Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt in memorium

Lawrence Block said it best: "It's not enough to be a genius Arnold, you have to be a genius at something." Yesterday, we lost a man who was truly a genius at something... he was one of those gifted souls for whom the English language sang a special song, for whom the alphabet danced like notes in a score. Writer, educator, wordsmith, Pulitzer Prizewinning writer of unforgettable memoirs and a master of his craft: Francis "Frank" McCourt died Sunday in a Manhattan hospice, reportedly of complications from Meningitis. Beginning with the harrowing tale of his coming of age in Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt killed us slowly and then revived us one-by-one. Breathed life into his past and through the eyes of his upbringing, shed new light into dark places. McCourt worked as a New York City school teacher for thirty years, eventually ending up at the famed Stuyvesant High where he taught English and eventually Creative Writing. In an April 2002 Op Ed in the New York Times, McCourt spoke eloquently of dragging these kids out of their middle-class stupor and into a world of stories. A world where everyone has a story to tell, no matter their background...
"I assured them that ''Once upon a time'' was good enough for the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault and even James Joyce. My students resisted. They were comfortable and middle class and everything was programmed and they were in this school because they were strong in science and mathematics. They would graduate from high school to the best universities and have no adventures because that's the way it was with their families. They had no stories to tell, and in their lives there was no once upon a time. They envied me my miserable Irish childhood and wished (almost) they could be poor so they'd have something to write about." -Frank McCourt New York Times 14 April 2002
I don't know how many of my readers are McCourt fans or how many fully realize the loss that our culture suffered yesterday with his passing. He was every bit the storyteller that Updike was, just in a different vein and a unique context all his own. I spent some time last night trolling through my books and the collected 'wisdom' of the Internet, looking for some exemplar of his talent, some tidbit of writing that I could point you to that would give you the measure of this man's genius with the language. I decided that you need to read all of it to really get the measure of him. However, you could do a lot worse than reading that 2002 New York Times Op/Ed I mentioned earlier. If brevity truly is "the soul of wit" as the Bard tells us, then this is proof. In the abbreviated eloquence required by the medium, McCourt lays out his educational philosophy, his wonder at how students inform the teacher and how to tell stories. Any story. If all else fails, tell a story about last night's chicken. Just tell your story. Thank you Mr. McCourt. For your words, for the thirty years you gave to the education of young minds. And thank you for the glimpse inside your life that you showed us, for reminding us that even the most deplorable of basic circumstances can be overcome.
"The last thing a writer needs is answers -- the end of thought and the dream. [...] Where are the dreams and fantasies of childhood? The heads of adolescents are clogged with media images and sounds. The teacher, then, is the Knight or Fair Maid of the Imagination and the battle lines are drawn. Pull the plug, cut off the juice, let the batteries die. Just sit there and dream. And when in doubt, tell a story." - Frank McCourt "REFLECTIONS ON CREATIVE WRITING CLASS: THE TEACHER; How to confront 30,000 words a week of teenage angst and ecstasy." Editorial. New York Times 14 Apr. 2002. 20 July 2009

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).