Monday, January 25, 2010


Got a care package from home today. Life on the north shore of Kauai ain't exactly roughing it, but there are a few things that can't be had, so my dear mother sends along packages. Today's included a few news clippings about Haiti and such, and then I fished out the last torn square of newsprint and turned it over...

There was a poem for a man who died eleven years ago this month. Frank McConnell, gentleman scholar, professor of English at UCSB. He was a rare genius, an expert in Science Fiction and a biblical scholar. He was married to a woman who already had a young son. They were not married very long when he died, and for the last eleven years on the anniversary of his death she runs a picture of him with a poem in the News-Press. Here is this year's poem:

(As sung by Nancy LaMott)

As I remember him, he had a gentle way.
He was so bright of mind, I can't find words to say.
He turned the darkest day into a world of gold.
He made things younger when they were growing old....

As I remember him, he was a loving man.
I knew it well because where he was, life began.
And though I loved the boy for just a little while,
It was so wonderful. It was so beautiful.
As I remember him, I smile.

Me again... As I remember him, he was a drinker and a smoker, he was round and wore seersucker suits in spring and only got his hair cut every six months or so. He got red in the face when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. He'd stand on the stage in front of three hundred students, light a cigarette, and say "screw 'em, I got tenure." He gave away the trick ending to Citizen Kane to the entire class, because if we hadn't seen it by the time we got to college we deserved what we got. On the class before Halloween, which was always wild at UCSB, he gave us a wonderful talk about being careful, and told us that we were the same person sober or drunk, and to not pour excuses out of bottles.

Frank McConnell was also someone none of us knew. He was someone worthy of a poem in the paper every year. Someone who became a loving dad to a young boy and an adored husband to his wife. Everyone loved the part of him they knew, and we all knew different parts. As wonderful as he was in the lecture hall, and in the pub at the student store afterward, he was, I suspect, more wonderful at home.

That's today's lesson. I didn't invent the idea that nobody knows who anyone else is when they are alone, or in the privacy of their own thoughts. I didn't come up with the statement that every marriage is an unknown but to the two people involved. Every family is a mystery to outsiders. But I want you to think about that when you're writing. Some of the most dramatic, most terrifying, most astonishing writing is not about dead bodies and bombs and alien invasions, it's about what happens when a door closes, shutting out the rest of the world, and your characters are private, even alone. Do not neglect to show your readers that which they rarely see.

Frank, this Heineken's for you.

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