More Lessons from My Week with Frank McCourt

Returning to the premise that writing is my drink and that my literary thirst is a legacy of my parents’ thirst for something stronger, let’s just say I was on a bender the summer of 2003, the summer I was Frank’s student.

It’s not so much that I was writing a lot. I wasn’t. It was that my literary ambition was at its height, transforming me from a human woman to a walking craving. I had a manuscript I was certain was about to burst into the world if my big-name agent ever finished her extended beach vacation. Restless and irritable, all my thoughts lined up around my solitary desire: get the book published, a desire that blinded me to much of the ordinary life around me, including to the very obvious fact that my husband was also caught up in a web of his own, the details of which would come forward six weeks hence in the day that ended our marriage.

So this was strung-out state that I entered Frank’s class that summer. But–part of me–I tend to think of it as the self-effacing Canadian part who is thoroughly repulsed by bald displays of ambition–knew enough to keep my desire to my self. But, maybe I’m just kidding myself that I did.

Within an hour of our first class meeting, I realized I was taking a class from my stepfather. Also from Ireland, my beloved stepfather, would’ve been about the same age as Frank, if the smoking hadn’t killed him in 1997. My stepfather loved to tell stories and I’d often been held captive hours past dinner, still at the table, while he smoked white-tipped Peter Jacksons, sipped his gin and tonics and held court. Frank’s class was pretty much like this without any food to push around my plate. As he told us about his life as a teacher in the NYC public school system, a divorce, family entanglements, what some priest back in Ireland thought of ‘Tis, I anxiously waited for class to start, for him to tell me what I needed to do to become published in a big way.

At some point, I think during class two, I realized: this was it. Frank was a storyteller. Angela’s Ashes was a the stellar success that it was because Frank knows something–everything–about how to tell a story. Sometime during that class, the lion of my ambition found a shady spot to collapse and just listened as Frank taught us everything he knows about setting, dialogue, pacing and theme by laying his stories down before us one by one.

By day three, I was about nine years old, my cheek pressed against the cool desk, listening, listening, now Frank’s wasted another summer he said he’d write, now it’s another summer off teaching and he finally is writing–long hand in front of the fire, the characters of Angela’s Ashes coming alive before him, now Frank’s going through a divorce.

There’s so much from these stories that’s come to revisit since that week. But, one of the stories I remember most vividly is the story of Frank as a young and then not-so-young literary aspirant. He knew he was a writer and knew he had a book in him wanting to come into the world but yet he hadn’t written it yet. He was on the outside wanting in. Just like me.

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2 Responses to More Lessons from My Week with Frank McCourt

  1. telhajj.com says:

    Wow, what an interesting way to do a writing class.

  2. Pingback: Writing About the Dead | Writing Is My Drink

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