Sunday, July 26, 2009

Frank McCourt: A writer for the working-class

During the time that I have been listening to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man on CD, a book about his teaching days, the American-Irish writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner passed away.

I knew very little about McCourt until recently. I knew that he had become a darling of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club set for his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, a book I had resisted reading on several occasions.

When my wife handed me Teacher Man on CD, I thought I’d give it a try. While a best seller and well received, Teacher Man tends not to receive the universal accolades that accompany Angela’s Ashes. Like Angela’s Ashes, it is a memoir, but it primarily details McCourt’s teaching experiences, and many of the difficulties that accompany those experiences. Since public education is an ongoing subject of interest for me, given my day job duties as a workforce trainer, I figured McCourt might provide me with additional fodder on the shortcomings endemic in public school education.

What I found out listening to McCourt’s book on teaching was that he and I shared some commonality. I learned that he didn’t begin his writing career until much later in life, well beyond the age when most authors publish their first book. Secondly, he wasn’t your typical celebrity author. He was a genuine working-class stiff, who happened to find an audience for his storytelling, and the wealth of material that he’d accumulated from living his life, and teaching for 30 years, in New York City’s public schools.

For those who have read his memoir, you’ll know the details. Born in poverty in Brooklyn, his immigrant parents decided to return to Ireland during the Great Depression, because they were unable to find work. Returning to Limerick, where his mother was from, young Frank nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten years old. The family was beset with crushing poverty during Frank’s time in Ireland.

At 19, he returned to the U.S., joined the Army, went to Korea, and was stationed in Germany for much of his hitch. The Army provided him with access to higher education through the GI Bill, and young Frank was able to enroll at New York University, taking classes at night, while performing difficult manual labor during the day, on the docks along the harbor. He eventually got his Master’s degree from Brooklyn College, and became an English teacher, first at McKee Technical High School, in Brooklyn. Later he would go on to teach in other schools, including prestigious Stuyvesant High School

McCourt’s narrative details the difficulties of teaching American students—essentially bored and boorish—who don’t give a damn about Shakespeare, Emerson, and Thoreau. This was only compounded with the technical high students, who were forced to take English to graduate, but for these future plumbers, auto mechanics, and other skilled trades, English didn’t have an obvious application.

Teacher Man for me was about how McCourt used his intuition to craft exercises, as well as his gift as a storyteller to capture his student’s interest, and impart as much grammar, and writing craft to his students, as possible. His skill and ability for doing this wasn’t always appreciated by his principals and other administrators. For his efforts in engagement and instruction, McCourt was shown the door by educational bureaucrats.

One particular example of this was when he had his students begin accumulating recipes to bring to class. He then had students read these recipes, while other students—gifted musicians—composed scores to accompany the reading. For this creativity, McCourt once more drew the ire of an administrator, with his theories and intellectual understanding of pedagogy, but no real practical idea how to translate it into actual instruction that imparted an iota of knowledge and something that students would take away for later.

When McCourt was teaching upwards of 150 to 175 English students a day in public high school, he had little energy, or desire to work on his own writing at night. The sheer volume of essays and papers to grade by themselves were more than enough to take over his evenings. This is the duality that many talented writers face; making a living from some other means, while keeping the flame of one’s writing alive. McCourt, for all his talent and eventual recognition, couldn’t accomplish this while he was working full-time. McCourt was awarded his Pulitzer, for Angela’s Ashes, at the age of 67.

This book helped put some of my own frustrations in perspective. I’ve been fortunate to continue to write as much as I can while maintaining an increasingly demanding day job. Last year, I managed to launch a second book, spending nearly every free moment from January, until June, working on my project. I’ve also managed to do a bit of consulting work for several other writers, helping them get their own book ideas to market, or steering them towards a better manuscript.

Currently, I’ve moved away from any self-imposed deadlines, choosing to focus on writing longer essays, which eventually will find their way into what will be a varied collection of essays, and a new book.

Frank McCourt is a reminder that books have their own timing. You can only force your writing so far. While I continue to burn the candle at both ends, the craft of writing is often found flourishing when given time, space, and some breathing room from life’s immediacies. That’s not to say that you can’t write evenings and on weekends (between mowing the lawn, fixing the sink, and vacuuming the house), but having the luxury of being able to throw yourself fulltime into your writing projects is probably the optimal road to success.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Moxie: One year later

Last year at this time, I had just sold a boat load of books about Moxie. I spent the day at the Moxie Festival, signing and selling books, my one opportunity to get a sense of what it might be like to be a famous author.
One year later, things are more low-key. I’m working on essays that will one day be part of a book of essays about the state of Maine. These are longer works (4,000 to 6,000 words) and some will read more like an investigative news feature than pure essay. I also have an essay on the late Maine writer (and longtime Christian Science Monitor columnist) John Gould in search of a home.

As much as Moxie has been part of my recent history (in addition to the book, I provided PR and marketing for the festival committee in the past), I didn’t make it across the river this year for any of the festivities. We had a wedding on Saturday, and on Sunday, we had family over because our son and girlfriend were in for the w/e from LA.

BTW, Moxietown is sold out. I have plans to reprint next spring, with some newer material, some of which didn’t make it into last year’s printing. I also hope that the book of essays is ready, which would be my third book.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Summer Reading-Infinite Jest

So I’ve set out on a summer reading journey, tackling David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, all 981 pages, an additional 388 endnotes, which tacks on 96 more pages. Not the kind of reading assignment one tackles frivolously. Staying power is required.

Infinite Jest is a “claustrophobic” read, commented one person at Infinite Summer, the focal point of a community read highlighting Wallace’s most famous, and talked about work. Maybe “famous” is the wrong way to describe Wallace and his work.

Unlike the books that get passed off for today’s best selling novels—books that are a cinch to read on your lunch break, the subway, standing in line at the supermarket, or between innings during commercial breaks, watching Red Sox games; Infinite Jest requires heavy lifting—mentally, physically, and metaphorically. Strong arms and a healthy back are also helpful, with this chock-a-block of a novel.

Infinite Summer provides readers, who might be tempted to veer aside, and toss the book down with a loud “thud,” a guide and the company of fellow travelers in reading, which for me, has willed me forward, and actually found me ahead of schedule. Woe to those who got a late start, or haven’t been as religious in their daily reading. Falling behind adds additional pressure to an already tough read, and might be the primary reason many pull up short. Infinite Jest, as presented via Indian Summer, is not a reading plan for procrastinators.

One of the reasons I’m ahead of the reading schedule (as of this morning, I’m at page 227) is illustrated by one of my evenings after work, last week.

Tuesday night, Mary was out for her monthly book club meeting (their group had tackled Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns), and I had hours of time after work to do what I wanted, as well as an empty house, filled with quiet.

Rather than frittering the time away with the empty calories of sitcoms in rerun, or even pissing away an hour online, with the all-too-often lauded social media tools of Facebook, or Twitter, I arrived home, cracked open a Diet Pepsi (in lieu of a couple of frost-brewed Coors Lights), and set about knocking out some pages over the next hour, or two. Maybe if the sun had been out and it wasn’t raining once again (June has visited rain upon us, 21 out of 30 calendar days), I’d have decided to jump on my bike for an invigorating ride to leech the work day’s stress from my system. The occasional downpours and soaked pavement made my decision to sit under artificial lighting an easier one (that and the stories of how so many have abandoned IJ further on than I’m currently sitting at).

Now that I’m ten days into my assignment, I’m viewing it less as a chore and recognizing now that reading IJ is a subversive act. Understand that for me that’s a real motivator.

When DFW committed suicide last year, no one outside of my wife and son knew anything about him, or his writing. My few failed attempts to explain his significance to co-workers just drew empty looks.

Back in the mid-90s, during my indie rock heyday, I hosted a couple of Saturday night music shows on Bowdoin College’s radio station, WBOR. I was one of a handful of community members that knew enough about college radio, and the CMJ-type formats most programmed at the time, to land a slot, not once, not twice, but for three semesters (and it would have gone longer, if I had decided to continue).

I always gave my shows some kind of “outsider” moniker, like “Swimming Upstream,” or “Against the Grain,” which allowed me to use Bad Religion’s title track from their 1989 album as one of my show’s intro music each week. Subversive college rock radio, I suppose.

During that time, I thought my actions ran counter to the mainstream. I hated much that passed for popular culture, particularly mainstream rock music. I went to great pains to strike a pose running contrary to it.

Looking back a decade, I’m not so sure I was as rad, or counter-cultural as I once fancied myself to be. My musical tastes did run to the fringes of indie rockdom, however.

Given that IJ is my book of choice for the next six to eight weeks (possibly less, given my current reading pace), I’m fueling my page turning forward by thinking of it as an act with seditious tendencies. Accomplishing completion is something that disconnects me from the mainstream of popular culture and its technological mores of watching bad television, mindless trolling of the interwebs, and the current trendy magnetism of social media.

Call the reading “claustrophobic,” difficult, or even impossible to do (as so many are moaning about on the various Infinite Summer blogs) if you want; bail on it after 200 pages if you dare. I’m choosing, however, to move forward as part of a greater reading community of people struggling by various degrees to do something unique in our time—read and think.

I’ve been asking myself (and ruminating on other reader’s comments) the past ten days, why is this book causing us all so much consternation, and even stress? What makes poring through a difficult tome run so counter to our everyday experiences in the 21st century?

I think that most of us, even those that still regularly read books, have been co-opted by our digital world of blog posts, where 300 to 400 word posts are deemed too “wordy.” Even worse, now our written communication must conform to a tool that tries to box us into 140 characters. In that context, David Foster Wallace, and Infinite Jest might just be too goddamn difficult, or “claustrophobic.”

As a writer, I appreciate DFW’s legacy with words. I admit that IJ isn’t an easy read and that his usage has been taxing the two dictionaries I have utilized regularly—both my Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, and the other, more unwieldy New Lexicon Webster’s Dicitonary of the English Language, with its 170,000 definitions and entries (30,000 more than the POED)—neither are sufficient tools for IJ. What current writer strings mixes nouns like “phonemes” and “fricatives,” and an adjective such as “trochaically?”

While it’s convenient for some to accuse Wallace of leaning towards pedantry, crafting prose fat with unfamiliar words to most of the rest of us mere mortals, on the contrary, I think Wallace’s appreciation for words and language is one of the endearing characteristics that I’ve pulled from my reading to date.

Even better, reading Wallace makes me want to write better, and pushes me harder at my own craft.