It takes a lot of work to flunk algebra. You have to be able to tolerate both guilt and the patent insecurity faced when classmates realize you are hopelessly behind, and therefore think you might actually be stupid.
But I was a hard worker and fought through the shame to accomplish the task of flunking algebra my junior year in high school. In part it was an act of defiance towards everything formulaic, which at seventeen years old I saw as an affront to all notions of human sensibility and creativity. Hell, I even wrote poetry and joined the poetry club. Those were tough things for a leading athlete to do. But they were not as hard as flunking algebra. That took true fortitude.
Never mind that formulas were also rather critical in learning English composition and grammar, both keys to one of my favorite activities even in my teens, and that was writing.
The difference (in my mind, at least) was that writing formulas actually promised to take you somewhere original, exciting and literary. Algebraic equations always seemed to take you somewhere somebody else had already been. "Yes, that's the right answer" simply had no satisfaction in it for me. It did not seem creative. The point of algebra is to prepare you for pursuits in higher math. But if you were content with geometry what more is there to pursue? So I flunked algebra with an exclamation point. Next subject please.
But let us pause to give due respect to math as a pursuit. Of course true mathematicians are some of the most creative people to walk the earth. Their calculations are used to predict all sorts of things. They drive the foundations of science, shoot rocket ships through the atmosphere into space and figure out the ideal proportions of the female shape that drive the minds of men through the roof. All noble pursuits. So kudos to the Math Heads, and thanks for inventing computers. They make writing much easier. Editing too.
But back to English class. Now there was salvation. In our high school, English and Literature were taught by a lanky Studs Terkel fan named Jim Byrne, who would kick back in his chair and read to us long passages of Terkel interviewing this or that fascinating working stiff. Those of us who cared could just sit there and soak it in.
Our reading assignments and reports were handed out with a similarly laconic methodology. Byrne was in no hurry to teach us anything. He just wanted us to learn well what we managed to cover in class.
Mostly, that was respect for good writing. Of course that's a lifelong pursuit, even more of a challenge than playing tennis or learning guitar. There are days when you respect the craft and there are days when you crank it out. There is no predicting sometimes whether one end of the spectrum or the other will produce better results. Pressure has a way of bringing out the best in some of us. To others it is a soul-crusher, turning a white page or a computer screen into a mind-sucking device, on par with evil and the devil. We will never be sure which of those, or both, consumed the highly productive Hunter S. Thompson, a writer I particularly admired for his ability to turn his insane grade of writing formulas into manic rants against the ceiling of the universe.
Perhaps we absorb a part of every writer we read, never knowing it. Absorption takes time, but if you don't hurry it, the lesson lasts a lifetime. Credit that attitude to Jim Byrne, a writing mentor who would rather have laughed his dry laugh than blame you for being late on an assigned writing project. Sure, he might ask students how and why they delayed their work, but those explanations all sort of fed into the final piece in his mind. He'd grade you for the quality of your excuses at times, then give you more things to write about.
Maybe that's why Jim Byrne found Studs Terkel amusing and inspiring. The apparent ease with which Terkel interviewed his subjects was a great attribute in the mind of Jim Byrne. The fact that the act of interviewing literally created content was another admired trait. "Hell, you don't have to write anything if you get other people talking for you," he once muttered.
It pays to know the right questions to ask, of course. And why to ask them. Then how to draw even more from a subject. All these things come in handy whethere you're working on fiction or non-fiction. In real life you must ask questions people are intrigued to answer. In the fictional world you must ask questions of your characters so that your readers will find them interesting.
Jim Byrne nurtured, to the best of his laid-back ability as a mentor, that desire to learn what it takes to be a good writer.
His literary interests were by no means limited to Turkel. We read many great books together, often out loud, and in class. Reading the written word aloud is an important level of involvement. It involves a commitment to doing justice to the tone and meaning of the writing. Mentors know that sort of thing counts.
Jim Byrne's love of literature and writing stuck by me like a side car through college and beyond, when I'd sit on a train to Chicago during commutes, writing novels longhand on bright yellow pads of paper. The city scared me at first, and there was no connection in my mind between what we'd read about the people Studs Terkel interviewed, and how they shaped the character and history of the city. That would come later, thinking back with the perspective of age and experience to realize that Chicago was its people as well as a place. It is hard to realize that fact when you're naive and overwhelmed by the big city.
But all that now resides in my mind as a source for future material. That's when you interview yourself. Just like our mentor taught us.
It is the role of a mentor to help you get from here to there in the process of becoming a writer, and to excel at anything but algebra or whatever else plagues you. Please, don't make me go back there. Ever again.