Essays and Memoirs
A Severity of Conscience: Writers & Self-Censorship Print E-mail

maxwell_perkins_nywts3(Written May 1997)

Her name is Arianna and she says to me, the professor, after creative writing class, after I had put her in the dunce spot of staying around to speak with me, “I know you wanted me to com­ment on Phillip’s writing, but I can’t because it disgusts me.” She is an older woman, my age, with dread locks and dark brown eyes. There’s a fierceness about her like one who clerks a night shift at 7/11. “It’s his language that repels me,” she goes on, “the language of ad­dicts, using shit and fuck incessantly, typing women as no more than whores who want dope. I’ve heard it a hundred times before, and it doesn’t deserve my attention.”

I shouldn’t be surprised she’s upset. Her objection, though, is rare. “Were you to tell him this,” I say, “he might understand more about his audience than he realizes, that his sensibility is not the only one he can write for.”

Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland Print E-mail

Magritte-11680digi-L(Inside English May 1996)

Some days I think that I might have been something other (I almost wrote more) than a writing teacher. What? A columnist, a novelist, a screenwriter, an editor, a publisher. Yet these fancies dissolve in a mist of maybes because for me there’s so much to like about teaching. Teaching—at least in college—is remarkably nourishing for student and instructor: Students who use the encouragement and structure a good teacher provides typically excel far more than they could on their own, and teachers who balance the autonomy and collegiality which the profession demands usually find their work very gratifying.

The Memoir of Parental Responsibility Print E-mail

img092(Talk given at American Literature Association's "Symposium on American Autobiography" Cabo San Lucas, Mexico November 14, 1994)

Sometimes, listening to my 17-year-old son speak of his future, I find myself staring at him, seizing a moment I desperately hope to hold forever. How tall he is; how much his acne has receded; how soon he'll be gone to college. How bushy black his eyebrows have grown, reminding me of his mother's dark beauty. How happy he seems. How quickly I forget that less than a year ago he swallowed a bottle of antidepressant pills, trying to kill himself.

He has attempted suicide more than once during adolescence, that mire of alienation which he has, I hope, outlasted. Hesitation marks remain on his wrists, as do severe pangs of anxiety in his stomach. When the phone rings after ten p.m., I steel my fear, then exhale, dramatically. Yes, he and I have searched for answers together, alone and in therapy. And yes, some of his depression is due to my failures as a divorced father, my inability to understand and express how that has affected him.

A Meditation on California While Rushing Through It Print E-mail

2683210010_b127534e8b(Benicia Bay Review Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 1994)

How many times have I rushed home to San Diego on a Sunday evening from a weekend off in the hinterlands of California? From Carmel, Idyllwild, Tecaté B.C., from hiking in Yosemite, the Lagunas, Anza-Borrego. The flying drive home inspires me with its geographical spectacle, and the contour of meaning I take from the land I navigate. I always arrive not tired, but ecstatic, aware of something new, something perhaps magical coming to my work and life. I think clearly in the dark at seventy-five miles an hour. One benefit of freeways.

Somewhere in the Talk Show Audience Print E-mail

342685_Friday20Kitty(San Diego Union-Tribune August 12, 1993)

"Welcome, everyone, to 'Audience Survey,' the TV talk show that talks about TV talk shows and their audiences. I'm Chip Pitts, your host for 'Audience Survey,' and before we begin, a few questions. How many here have felt terrible watching the floods in the Midwest—rising waters, melting levees, fleeing families?"

A woman sitting next to me raises her arm eagerly. Many others do too.

"I watched it, but I didn't feel that bad," I say to her. "Maybe I didn't watch enough."

"My God," she says, "the more I watched the worse I felt."

Words for Boys and Girls Print E-mail

boys(San Diego Writers' Monthly August 1993)

The thing I most feared in kindergarten was peeing in my pants. I was no bedwetter; nor was my bladder weak, requiring trips to the toilet every hour. My affliction was more complicated. In the first week of kindergarten I couldn’t yet read those separate words, carved into small brown rectangles high up on the bathroom doors:


BOYS                                                                       GIRLS


In those days—the 1950s—illiteracy wasn’t accommodated: There were no figures of thick-limbed stick people with and without a skirt to classify gender. Maybe I was slow (I had just turned five), but I could read very few words; cat was one, dog another. To choose the right bathroom, I simply followed the older boys. Recess made it easy. Everyone usually went then.

When the Subject Is AIDS, No One Knows What to Say Print E-mail

Hammershoi(San Diego Union-Tribune July 1, 1993)

I was startled to read recently that only 11 percent of Americans personally know someone who has been diagnosed with HIV, who has AIDS or who has died of AIDS-related causes.

Such personal contact is a blessing for victims and their friends.

However, as AIDS grows into new populations, people who have little practice with the uncivil ways AIDS strikes seldom know how to respond. This past year, Chris, a student in my college writing class, struggled with AIDS until he had to withdraw from school.

Before he left, Chris talked to the class about his experience.

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