Beyond Exception: The Writer's Life
by Will Hochman
Every month is the cruelest month, but after a while, they remain just months, marking time as we keep on keeping on. Writing, like time, is a way to keep on keeping on. I teach freshmen how to write and I tell them it isn't just talent that makes their ideas tick, it's rewriting to find the right words. Everyone looks in different places for them even though we know they all come from the same place. How words, ideas, and writing come out; either matters with love when haphazardly finding readers, or it matters in school for a variety of more artificial, but no less important reasons. Some of the reasons are phenomenal and some are pedantic. The assigned essay has always been one of the ways words usually come out with agony, and writing teachers aren't too frequently known to be the loving readers they really are. (It really is time for you grammarians to give up your red pens though...).
Deans seem to enjoy making students suffer by making the freshman writing courses required, but they go crazy when freshman essays get too creative and sound like stories or poems. The truth of this story is that we don't spend enough time valuing creativity in freshman year writing classes and need to reconsider what we emphasize as writers and writing teachers.
I love to teach freshman writing. Besides all the fun it is to make Deans angry, there is usually something wonderful brewing in these young people's minds and I enjoy being around to watch it come out. (Instead of "freshman," which might be too sexist a term, they should probably be called "freshers" but that's another story . . .) First year college students bring an enthusiasm to learning that teachers need to experience. One of them, Buddy Cohen, told me he never found writing fun, though he knew he was supposed to. We spent a good deal of conference time talking about writing, but we talked much more about Buddy. He was a great baseball fan and once told me he thought he loved the game so much it wasn't simply fun any longer. He said writing was like that for him. I wondered out loud if baseball rules weren't too rigid to make his analogy work. He said that maybe once someone writes something, it can become anyone's text, just like baseball can be anybody's game. I seemed to have jarred loose some poetry in his memory. He told me a story from his childhood that we both ended up remembering .
He was once a very serious ten-year old and the most important thing in Buddy's world was Little League. As he approached the plate, his shining black eyes squinted and his forehead wrinkled with determination. He stood at the plate and held a 28 inch Louisville Slugger. The rounded wood was heavy, even though he used the team's lightest bat. Everything was too large for him. The blue, batting helmet felt too loose around his head. His gray Panthers uniform shirt was short sleeved, but the sleeves of the heavy wool jersey reached below his elbow. Even his brother's old cleats required newspaper stuffing in the toes. Oblivious to anything except baseball, he dug in, ready to play.
Danny Neutrino, the coach's son, stood on third base screaming at Buddy to get some wood on the ball. The first pitch zipped past Buddy as he heard the umpire call "strike one." The umpire was a huge shadow, a man with a black mask and a midnight blue, puffed-up chest. The catcher, a boy named Jimmy Miller, had red hair and a spotted face of tough freckles that matched his red chest protector. Red Jimmy sneered at Buddy and began his chant of "no batter, no batter..."
Buddy stepped back and looked at his father, who had moved from the sidelines to stand behind the chain-link backstop . Then, Buddy looked at the coach standing near first base. Mr. Neutrino touched the visor of his cap and then clapped his hands, which was the signal to bunt. Mr. Neutrino had shown the entire team how to bring the bat down from your shoulders as the pitcher wound up and then to hold the bat horizontally in front of the plate in order to softly push the bat down at the ball. He called it "squaring around." Buddy stepped back into the batter's box and took an imaginary home run swing to look tough for his father and for Roy Callahan, the pitcher.
Roy Callahan looked gigantic on the mound. He had short, curly blond hair and a long, thin nose and his eyes were squinting meanly and laughing at Buddy at the same time. Roy Callahan's long, left arm hung down limply, holding the ball.
Buddy's mouth was dry. He had spit out his huge wad of bubble gum because his jaw hurt from chewing so hard. He wanted to spit before he stepped into the batter's box, but his mouth was too dry. Red Jimmy crouched and Roy Callahan pumped and threw a fast ball that looked like it was going to hit Buddy in the head. He stumbled backward. The catcher laughed as he stood up to catch the slightly high pitch.
Buddy looked up at the Umpire who silently signaled the pitch was a ball by holding up both index fingers. Buddy dusted his pants off, but it was useless because they were so baggy. His helmet had tumbled off his head and his father returned it to Buddy with a reassuring smile and a reminder not to be afraid. Buddy picked up his bat and got back in the batter's box.
Again the coach touched his visor and clapped his hands. Again, big Roy Callahan pumped and threw a terrific fast ball at Buddy's head, and again Buddy fell backward, but this time the pitch was a perfect strike. The umpire's "Steeeerike two," sounded like thunder. Buddy felt his eyes bulge with tears and fought to hold them back. He got back in the batter's box without dusting himself off or looking over his shoulder at his father.
Mr. Neutrino yelled at Buddy to swing away. Buddy saw only Roy Callahan holding the ball in his wild left hand, standing ten feet tall on the mound, and beginning a fearsome wind up.
In the seconds before the ball started toward Buddy, he was thinking about his first hardball lesson. His father made both sons hit themselves as hard as they could with baseballs and said that was as much as a ball could hurt. His brother said the worst that could happen was a broken nose. Buddy realized his brother had never been at bat when anyone threw the ball as hard as Roy Callahan. Buddy thought the next pitch would probably break his face.
The ball was coming and Buddy knew he would swing at it, no matter what. He felt it was coming right at him, but this time he closed his eyes and sent his bat into orbit. The ball sailed by, untouched by his bat, past the catcher and umpire. Buddy didnt see it bouncing behind him, but he heard his father, brother, coach and teammates screaming at him to run! Out of the corner of his eye he saw Danny Neutrino running at him from third. Buddy guessed he must have really hit the ball and took off for first base. When the play was finished, he was standing safely on first and Danny Neutrino had scored before Red Jimmy could find the ball, which had rolled all the way to the backstop. Buddy stood on first base, confused, but inches bigger. He didn't know he could run on a third strike if the catcher didn't catch it. Instead, he was thinking that he hit the ball. His throat was no longer dry. He yelled to the next batter to get some wood on the ball. His father would tell Buddy about the dropped third strike rule later, much later.
The only exception to the rule of three strikes and you're out occurs when the catcher drops the ball and first base is unoccupied. But the third strike rule doesn't just apply to baseball. In some ways, writing is about striking out . . . to find out what you can continue with, and if the right conditions exist, the writing that doesnt work is the path to the writing that does work. Our culture has too easily accepted the winner-loser rule. Writing "creatively" comes from letting the lost words find new words and ideas. The third strike exception doesn't stop at writing either, it's about people as well.
The stories of Buddy "Babe" Cohen didn't change much over the years. We remained close, exchanging letters long after he obtained his B.A. in English and then his M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Buddy was one of those students who makes teaching one of life's bonuses. When he got his first teaching job, he let me know I had always been a career model. His letters sometimes seemed like a series of strikeouts, from relationship to relationship or from job to job. Except with writing, he seemed to fail at almost everything. Nonetheless, he never seemed to lose his well-timed smile or his ability to find something of value in life's disappointments to translate into a poem.
At a high school reunion, he gleefully told his classmates he was a poet and a professor. Among all the doctors, lawyers, rich brokers and other success stories, his was clearly the real story. His legend began with the fact that he married his high school sweetheart after not seeing her for seventeen years, but it continued with the fact that through everything,all the rejection and hurt and disappointment, he still wrote poems. He was still trying to hold on to his illusions long after most of his classmates had settled, however comfortably or uncomfortably into their struggles with reality. I guess he was tenacious, though that's the wrong word; its too tough for Buddy. Perhaps enduring mixed with endearing is a better way to describe the quality that kept Buddy's heart beating the odds.
As a poet he learned to ignore rejection slips and to listen to feedback from other poets who read through his poetry instead of reading into it. From those early days struggling with his freshman compositions, he learned what it meant to blend failure with hope and learning. This gentle struggle was there in his essays and poetry, and there in his heart. How else could the flame of his boyhood love still burn so brightly?
What do we have here? Isn't Buddy Cohen me? Isn't he you? If this essay is really a story by a poet, what can it say about genre and the wall writing ignores as easily as it erects? Does it strike out as a story (Strike One?), as an essay (Strike Two?), and as poetry (Strike Three?). As long as Buddy writes, he will always find a way to get on base.
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