At Beloit College in ice-bound Wisconsin I taught a course called Advanced Exposition, English 221

I inherited this course from a husband and wife team, married, full profs, fussy, jealous, proprietary—this was their course, I should do it their way, I should use their lectures, assign their assignments, and wind up dead behind the desk

but I had solved that problem in bonehead english back at UT-Austin

At Beloit, I changed advanced exposition from a lecture course, yadda-yadda, to a writer’s workshop

I changed the meeting time from 3 days a week to one three hour session

we worked five essays a week

that was back in the days of mimeographics

remember that purple chemical smell?

remember the damp mimeo goop that lingered on your fingers?

I used a book called Modes of Rhetoric

that’s where I learned to write

The modes were paired: definition and description, drama and dialogue, reverie and persuasion, narration and process

the first chapter was about sentences

the author, a guy named Leo Rockas, rescued me on page 6:

“…there is no basic unit larger than the sentence,” Rockas said. “The paragraph is an arbitrary and conventional unit, susceptible of extensive editorial tampering.”

in Leo Rockas, I found my first writing teacher

for narration, use these words: then, and, and then, when, and when

for description, lock down your space, then use concrete nouns and well-chosen static verbs: rests, stands, sits, lies, hides, slopes, hangs

for persuasion, use If…Then, and however, and not only…but also

I hi-jacked Advanced Exposition

I taught it 28 times

Students stood in line at registration

word of mouth sent them to me

they still write letters about the course

“Hey Ray, are you still alive? Still circling words in red and green?”

my second writing teacher was the Zen Guru, Natalie Goldberg

I found her photo on her best-selling book, Writing Down the Bones

confident teeth, black hair, the face of Zen

Natalie hung out in Taos

she taught writing at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house

a five day workshop, Sunday evening to Friday noon

she taught in the Rainbow Room

6 guys and 19 women

with two detective books and a writing book I was the only published writer

I was there to clear my writing block, caused by writing detective fiction

Natalie said: Your startline is I Remember, write for five minutes

Then she said: You startline is I Don’t Remember, write for ten minutes

we wrote, we read in breakout groups, we read back in the room, the voices rang off the rafters, women’s voices made me tremble

they were free, I was trapped

when you wake up, Natalie said, roll over and write

on the fourth day of my first Natalie Goldberg writing workshop, I rolled over and wrote for ten minutes using the startline I am not a woman, and when Natalie said, who wants to read I stood up, and she said, what’s your name again, and when I read the room grew still—they were waiting for my next word, not yawning, and when I finished reading there was that cathedral-stillness, followed by a communal hum, and the women offered comfort, a divorced friend, a sister, someone to comfort me in my pain of being a man—and because of that writing, Natalie remembered my name

and when I came back to teaching, I meshed the circled word technique from Austin with the writing practice learned in Taos, pick an object from your story, write it down, here’s your startline: My object in this story is….

write for ten minutes, who wants to read?

so you come to the end of your life

you can still write

still laugh

still digest a small piece of steak

still sip a glass of wine

still hit a tennis ball, what joy zings up your arm

but you are careful where you step

fall and you don’t get up

fall and you stay where you fell

the world marches on

at the end of your life you look back down the years—like a flight of silver steps, like bright white rocks marking an upward twisting path, like doorways pushed open by hands ever more bony and claw-like—you peer down the valley of years, forever seeking the perfect metaphor, because that’s what writers do, we seek the perfect metaphor, bracelet of bright hair about the bone (lifted from Donne), garlic and sapphires in the mud (lifted from Eliot)—we steal from other writers, hoping the ruby dust will rub off, launch into the marquee of fame—

and when you escape, clutching the stolen metaphor, you look up, and there he is, the guy who began this journey

Glasses. A crew cut. A green Haspel drip dry suit. A necktie.

A fearful eye.

The guy in the suit stands frozen behind the desk.

He is afraid.

He is a writing teacher who does not know how to teach.

Who does not know how to write.

Now what?