Welcome To My Wordy Life
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been besotted by words, in love with the English language. I started writing early on. When I was in the second grade, I wrote a story and gave it to my father for his birthday. When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a puppet show based on The Littlest Angel. I also played that angel.
When I was in the sixth grade, I entered a writing contest. The topic was “the benefits of reading.” I somehow found these lines from Emily Dickinson—
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us to Lands away
—and, remembering some of the books I’d read that had taken me to lands away, I opened my essay with it. I won the contest and was awarded an expensive book.
In high school, I was the only member of the Creative Writing Club who had a new story for every single meeting. They weren’t all good stories, of course. In one that was a sort of home-invasion monologue “spoken” by the woman whose home was being invaded, I went to the thesaurus for synonyms for “thought.” I read the story aloud to the club. When I came to “opine,” one of my friends reacted. Badly. I can still hear her screech of disbelief. (And this is why I warn my clients to stay out of the thesaurus.)
When I was a sophomore at Ferguson High School, Miss Nichols, my English teacher, took her own time to drive me into downtown St. Louis to meet with a representative from a vanity press. That adventure, alas, went nowhere, but it’s a nifty memory.
I was such a good writer by the time I got to college that Professor John Bierk, my freshman comp teacher (8 a.m., MWF), invited me to be on the yearbook staff. John was my very first college teacher. A decade later, when I was working on my M.A., I helped edit and proofread his Ph.D. dissertation, which was about American poetry. When I flew back to Cape Girardeau for Homecoming a decade or so ago, I stayed with another friend. When John came to dinner one night, I gave him a signed copy of Pagan Every Day, in which I wrote, “Is this where English 101 ends up?” Here’s a photo of us from that Homecoming.
John later sent me an email in which he wrote, “I appreciate your compliment concerning my influence on you, but the hard fact is that you wrote very well when you got to me; thus, all I can claim is that I gave you a further chance to express yourself in writing.” I still give John credit for validating the writing talent of a shy college freshman. Perhaps he’s a sort of grandfather of the work I’m doing now.
Like every English major, I wrote term papers. Lots and lots of term papers. They’re all in a box in the garage now. If I stacked them up, the stack would be taller than I am. Crowning the stack, of course, would be my master’s thesis, which compared the use of the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action in four plays each by Shakespeare and Molière, and my doctoral dissertation on the plays in English about Cleopatra (1592 to 1898). I wrote the first feminist, first-person dissertation for an English department afflicted by terminal macho. Passed with honors!
My Monthly Blog
That’s what my son says. He should know. Most of his babysitters were Ph.D. candidates in English, and now he teaches English at a community college in Orange County. One of the classes he teaches is English 99, which is pre-Freshman Comp (English 101). Nearly all of his students are still learning English, but they don’t know quite enough to cope with English 101.Read More