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 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.