the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

Top Dogs: Writing that Shaped Me as a Writer–“Once More to Reavis” Part 3

Image courtesy of num_skyman @

Image courtesy of num_skyman @

This week I have been taking a trip down memory lane with my writing. In Part 1, I talked about how I thought my life would turn out. Hint: There’s a Carol Burnett connection. In Part 2, I reprinted my essay from 1984 with hopes that I would not have to cringe too much at my early efforts.

I haven’t read this essay of mine for years—10 at least. And, I’m happy to say that I no longer think of it as my best work. I have always been afraid that I would write my best stuff at 20-something and then never live up to the hype in my old age.

I did cringe when I came to the word “plumed” and the expression “quit the room,” so I know that I have moved a little beyond that need to draw attention to myself as the writer as if to say, “oooh, look what I can do with my word-slinging derring-do.” My goal now as a writer is to make myself invisible in the prose, so the characters can stride out front and center.

Sadly, most of the professors I loved so much have passed on to their just rewards. I miss them. And, if you studied English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL back in the early 1980’s, you would probably recognize them just from my descriptions.

But here, at last, is a list of who I meant them to be when I wrote this piece so long ago:

English Club Advisor:

Dr. Gerald Berkowitz (who is still witty and charming, lives in London, and revels in all things theatre at TheatreGuideLondon)

Here’s how I described him in my essay:

“I could not help but notice, as he talked, what an interesting fellow he was. He was rather short and stocky with an unmistakable New York accent and unruly hair that just covered his bald spot. His clothes gave one the impression that he had never fully recovered from the 1960’s. His lapel was wide, his ties bright, and his trousers had not just a little hint of the bellbottom about them. And yet, I liked to listen to him. His words were sharp and witty. His sentences had a cadence, a rhythm, that invited listening.”

Introduction to Literary Studies teacher:

Dr. Charles Pennel

Here’s how I described him in my essay:

“The next day, I made the marvelous discovery that my Introduction to Literary Studies teacher could do the same thing. … His appearance was not unusual, at least not to a veteran college student. He wore a cardigan and a tie with some type of polyester trousers (as much of a mainstay to the professorial wardrobe as the sport coat with leather elbow patches). His hair was too long, curling up a bit at the nape of his neck, giving him (curiously enough) the appearance of a poet. He had a long face, his nose a big too prominent, and deep-set eyes. He was tall and looked awkward somehow. It wasn’t that he looked foolish or laughable, rather, that he looked almost as if he had been put together with spare parts. The man was a portrait of incongruities—until he spoke. Ad in that first instant of listening, you forgot the gangling body and remembered only the voice—a southern drawl with such mellowness and music in it, that merely listening seemed to warm you. Again, I forgot the dismal surroundings and concentrated on the man.”

Dr. A:

Dr. Charles Pennel

Here’s how I described him in my essay:

“There was kindly Dr. A with his encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. Our little chats frequently stretched to two-hour conversations about history and philosophy and education, and his favorite topic, the good ol’ days. I listened raptly to his arguments, occasionally clarifying a point or hazarding one of my own, as the conversation spun and eddied from one subject to another, ending finally, in a stalemate because he had to get home.”

Dr. B:

Dr. Charles Hagelman

Here’s how I described him in my essay:

“I met good Dr. B. whose regal air was not dissipated a whit by his little hand-knotted bow ties and baggy trousers. From Dr. B I learned to love Byron and Keats and not a little about academic fashion.”

Dr. C:

Dr. Jennifer Giannasi

Here’s how I described her in my essay:

“I also came to know the earth-bound Hera, Dr. C., whose marble brow could cause the masses to tremble lest it furrow with displeasure. She would have been a wonderful despot if the world would stoop to a female Napoleon. The world being what it is, she administered, marble brow and all, a small empire of graduate teaching interns.”

Dr. D:

Dr. George Carrington

Here’s how I described him in my essay:

“And, I made the acquaintance of Dr. D., the amiable giant, who lumbered down the halls shying like a colt when anyone tried to engage him in conversation. That man did the finest Foghorn Leghorn imitation in all of academia. And, when tempted on by shy student giggles, he was known to quit his brilliant lectures complete with names and dates and places (which he tossed off completely extempore) in favor of a ten minute comedy routine replete with sound effects.”

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