I got into Northwestern. Barely. Probably because I was a duck. Part of my agreement, if I were to matriculate, was to enroll in a remedial English class my first semester.
I was with the football team. And a few other athletes. They were all big and I was not and we were in a small room. It was Dr. Smith, I believe. We read Strunk/ White, James Baldwin and Eudora Welty. See, I couldn’t write an essay. According to the standard – standard. Maybe because acting at a young age, or staying home from school, pretending to be sick, in order to listen to story-tellers on record and comedians resulted in implicit bias: I never thought of punctuation or modifying my conjunctions, et al. As an actor, they tell you to cross all that out. And move at the speed of thought and feeling.
Telling people what you were going to say, saying it, then telling them that you said it just bored-the-piss out of me. It made me feel wrong. Don’t know why. I heard that Hank Aaron spent the early part of his career holding the bat the wrong way – what is known as over-handed – till a hitting coach said, “you know, you don’t hold a bat that way there, Hank.” He didn’t know. The greatest home run hitter of all time didn’t know how to hold a bat. For years. But, the dividend of his ignorance was that his mistakes coupled with his grit made his wrists as fast as they were. And that speed turned into magic. And that magic was what he was.
I also hear Sandy Koufax had a similar Come-to-Jesus epiphany… which is amazing, because he was a Jew. And probably still is.
His conversion was, “Hey, Sandy! Don’t throw so hard.”
Part of the reason these stories become stories and why we pass them on to encourage the ones coming up the trail behind is because, in case you haven’t found out yet, the trail’s a hard road. And I’ve done some hard travellin’, don’t you know…
I followed Woody Guthrie ’cause Bob Dylan followed Woody Guthrie and I wanted to be Bob Dylan. I read Plutarch and Tacitus because he said he did. And Rimbaud and The Old Testament because John Steinbeck said the answers were there. I’d catch the fire brand , try not to burn myself on the way to my green hard-shell Imac and scribble. Sometimes on plastic. Because I figured Kafka would if he had access to Petroleum byproduct. I was cluelessly on the hunt for something I didn’t know but trusted I would recognize when I found it. Like a pig for truffles.
But, yeah, I needed schooling. On the elements of style. Something to frame my imagination in and a spine to fix it on. Others had tried. But it never stuck. My mom was my first grammar teacher. I would take stories from a typewriter and share them with her and she would give me the hard edit with her red pen. I was six. Seven, maybe. But, the rules of language were like a labyrinth to me that only led to a mystery I couldn’t decode. During summer, we’d sit with those S.R.A. critical reading things and I’d struggle to retain and understand what I read. She was patient. I was not. The hours she spent helping me formulate complete thoughts and then sentences, sentences with clauses, and independent clauses. It felt almost like a second language. I’ve never been quite able to remember my first. There’s always a sense of translation from something more primal whenever I sit down to write. Maybe pure sound. Who knows. Above my pay grade.
I used to think there was something wrong with the way I thought, but the truth was, I had to catch up to my hand. My hand, my head, and my heart were all moving at different speeds. And needed to come into alignment. Achieving that alignment requires a lifetime of constant adjustments. To find harmony. Balance. And know, intrinsically, what to leave in… what to leave out.
Looking back, I guess, I was inspired. And didn’t know it. I had a radar for things unseen and unspoken. And words came to me. In no particular order. And I didn’t know what to do with any of it. Sometimes I wish I could tell the younger me, “Hey, that thing you got? It’s going to take some time.”
But, yeah, I couldn’t catch up to my head. Still can’t. Which is why I learned to listen to my heart. And when I do, the punctuation lands where it should. And I get to surprise myself. And who doesn’t like that. But slowly, ever so slowly, I learned to correct the way I hold my bat. And now I am surprised how much easier it is to hold it the right way.
Language is eroding. It’s what languages do. And that erosion is assisted by many things. Like Twitter and all its mutated offspring. But we’re the number one accomplice in its murder. How none of us could write cursive. And then there is the day we all stopped looking things up. But this decay is not new. Our common tongue evolves. Mutates. And we change with it. We’re just in one of those funky growing periods. Where suddenly we remember why we had to learn to write a bibliography and properly cite our sources. And look at all the trouble that has caused. From words. Words have the power to heal, to bridge, to literally change the world; but, they can also be the most dangerous weapon on earth and be welded against the scared and hungry, and desperate, and ignorant, and blind. They can get men and women to do unspeakable things. And at the same time, give us remembrance of things past, resurrect the dead, and give shape to whole worlds not yet born. They put our kids to bed at night and serve as conduit between what we feel and what we think. I sometimes don’t know either till I find the words, and then in finding them… know.
I’d like to tell you I learned the rules from Dr. Smith that I couldn’t hear from my own mother. But that’s not true. It took what it took. I had to field the same note, time and time, till… I got it: the true value of clarity. The danger in haste and delay, the crypt of confusion. The lack of action. And change. The courage it takes to be simple. And true. And employ these things in service of something bigger than me. But, I finally surrendered and learned the rules. Now, I can break them. Which is the real fun part.