Tuesday, March 08, 2016

`The Profound Connection'

Thanks to Suzanne Murphy I seldom use the adverb “very.” I won’t say never because writing is not a matter of unquestioningly following (or breaking) rules, which is another lesson I owe to Suzanne. Write it, read it aloud, delete the dross – a Murphy mantra. She stressed concision and precision. And here is one of her usage rules articulated in the form of a proverb: “Roasts are done. People are finished.” And one more: If you want to write, read. All of this wisdom is second nature, absorbed almost half a century ago, because Suzanne Murphy was my teacher at Valley Forge High School in Parma Heights, Ohio, a suburb on the West Side of Cleveland. In my junior year (1968-69) I took her classes in English and creative writing, and as a senior I enrolled in creative writing a second time and became the editor of the school’s literary magazine. On Monday I received an email from Anne Sweeney, Suzanne’s daughter:

“My mom passed away February 22 after a courageous journey through dementia. She spoke often of you in earlier years, and I have the essay you wrote about her which she framed and hung in her home. I have always been so astonished by the profound connection she had with her students, and so I am trying to reach as many of you as I can.”

The “essay” was a newspaper column I wrote almost thirty years ago about Suzanne and our debts to rare teachers. The clipping has turned brown in a file cabinet but its contents remain in front of me every day. Suzanne was the first person who took me seriously and listened to what I had to say. She instilled in me the practice of writing daily and the discipline of being ruthless with everything I write. She had us keep journals which she periodically critiqued (“You can do better than this!” in red pen, is one repeated comment I remember).

She had us subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly, where I first read Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the November and December 1969 issues. Most of the stories I wrote for her were heavily indebted to my two favorite fiction writers at the time, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. One story was almost a straight steal from The Fixer, and another a recycling in miniature of The Adventures of Augie March. I once recited the well-known opening sentence of the latter novel -- “I am an American, Chicago-born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style . . .” – in class, though I no longer remember why. Suzanne loaned me a college anthology of short stories, and late one night in bed I read for the first time Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which scared the hell out of me.

Teachers invite sentimentality or resentment. I knew Suzanne solely by her role in the classroom. The private lives of teachers then were inviolate, which only bolstered their authority. Officers didn’t fraternize with enlisted men, and they made no effort to be our buddies. My debt to her is twofold: encouragement and discipline, which are all that any writer needs. As an adult I would almost slip and call her Miss Murphy. She was the first of several teachers (Guy Davenport was another) whose lessons have never stopped. My memories of her are renewed each day when I sit down to write. Mr. Sammler says “I see you have these recollections,” and Wallace, a schlemiel, replies: “Well, I need them. Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

[Read Suzanne’s obituary here.]


Denkof Zwemmen said...

Mark Twain: “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Tim Guirl said...

I'm guilty, of course, of sniveling sentimentality in saying that during the 1950s and into the 1960s teaching was considered a calling and not a mere job. It showed and I am grateful to have attended public schools in America during those glory years.