I don't mean the other Mark Costello, the author of the quirky novel 'The Big If.'
I mean the author of 'The Murphy Stories, ' professor emertius at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I took my only Creative Writing courses -- the freshman elective for scholarship students, and one semester as a sophomore. I was sixteen, reclusive, awkward, vastly impressionable, terrified. Mark was dashing, erudite, thoughtful, challenging, patient, comic, and supassingly devout when it came to the altar of the written word.
Forty years later, I am still much the same.
And so is he.
Truly great teachers may not always enjoy the acclaim of the world. The other great man who took an interest in my stories, the late legend Ray Bradbury, author of 'Farenheit 451,' 'The Martian Chronicles,' 'Dandelion Wine,' and other prose pieces that are molecularly American, is known to most people who stayed in school past the eighth grade. For Ray, a group of us (me among the lesser lights, Neil Gaiman and Alice Hoffman among the greater) contributed short stories to a collection called 'Shadow Show,' that celebrated Ray's contribution to letters. Shorlty before his death last month, at the age of 91, Ray wrote the foreward. It was published jsut a few days ago, and one critic called it perhaps the best short story collection ever published.
But when I speak of writers among writers, they all know Mark Costello.
Mark (he said that we could call him Mark, although I did not; I called him nothing, because I was too terrified) was not so widely published as Ray Bradbury, although he was as gifted.
His fictional hero, Murphy, was a morose, darkly funny, hard-drinking man for whom things never went quite well. By contrast, Mark, although also black Irish, was a happy man.Until one day.
He had good children, and an extraordinary gifted and beautiful wife called Tess. Then he came home to find she was his wife not anymore. The novel he now is writing is about that discovery, how he had unknowingly dropped the stitch that was was the common thread binding together his entire life.
Not until many years later did I learn who had else had passed through Mark's classroom -- David Wong Louie, David Foster Wallace, and Bob Shacochis, among others. Mark was there for my friend, Andre Dubus III, when Andre's own dad was not; he calls him "Andre Little." Andre Pere and Mark served together in the Marines, and that was one more thing of which Mark didn't speak. Although famous writers came to our classroom, we didn't know they were famous. Mark didn't emphasize that. They all owed him a debt of inspiration. He didn't speak of that, either.
Mark spoke of how to write.
He encouraged me in the same prompt I use today with my own students, to copy several sentences by a master, and then write something, in one's own voice, but in that master's style, to engrave good habits like a brand on the brain. He taught me that stories were as important as characters.
And when, a year before I graudated, I left the University of Illinois for a small college, mostly because of a boy, Mark did not hide his discouragement or disappointment.
Oh, he was so right, about that and every thing.
It seems I turned out to be just like Mark, a little better at teaching about life than living it, a little better at writing than engaging with the world. That I think of Mark Costello all the time and that I try to be like him beggars the truth. Without his patience and tolerance, his wise and minimal guidance, I would never have been a writer. I didn't want to be a writer. I studied Biology. I believed I was a writer only because Mark said that was so, and I am not the only person who feels just that way. As Joni MItchell wrote, when I was in high school, part of Mark pours out of me "in these lines from time to time."
In a program several years ago at Champaign, he said of me, "Here is Jackie, my most brilliant student," and, although I was not that, not by a country mile, I could not see my way to the podum for the tears of gratitude.
Because of him, I have studied writing again. I am nearly finished with my MFA studies, under such gifted writers as Mitchell Wieland and Wiley Cash and Richard Adam Carey. I have begun to teach, and I strive also to be a teacher who says least, who drops the fewest names, who gives the best of me to each student. I will never be the teacher Mark Costello is. With that said, I know he will be proud of me without his ever having to tell me.
It is said often that most of what writers learn of writing, they learn from books. This was true of me, too. I never took any more courses in Creative Writing; I ravaged every library in every town I ever lived in, for every book, fiction and non, and found something to admire in most of them. For me, there are great stories and not-as-great stories, but all the stories matter. With one exception (Stephen King's book on writing) I haven't ever read a book on how to write.
The best craft book, for me, wore a corduroy sport coat with leather patches over a black tee shirt and scruffy jeans. He looked like great writing sounds. He had salt-and-pepper hair and an air somewhere between amusement and bemusement.
When I was young enough that I could still learn, he was my only teacher.
As my brother says, I've had a lucky life -- but luck of both kinds, spectacularly good and dumbfoundingly bad. That I turned up in Mark Costell's class so many years ago was clearly the first kind, like being handed a star to keep in my pocket.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place