One More Time

Observations on cashing in or cashing out, by L.E. Taylor

Every accomplished writer knows the principle of re-writing. No work of art is born whole. Classical painters were, first of all, draftsmen; all the greats are admired as much for their notebooks and folios of sketches that preceded their grand-scale works as they are for the murals and canvases that adorn, centuries later, the walls of time.

Refinements come with each iteration of an idea. So do fresh insights buried dormant in the preliminary noodling that passes for first drafts. Early in life, we are impatient with the notion that our first attempt at anything is nowhere near its potential. Only as the brain matures, and we continue to work, are our skills honed to mastery.

Practice, man, practice.

Today, it seems that anyone who can make an angry mess on a cheap canvas board or spout puerile obscenities on a stage or movie screen is an “artist.” (For reference please consider recording artists, then go to your Webster’s and look up “travesty”.) Generations ago, artists devoted themselves to apprenticeship for years of their often short, sometimes hungry, lives. Mentored by master practitioners, they learned their craft. Talent is God’s gift for each of us to develop. It cannot be taught. Craft is the language of talent, without craft talent is stillborn. However, un-accompanied by talent, the mastered craft is still a craft, a valuable set of skills and acquired taste that can carry a person far.

As a mentor to novice writers, both young and old, one encounters as many diversions of personality and aptitude as there are pupils. Varying degrees of student talent and readiness to work frame the teacher’s challenge. And lure the teacher’s hope.

In my own experience as a self-taught artist, as an athlete, and as an ever-maturing writer, all of this has been borne out. So my view of the process is neither a selfish bias nor an observation worth arguing about with tyros. In recent years, I’ve also seen the model played out among people who’ve enrolled in my workshops.

Some students, with meager writing in their past, or brief attempts abandoned for want of craft, have made remarkable gains in both fluency and content. They arrived eager to learn and with an appetite for enjoyment. In a matter of one or two sessions these diverse women and men began to take charge of their gifts and use them to enrich their own minds.

Others, with the same potential – in some cases, even more in the way of life-adventures and searing experience – arrived doubting. Not doubting the instructor or the drill, but doubting themselves. Pity. I am reminded of an old quote: If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.

Does it come down to an unwillingness to edit and refine one’s writing? Hardly ever. Yes, it’s work, but the fuel for all toil is the belief in a worthy goal, and the rejection of doubts about yourself.

Have you ever said, “Oh, I’ve read Huckleberry Finn – in high school,” and used that as reason never to go back to it? Think about it; you were a kid. Go read it again. After decades of maturing, you may appreciate Mark Twain’s insights as an adult writer and commenter on America. The same is true of beloved music or drama. How many times can you enjoy My Fair Lady, or La Boheme, or Macbeth, or your Frank Sinatra collection? Just once?

Consider your Bible. After long respites of time and troubles of the flesh, many adults return to Scripture. One may discover a depth and a new spiritual banquet un-savored years before by the fidgety teen you were in catechism or in Sunday school.

“Review” is a good, solid English word that factors into the intellectual growth equation. When we re-view (that is, “see again”), we change. Our perceptions gradually modify with experience. But a youth of any era cannot grasp the notion that it may be in our very nature to evolve into another person.

A few years ago the drug-stoned Hollywood actor and notorious sixties rebel Dennis Hopper was interviewed by Rolling Stone (or Mother Jones or somebody). The interviewer mused that Hopper was once the epitome of drop-out anti-establishment anarchy. He asked the middle aged actor how he’d emerged now, in the 1980s, from years of wild excesses as its opposite: a TV spokesman for American Express, and a registered Republican. Hair neatly slicked back, clad in a trim dark suit, with white shirt and striped silk tie, Mr. Hopper replied, “Hey, man, I grew up.”

Onward.

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The Youthening Brain

Our “choose life!” option – an observation, by L.E. Taylor 

“I don’t have any stories,” Brenda insisted. “Certainly not any happy ones.”

Brenda had been badgered by her Red Hatter friends for months about joining them in a memoir-writing workshop that they’d been attending since last year. Red Hatters is a national association of women, 55-and-over. Their mission is to enrich the lives of their members through myriad activities, cultural adventures, and supportive sisterhood.

Brenda’s two ‘Sisters-in-the-Hat’ had derived pleasure from their writing sessions and assignments, and more, they had begun to enjoy their storytelling adventures in fellowship with others. Finally, tired of the good-natured hassle from her pals, Brenda had given in and attended a class.

The class turned out to be more than wistful gabbing (and complaining) about old times and a little half-baked noodling on note paper. The classes were disciplined and literary. The very term “memoirs” is daunting to any writer; for sixty-to-ninety-year olds, it ranks in appeal up there with pole vaulting. But this class was not about fancy book-writing; it required nothing short of – or for that matter, beyond – skilled storytelling. And it started, no-nonsense, with the Truth.

What is it about aging that seems to dope men and women into a stupor of passive audience-mode? It wasn’t always so. A century ago men worked until they couldn’t; what else was there to do? After all, we were not born to loaf, but to till God’s garden. And women beyond child-bearing age, were finally seasoned to wisely shepherd the responsible rearing of grandchildren.

Old fashioned? Male chauvinism? Fine; show the soul-satisfaction that accrues from a steady regimen of The View, The Ellen Show, and bunko games. Or for that matter, non-stop billiards or geriatric duffing about in electric carts.

It came to light in the first class that Brenda was not only a self-reliant seasoned woman who’d grown from childhood poverty to determined accomplishment as a seamstress, but she was also an attractive, youngish seventy-year old with a wonderful sense of humor. And, by the way, she was defying mid-stage cancer.

When Brenda had learned of her affliction, well before she joined the class, she’d consulted with herself and decided what she would do to save her life and what she would not do. For a time, she endured the rigors of aggressive chemo, survived it, and now with medical supervision, has put her mind and her spirit to wellness.

Brenda has been in that storytelling workshop with her Red Hatter sisters for a couple of months. Her writing, from day one, has been excellent. It has never even touched upon her health issues. On her fourth active week in the workshop, she strode to the podium and read her remembrance of childhood on the family’s hard-scrabble farm in Minnesota. The title was “The Wood Workers”. It began:

Maude and Charlie took up more than their share of the barn, or so it seemed to me as a child. They were a team of huge work horses. Bred to pull heavy loads…

The simple prose, through the eyes of a nine-year-old farm girl, progressed through four finely crafted paragraphs and the essay concluded…

Like many other work horses, Maude and Charlie outlived their usefulness and were sold. They were replaced by tractors and other equipment and a way of life was gone.

God bless those among us who choose to use their brains and share their spirits until there is no more. It was His intent.

Onward.

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Old School, Part One: I Remember Rosecrance

High School ’53 – The Way We Were, a remembrance by L. E. Taylor

“English is the most beautiful language God ever invented.” Al Neugebauer smiled and settled back comfortably into his big executive chair. “Listening to you speak is like listening to music.”

Years earlier, as a teenager, Al had escaped Eastern Europe. He’d known German, Russian, and a little French. His accented English came just before his American citizenship. And his lucrative travel business came after that.

The young adman across the desk from Al came by his own language skills less dramatically, but arguably with more stress.

I was a senior at Edwin Denby High School in December of 1952. My curriculum was “College Prep.” It meant something decades ago. We were being prepared for a course of study elevated above, and far more demanding than anything we had known. Only in my senior year had I come to understand that the world didn’t give a crap about me, and I’d better get focused.

I trundled to school each morning by public transportation before daybreak, dressed with care in a V-neck sweater, pressed grey flannel slacks, a button-down white shirt, and a tightly knotted knit tie. The finishing touch was often a scrupulously chalked pair of Pat Boone-style white bucks.

My English instructor was an eccentric martinet of the British “public” school model. A gangly, craggy, bespectacled, gray-faced Ichabod Crane, he dominated his stage, hectoring each wretch in his thirty-student classes, assuring them that his criticism was not general, but decidedly personal. He expected, each day, in each assignment, not perfection, but resounding excellence. He awarded no “A’s”.

On my first day of class at fifteen, he’d strode the aisles reading from each yellowed enrollment card and drilling each new victim with raven’s eyes. He stopped next to me. “LA-ree,” he said.

Yes, sir.

“Your name is Lawrence.” I told him my given name is Larry.

“Nonsense,” he sneered, “Suppose some mommy and daddy gazed upon their new babe and said, ‘Oh, ain’t he just darling! Let’s call him Herbie!’ Who’d want to go through life with Herrr-bie?!”

For the time being, my name would be Lawrence.

This was my introduction to Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance, Terror of the College Prep English faculty.

The whole name issue was moot; Mr. Rosecrance never used our Christian names anyway – only, in the custom of private prep schools, our surnames. One day in my senior year, he paused at my desk. “My, Mister Taylor, aren’t you the picture of sartorial splendor! Blazer… tie. May I see your socks?” I hiked up a creased slack-leg revealing a green and orange argyle. “Ahhh! I needn’t have asked. I could have heard them,” he hooted. Everyone laughed, not least of all, myself.

Mr. Rosecrance had few fans among the plebian student body. I was one of that few who got it. I enjoyed the sparring. I loved his droll way with words. And I was learning. Of course, I squirmed as he skewered classmates and I tolerated his belittling my own peccadilloes. But I knew what was going on. It wasn’t bloody-minded vitriol. This was just his act, albeit a persuasive one. He used it to force the main issue: Wake up, sluggard! You are better than the mess you are allowing yourself to drift into!

The Rosecrance method was unorthodox. He taught writing as a collateral skill to learning from great literature. Not a secondary side issue, writing was a synchronous part of in-depth English literature studies, at least in this public school room.

Appreciation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Elizabethan poetry was interwoven with stringent exercises in vocabulary, syntax, and pellucid prose writing, even penmanship. Each Monday, in class, we were to write an extemporaneous precis (pray’-seez), a short 10-minute essay, and turn it in. The week’s precis, would be graded, 1-10.

As oral book-based classwork proceeded, led by students with the two highest scores of the previous week, Mr. R planted himself in the back of the room, crammed into the desk at the window corner. From this command post, he multi-tasked: monitoring and elucidating (in real time) the class doings, while summoning each student in turn, to come sit across the aisle from him and take his/her medicine, “one-to-ten”.

Once, I recall, he berated an athlete, a handsome blond track star and a letterman on our very good football team. “Trackman!” he barked, scowling at a slip of copybook paper. “Mister Betzer, there is no such word as ‘trackman’.” The lad’s reply was an embarrassed mumble. “Mr. Betzer, you are better than this… I think. Do not be misled by the fame of Dick Panin at Michigan State. He is said to have been a student here. He was NOT a student; he ATTENDED CLASSES here. And got away with it. You had the same amount of time on Monday as your classmates; you came up with this fiasco of eleven words, and … ‘trackman.’ Your grade for the week is zero.”

Okay, enough of the caricature. Mr. Rosecrance was more than the sadistic drill sergeant he portrayed; he was a serious, gifted teacher of the English literary canon. He introduced me to the dysfunctional Macbeths and other figments of Elizabethan imagination – Bacon, Marlow, Spenser, the Sonnets, and quaint oddities that would come to mean more very shortly on a faraway campus.

How do I remember these things? I guess they made an impression. And I remember one other moment, which is the counterpoint of this tale.

It was the last day before Christmas break. A cold, bleak morning outside. I was making my way around back of the room before class. Mr. Rosecrance had got up from his nesting place at the last desk by the window and walked toward me. The passage was narrow. I stood aside to make way for him. Suddenly, with theatrical clumsiness, he stomped his dull black brogans upon my white bucks. He grabbed my shoulders and, with moist eyes, he whispered straight into my face, “Thank you for the Christmas card, Larry. That was damned nice of you.”

His breath was awful. But what startled me was, “… Larry”.

Dedicated to Al Neugebauer, wherever you are.

Onward.

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Next time: Old School, Part Two – Education on the Rocks

 

Bully Boys – Part IV: How Long Has This Been Going On?

Remembrance and Reflections by L.E. Taylor

Fourth Hour was the first class after lunch and the post meridian routine in Mr. T’s shop class always began at 1:01 with Roddy Floutz pulling shut the faded green wooden door and the young teacher calling roll. The shop was in the basement of the old junior high, with steel cyclone insets covering half-windows that allowed in light, and a clear view of only the foot-part of passing foot traffic outside.

The minute-hand clicked. Mr. T loosened his brown knit tie and opened his class book. “Close the door, Roddy,” he said to… no one. The class of 12-year-old boys was unusually restive, peering over their shoulders here and there in a muffled commotion.

Robby and another kid burst through the open doorway. “Mr. T!  Some ninth grade boys have got Danny in the furnace room and are taking his money!”

The ‘furnace room’ was a dark passageway with a wall of lockers, just off the hallway across from the seventh grade shop. It led to a back stairwell.

Still in his natty tweed blazer, Mr. T arrived at about 1:01, point-five. Four sullen mid-pubescent punks pulled aside revealing the little tow-headed Danny. His face was tear streaked and a red welt shone on a pale freckled forehead. Continue reading