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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing: An After-Life Activity

"Writing is a bad whore," my good friend and former professor at the university said in the middle of our dinner discussion regarding, what else, writing. "She's a bad whore that one day gives you all you want, and the next day makes you beg for the most simple pleasures." It wasn't the wine, as he was only one glass down, nor was it intellectual bravado. It sounded to us (and with 'us' I mean the throes of former students who showed up to pay tribute to him with this dinner) as if he had been possessed by the ghost of Ernest Hemingway--the terse, muscular, allegorical statement... the purposeful indictment and even the ad hominem "whore" seemed carefully chosen.

The former students present were a motley crew of former English majors, some of us stayed in academia, others went to law school, other sought riches on Wall Street, and yet the most adventurous of us had gone to teach English overseas. To some extent, we had all remained writers, either professionally or in the form of personal journaling. It was the richness of our experience with Professor M. that plagued us (in a good way) to continue writing after school ended and lives taken us to wondrous places. "One has to bite down hard," he continued, "bite hard and not let go. If anyone would have told me I'd be where I am right now I would have slapped them with the powerful writing hand, to leave a mark of unwritten thoughts in his or her cheek." He paused and looked down, a gesture that allowed some of us to look at each other and inquire, with facial expressions right out of a silent film, whether or not we should allow him to continue. I began to feel a tinge of guilt--I had organized this gathering without even checking to see the professor's condition. I had also counted with having his faithful wife of 62 years Berta here, but was to find out during my first steps to planning this dinner "celebration" that she had passed away two years ago. I began to sweat and wondered where the speech would go next. "As for the people who criticized me then, as they probably still do now, I just want to say that writing..." Here he paused as if about to vomit; no doubt, he was thinking of people that made him sick. I wondered whether I should stand up and help him from the podium, but I decided against it. "Those who criticized my writing, those who lynched me year after year, can only guess what all of us," at this he waved his hand around to the expanse of the hotel ballroom, "what all of us know first hand: That nothing remains of us, and when we leave, we take that good for nothing whore with us to the other life; the after-life where we hope we can continue writing. They'll never know what we did here, what I did here. They were too busy shoving shit up each other's asses to know what real writing can achieve." I went to stand up but Richard (a former student of Professor M. from back in the 1970s) held me down. "Let the old man finish it out," he said, "it's going to get better, I assure you." With "better" I assumed Richard meant that eventually the professor would settle down on a narrative form and engage us with more focus than ad lib. It was not to be. It seems "better" for Richard meant more non sequitorial rant.

The professor continued with another salvo of distaste against his former colleagues, administrators, fellow writers, lovers and friends alike, near and not-so-near family, the government, and finally the Catholic church, which he credited with being the single most damaging institution in human civilization,"outside of the Nazi regime," he cared to qualified. He ended on a good note, however, in mentioning that the only thing that had given him meaning throughout life, to both him and Berta, were the many students whom he had loved and cared for. Professor M.'s sincerity was more than palpable. "In the middle of what appears to you as life today," he declared, "you will find that only through writing can you leave a trace behind. To those who tell you that leaving a trace is not important," (no doubt this was a stab at the late Dr. Lehann Munn, philosophy professor at the university and one of his main archrivals), "tell them that not even all of that Kierkegaardian bullshit can save them now." Someone began to clap and the thunderous applause that followed didn't let up even when I tried to say a few words as I handed Dr. M. a plaque from his grateful students. He had always reminded us in class never to write down what we did not mean. Here we were honoring him and he turned it all around and honored us with his last lesson. He died two days later from a massive stroke.

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