Essays and Memoirs
Open Mouth, Out Comes Home Print E-mail

SL24Picasso Le Sauvetage.jpf (The OC Weekly September 16, 1997)

In England, my companion Suzanna and I began traveling with the self-assurance that for the next several weeks our American voices would be the source of fascination, if not playful suspicion, by another group of people who—Hooray!—speak the same language we do. Coming from a country that venerates and distrusts, occasionally vilifies and deports, the “foreigner,” now we’d discover for ourselves the complexity of being “other.” We were ready to be enjoined: Cali-forn-i-yay? by hosts civil and curious: O.J., riots, Hollywood, quakes, affirmative action. Just ask; we’ll tell.

Freshman Comp, 1967 Print E-mail

Thomas_MacAfee(Anchor Essay Annual: Best of 1997 edited by Phillip Lopate)

That I was a severely bookish eighteen-year-old must have been fairly evident to my dormi­tory roommates at the University of Missouri, my freshman semester. The night before classes began, they tried to pry me away from my desk for a keg party to which I responded, “I can’t go. I need to finish studying the introductions to my textbooks.” I believed those small Roman-numerated pages would offer insight into the learning models that awaited me. In fact, so intent was I to begin my education that after saying goodbye to Mom and Dad a few days earlier I rushed out to purchase my course books and then, parked at my desk, nearly memorized the glossaries of each text. I wanted more than a head start; I wanted to achieve, as my dad sug­gested, the notice of those who mattered, the professors with whom I was soon to be engaged, and I hoped, enthralled. If called on in class, my responses would prove just how formidably prepared I was.

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.

Four Prose Poems Print E-mail

dfd883ebd51fcc46d753579d588b2f26 sadness matisse paintings(Sunflower: A Literary Journal for Freewrites 1993)

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