How I Learned to Write By Writing
I was an English major long before I learned how to write well. From early childhood through K-12, I read a lot and always participated in language and writing activities — spelling bee champion in elementary school, creative writing and newspaper class in jr. high school and AP English in high school. But I didn’t start out as an English major. I wanted to be a veterinarian or a sports medicine doctor.
A ‘B’ in Anatomy class — which I deemed not good enough! — changed my mind and I jumped to the familiarity of English class, prompted by Professor Louis Owens, a literature professor who gave me some encouragement.
Enter Mr. Goldman
In my sophomore year of college, I was playing catchup with requirements. I took Introduction to Poetry with Professor Goldman. Professor Goldman was old. He shuffled when he walked and was stooped. He wore an old 50s style hat and green checkered suits. He always had an unlit stub end of a cigar in his mouth. He was gruff and impatient in class. He had a deep voice, made gravelly from cigar smoking. And we heard rumors about him.
“I heard he is in his 80s.”
“I heard he once was the chair of the department.”
“I heard he’s dying of cancer.”
This last was true. Professor Goldman was dying of cancer.
New Criticism — criticism in a bell jar
Professor Goldman loved poetry, especially the Romantics — Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, any of the lyric poems that could be analyzed well with the New Critical approach that was popular at the time.
The New Critical approach separated a poem from its place in history and looked at the poem qua poem. That is, it looked at the imagery and tensions that were internal to the poem and sought to understand the poem without recourse to its historical background or the biography of the author. It was like looking at a poem under a microscope, contained in a glass jar, within a vacuum.
It was, in short, the most unrealistic way one could try to understand poetry. But it had its uses in getting students to examine the intricacies of poetry — its rhyme and meter, its rhythm and sound, its musical qualities and diction. It also taught the practice of close reading and analysis.
The procrastination of an English major
One of the first poems we studied was William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” that famous poem about daffodils. We debated this poem to death and wrote our first essay assignment about it.
I did what I always did when I wrote a paper. I waited until the last minute. I reviewed my notes and pulled some clichés and pat expressions from the soup of language floating in the air above me to put together a passable rendition of an essay. Nothing original. No attention to freshness of language. Little revising. But I knew how to write a grammatical sentence and put together a decent paragraph. And I knew the mechanics of quoting.
My racist professor
When Professor Goldman returned our papers, I had a big fat red C+ on the top of my essay.
He passed out packets of six essays and put us in five groups of six. He said, “These are all examples of A papers. I want you to read them and pass them around in your group so you can see what a good paper is and know what to shoot for next time.”
I was still stinging from the C+ and not understanding why my paper wasn’t one of those including to be passed around. And then I saw it. Professor Goldman was a racist, though I doubt he knew that himself.
He had left the names of the students on the tops of the papers he passed around. I won’t reveal his preference. Let’s just say he favored people like himself — Gary Gold, Sarah Silver, Candy Copper, Ira Iron, Pamela Platinum, and Tammy Titanium — all these exotic metals got A’s, while the Smiths and Jones and Johnsons didn’t.
But I saw something else, too. He made a mistake. One of the papers was titled, “An Analysis of William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Alone as a Cloud.’” I had just completed a course in Philosophy on the Literature of Loneliness and knew quite well that “alone” and “lonely” were not the same thing. Also, the entire paper hinged on a reading of the poem in light of that mistaken title. In short, the student’s argument couldn’t hold up because he had misquoted the title. That’s all the opening I needed.
I made an appointment to see the professor to discuss my paper.
Professor Goldman’s office was something out of a movie. A large desk strewn with papers, a reading lamp, a comfortable easy chair, and an entire wall of filing cabinets. There had to be 8 or 10 filing cabinets and books and papers from his long career.
He was more pleasant in person than he was in class, with a steady smile and affable manner. His office smelled of cigars and mentholated vapor rub.
I got right down to business. I made my pitch, that one of my classmate’s essays could not be an “A” because it misquoted the title of Wordsworth’s poem on which it based its entire argument. My essay, on the other hand, accurately quoted the title and deserved much better than a C+.
He waved his hand at me, grabbing at air. “Let me see your paper.”
He read it over, mumbling quickly, paragraph by paragraph. “That’s good. That’s good. That’s good.” When he was finished, he tossed it at me with a flourish, and said, “That’s good! That’s a C.”
I said, “Actually,” quoting from the University grading scale, “Good” is a B. Excellent is an A, Satisfactory is a C.” I had come prepared.
He waved away my argument. “It’s clear that you’re a serious student. I’ll tell you what, you can write another essay and I’ll consider replacing the grade for this 1st assignment. We’ll decide on a topic as we make our way through more poems.”
“Can I just rework this essay on Wordsworth’s poem?”
“That would be fine, too.”
Waiting for the sequel
As we made our way through the Romantics and then onto the stodgy Victorians and into the more captivating Modernists, we kept returning to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” as an exemplar of the ideal poem. We beat that horse dead until we had a hole 6 feet deep into which we could toss the hairless carcass and plant daffodils on the grave.
I couldn’t rewrite my essay because I would merely be rewriting what I had heard in class. I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to say something original.
Let’s try this again
Near the end of the term, I returned to Professor Goldman’s office. My grades had improved, but I was still worried about the C+ I had received on my first assignment.
He was sitting in his comfy chair, with the stub of his unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth, rubbing his temples. It looked like a bad day. But as always, he was pleasant with me. The liver spots on his hands were enormous and dark.
I reminded him about our agreement that I could rewrite my first essay to improve my grade.
“Oh yes, but not the daffodils poem. That would be beating a dead horse. Let me see.” He wobbled from his chair and shuffled over to his filing cabinets.
He opened one and flicked through folder after folder, at last arriving at one, retrieved a single sheet of paper from a manila folder and held it out at arm’s length for me, fluttering it.
“Here. That should do it.”
It was a poem by Randall Jarrell called “Cinderella.” Jarrell was a student of the architects of New Criticism and a famous poet in his own right. Since the class was ending soon, we set a deadline for a week from that day.
A week. That wouldn’t give me much time, but I could do it. I thanked him and was on my way.
Let me explicate
But first a stop at the library.
As I always did, I wanted to see what other critics had to say about this poem first. This wasn’t strictly cheating. I never copied other people’s points. But I had discovered The Explicator, a journal in which writers would offer their explication of poems. For me, learning what others had said was a way of greasing the wheels, getting the ideas flowing. I had learned to do that in other classes where source material was required. I knew how to cite my sources so I would be safe from plagiarism.
I couldn’t find a single entry about Jarrell’s poem. In fact, I spent a great deal of time looking for Randall Jarrell’s “Cinderella” in journal after journal. No one had ever written about this poem. There wasn’t a single drop of ink dedicated to this poem anywhere.
I was royally screwed.
Getting down to business
I only had a few days left. So I began at the beginning. I read the poem over and over. And then I looked up each word, even those I already knew, and excessively annotated the poem, pouring over potential meanings, looking for patterns, seeing the tensions between words, seeing the interplay between sound and meaning, between the archetype of the “Cinderella” story and her fairy godmother and the characters in this poem. It’s as if I found a door and crawled onto the page to understand every letter and syllable and vowel sound and nuance left on the page to build my interpretation.
When I was done, I had more material than I could ever use and only a scant 2 to 3 pages to present my analysis. I drafted, and redrafted, and redrafted. The night before, I printed out my essay and edited. I read my paper for content, accuracy of quotations, grammar, punctuation, mechanics. I polished it like my childhood rock tumbler polished my old rocks, until all my ideas shown brilliantly under the sun, smooth and shiny, glossy and warm.
I had pulled together an essay by studying the poem intensely, without outside sources or influences. I focused on a close reading of the words, on the form of the poem, on the phrases and the music. I took what I knew of the Cinderella story but looked at it in this internal world of the poem. I applied the concepts of the class to my reading of the poem. I crawled into Jarrell’s mind and came out enlightened.
But I wasn’t at all sure that my efforts would meet Professor Goldman’s high standard.
On that next to last day of class, we turned in our final papers. I lingered at Professor Goldman’s desk and handed in this extra paper.
“This is the paper to replace my Wordsworth essay.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “Class, Mr. Hornbrook here has written an extra essay about a poem by Randall Jarrell entitled ‘Cinderella.’” And he began reading it aloud. I started for my chair, but he said, “No, no. Stay here.”
I stood in front of the class next to his desk while he read my paper. I had not expected this public forum and felt my face flush.
He sat in his chair, cigar stub in his hand, reading aloud in his deep gravelly voice, gesticulating as he always did. As he read, he dismissed point after point.
“Oh, I don’t know if I agree with that.”
He waved the paper and then continued reading.
“Oh, that’s a stretch there.”
He shook the paper. He turned his head and caught my eye over his glasses.
“I don’t think Jarrell meant that at all,” he huffed.
He objected to paragraph after paragraph. But I saw a smile in his eyes, glee in tearing apart my argument. If he had a rapier, the paper would have floated in the air like a feather to the ground, in tatters.
As he finished, he turned and tossed the paper on the desk toward me.
“Good job,” he said.
The other students clapped. I took the paper to my seat and wondered: “Was good a C or a B?”
He returned the papers on the last day of class. On the top of my “Cinderalla” paper was an “A” in red ink.
Mr. Goldman didn’t give me that A. That’s the day I learned to say, “I earned an A.”
Happily ever after
Mr. Goldman died before the next semester. I was sad that I didn’t get a chance to go back and shake his hand and thank him. I often told my own students that Mr. Goldman taught me how to write.
But I know better. Mr. Goldman gave me the opportunity to write. I learned to write by writing, by learning to trust myself.
In learning to trust myself, that’s when I knew I, too, would be not only a writer, but also a teacher.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He writes about sailing, movies, literature, baseball, growing up in the San Fernando Valley and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please, or his Medium publication Valley Dude.