Publications
Falling Back to Earth Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

falling back 1(Chicago Reader July 3, 1998)

The summer before ninth grade, I fell in love with fire. On weekends, when my parents were golfing and my two brothers were holed up in their rooms, I would douse one of my few flawed model cars with gasoline, set it afire and drag it behind my bike, creating spectacular curbside wrecks. One day in the garage, I inadver­tently dribbled a bit of gas on the concrete and, when I struck the match to light the model, the flame ran along the floor and set the can on fire. While the flames danced on the can’s silver top, the only thing I heard in my head was my father’s order, “Save the house, boy.” I lifted the can and carried it outside, burning my fingers badly. After my frantic phone call, the hook and ladder came, and a slickered man dusted dead the can in two seconds flat. Later my dad joined a shamed me at the hospital, and we watched white pus poc­kets billow like pup tents on three finger pads where the can’s handle had melted my flesh. Surprise: The hoary little lumps elicited his forgive­ness. He was awed by my boneheaded courage. I felt distin­guished then, a prince of clowns, wearing a white garden glove on my bad hand.

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Honesty, Confession, and Other Dramas of "Creative Writing" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Klee_Monument(AWP Chronicle March/April 1998)

My "Creative Writing" class begins with the same assignment every semester, an idea I stole from the fiction writer and essayist, Carol Bly. Each student must write a ten-page autobiographical essay about a significant person, place, or phase in his or her life and finish it in one week. Raw is fine. First draft encouraged. I read the essays, meet privately with each student, then suggest revisions. I hope this task focuses students on one personal story, which most will produce anyway, and allow their imaginative pieces to emerge separately. Fact differentiated from fiction. A few years ago, when I began this assignment, I received one of the most brilliant and disturbing first drafts of my teaching career—a paramedic's nightmarish story of his worst shift ever on the job. His piece would change my thinking about the "creative writing" classroom forever.

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Skull and Roses: Reflections on Enshrining Georgia O'Keeffe Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

okeeffepink-tulip-lg(Southwest Review Volume 83, Number 1, 1998)

1.

In Santa, Fe, New Mexico, I spent the summer of 1997 writing and, on several occasions, standing agog inside the new Georgia O’Keeffe Museum before some eighty selections of her sculptures, watercolors, drawings and those famous silky geometric images in oil: the floating pelvis, the blood clot, the lustrous orifice, the sky wedge, the eggy nutrient, the fetishized shell, the crucified sky, the lonely comic orb, the birth aesthetic, the pastel creation. I felt guiltily alone, an infidel at a church service who is happily seduced by the resplendent altars and rose windows, and forgets the presence of the word. And all the while, enjoying my O’Keeffe, I was buffeted from gallery to gallery by a procession of lovers: the turquoise matriarch, the bemused father, the ecstatic Spanish girl, the garrulous rodeo queen, the mute college boy and his shrieking girlfriend, the leering cleric, another writer (several other writers) eyeing me, the man with his hand over his mouth and the Japanese woman, her arms crossed, stroking her bare shoulders, crying.

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Freshman Comp, 1967 Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Thomas_MacAfee(Anchor Essay Annual: Best of 1997 edited by Phillip Lopate)

That I was a severely bookish eighteen-year-old must have been fairly evident to my dormi­tory roommates at the University of Missouri, my freshman semester. The night before classes began, they tried to pry me away from my desk for a keg party to which I responded, “I can’t go. I need to finish studying the introductions to my textbooks.” I believed those small Roman-numerated pages would offer insight into the learning models that awaited me. In fact, so intent was I to begin my education that after saying goodbye to Mom and Dad a few days earlier I rushed out to purchase my course books and then, parked at my desk, nearly memorized the glossaries of each text. I wanted more than a head start; I wanted to achieve, as my dad sug­gested, the notice of those who mattered, the professors with whom I was soon to be engaged, and I hoped, enthralled. If called on in class, my responses would prove just how formidably prepared I was.

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A Severity of Conscience: Writers & Self-Censorship Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

maxwell_perkins_nywts3(Written May 1997)

Her name is Arianna and she says to me, the professor, after creative writing class, after I had put her in the dunce spot of staying around to speak with me, “I know you wanted me to com­ment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t because it disgusts me.” She is an older woman, my age, with dread locks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks a night shift at 7/11. “It’s his language that repels me,” she goes on, “the language of ad­dicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores who want dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention.”

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. “Were you to tell him this,” I say, “he might understand more about his audience than he realizes, that his sensibility is not the only one he can write for.”

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Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Magritte-11680digi-L(Inside English May 1996)

Some days I think that I might have been something other (I almost wrote more) than a writing teacher. What? A columnist, a novelist, a screenwriter, an editor, a publisher. Yet these fancies dissolve in a mist of maybes because for me there’s so much to like about teaching. Teaching—at least in college—is remarkably nourishing for student and instructor: Students who use the encouragement and structure a good teacher provides typically excel far more than they could on their own, and teachers who balance the autonomy and collegiality which the profession demands usually find their work very gratifying.

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The Memoir of Parental Responsibility Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

img092(Talk given at American Literature Association's "Symposium on American Autobiography" Cabo San Lucas, Mexico November 14, 1994)

Sometimes, listening to my 17-year-old son speak of his future, I find myself staring at him, seizing a moment I desperately hope to hold forever. How tall he is; how much his acne has receded; how soon he'll be gone to college. How bushy black his eyebrows have grown, reminding me of his mother's dark beauty. How happy he seems. How quickly I forget that less than a year ago he swallowed a bottle of antidepressant pills, trying to kill himself.

He has attempted suicide more than once during adolescence, that mire of alienation which he has, I hope, outlasted. Hesitation marks remain on his wrists, as do severe pangs of anxiety in his stomach. When the phone rings after ten p.m., I steel my fear, then exhale, dramatically. Yes, he and I have searched for answers together, alone and in therapy. And yes, some of his depression is due to my failures as a divorced father, my inability to understand and express how that has affected him.

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