Overcoming myself (Part 2)
Jack Deatherage, Jr.
(4/2016) Preface to the second edition of "A Reader for Writers" (January, 1947): "... the interest it arouses is in part due to the operation of these principles: the sincerity in which the work was conceived; the clarity with which it was expressed; the force which was given it by the author's careful directing of all parts to a preconceived end, his
avoidance of all irrelevancies, and his use of image-making, idiomatic diction; the beauty of a proper proportionment and arrangement of parts and a rhythmical movement; and lastly, the charm that comes of the author's personality."
After a moment's contemplation of the meaning of all that I laugh and move onto the table of contents.
The list of authors presented in said book are mostly unknown to me, though I've some recollection of having heard these few names during the twelve years I suffered imprisonment in various grade schools: Franklin, Cooper, Emerson, Melville, Madison, Thucydides, Wilson, Sir Scott, Hudson, Hawthorne, Dickens, Steinbeck and Lewis.
There are a few authors in the book that I have sporadically read and occasionally enjoyed. Stevenson, Thoreau, Twain, Poe and Plato. Well read in such classy literature I am not. Nor do I pretend to ape such writing styles as were still being pushed on school kids well into the late '60s when I stopped paying attention in school.
Moving along to the next book I hope to educate myself with, "The Student Journalist and Feature Writer". The book is copyrighted 1969, the year I went to the newly built prison, also know as Catoctin High School, as part of its first freshman class. Seems like a good place to pick up where I quit.
Active/Passive, Natural/Unnatural voices?
Participial, Gerund, Infinitive phrases?
Metaphors and Similes?
What da hell are these?
I'm thinking, it's back to the used-book stores for something more likely to begin where I actually quit paying attention in English class. (DW suggests "Dick and Jane".) Which brings to mind the stoic school teachers who endured my sullen, arrogantly ignorant self in their
classrooms. As I attempt to educate my still arrogant self I realize they suffered at least as much as I do now. Though they had the option of going off to some other line of work while I was condemned from birth to endure at least 12 years of a hell I couldn't figure out what I'd done to deserve.
Four names come to mind out of all those who endured along with me. Mrs. Himes, the 5th grade teacher at Fairfield who encouraged me to take up reading. Which I did during summer parole from prison and have never stopped in the decades since, not even during the years of alcohol induced oblivion. Mr. Wyles, the 8th grade teacher at Fairfield who
introduced me to creative writing and never allowed me to do it. Which took me to an entirely new level of disgust and disdain for school and teachers while setting me to scribbling madly as stories began boiling out of my head with no guidance, or role model to follow. Ruth Richards, who shoved me into a college prep class "The American Dream" in my junior year at Catoctin
where I set about learning nothing just to prove she'd made a blunder. (The first moment I recall knowing I was an idiot.) And poor Nancy Wenschhof.
The Wenschhofs were friends of my dad's. When it became apparent I was going to fail her "Shakespeare" and "Religion and Philosophy" English classes Ms Wenschhof undertook an attempt to teach me in spite of myself. She took me aside and gave me a lecture about "going out on a limb for" me and I "would not make her look foolish" to the school
administrators (who probably hoped I'd just quit school and relieve them of at least one small problem.) "You will work" on some "independent study project" and "you will turn in a paper." (I thank the gods I had few teachers such as Ms Wenschhof! Had even half of those who tormented me stood up to my anger I'd have probably gone on to college and ruined my life.)
Unlike Mr Wyles, Ms Wenschhof gave me free rein. And I ran with it! I sort of recall scribbling (I didn't yet own an antique Royal typewriter) 39 pages for something similar to a term paper in the early morning hours of the day it was due. I was shaking from a caffeine buzz and had three or four cigarettes smoldering in the ashtray and one dangling
from my lips as I pressed on through the hand cramps, the words spewing out onto the pages as if driven by a mad one. Gods, the Muse stomped about my bedroom demanding I express, with paper and pen, the insanity that had seized me. In the middle of writing my understanding of the assigned topic I'd go off about how my body was trembling from the overdose of cola, the second
pack of Marlboros, and the mind reeling in panic and staggering from the lack of sleep.
In school with the sunrise, my classmates (those few who dared approach me) asked if I'd finished the assignment. When I produced it for their perusal it went about the senior homeroom like a wildfire. When I handed it to Ms Wenschhof the expectation was I'd be expelled from school. (I'd not contained my ability to express a few four-letter
vulgarities.) My hope of being kicked out of school (Dad wouldn't let me quit) died once the paper was graded. I got an A- for the thought and content, an F+ for the condition the paper was it. (In those days a D was a passing grade. And so I have a diploma from the state claiming I successfully completed whatever agonies they thought I needed to endure.)
The last few weeks of my senior year Ms Wenschhof left to begin her own family and I found myself contemplating the hopeful expectation of a substitute teacher who decided I had the potential to be a writer. She left me speechless when she suggested we work on that, separate from my regular classwork (not that I was doing the class work). When I found
my voice I thanked her, but insisted that it was too late. The bitterness that hissed out of me raised her eyebrows a bit. (That was the moment I knew I was an idiot beyond doubt.)
Given my schooling history, I'm having serious doubts I can learn to write professionally. I'm going to give over the writing books and go back to just reading things that interest me. If what I do is writing, I learned it from reading and aping the writers I enjoy, not from classroom instruction, or how-to-books pulled from the library stacks. My mind
doesn't work that way. (Sometimes it doesn't seem to work at all, or so DW mumbles in the background.)
Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.