“Why do authors write?” It was a question that I posed to a respected colleague, a member of our English Department who had joined the faculty 50 years before our discussion took place over lunch in the dining hall a few years ago. Here was a fellow who had taught thousands of students over the years. He taught them how to write 3 by 5 essays. He shared historical facts with them, helping to shape their understanding of how economic and social concerns influenced the authors they were studying. He shared keen insights which he developed over years of reading and study. But he never wrote.
“What?” I asked. How could one who spent so much intimate time with literature not feel compelled to write himself? And if he had never taken pen in hand to share his thoughts or to express his emotions or to share an experience from his life. What was I, a member of the math department, thinking as I considered giving him a piece that I had written to read?
You see, this was the true intent of my question. There I was, a math teacher barreling towards the end of mid-career, sizing up a colleague, trying to gauge if this was a person with whom I could entrust the sentiments that I had recorded on paper. I was far removed from the days of turning in a weekly essays to Dr. Provost at Duquesne University in the late seventies, somewhat used to his meaningful, but, at times, critical responses and comfortable with the understanding that no one beyond the two of us would ever see what I had written.
This was different. This was going out on a limb with no way back. This would either take our friendship to a new level, or it would prove to be a stumbling block which might prove to be more than our relationship could bear. It was scary to broach the subject “… I was wondering if you would look over something that I wrote.” “Sure”, he responded.. The next day I handed him a file folder containing a piece that I had written. It is difficult to describe the sensation of anticipation that I began to experience the moment I turned it over to him. Would he like it? Would he find it the least bit meaningful or relevant? Or would he say “Oh , that was nice.” , hoping that I would not bring up the subject again.
A few days later he returned the piece, and, in his typical matter of fact approach, complimented me. I believe that he was amused that a member of the math department was motivated to write. I wonder if he understood how much I appreciated his encouraging words. He is now retired, but we still enjoy breakfast together each Friday morning. I tease him about being a cynical member of the older retired generation, and, from time to time, I share a piece of writing with him. Ours is one of the few actual friendships that I have formed since moving back to Pennsylvania thirteen years ago. And I would not have imagined it possible when I first met him, because he basically told me that he did not bother engaging new faculty in conversation until they had been around 3 or more years… “ no sense in wasting time on the ones who may be gone in a year or two..” – no, that was not the actual quote, but it went something like that!
So I feel both compelled and very happy to dedicate this blog to my friend Harry. I am not sure if I will tell him that it exists. He has a cell phone, but the battery is dead, and I am not sure that he knows how to charge it, and he certainly does not “do computers.” I am quite sure that he would be quick to share a cynical quip about life at 6 miles per hour… but then, I would expect nothing less! Jt