Listen. Are you listening? You’re not listening. I am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing.
Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head. There’s the principal. You have to make a decision, a greeting decision. Will you nod? Will you smile? Will you say, Good morning, Mr. Baumel? or will you simply say, Hi? You see someone you dislike . Furious writing again in your head. Decision to be made. Turn your head away? Stare as you pass? Nod? Hiss a Hi? See someone you like and you say, Hi, in a warm melting way, a Hi that conjures up splash of oars, soaring violins, eyes shining in the moonlight.
There are so many different ways of saying Hi. Hiss it, trill it, bark it, sing it, bellow it. laugh it, cough it. A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore.
I’ll do this as a male because women, for me, still remain the great mystery. I could tell you stories. Are you listening? There’s a girl in this school that you’ve fallen in love with. You know she’s broken up with someone else so the field is clear. You’d like to go out with her.
Oh, the writing now sizzles in your head. You might be one of those cool characters who could saunter up to Helen of Troy and ask her what she’s doing after the siege, that you know a nice lamb-and-ouzo place in the ruins of Ilium. The cool character, the charmer, doesn’t have to prepare much of a script. The rest of us are writing.
You call her to see if she’ll go out with you on Saturday night. You’re nervous. Rejection will lead you to the edge of the cliff, the overdose.
You tell her, on the phone, you’re in her physics class.
She says, doubtfully, Oh, yeah.
You ask if she’s busy Saturday night.
She’s busy. She has something planned, but you suspect she’s lying. A girl cannot admit she has nothing to do on Saturday night. It would be un-American. She has to out on the act. God, what would the world say?
You, writing in your head, ask about the following Saturday night and all the other Saturdays stretching into infinity. You’ll settle for anything, you poor little schmuck, anything as long as you can see her before you start collecting Social Security.
She plays her little game, tells you call her again next week and she’ll see. Yeah, she’ll see.
She sits at home on Saturday night watching TV with her mother and Aunt Edna, who never shuts up.
You sit home Saturday night with your mother and father , who never say anything. You go to bed and dream that next week, oh, God, next week, she might say yes and if she does you have it all planned, that cute little Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue with the red and white checked tablecloth and the Chianti bottles holding those dripping white candles.
Dreaming, wishing, planning: it’s all writing, but the difference between you and the man on the street is that you’re looking at it, friends, getting it set in your head, realizing the significance of the insignificant, getting it on paper.
You might be in the throes of love or grief but you are ruthless in observation. You are your material. you are writers and one thing is certain: no matter what happens on Saturday night, or any other night, you’ll never be bored again. Never. Nothing human is alien to you.
Hold you applause and pass up your home work.
Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to school, go on vacation, go to college, fall in love or something, graduate and go into some kind of profession, get married, have the two point three kids you’re always talking about, send the kids to school, get divorced like fifty percent of the population, get fat, get the first heart attack, retire, die.
Jonathan, that is the most miserable scenario of American life I’ve heard in a high school classroom. But you’ve supplied the ingredients for the great American novel. You’ve encapsulated the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
They said I must be joking.
From Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” (2005)