Monthly Archives: October 2015

36. Halloween 1988

I wrote full time from 1975 to 1983, starved out, and took a day job that continued for the next twenty-seven years. I became a teacher in a small middle school in central California. In 1988 and 1989 I began writing again, using that experience in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key (see yesterday’s post). This is Neil McCrae’s Halloween from that book.

220px-Clarke-TellTaleHeart“What is Frankenstein’s favorite food?” Lisa Cobb asked.

Neil looked up from his desk to see that she was in tutu, tights, and dancing shoes. She was taller than the average sixth grader with more maturity in her face but still flat chested, so she looked the part of a ballerina. For the last several weeks she had been coming in to spend the time before school in Neil’s room, but she rarely approached him. She just hung around with her friends Sabrina and Elanor.

Neil said, “I don’t know, what is Frankenstein’s favorite food?”


Neil grinned and she ran off, pleased with herself.

Not since May, when Neil had first come onto the campus, had it seemed so different from a high school.

Neil found that he did not miss the feigned world-weariness of his high school students at all. He missed their conversations, and he missed the sense of camaraderie that came of teaching near-adults, but they were too staid. In their own way, following their own values, high school kids were as puritanical as any Pilgrim that ever rode on the Mayflower. Peer pressure was like the rule of the church patriarchs, looking over every shoulder, examining every action by the yardstick of current fashion. Everything not required was prohibited.

These children were in a different kind of transition. Their teachers encouraged them toward maturity, and most of the time they conformed. But on Halloween, they were all seven years old.

When the bell rang, the students came in reluctantly, and Neil chose to overlook their tardiness. He also raised his voice and spoke over their conversations while taking roll, rather than try to quiet them. Then Neil sent Greg and Rosa to close the drapes and a hush of expectancy came upon the classroom.

The drapes let in only a little light, certainly not enough to read by. Neil opened his desk drawer and took out a pair of candles on matching brass candlesticks that he had borrowed from Pearl. He lit them. He moved them so that they threw his face into harsh relief and projected his shadow, huge and menacing, on the wall behind him. He opened another book and read:

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?  The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.  I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.  I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?  Hearken!  and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

He read The Tell-Tale Heart through to its grisly conclusion, timing himself by the clock on the back wall so that he reached the denouncement when the narrator cried, “. . . tear up the planks! here, here — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”, just half a minute before the period ended. For those long seconds after he had finished, the classroom was tomb silent.

Then the bell rang.

Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence.  There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

35. Symphony in a Minor Key

Symp iamkNot every book is written to sell. Imagine a book about a year in the life of a person who just goes to work every day and does his best. No car chases, no drug lords, no shootouts, no steamy sex. Its chance of publication – pretty close to zero.

Nevertheless, some books have to be written.

1986-7 was my best year as a teacher. I had gotten through the rocky couple of years that every teacher experiences in the beginning, and I had a nearly perfect class of kids. The cute, the clever, the interested and interesting came in numbers well above average, and there were very few pain-in-the-pinfeathers turkeys.

I hadn’t written a novel since I started teaching because there had been no emotional energy left over. When summer came after that nearly perfect year, I was ready and I wanted to write about teaching.

I wanted to write honestly, so the first thing I had to face was the Big Lie of education fiction. The most unbelievable thing about Kotter and the Sweathogs was not the teacher’s complicity in their nonsense, but the fact that there were only fifteen students in the room. I was accustomed to teaching about 200 students a day – six periods of thirty to thirty-five students each.

The second barrier was that I had been teaching sixth grade. Education fiction always takes place in high school so the teacher and his students can have a semi-adult relationship. I didn’t want that. It wanted to write from my own experience, for practical reasons and because I find middle school children endlessly fascinating.

I also needed a hook and a theme, something to give unity and meaning to my protagonist’s efforts and provide a background against which his daily efforts could be measured.

There is a facet of teaching you probably haven’t thought about. Everyone is aware of teachers taking sexual advantage of their students, and rightly abhor it. However, not every accusation is honest; students do sometimes lie. I have no sympathy at all for offenders, but it remains true that every male teacher lives in fear of being falsely accused.

I decided to make my protagonist, Neil McCrae, a high school teacher who is falsely accused of sexual misconduct. He is acquitted, but parents do not believe the acquittal. He moves out of state and takes a job teaching sixth graders (made believable by details I won’t give here).

Neil’s personal rehabilitation makes half of the story; the other half is a complete and accurate picture of a year in the life of a sixth grade class.

From my real school, I ordered two full sets of the paperwork I normally use to run a class. One set was for fall, the other set was used to build a virtual school. I produced a calendar, complete with holidays, parent-teacher nights, school productions and all the things that would have been on a calendar for my actual school. I drew up a set of lesson plans for the year. I made a list of students, with thumbnail biographies. I drew a room plan, and a campus map.

I decided to make Neil an English teacher and give him two three-period blocks. That’s rare, but not unprecedented. It meant that he would have only about sixty-five students, which would be easier for him and me to manage. It gave him two groups to play off each other, and also portrayed, in reduced form, the boredom by repetition that plagues school teachers.

During my last year before retirement, I taught six identical science classes every day. No one is good enough to make that work in a novel.

I put Neil’s school at the north edge of Modesto, California, where an almond orchard existed in the real world, and only rewrote the rest of the area slightly. For example, an abandoned motel in the real world became migrant housing in the novel.

I did the setup work at the end of my school year. I spent most of the summer in Europe, then began writing in earnest, and continued through the 1988-9 school year, with the intention of finalizing and polishing Symphony in a Minor Key the following summer.

My conceit was to make every day in Neil’s world match my world. Every rainstorm in my world would also occur in Neil’s. That turned out tragically differently than I could have expected.

On January 17, 1989, in Stockton, Patrick Purdy opened fire on a school yard full of children, killing five and injuring thirty more. It was only thirty miles from Neil’s imaginary school, and fifty miles from my real one.

Symphony in a Minor Key was more than two thirds finished at the time of the tragedy, and I had to decide whether to abandon my plan to mirror reality. I didn’t; I went on with the plan. Neil’s world, like mine, skidded out of its normal path for a while. Neil was sharply reminded how precious his students were, and so were the rest of us.

34. A Very Young Teacher

101One sultry afternoon in late spring the principal came running into my ninth grade classroom and shouted, “Boys, get on the bus. There’s a prairie fire.” All the boys from all four grades – about fifty of us – piled into the school bus and roared off west of town. Local farmers with milk cans of water in their pickups and bales of gunny sacks were already there. We grabbed wet sacks and went to work, and during the next three hours we fought the fire to a standstill.

Not one boy hesitated and not one parent complained. Small town Oklahoma in 1962 was a very different place than anywhere in America today. It was a good place to grow up if you wanted to become a man, and the sooner the better.

Two years later, I was one of two students in second year German when the English and German teacher was severely injured in a car accident. He was out for six weeks. The only substitute teacher in the area was a million years old, and she didn’t speak German. She got the job.

About the second day, the principal pulled me aside and said, “I want you to teach the first year German class.” I said yes. Then or now, I can’t imagine giving any other answer.

He put the substitute into the library during the hour German was taught and pulled me out of the class I was supposed to be in. It was tough. My German wasn’t as strong as it should have been, but it got better fast. Every night I typed up worksheets on my old manual typewriter, and every morning the school secretary made copies. I worked the kids hard and put up with a lot of silliness. A class full of sophomores is never going to really listen to a junior, even when the principal comes in regularly.

Can you imagine the lawsuits if that were to happen today? After about a week, the principal asked me how I was doing. I said, “It’s working. I’m studying at night, staying one chapter ahead of them, and trying to seem like I know more than I do.”

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Son, that’s how we all do it.”

33. Here Come the Bombs


I was a child of the cold war. I loved science, science fiction and I studied atom bombs with a gleeful avidity that embarrasses me as I look back on it. Our nearest city was Tulsa, which would probably have been a target, but we were forty miles away and no one took the Russian threat seriously except me; and I wasn’t scared, just fascinated.

Eventually my high school spent an hour on Civil Defense training. I was a sophomore, but they gave it to me to present. That kind of thing could happen fifty years ago in a small school when none of the teachers knew anything about a subject and didn’t want to learn, but just wanted to check off an obligation to the state bureaucracy.

It was my first experience with a captive audience. I can still see the looks of massive boredom as I explained what we could expect if Tulsa got hit.

In literature, this period saw the beginning of a subgenera that might be called what terrible tragedy will technology visit upon us next? Next. Not someday, but tomorrow. This immediacy drove some of these novels into best seller status, and fed Hollywood with movie plots.

Fail-Safe detailed an inadvertently launched airstrike by the US against Russia. It’s ending was chilling, but unbelievable. On the Beach was all too believable, a slow downsliding as nuclear survivors in the far southern hemisphere succumb one by one to fallout. In its final pages, the elegiac tone resembles the empty Earth after all the transformed children have gone in Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

Believability was not an issue in Level Seven. Told in academic prose, the story of a group of scientists sent to the deepest level of the most advanced fallout shelter unfolds with the unemotional certainty of an equation as these men of science carry on their lives deep underground while all life on the surface has been destroyed.

I had read these books and understood their messages, but I was a teenager. I wanted light and life and excitement, interesting technical exposition, and a hopeful ending. That’s what Philip Wylie provided.

Wylie’s novel Tomorrow is the book I liked best. Most of what I gave to my long-suffering fellow students at that high school event came from it. There were bombs, there was massive destruction, but there was also survival. Wylie’s Tomorrow ended with hope.

A real nuclear strike would not have been so benign. Looking back over fifty years, I still can’t believe any of us got out of the twentieth century alive.

32. Roses, out of the dry ground


I like poetry a lot, but my personal taste pretty much stops with Frost and Yeats.

I like to pepper my novels with quotations from the Rubyiat, Masters, Tagore, and poetic scriptures from various religions. When an appropriate quotation is not available, I never hesitate to write a bit of poetry to develop a character or move a story along. Poetry written to purpose is not real poetry, but I will be including some of it in later posts as illustrations of the writing process.

Roses, out of the dry ground is a real poem, and the first I wrote as an adult.

Novels come over time, with a few flashes of inspiration and a lot of grinding work. I have enough novels waiting to keep me writing for the next three hundred years.

Poems only come when they come. For me that means rarely, but they are a treasured gift when they do come.

Roses, Out of the Dry Ground

The child fled
From harsh words and rough hands
And the uncaring glance that kills the soul,
To hide among the weeds and brambles,
The lizards and the hard cased beetles,
Where no voice comforts,
And no voice condemns.

There he found a rose, growing
          out of the dry ground.

Out of dirt, caked and broken,
Webbed down by spiders;
With dusty leaves,
          yet blooming.

The child reached out and touched a thorn
So gently that his finger did not bleed.
(For the child knew thorns)
Reached further, and touched the blossom, so gently
That its fragrance filled the desert air.

He sat long among the weeds
And gazed in wonder, that the rose,
So ragged, could still be sweet.

Never knowing,
          it was a mirror that he saw.

31. Discovering Khyyam

412px-033-Earth-could-not-answer-nor-the-Seas-that-mourn-q75-829x1159My novel A Fond Farewell to Dying opens with a quatrain from the Rubyiat of Omar Khyyam.

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing is certain – This life flies;
        One Thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has bloomed forever dies.
Khyyam/FitzGerald quatrain LXIII

It was the perfect setup for a book about people deeply aware of the fleetingness of life and trying to find their own kind of immortality.

Edward FitzGerald is the scholar whose translation of Khyyam is most widely known. He took a mass of unrelated quatrains, translated and arranged them, and gave them a unified voice. Although called a translator, he might better be called the co-author.

Khyyam was a Persian, but not a Muslim. He was one of the leaders of the old order, recently deposed by Muslim conquest. This accounts for the wine bibbing and the questioning attitude toward God, which otherwise would seem odd, even dangerous, among the Sultans, camels, turbans, and oases which fill the poems.

I first encountered Khyyam on a high school field trip to visit nearby University of Tulsa. I managed to sneak a moment in the university bookstore, and bought the most interesting paperback I could lay hands on quickly. It was the Rubiyat. I read it on the bus ride home and was immediately hooked.

The Rubiyat is the perfect book for a questioning young man just beginning to find his own voice and his own mind. Khyyam questions authority; in fact, he questions the ultimate authority, God himself. It is not a book for atheists though, unless they are simply looking for literary support for their opinions. Khyyam was no atheist. You can’t call God to task as he does, unless you believe in Him.

Oh, Thou who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d – Man’s forgiveness give – and take!
Khyyam/FitzGerald quatrain LXXXI

A book full of rebelliousness will catch a young man’s eye, but it is the beauty and wisdom in every line which makes it remain a treasure in later life.