How Dead Poets Made Me a Writer
“You may be a great writer some day. Stranger things have happened.” So says page one of my sixth grade Creative Writing with Penmanship Skills book. I must believe there’s truth to that– I’ve kept the thing on my bookshelf for the past twenty years, moving it from Oregon to Florida to Germany to Georgia and back to Oregon again. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it; this book represents the beginning of my literary journey.
The question of how I became a writer is not one I can easily answer. I was shaped like one of those odd rocks you find in the Rogue River, so smooth you would think it’s been hand polished. It took variable currents and conditions, sediments and other scientific jargon I (admittedly) don’t understand. There are many books, movies, people and places– voices that contributed to my own. While I can point back to a vivid memory of a random day in the sixth grade as the spark, it was a film set in 1959 New England that set ablaze what was a small burn pile into a full fledged forest fire. And everything else was just kindling…
Creative Writing with Penmanship Skills starts by listing qualities that make a creative person: awareness, imagination, wonder, courage, dedication and enthusiasm. This strikes me now far deeper than it could possibly have as an eleven-year old. How could I have known then that these were facets I not only possessed, but would develop throughout my life? I come across a section entitled, “Writing about an Emotion.” There is an image of a young girl with her horse, a downcast look on her face. The instructions tell me to look at the picture and write the feelings and thoughts that it brings to mind. The story written there in youthful cursive reminds me of a memory I have always had: a silent classroom where I see myself at a desk, putting a pencil to the page of empty lines, the words filling the space in my mind. I know now it was the pivotal moment where a spring of creativity formed in my soul from which words began to flow.
My paternal grandmother was a charming, witty Midwestern woman with the largest ears you will ever see on a human being. She wrote articles for magazines, among other scribblings and collected pieces, and sang songs like, “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah.” I have a large box filled with letters we wrote to each other, my annual school photos, stories and poems of mine she kept over the twenty-two years I was part of her life. These are physical mementos I can see and touch, but I don’t hear her voice. I don’t remember her giving me advice, editing my work, imparting words of wisdom on how to be a great writer, but she was always supportive of my education. My grandmother’s greatest gift to me was silent; a skill passed through our shared genes.
Memories of my high school English teachers are not fond ones. There was Mrs. T, an ancient grammarian with horrible halitosis, which caused you to avoid inhaling whenever she hovered over your work. She exaggerated her H’s on purpose, blowing a cloud of dragon breath around your head: “HA-i there, HA-ow are you doing?” Undeterred, I absorbed the meanings of prefixes and suffixes, became obsessed with proper usage of prepositions and participles, and found spelling to be second nature. I adored learning to diagram sentences, forming words into neat little packages for me to bestow on others, like gifts. Mrs. T is not to thank, however; my love for the English language blossomed in spite of her.
I was in Honors Lit, my favorite subject, but least favorite class, thanks to Miss B. A solemn young woman with long red hair and a fiery personality to match. She was also head of the drama department, yet cared more about students following rules than appreciating the arts. She boasted that she had never owned a television, nor desired to. Same with marriage– as though she desired to be a cranky old spinster right out of a Jane Austen novel. It seemed she disliked everything except dead writers. The words of Keats, Browning, even C.S. Lewis were to be treated like the very gravestones of their makers. Her passionless lectures sucked the beauty right out of them. Yet, I was no less inspired by Emily Dickinson, e. e. cummings, and of course, Uncle Walt.
“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Robin Williams repeats the line from Walt Whitman’s poem for emphasis in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. For as long as I can remember, I have loved movies. I wanted to be a film critic like Roger Ebert, combining the two things I adored most: writing and cinema. Perhaps this is why Dead Poets Society is where I put the star, showing its place of honor as a key ingredient in what makes me a poet. It took a perfect convergence of writing and film to capture my heart, forcing me to give in to the written word completely. The beauty of poetry, of writing, of Walt Whitman and his powerful play seemed right where I fit. I connected with the desire for creative freedom, for inspiration to live daringly, to absorb the words of Frost and Theroux as though they were living. Mr. Keating, the English professor, was the voice I had been longing to hear: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.”
As I continued through young adulthood, college classes and military service, I was inspired by other voices: two different creative writing teachers who pushed me beyond simple poetry, into flash fiction and memoir; into learning and accepting to CUT out the unnecessary, that a first draft can evolve. One teacher had me so enthralled with Shakespeare, I took all three semesters. I became obsessed with Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and Richard Wright because of a tall, blonde German professor. Michael Ondaatje’s Secular Love inspired me to write my own collection of poems, one of which awarded me a small publishing contract. Words flowed easily while traveling with the Air Force as I met incredible people and lived in beautiful places. When my son was born, I experienced an entirely new type of love to write about. But I always go back to Dead Poets Society as a pivotal moment, when my childish rhymes became ardent poetry. If creative writing were religion, it would be my Bible.
As I continue through this life, I expect to hear new voices, as well as further develop my own. Words are not stagnant, they continually grow and form into something new, like each breath that enters and leaves our bodies. The story we live is unwritten, created by the voices around us, and within us.