make a point of emphasizing that they can go wherever their credentials are recognized. Their eyes light up when I talk about the option of being a traveling nurse or a traveling surgical technologist. Their eyes really light up when I talk about the bonuses and salary increases that go hand in hand with adventuresome, free travel.
I remind them as well that an education empowers them to become their own knowledge navigators. I share with them what Robert Frost once wrote: “We go to college to be given one more chance to learn to read in case we haven’t learned in High School. Once we have learned to read the rest can be trusted to add itself unto us” (“Poetry and School,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951). Frost, of course, is talking about developing critical reading skills and critical thinking skills, both at the heart of all education.
Some days I emphasize that an education matters because it emboldens you to follow your passion. I share with them my own undergraduate struggles as English, Pre-Law, and Pre-Med messed around with my head. One day, after switching majors several times, I allowed my passion to take hold of my heart. From that point forward, English prevailed.
Or what about the notion that an education enables us to be anchored and hopeful amidst the storms of life that are certain to come our way? I’m thinking again about Robert Frost and his poem “One Step Backward Taken.” The speaker in the poem is shaken by a universal crisis, “But with one step backward taken / I saved myself from going. / A world torn loose went by me. / Then the rain stopped and the blowing, / And the sun came out to dry me.”
And how about this one that I like to use when students wonder whether an education is worth the cost, especially as their student loans grow larger and larger. I remind them that an education is one of their best investments. No one can take it away, ever. Perhaps even better is the way that the investment keeps on growing through lifelong learning.
Those are just a few of the “soft” reasons why an education matters to me. They are the ones that are on my mind this week as I anticipate next week’s new beginnings.
There’s one more, though, that’s always on my mind. It’s the University of South Carolina’s motto surrounding the seal on my doctoral class ring. It’s a quote from Ovid, “Emollit Mores Nec Sinit Esse Feros,” which translates to “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.”
Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.
You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.
One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.
One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)
It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.
Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”
I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.
My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.
Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.
I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.
Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.
I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed CreativeMetaNonfiction.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.
I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.
Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?
I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]
Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?
Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.
However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.
Already I can think of three possible solutions.
Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.
Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.
Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.
“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.
I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.
Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.
Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.
Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.
But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.
Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.
They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.
What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.
But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.
I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked LegalPad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!
Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.
I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.
Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.
I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.
As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.
Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.
Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.
I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!
This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.
FINALPlaceholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?
Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.)And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?
But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.
You may take great pleasure in knowing that this may be my shortest blog post ever. The operative word here is may. I won’t know how short this post will be until I reach the end. That, I suppose, is my first writerly eccentricity. My writing–very much like Robert Frost’s–rides along on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove. It goes where it wants to go, and it moves where it wants to move.
But I suspect this post may be my shortest because I will be sharing my eccentricities. Goodness, no. Not those. How on earth did you know about those, anyway? They’re far too personal to share with the world at large. Besides, a post focusing on them would take years and years to share. Not really. But, on the other hand, maybe.
But since I have slid off course already, let me go ahead and share one–just one–of my personal eccentricities before attempting to get back into the flow of writing about my writing eccentricities.
Here it is. I have a tremendous fascination with numbers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd, especially since I am an English professor? It does me. Maybe it will strike you as less odd when I tell you that my fascination is limited to certain types of numbers. Like palindromes. You know. The ones that read the same, forward and backward. 11, 22, 101, 111, 666, 999. I don’t have anything against palindromes, mind you, especially if I only see one every now and then as I go about my day. But some days it seems they won’t go away, especially when they take up residence in my digital clocks and glare at me. 1:11. 3:13. 3:33. 7:07. (Thankfully, they never take up residence in my Grandfather Clock. Palindromes are as much visual as they are numerical.)
What’s even more fascinating are mirror hours. 10:10. 11:11. 12:12. You see them, right? Well, if you don’t, from this point forward, you will. And when you do, you will sit up and take notice, just as I do.
Depending on the combinations and the frequencies, I tend to believe–as many people do–that palindromic numbers and mirror hours signal the presence of messenger angels. I do my best to be attentive to their messages, too, especially if I see the same number repeatedly in the course of a day. A few days ago, for example, I couldn’t escape 555. It was everywhere. I even saw it on my Fitbit. After doing a timed, 6-minute morning meditation, my Fitbit showed that the session fell 5 seconds short, coming in at 5:55 minutes. But I didn’t mind. 555 is an intriguing Angel number heralding adventure, change, liberation, and intensity. Bring it all on. I’m revved. I’m ready.
But this is neither the time nor the place for me to discuss my personal eccentricities. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have any more, just as you would be lying if you told me that you weren’t dying to know what they are. Forget it. I’m not telling. (Well, maybe a double Martini–extra dry, up, with a twist of lemon–could encourage me to tell a thing or three. Maybe.)
Let’s see. Let me do my best to slip-and-slide my way back a little closer to the melting ice cube of my original intent: my eccentricities as a writer. It occurs to me that this might be the perfect place to thank one of my faithful followers who, after reading my “Living with a Writer,” commented: “You are a published author that continues to educate and amuse us on a weekly basis. I’m sure we would all love to know what your quirks and eccentricities are when it comes to writing?”
I hope that you love what you have read so far so much that you will continue reading to the end as I continue to put into full public view my writerly quirks.
My second eccentricity as a writer bears close kinship to the first. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe who needed to know the last line of what he was writing before he put his pen to page, I need to know the first line of what I’m writing before I touch the first letter on my smartphone. (Yes. I write my blog posts on my smart phone. See my “Spaces and Habits of Famous–and Not-so-Famous–Writers.”) Once I get that first line, the rest melts along all on its own.
My third eccentricity as a writer relates to the first two. With the first line that I write, I like to get a rhythm going, usually a slow and easy one. It’s the sort of rhythm that gospel singer Rev. F. C. Barnes gets going in his “He Was There Just in Time to Rescue Me.” He opens his rendition by saying, “You know. This song is kinda like me: slow. But ya’ll don’t mind, do you?” Then he continues by working the title line and one or two other lines, over and over and over again, for a soothingly rhythmic song stretching out for 8:18 minutes. It’s much the same thing that the Barrett Sisters do in their “Jesus Loves Me” as they milk the rhythm and richness of just three words for a commanding 5:15 minutes. It’s the same thing that Lucille Clifton does in her “won’t you celebrate with me” as she rocks us in a world that has tried to kill her every day but has failed. Those rhythms–and other similar ones–bounce around and around and around in my head and sometimes carry more meaning than the actual words that I spit out. Frost would call it the sound of sense. In my own writing, I am never quite sure what the rhythm is or whether I am achieving it. Often it is more felt than seen, but it pulls my thoughts forward and piles them, like little pillows one atop another, and I like to think that it has the soft sound of sense.
My next eccentricity as a writer–my fourth–is one that I outgrew a long time ago, but it has such quirky quirks that I will memorialize it here for the record.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was working on my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, I drafted the general introduction and the introductions to each of the five sections in longhand.
But wait. It gets better.
I wrote them on a note pad. Not just any note pad. It had to be a yellow, legal notepad.
And it gets even better, if such be possible. I had to write using #2, yellow pencils. No erasers. Read on. Discover why.
If I made a mistake on a page, I could not erase. I could not scratch through and move on. I was compelled to rip out the blemished page and start over on a brand-new page, proving my mastery of ideas if not my mastery of time well spent.
I continued that approach to writing for a long, long time.
When PCs came along, however, I shifted with great joy because I discovered that I didn’t need to throw any of my drafts away. I could keep them all, simply by giving each a unique revision number. Keeping all of my drafts, I suppose, is my fifth eccentricity as a writer. I enjoy going back to see how an essay changed over time, from start to finish. More often than not, I will revise anything that I write a dozen or more times. (Let me add here that I love–absolutely love–preparing my posts in WordPress. It automatically tracks and keeps all the changes that I make for each and every post. Right now, for this post, WordPress has captured 22 revisions. I work hard for the money. Thank you very much.)
At this point, I have a huge decision to make. It involves an eccentricity that is personal, but it will have an impact on the writerly eccentricities that I do or do not share with you from this point forward. It, too, has to do with numbers. I do things in odd numbers only. For example, when I’m gardening, plants get planted as single plants or in groupings of 3, 5, 7, 9 and so on. I just don’t do even numbers. Right now, then, I have two choices, and choices are always good. I can stop my post here with five writing eccentricities. Or I can give you a sixth one and then be forced to end with a seventh.
Well, bless you, for shouting out that you want more. I am glad to continue, especially since 7 is one of my favorite numbers. Think about it for a minute. 7 Days. 7 Seas. 7 Brides. 7 Sisters. 7 Dwarfs. 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. And 7 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Without further rhythmic delay, let’s start exploring my sixth eccentricity.
Those who know me, know that I do not like being told what to do (well, that’s generally true) especially when it comes to writing (and that’s always true). But I love telling others what to do, especially when it comes to writing. Here’s the backstory. It all started on a wordy, wordy day when I was a sophomore in high school. My teacher Anna Mae Collins would march into our classroom, always wearing prim and proper dresses that generally looked like a nurse’s uniform regardless of the color or the fabric. But that didn’t matter. Mrs. Collins loved the parts of speech and sentence diagramming, and since I loved both as well, I loved her all the more. For a typical writing assignment–given usually on a Friday–she would provide the topic and the word length for the essay. She had lots of topics–so many that I don’t remember any. But I remember that she loved essays that were 1,200 words long. More, she loved giving us a structural formula that we had to follow. Here’s how it might go. 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence. We had to underline each of those various types of sentences and identify them in the margin.
We would work our proverbial little butts off all weekend. Well, that’s rather presumptuous of me, isn’t it? Let me revise that claim. I would work my proverbial little butt off all weekend. Ms. Collins would march into class on Monday. I’d be sitting right up front, all smiles because I had met all of her requirements, each and every one of them. I was pumped with pride. She would clomp up and down the aisles, collecting our essays one by one, sizing them up as she clomped.
With measured tread, she would advance to the front. “Class, I am fully confident that your essays are excellent. But you can make them better. Take them home tonight and cut out all the huff and puff and fluff. Watch out for those nasty prepositional phrases. Adjectives will work just as well. You must keep the content of your original essay. However, your revised essay can only be 700 words long. Exactly 700 words. Also, you must use the same formula that I gave you on Friday: 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence.”
Folks. Folks. Folks. We’re talking the Dark Ages of the 1960s. We had to handwrite those essays on lined paper. We had to count the words, word by word. And here we were having to go home and do it all over again. The moans and groans were loud enough to be heard in the principal’s office which is precisely where Mrs. Collins would have marched us if we had challenged her assignment. The more often she gave us assignments like that, the more often I fell in love with Anna Mae because through her I fell in love with the power of revision, especially the powerful revision that takes place when writers have to follow precise guidelines, including word counts.
My sixth eccentricity as a writer, then, is my belief that less can be more. (I believe that everywhere, of course, except in my blog posts. For those, I fantasize that I am being paid by the word. For those, I fantasize that I have 1.41 million followers.)
It will come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that one of my favorite writing assignments for my students–in College Composition and in Creative Writing–is to have them write an essay that is exactly 500 words, excluding the title. Not 499. Not 501. Exactly 500. (Oh, my! I just had a wonderful idea. I can combine this quirk with my numbers quirk and change the length to exactly 555 words. It’s a done deal. Please do not tell prospective students who might have signed up for my classes this fall.)
Further, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that students never change. Mine moan and groan as much as my classmates did in 1963. Unlike them, however, my students come to class with their 500-word essays and thank me profusely. They truly do.
I’m not sure what just happened, but my sixth writerly eccentricity was remarkably longer than any of the previous ones.
I promise. My seventh will be shorter. Hopefully.
Anna Mae Collins was not my only English teacher who insisted on eliminating huff and puff and fluff through tight and rigorous revision.
In college, my freshman English professor Barbara Smith required us to analyze everything that we wrote using the Gunning Fog Index. It was developed by publisher Robert Gunning who theorized that people could not read because newspapers and periodicals encouraged writing that was far too complex. I was fascinated by the Fog Index and discovered readily that my 25-word sentences did nothing but hide the soul and spirit of my message. It was then that I started using smaller words and shorter sentences.
The Fog Index is still used, but today our computers can measure the fog level for us automatically. MS Word calls it Readability Statistics. Those metrics provide a word count, a Readability Score, a Grade Level, and more.
Here’s my seventh and final eccentricity as a writer: I run Readability Statistics on everything that I write. What’s that? You want proof? Sure. Here are the stats for this post: Readability Score: 76.4%. (The higher the percentage, the easier the read.) Grade Level: 6.1. (The lower the grade level, the easier the read.) I’m pleased with those stats. Maybe I’m slightly puffed. Maybe I’m slightly full of it. But I simply must tell you that former Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln’s best prose have comparable Readability Statistics. I cannot think of better company.
Clearly, this post did not end up as one of my shortest. It may end up as one of my longest.
What can I say? Blame it on the ice. Blame it on the hot stove. Blame it on Robert Frost. Better still: thank my faithful reader who asked me to write about my writerly quirks and eccentricities.
Lots–and I mean lots–can be said about last week’s post “Living with a Writer.” I’m not talking about the number of views. The post enjoyed the usual readership. (I will note, however, that it had more readers than usual from foreign countries, including Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as Ecuador.) I’m not talking about Likes, although I was pleased that it had a few more Likes than usual. (It might interest you to know that “Fit as A Fiddle: The Inefficient Way” has the distinction of being my most Liked post of all.)
What’s really important about last week’s post relates to the mileage that I’ll be getting–this week and continuing for several weeks beyond–from reader feedback! I am listening. I hear you. I thank you. And trust me: I’m going to run with the ideas that you tossed my way. I always do.
Some feedback came as emails; other feedback came as comments published to the post.
Here’s my plan. This week I will focus exclusively on readers’ emails, since my responses to them are rather straightforward. I will reserve responses to last week’s comments until next week’s post. Actually, the comments are so rich that I might even get still another week’s post from their richness. Everything is copy. (See my “Directions to the Magical World of Ideas.”)
In one email, a faithful reader wanted to know what Lesley Francis–granddaughter of Robert and Elinor Frost–wrote in the copy of her The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim that she gave me on April 9, 2002, when I introduced her as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College.
I was thrilled to get that email query because I had wanted to include the inscription in my initial post. Unfortunately, I could not because the book was in my office at the college, and, as you know, I work on these posts at night on my smartphone while lying in bed. If you don’t know that, you might want to read my “Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers”.
Since last week’s post, though, I went to the college, I pulled the volume from my shelf, and I nostalgically read the inscription:
“For / Brent Kendrick, who / has let Frost lead him / ‘knowing how way leads on to / way.’ With best wishes from the author and granddaughter / Lesley Lee Francis / 4/9/02 / Lord Fairfax CC”.
The quote within her inscription, of course, is from the third stanza of what, without doubt, is one of Frost’s most popular poems, “The Road Not Taken”:
“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The same faithful reader wanted to know whether I had mentioned any specific Frost poems when I introduced his granddaughter. Splendid question. Indeed, I did. Throughout the afternoon on the day of Dr. Francis’ lecture–“Education by Poetry”–showers passed intermittently through our area, and I had been reciting in my mind a Frost poem that appeared in his book of poetry, A Boy’s Will. I recall wishing that the rain were a little heavier, that the winds were a little more fierce, and that the time of year were not quite so much into spring—perhaps a patch of snow here and there–so that the realities of the day would match more closely those of the poem that I had been reciting. Even though the poetic conditions and the natural conditions that day didn’t enjoy a one-to-one correlation, I included Frost’s “To the Thawing Wind” as part of my introduction. The poem welcomes spring rains, the return of birds and flowers, as well as flowing streams. But equally important is the desire for spring to “Burst into my narrow stall; / Swing the picture on the wall; Run the rattling pages o’er; Scatter poems on the floor; Turn the poet out of door.” Quoting the poem seemed perfect for the season and the occasion.
Another reader wanted to know some instances when something happened that made me think of a Robert Frost quote.
Actually, it happened most recently just a few minutes ago while I was writing. When I wrote “I nostalgically read the inscription,” I thought immediately of how Frost likened poetry to homesickness and love sickness:
“Poetry begins with a lump in your throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words” (Frost to Louis Untermeyer, 1916).
Here’s another instance. A few nights ago, when I had my nightly phone chat with my sister Audrey, she mentioned that she was rather taken aback when she went to swat a fly, and it seemed to pause and look at her. As she shared her experience with me, I was reminded of Frost’s “A Considerable Speck.” In the poem, the speaker encounters a speck on his manuscript page–still wet with ink. Just as he was about to “stop it with a period of ink,” he has a profound realization: “Plainly with an intelligence I dealt. / It seemed too tiny to have room for feet, / Yet must have had a set of them complete / To express how much it didn’t want to die. […] I have a mind myself and recognize / Mind when I meet with it in any guise. / No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind.”
And for one final example. Just this past Sunday, as I worshipped outdoors while weedwhacking along my mountain road to pretty it up for July 4th, I happened upon a small clump of storybook sweet peas with tenacious tendrils and a subtle, alluring fragrance. I had not planted it. How it had gotten there was a mystery to me. But it was so exquisite all alone–showcased midst briar and bramble and honeysuckle–that I spared it. I had not the heart to level it to the ground from which it sprang. I mowed around it, fully confident that it would bring joy to at least one passerby, perhaps more. And, if none, the seeing and the sparing had brought hefty morning notes of joy to me, equal to cathedral tunes.
As soon as the sweet pea stole my fancy–as soon as I saved it–my mind fragranced off to Frost’s “A Tuft of Flowers.” In the poem, the worker who has come to turn the grass after it has been mown, looks and listens unsuccessfully for the one who had done the mowing: “But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, / And I must be, as he had been,—alone, / ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’” At that moment, a butterfly drew attention to a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook: “The mower in the dew had loved them thus, / By leaving them to flourish, not for us, / Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. / But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.” As the poem continues, the speaker comes to the belief that he has stumbled upon a message from the dawn: “And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech / With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach. / ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’”
Frostian moments such as these may be small. They may be fleeting. They may be seemingly insignificant. But one thing is for certain. They stand as extraordinary reminders of why literature matters: it has the magical power to transport us from our ordinary worlds to unforeseen spiritual realms.
Writers have been the mainstay of my intellectual life since childhood.
It’s safe to say that I know more about writers than I know about anything else. I know not only the breadth and depth of their literary canons (especially those writers whose works I enjoy and teach) but also the breadth and depth of their lives (even those writers whose works I do not enjoy and do not teach).
Taken as a whole, I suppose that writers are a hard lot to live with. (Taken as a whole, I suppose that we are all a hard lot to live with.)
But writers seem to be harder to live with than most of us, and they have more quirks and more eccentricities in their lives and relationships than most of us. Or, maybe it’s simply that they are more in our faces because they have achieved literary fame, the consequence of which is having the world look at all the foibles of their lives through painstaking, unforgiving, and unforgetting research.
A few examples of writerly quirks and eccentricities will suffice. Then you can decide for yourself.
One of the first writers to pop into my mind is Oscar Wilde. He had many eccentricities, but can you imagine living with someone who once walked down the street with his pet lobster on a leash, as he supposedly did on at least one occasion?
Or what about Lord Byron who, when at school, kept a pet bear in his room, walked it around campus on a leash, and even tried to get it a fellowship.
More alarming, still, is Mary Shelley who wrote with her 23-foot boa wrapped around her shoulders. Supposedly, she would write until the boa started to squeeze, at which moment she would stop for the day. Perfect timing, no?
Shelley and Byron and Wilde make Edgar Allan Poe look rather sane if not downright boring. So what if he wrote with his Siamese cat on his shoulder as a double source of relaxation and inspiration? No big deal.
At least two writers had a thing for apples and water, separately not together–the apples and the water, not the authors. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, claiming that the smell motivated him. And to keep from falling asleep while writing, he dipped his feet into ice water. For her inspiration–a century or so later–Agathie Christie chose to eat the apples rather than let them rot. She did so while taking a bath.
At least one writer wrote wearing nothing but his ideas and his underwear (John Cheever). Another exercised naked in front of the window (Franz Kafka) and enjoyed going to nudist camps. He always stood out in the crowd. Go ahead. Guess. Nope. You’re wrong. He was the only guy wearing swimming trunks.
Some writers stand out in other ways: their writing quarters. Dylan Thomas had a writing hut on his estate. Roald Dahl visited Thomas and was so impressed by the hut that he made one for himself based on the exact same dimensions. George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut was truly unique. It was built on a turntable so that it could be rotated to let in the sun.
And let’s not leave out some really strange quirks that writers use to achieve quotas or to meet deadlines. I am most impressed by Demosthenes who shaved half of his head, knowing that his embarrassment would keep him at home and on task. Victor Hugo was far less dramatic: he met his writing quotas simply by having his valet hide his clothes.
Unrelated to the preceding examples of writers having hard-to-live-with quirks are two writerly snippets too good to not snip and include here. I must. I can. Therefore, I shall. Did you know that John Steinbeck’s dog Toby ate nearly half of the first manuscript version of his Of Mice and Men? I cannot help but wonder whether that culinary delight is the origin of the student lament that educators hear over and over again, “My dog ate my homework.”
All right. I cannot leave you or me in such intellectual limbo. I will be right back to report my findings after I consult the Oxford English Dictionary(OED).
I’m back. What a fun journey, though I confess that my speculation was in error. The phrase first appeared in print in the Manchester Guardian (July 1929): “It is a long time since I have had the excuse about the dog tearing up the arithmetic homework.”
While consulting the OED, I decided to go ahead and verify the second snippet that I am about to snip and share since I was not certain of its accuracy. Did you know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the following: selfless, psychosomatic, bipolar, bisexual, and suspension of disbelief?
All right. I was wrong about selfless. It first appeared in J. Godolphin Holy Arbor (1651): “I leave this Memento with all selfless Christians.” Coleridge did not use it until 1825 in his Aids to Reflections 112: “Holy Instincts of Maternal Love, detached and in selfless purity.”
I was right about the other words. Psychomatic first appeared in Coleridge’s Shorter Wks. & Fragments (1834): “Hope and Fear..have slipt out their collars, and no longer run in couples…from the Kennel of my Psycho–somatic Ology.” Bipolar appeared in 1810 in his Friend: “Philosophy being necessarily bipolar.” Bisexual appeared in 1825 in his Aids to Reflection. 252: “The very old Tradition of the Homo androgynus, i.e. that the original Man..was bi-sexual.” And my favorite of all–suspension of disbelief–first appeared in his Biographia Literaria II. xiv. 2: “A semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (1817).
Obviously, I am fascinated by writers’ quirks and eccentricities. What is not so obvious is the fact that I would have been able to tolerate and be amused by the quirks and eccentricities if I had actually lived with a writer.
For better or for worse, I never had the opportunity.
But I have been blessed to live with one writer for most of my entire life, 24/7. Vicariously.
That’s exactly what I have done with Robert Frost since 1955 when he took up his residence with me, vicariously: heart, head, home.
It’s been easy living with him as I have done. In fact, I would say that I have had the best of all possible Frostian worlds. I have enjoyed all the good. And I have been spared all the drama–mainly a thread of depression that seems to have plagued the entire family. I have been able to read about it rather than live with it.
I started living with Frost when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me to literature, and she started with Robert Frost. She hooked me with his poem “Birches.” I still recall reciting the entire lengthy poem–59 lines–not only before the entire class but also mid-air, alone, as I too “subdued my father’s trees / By riding them down over and over again / Until I took the stiffness out of them.” It did not matter to me then that I had not caught the deeper meanings of the poem and that I had missed the ambiguities. I simply liked the sounds, the word play, the associations. And I wanted more. My teacher obliged, not just with poems, but also with Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes.” I dare say that very little of the essay made sense to my third-grade mind, but I warmed up from the start to Frost’s notion that poetry, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, should ride along on its own melting.
From that point forward, Frost has served as my own literary touchstone, constant companion, and friend. Every day, at least once a day, sometimes more, something always seems to happen that reminds me of something in Frost’s poetry. And off I go on my poetic flight. Or perhaps it is that every day, at least once a day, something in Frost’s poetry reminds me of something else. And off I fly. Whichever way it happens, it’s a journey of constant joys and surprises and poetic feats of associations.
On more than one occasion, Frost has been my dream companion.
It’s usually the same dream, over and over, capturing the stereotypical–and erroneous–image of Frost, the farmer poet. Frost and I are always in a garden. It’s always summer. I’ve always worked up a heavy sweat, always pushing a hand plow, always tilling the soil between rows of plants while he always sits all relaxed and all leisure-like on a stump as he recites some of his poems.
That recurring dream started when I was in grade school. I still dream the dream from time to time, and I love it because I am always young and thrilled to be laboring in the presence of my very own poet.
I try, as best I can, to forget the one spat that I had with Frost. Thank God, it was a vicarious and momentary falling out, a literary lovers’ quarrel of sorts. I remember the details vividly. They still pain my memory.
It was the morning of January 20, 1961. Robert Frost had been asked to write and read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration. For the occasion, Frost wrote “Dedication.” I watched as televised Frost entered the homes of Americans and others throughout the world. It was an historic occasion. Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected at the age of 43. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. And Frost was the first poet to be invited to read at a presidential inauguration.
It was a cold, blustery, snowy day and the sun was shining so glaringly on Frost’s manuscript that he fumbled and fumbled and fumbled. Yet he kept trying. Finally, he decided–wisely–to abandon the manuscript of the poem written for the occasion and instead to recite from memory his “The Gift Outright.” Both poems are so similar in spirit that I am not certain the shift in text mattered.
Frost was clearly embarrassed by the turn of events and his struggle, but the audience roared with approval and Frost stole their hearts.
He made my heart fall. I remember commenting to my parents, who were watching television with me, that the crowd cheered simply because they were glad that the fiasco was over and that laws should exist to keep old people from embarrassing themselves in public that way.
To this day, I cannot believe my youthful unkindness on the occasion. I have shared my reaction down through the years, hoping that open confession would lessen the pain of my thoughtlessness.
It has not.
On a more positive note, on more than one occasion, I’ve nearly brushed up against fleeting moments of Frostian fame.
As an undergraduate, I decided to prepare a concordance of Frost’s poetry. Without consulting anyone, I spent two years building the concordance on index cards. At that point, I was emboldened to propose the publication to Frost’s publisher, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston. Their reply brought a crushing blow: they had entered into a contract with Edward Connery Lathem to develop a Frost concordance. It was published several years later in 1971.
Another close brush with Frostian fame came a year or two later when I reached out to the United States Postal Service suggesting a Commemorative Postage Stamp on the one hundredth anniversary of Frost’s birth: March 26, 1974. Unfortunately, work on the commemorative stamp was underway already. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm earned me a Frost Commemorative Postage Stamp Poster, and it has graced every office that I have occupied since then. I always hang it so that it’s the first thing anyone sees when they enter my office. Measuring three feet by four feet, it is commanding, and it makes a commanding statement. To the right of the crusty old bard’s portrait–seated and writing at a makeshift desk–is a quote from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
I value the poster not only because of my personal–albeit ever so slight–connection to the commemorative postage stamp but also because the quote captures a critically important lesson in human relationships and gives each of us an ongoing admonishment about the folly of building walls that separate us from ourselves and those around us.
Decades later, I brushed against Frost in the flesh, if you will, when I had the honor of introducing his granddaughter, Leslie Lee Francis, as part of a 2002 Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College. She spoke on “Education by Poetry.” It was a special treat for me to meet and chat extensively with Dr. Francis, daughter of Lesley Frost, the eldest child of Robert and Elinor Frost. When the evening ended, she gifted me with an inscribed copy of her book The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim (University of Missouri Press, 1994.) In the book, Dr. Francis traces the family’s adventures from their years on the Derry Farm in New Hampshire through their nearly three years in England, bringing Robert Frost to the brink of recognition as a poet. Her gift brought me to the brink of tears.
Who would have ever dreamt that a third-grade teacher in the mountainous coal fields of West Virginia would have turned me on to a poet with such fervor that he would become my constant companion for life? But she did. I have never forgotten the magic that she worked, and it’s that same kind of magic that I hope to perform whenever I enter a classroom to teach a literature course. I always have in mind certain goals, objectives, and outcomes that I hope my students will achieve. But deep down in my heart I have one goal that surpasses all of the pedagogical ones. And I share it with my students. My hope for them is that somewhere during the course they will find a writer—a poet, short story writer, playwright, novelist—any writer who from that point forward will serve as a touchstone in their lives—a friend; a companion; someone who will be there with them always; someone they can live with forever.
Living with a writer, especially vicariously, might just be the best of all possible worlds.