Monthly Archives: January 2018

456. A Map is Not a Journey

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I don’t outline, and failure to do so has gotten me into a world of trouble over the years. If you don’t know where you are going, you are likely to drive off a cliff.

When I do outline, that gets me into a different kind of trouble. All the fun goes out of the writing. I can stare at blankness for hours, unable to force myself to begin something that, in my heart, is already done.

Someone, Vonnegut I think, wrote about a character that read novels just “to see what happens next.” That makes sense to me. I write novels to see what happens next. If I know too much, too soon, I lose interest.

On the other hand, starting on page one without a fair idea of what you plan to write will result in a lot of uncompleted novels.

All this is very vague and has been said a thousand times before. What a new writer need is nuts and bolts, so let me give you some, first from Phyllis A. Whitney.

Whitney died in 2008 at the age of 104, having written over a hundred novels. She wan’t someone I read, except for one article, A Map is Not a Journey, which appeared in the magazine The Writer and was reprinted in the 1972 Writer’s Handbook. That book was fresh and new in 1975 when I started writing and it is still a good source for learning writing as a humane art. You wouldn’t want to go to it for marketing advice.

Whitney’s article provided the organizational backbone of my first half dozen novels, all written before home computers. It still works. She used a notebook and I used a card file, but the structure was the same. I will give you a tastes of the categories of information she used, then send you to Whitney for detail.

Work Calendar: deadlines and daily progress.

Title Ideas: self explanatory.

Situation and Theme: what is going on and why.

Problem: what is the hero(ine) trying to solve.

Development: a catch-all to write down miscellaneous bits as they are thought of.

Outline: Whitney makes the point that she can’t outline too far ahead. She starts with a rough outline, and refines it all through the writing process. The full outline, in all its detail, can’t be written before the book is finished.

To Be Checked: things Whitney needs to know.

Additional: things Whitney needs to change. Remember, this was pre-computer, when making changes in a paper ms. was no small chore. The idea is, make a note as as you think of the change, then deal with it later.

Bibliography: self explanatory.

Research: self explanatory.

Diary: here Whitney lets recalcitrant characters make diary style entries to help her come to understand them.

Of course, I modified this scheme to meet my own needs. Cyan had sections on Cyan’s solar system, Cyan’s fauna, the Cyl before and after, Terrestrial politics, and Lassiter drive/core ships. It had a biography section with mini-biographies of the ten original explorers. There were also categories that fit Whitney’s personality and genre (mysteries) which I didn’t need and didn’t use.

Stripped to a summary, Whitney’s system doesn’t look like much. My recounting misses the charm of her writing and the details which won’t fit into a short post. You should go to the original.

I tried to find a copy of Whitney’s article online to link for you. No luck. I did find that its title is now one of the great and widely appreciated quotes.

If you want to know more, I do have a source for you. Whitney wrote a Guide to Fiction Writing in 1988. I just found it today. I haven’t actually seen a copy, but Amazon has a LOOK INSIDE which showed me that the article is there in the form of a couple of early chapters. You can get it used for under two bucks, and I’m sure it is worth a lot more than that.

Next post, how I work today.


Symphony 76

“I think so. At least most of them heard him. He whispered it, but there wasn’t another sound in the room at the time.”

“That tears it. The board will expel him this time.”

Neil shook his head. “I don’t want him expelled. I’m so mad now I could kill him, but I don’t want him expelled.”

“It’s out of  your hands. After last year, the board will have no patience with him. He has been in trouble with every teacher in the school this morning. I was coming to get him when I saw him in my office and came on out to see what he had done to you.”

“He came in hassling Lorraine, threw a paper wad at T. J., claimed he had not, slammed his desk deliberately to disrupt the class, all but called me a liar when I accused him, and then cussed me out on the way back to his desk.”

Bill shook his head in disgust. “Write it up,” he said. “Write it very carefully, and don’t leave anything out.” Then he added, “Why are you out here?”

“I wanted to cool off. I didn’t want the kids to see me this mad. I’m afraid I yelled pretty loud at Jesse.”

“Evelyn thought she heard you. Don’t worry about it; you should have heard the harangue Fiona gave him. And don’t worry about being angry in front of your students. They know you’re human; believe me, students always know all of our faults.”

Suddenly, Bill Campbell’s tone changed as he asked, “You didn’t hit him or push him around, did you?”

“I felt like strangling him, but I never touched him.”

“Good. Then there is no problem. Now get back to your classroom and act like nothing happened. Or let the kids write about how it all made them feel. Don’t let them get into a discussion, though; they might draw you into saying something you shouldn’t.”

Neil nodded. This was the second time Bill had backed him up in a crisis with Jesse. Neil was learning a great deal at Kiernan, and not the least of those lessons was that paranoia clouds your reason and distorts your ability to read others. He had misjudged Bill Campbell very badly at their first meeting.

# # #

A slow, sickening anger continued to dog Neil throughout the day, and he took it home with him. He was thankful to have the night to recuperate. He was tempted to stop for a bottle of Scotch, but he knew where that road would lead his mind.

He drove into the lot at his apartment and found a familiar green sedan in his space. For a moment he could not place it; it was too much out of context. Then Tom Lewis waved from where he was lounging in the driver’s seat and Neil was suddenly transported back to the world he had left seven months before.

Tom came over and shook his hand. There was a forced gaiety about him, masking a new reserve. Yet, only Tom had stood by him when the others had backed away. When even his lover had backed away.

“Hey, Neil, old buddy. How are you doing?”

“Okay, I guess. What are you doing here?”

“I’m on my way south to L. A. for the Christmas vacation.  I decided to drive so I could stop by and see how you were.”

Neil was moved. He gripped Tom’s hand tighter and said, “Thanks. That means a lot.”

Tom turned to his car and opened the trunk for a bag. He said over his shoulder, “Say, you really picked an ugly pace to live.” more tomorrow

Symphony 75

Neil gripped the edge of his desk until the veins stood out on his forearms. He would not lose his temper — but, of course, he had already lost it. The other children had watched his conversation with Jesse with the intensity of spectators at a bullfight. They heard what Jesse muttered, and they flinched back from the flare of anger in Neil’s face.

Neil came slowly to his feet, towering over Jesse. The boy hunched down as if to protect himself from a blow, and cried out, “Don’t hit me! Please!”

That only made Neil angrier. He leaned forward until his face was within inches of Jesse’s and whispered with a barely controlled passion that shook them both, “Get out. Get out of my class. Get out of my sight. Get down to the office and stay there until I come for you!”

When Jesse’s head came up, his expression had regained its maliciousness, and he said, “No. I’m not going to the office.”

“Now!” Neil’s shout rattled the windows.

Jesse turned away slowly and left the room; every movement of his body suggested that he had gotten what he wanted.

Neil stood to watch him walk past the windows. Then he sat heavily back in his chair, shaking with unspent anger. The classroom was dead silent. He tried to speak but his voice choked in his throat. He stared at his littered desk top to shield his eyes from the other students. They did not deserve to sit in fear like this. They had done nothing wrong. But he couldn’t control his voice to tell them so. A minute passed. He felt the heavy pressure in his chest recede a bit. He cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry I got so angry. It was not directed at you. Please try to relax.”

They did not relax, but they exchanged glances that were perfectly opaque to Neil. What they were thinking of him, of Jesse — of anything — was more than he could fathom.

He rose and said, “I’ll be just outside.”  Then he left the classroom. Outside, he leaned against the wall of the building. The children were all in their classes. The playground was deserted and peaceful. Neil breathed the clean, cool air in great gulps, trying to burn out the anger that filled him, but it did no good.

He had over-reacted, and he knew why. In the routine of everyday teaching, and in the warmth of a growing relationship with Carmen, his upper mind tended to forget Alice Hamilton’s accusation and his banishment from the world he had known and loved. The undermind forgot nothing; all that load of anger, hurt, and hatred lay ready for a trigger. Jesse had been that trigger.

Although, Neil admitted honestly, this incident would have infuriated him under the best of circumstances.

Neil was leaning against the wall next to the door to his classroom. His students could not see him, but he could hear them. The room was still mostly quiet, although here and there they were beginning to discuss what had happened in strained whispers.

Sweat was standing out on his face despite the cold, and hatred was in his heart. He had just about decided to send a student to get Bill Campbell, when the superintendent came out of his office and headed toward him. Bill did not look happy. He asked, “What’s going on?  Why are you out of your classroom?”

“I sent Jesse Herrera to you.”

“I saw him.”

“He called me a fucking bastard.”

Campbell frowned. “In front of the class?” he asked. Neil nodded. “They all heard him?” Campbell persisted. more Monday

455. Voices in the Walls

Annotated Links to
Voices in the Walls

Voices in the Walls is a fragment of a novel. It is still available in archives, but it would be impossible to navigate because it is entwined with A Writing Life posts and you would have to read long columns from bottom to top. Instead, I am going to provide a set of annotated links to make life easier.

Voices in the Walls was presented in Serial, parallel to the posts in A Writing Life that explored my position on race. You might want to read yesterday’s post for a quick summary of the novel’s genesis.

I wrote Voices in the Walls in the eighties, as a fictional way of presenting a young man who has to rethink his entire life when faced with with the fact that all his previous understanding of race is wrong. I used the opening days of Lincoln’s presidency, as the nation slid into war, as a vehicle for the story.

I never finished the novel, for reasons I explained yesterday, but it still means a lot to me. I also decided that, as an example of a writer’s struggle with a hard-headed idea, it might form a sort of how-to for writers. Enjoy.

Voices in the Walls 1  Setting the stage for the story.

Voices in the Walls 2  Setting the stage for the story.

Voices in the Walls 3  Prolog, and a discussion of bracketing.

Voices in the Walls 4  Why this novel and why 1861?

Voices in the Walls 5  Chap. 1 begins

Voices in the Walls 6  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 7  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 8  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 9  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 10  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 11  Discussion inserted between chapters

Voices in the Walls 12  Chap.2 begins

Voices in the Walls 13  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 14  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 15  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 16  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 17  Chap. 3 begins

Voices in the Walls 18  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 19  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 20  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 21  Chap. 4 begins

Voices in the Walls 22  Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 23    Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 24  Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 25  Chap. 5 begins

Voices in the Walls 26  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 27  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 28  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 29  Chap. 5 ends, outline of the rest begins

Voices in the Walls 30  2 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 31  3 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 32  4 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 33  5 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 34  6 of 6, outline

Symphony 74

Neil opened Tuck Everlasting to the place he had left off and began reading. Lorraine did not relax. That was Neil’s second warning that things were not going well, so he kept one eye on his book and the other eye on Jesse.

Jesse opened his desk and pulled out a paper, rolled it up and threw it across at T. J. Nelson. Neil stopped reading and looked at Jesse, then rolled his chair back to the chalkboard and wrote Jesse’s name there. He said, “First warning.”

“Why?” Jesse said in hurt tones.

“For throwing that paper wad at T. J.”

“I didn’t throw any paper wad!”

A weak or lazy teacher would have ignored the paper wad; a self-righteous one would have suspended the boy for implying that his teacher was lying. Neil had always tried to steer a middle course, so he said sternly, “I have eyes, Jesse. Don’t push your luck.”

Neil returned to his reading, but the mood was spoiled for him and for the class. Whatever he read to them now would have little effect. They were too busy thinking about Jesse.

Jesse opened his desk, took out another piece of paper, and slammed the lid down hard. Lorraine jumped and tried to slide still farther from him, but she was already on the edge of her chair.

Neil laid his book aside and the classroom became ominously silent.

Neil locked eyes with Jesse, but the boy would not look away. Very few of his students, here or in high school, had ever had the power to infuriate him, but this boy did. Neil took his time before responding, fighting down his anger and trying to be fair. 

Yet deep inside he knew he was not being fair. In order to overcome his own growing dislike of the boy, he was leaning over backward to avoid punishing him.

“Come here, Jesse.”


“Get up here!”

Even then, Jesse rose and walked to the front with deliberate, taunting slowness. Neil remained seated so that their eyes were on the same level and spoke with a calmness he did not feel. “You deliberately slammed your desk top in order to disrupt the class. What’s wrong with you today?”

Jesse shifted fluidly from defiance to a shuck-and-jive act. He lowered his head and looked hurt. He said contritely, “I didn’t mean to.”

Their relationship had gone too far for Neil to believe that, or for him to overlook so transparent a lie. He said, “You did mean to. You wanted everyone in the class to look at you — again. You wanted to be the center of attention. Well, you’ve got my attention now. This is your second warning, and if you get one more I’ll not only give you a detention, I’ll also send you home.”

“You hate me!”

“No, Jesse. If I hated you, you would be long gone by now. I am bending over backwards to avoid giving you detentions, but you aren’t helping me any.”

Jesse lowered his head still further and sounded still more pitiful when he said, “You do, too.”

Neil had to pause for a deep breath. Once Jesse’s false accusations would have filled him with guilt, but he was on to the game now and it only made him more angry. Yet he did not want to suspend the boy for something as subjective as attitude.

Neil kept his voice as calm as he could and said, “Sit down.”

As Jesse moved back toward his seat, he muttered, “Fucking bastard!”

Neil gripped the edge of his desk until the veins stood out on his forearms. He would not lose his temper — but, of course, he had already lost it. more tomorrow

Symphony 73


There was a poster on the wall in every classroom at Kiernan School which read, “Every student has the right to learn. Every teacher has the right to teach.”

Discipline at Kiernan School worked on the principle that the children could understand this concept if it was taught to them. By the sixth grade, most of them had accepted it. If they argued against reprimands or detentions, it was usually because they didn’t think a situation had been bad enough to warrant the punishment. Most of them accepted the underlying concept.

They accepted it but, being children, they often forgot it.

Neil had not used a formal discipline system in high school, but his students had not been eleven years old. By November, Neil had given out dozens of detentions. Tony Caraveli had gotten four of them, but he had also gotten the message. Jesse Herrera had gotten seven and it had done him no good at all.

In the last days before Christmas, Neil could have given twenty detentions, but in fact he gave none. The children’s minds were far afield, and he could not blame them for it.

Jesse Herrera was a different case. Whatever his problem was, Christmas had nothing to do with it.

Before he got to Neil’s room, Jesse was already in deep trouble. He tripped a teammate in soccer during P.E.. He got two warnings in Mrs. Clementi’s history class. He irritated Glen Ulrich so badly that he gave him a detention and set him outside his room for the last half of the math period. That seemed to undo what little self-control Jesse normally had. In science, he leaped up in the middle of Fiona’s presentation and flew around the room making jet plane sounds and slapping his classmates on the head as he went by. Fiona did not make much use of the detention system; she tended to scream instead. This time she yelled at Jesse for a solid five minutes in a voice that would have cracked polar ice.

It was just a matter of time before reports of his behavior trickled in to Bill Campbell. Each teacher had seen only a piece of the picture, but Bill would see it all, so Jesse’s fate was sealed before he ever came to Neil’s class. And if it had not already been sealed, it soon would have been.

Jesse came into class with a face that would have curdled milk and threw himself into his seat. When Lorraine Dixon sat down in her seat next to him, she eased over as far from him as she could get. This byplay was not lost on Neil. He said to Jesse, “What’s up, Jess? Problems?”

“Lorraine’s bugging me,” Jesse said petulantly.

Neil had a hard time not smiling. Lorraine looked helplessly at Neil, but she was too shy to say anything in her own defense. She did not need to; the idea of her bothering Jesse, instead of the reverse, was too absurd to take seriously.

Neil decided to lighten up the tension he felt in the air. He turned to Lorraine and said in mock seriousness, “Lorraine, leave that poor boy alone!” There was enough humor in his voice to leave no doubt he was joking. The class giggled; Lorraine turned pink and smiled.

The class was accustomed to Neil using humor to defuse situations. That should have been the end of it. This time, however, he had misjudged the depth of Jesse’s anger. more tomorrow

454. Another Man’s Shoes

Another Martin Luther King day has rolled around. They always pose a problem for me.

What? You don’t care about my problems? Well, there is really no reason you should, except that this one is about trying to write honestly, which makes it a problem many of us share.

I grew up white in a conservative Oklahoma where blacks were not favored. That puts it gently. I watched the civil rights marches of the fifties and sixties on TV and decided I was on the wrong side of history. And humanity.

Then I became a writer, and that all needed to be explored. I did so in posts. Look at any post in A Writing Life from mid-January through the end of February of 2016 if you are curious.

I also tried to explore that story in a novel called Voices in the Walls. I began it in the eighties and made it through about seventy pages before I ran up against the essential issue — there was no way I could write about slavery from the inside, yet I had to in order to make the book work.

Matt Williams is a young southerner who is torn both ways at the outset of the Civil War. I put him through a series of events which sends him south to rescue a free black woman who has been recently captured. I pulled that part off without straining credulity, but once he is there I need for him to interact with escaping slaves and to see slavery from their perspective.

I had no problem with Matt’s perspective, and the overall novel is from a white viewpoint. However, he has to come to see the south from a slave’s viewpoint and when I reached that point in the book, a voice in the back of my head began screaming, “What right do you have to write that?”

Intellectually, the voice is bogus. It is the job of a fiction writer to crawl inside other people’s heads and speak through their mouths. I’ve done it innumerable times.

Emotionally, this particular voice is too loud to ignore.

Matt and his slave counterpart (I never got far enough to name him) each has to experience the other’s understanding of the world. That is what the novel is about. If a black writer can’t take the white position, and a white writer can’t take the black position, the story can never be told. I don’t accept that, and since I am a sympathetic white, I should be able to proceed.

I can’t. The voice in my head won’t shut up. It has been yammering at me for decades. It may just be one of those things that I am too locked into my own generation to ever get straight.

No problem. One of you will write it, sooner or later. Maybe one of you already has.

#                 #                 #

Voices in the Walls is still available in archives, but it would be impossible to navigate. Someday I will present it in another form, but for now, I am going to give you a set of annotated links in Wednesday’s post.

Symphony 72

Neil was a little hurt by her response, until he saw moments later that she was wiping a tear from her eye. Sometimes — often — he didn’t know what to make of her.

“Carmen, I don’t want to give these presents at school. I don’t like to have the other kids feel that I’ve singled some of them out. Can you help me see that they get them?”

“Do you want to take them to their homes?”

“I’d rather stay behind the scenes. Could you see to it that they get them? Or I could take care of the little ones, but would you see to it that Rosa gets the jacket?”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“I don’t want to intrude.”

She looked closely at him and said, “Are you sure that’s the reason?”

He shrugged.

“Have you been out at the apartments?”

“I drive by them every day, but I’ve never been in one of them.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never had reason to go. I’ve never been in one of my rich kids’ homes, either.”

“Don’t you want to see how they live?”

“Yes,” Neil admitted, “I really do, but I don’t want to look like big bwana coming in to look at the native village.”

Carmen shook her head in mild dismay. “Neil,” she said, “I think you’re more ashamed of their poverty than they are.”

# # #

The next day a substitute taught while Neil attended the cooperative learning seminar. It was a pleasant surprise. After the fiasco in Oakland, Neil had expected a wasted day, but this was not so rarified or theoretical. It was a nuts and bolts approach that could be utilized immediately in the classroom. The presenters were convinced that cooperative learning was an answer to all the problems in education. They did not convince Neil that it was, but they convinced him to try it.

He went back to his apartment that night and made a list of his students, ranking them as high, medium, or low performers, then grouped them in fours with one high, one low, and two medium performers in each group. Then he rearranged them so that each group had a balance of Chicanos and Anglos, and of boys and girls. He made up a seating chart to show where his groups would be in the new room arrangement.

When he had finished it did not seem so different. He said aloud to the empty apartment, “I hope it works.”

He would find out in January.

# # #

Christmas inched closer. The children were ready for vacation and their attention wandered at any excuse. Juan Rogers went back to Mexico for the winter, and Joaquin Velasquez followed three days later. Attendance had never been great at Kiernan; by the week before Christmas, it was not uncommon for one fourth of the students to be gone on any given day. Neil preached the values of school attendance and all but tore his hair out in frustration; it did no good.

The children’s minds went on vacation a week before their bodies were allowed to follow.

Then, two days before vacation, Jesse Herrera went on a rampage.

Symphony 71

Neil ended up having a great time. Mrs. de la Vega was past the worst of her illness and her zest for life had returned. She waited until Carmen had gone out, then got up and cooked Neil a delicious Mexican meal, ignoring his protests, and carrying on a one sided conversation in Spanish. Only their gestures and laughter were bilingual.

Carmen chewed him out royally for letting her mother out of bed. Neil said, “How was I to stop her?” Carmen had to admit that it would have been impossible.

Several days later, Carmen came in to see his can tree. She had only just heard of it from Delores. She said, “Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing? I would have been glad to help.”

“I really didn’t do that much,” Neil explained. “Stephanie Hagstrom and her mother were the force behind it, and Delores agreed to do the distribution for us.”

“How did you ever get it started? I’ve tried to get my seventh graders to have some social conscience all year, and I’ve gotten nowhere.”

Neil explained about the candy trick. She said, “Good. Good. We need more of that kind of thing.” Then she gave him a dazzling smile, looked around to see that no students were near, and gave him a quick kiss.

“”What was that for? Not that I’m complaining.”

“That, Neil McCrae, is because you are a nice guy.”

“It took you long enough to notice.”

Her gaiety went away. Neil said, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Someday I will,” she promised, “but not just now.”

They left together in Carmen’s car because they had a date to do some Christmas shopping at the mall. Neil had to get gifts for his mother and grandfather because this year school was running all the way to the twenty-third. He would have a day to drive to Oregon and no time to shop once he got there.

While they were walking through J. C. Penney’s, Neil said, “You know Rosa Alvarez?”


“If you had to, could you pick out clothes that would fit her?”

“I guess so. Why?”

“She’s kind of chubby.”

“I know what she looks like. Why did you ask if I could pick out clothes for her?”

“Do you think her parents would mind if I bought her a jacket? She has been coming to school without one and it is really getting cold in the mornings.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, Neil. I could let them know so they won’t buy her one for Christmas, if they had planned to. When did you decide to do this?”

Neil shrugged, feeling embarrassed for no good reason. “I don’t know, she just looks so miserable every morning. She always heads for my room to warm up.”

Carmen smiled. “She doesn’t come there just to warm up. You have a fan club.”

That embarrassed Neil even more and Carmen laughed again.

Carmen bought the jacket for him. It was nothing Neil would have chosen, but she assured him it was stylish as well as warm.  He bought lesser presents for a dozen of his other students whose parents were poor. Carmen said, “Can you afford all this?”

“The only other people I have to buy for are my mother and grandfather.”

“And me!”

“Well, that goes without saying.”

“Say it anyway.”

He faced her suddenly and drew her back between some racks of clothing. His face was serious as he said, “Carmen, you are very precious to me. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now.”

“Wow!” She put her hand on his chest and kissed him quickly. Then she pulled away and said, “People are looking. I don’t want the kids to catch us necking behind the lingerie.” more Monday

453. More Weight: Arthur Miller’s Crucible

About a month ago in a post I mentioned Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Sometimes a passing reference like that can bring old thoughts and feelings to the surface, and send me back for a closer look.

I encountered The Crucible in the winter of 1966. Yes, they had printed books that far back. I was in my first quarter at college, writing what was probably my first college paper, “The Evil of Innocence.” My take was that evil came from the girls’ testimonies despite their essential innocence. I offer no apologies for lack of sophistication; everybody has to start somewhere.

For Arthur Miller, The Crucible was about the McCarthy hearings before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. I remember those days only vaguely, since I was less than ten years old. What I actually remember is going to a public meeting with my parents at my grade school where our principal read from J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It, and gave a talk on how communism was a danger, even in our little town of 121 people.

The adults in my life were author to many nightmares.

I met Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about a decade later than I met J. Edgar, and I didn’t react to the McCarthyism allegory. I didn’t respond strongly to the characters either, except for Giles Corey calling for “More weight!” as they crushed him under stones. John Proctor left me unmoved and the various girls were merely victims. I cut them a lot of slack, for reasons you’ll understand in a moment.

In short, I didn’t react to the words on the page, but to the implications that exploded in my mind as I read them. That happens sometimes.

I had turned atheist just before my sixteenth birthday, and had told no one. I was enmeshed in a Baptist family in a Baptist town in the Baptist State of Oklahoma in the middle of the Bible Belt. I kept my head down and my mouth shut and told no one until I reached college two and a half years later.

So, when I read The Crucible I was a recent escapee from my own personal Salem. For me the main protagonist was not a man, woman, or girl, but Salem itself, seen as a massive, encircling, inescapable miasma of religious intolerance, hovering ready to strike down any who disagreed with its particular version of Christianity.

That isn’t good history. It isn’t even a full reading of The Crucible, but it was the story as I read it. No surprise, really.

Today, being a reasonably honest scholar, I went to Goodreads to see how others had reacted to The Crucible and got an earful. About half reacted to the McCarthyism allegory and gave high marks. About half gave three stars for skillful writing, then trashed The Crucible for its sexism. To be more precise, they trashed Arthur Miller for making his males into characters and his females into cyphers.

It kind of makes you wonder: did Miller write a sexist Crucible to reflect the era of the actual witchcraft trials, or because he was a grown man in the fifties and it seemed normal?

Perhaps there is one thing we can learn about great literature, which The Crucible is no matter how unpalatable it may seem to some of today’s readers. It has many messages, for many people, in many ages, and not all of them were necessarily clear in the mind of the writer. Miller saw McCarthyism. I saw the danger of being different in a small community. Goodreads is full of reviews from readers who can’t get past its sexism.

Maybe we can all agree that Giles Corey was a hero and John Proctor was a weasel?