by Todd Walton, October 2, 2013
Friends of ours recently told us that their twenty-five-year-old son, a bright personable college graduate, but no techie, found the job market so grim he signed up for a seven-year officer training program in the Navy. The benefits are socialist utopian—excellent pay, free healthcare for him and his wife and children (should he ever marry and have children), subsidized housing, free travel, his children’s college educations entirely paid for, fabulous retirement pension and benefits—and he can go to graduate school online while serving in the Navy and becoming a helicopter pilot or a meteorologist or a navigator or just about anything else he can imagine becoming.
The big problem is that he will be a cog in the imperialist war machine and his superiors may ask him to kill people or support the killing of people, which won’t be easy for him because he’s such a nice guy and doesn’t want to kill people or help other people kill people. And, of course, he might get killed or maimed in the line of duty, though if he doesn’t join the Navy he is just as likely to get killed or maimed by some idiot drinking or talking on the phone or taking drugs (or all three simultaneously) while driving.
In any case, the idea of a promising young person joining the military because he or she can’t see any other way out of the putrid economic situation engendered by our insanely selfish stupid shortsighted overlords reminded me of Trish, and I thought you might enjoy hearing my story about her.
Twenty-five years ago, at a low ebb in my writing career, I was invited to take the reins of the Creative Writing Department of the California State Summer School for the Arts, a brand new program for ambitious teenagers who wanted to see about becoming writers, artists, dancers, actors, animators, and musicians—a one-month summer residency program at CalArts in Valencia on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first person they hired for my position stuck around long enough to hire two writing teachers, but then quit when he realized the job actually required a couple months of hard work. I took the job because I was out of money and my wife said she would leave me if I didn’t take the job.
The school’s charter explicitly called for the department heads to be experienced professionals in their fields and not academics, yet I was the only non-academic among the department heads, a situation profoundly disheartening to me because academics, even the nice and well-meaning ones, tend to be maddeningly unimaginative and profoundly crippled by dogmas every bit as stifling as the dogmas of organized religion.
Trish only got into CSSSA because the school was so new there were very few applicants. The second year we turned away many promising writers, but that first year all thirty-two of the Creative Writing applicants were invited to attend, and twenty-seven accepted those invitations.
Growing up in a trailer park in a rough-and-tumble part of San Bernardino, Trish was eighteen going on thirty-five, and one tough cookie. Tall and slender with carrot-red hair, she wore tight blue jeans, T-shirts with NAVY writ large across the chest, and her boyfriend’s big black leather jacket, her boyfriend being a badass biker in jail for aggravated assault but hoping to transfer out of the county jail in San Berdoo and into the Marines. Trish was going into the Navy a few weeks after she finished her month at CalArts and “the only reason I did this summer school thing is because Miss Engle said I should.” Miss Engle was Trish’s English teacher and Trish adored her because “Miss Engle is the only teacher I ever had who thought my poetry was good.”
Trish wrote poems that rhymed, and her rhymes precipitated my first big crisis at the summer school. One of the two teachers working with me, a died-in-the-wool academic, told Trish that rhyming was infantile and creatively restrictive and Trish should write poems that didn’t rhyme. This was before rap lyrics and competitive poetry slams rife with rhyming became all the rage in the hipper college English departments and before I managed to convert my faculty to my teaching philosophy best summed up by Johnny Mercer: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
So three days into the program, Trish came to my office, stood in the doorway, looked at the floor and said, “I’m quitting because Donna said my poems were restricted kindergarten shit. Fuck her. I’m outta here.”
To which I replied, “I’m sorry she said that to you. What a thoughtless thing to do. She’s obviously wrong and doesn’t get the gist of song. Some of the greatest poetry ever written, rhymes. She’s hopelessly out of step with the times. I love rhymes. Bob Dylan, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves, and all those Led Zeppelin songs. I think Donna just stayed in college too long.”
Trish frowned and said, “You want to read my poems?”
“I’d love to. I can read them tonight and…”
“No,” she said, stepping into the room and placing a big black binder on my desk. “Read them now. Okay? I’ll wait outside.”
Her poems were written in curly cursive on lined paper, brief chronicles of her hard scrabble life in a trailer park in San Berdoo with her alcoholic mother and promiscuous sister. Her father was in prison and one of her poems about him rhymed mail and jail and bail and tail, his latest crime statutory rape. Her boyfriend was a heavy equipment operator and a biker who was sweet when sober, crazy violent when drunk. Yes, her rhymes sometimes muted the power of her narrative, but the discipline of rhyming seemed to help her make sense out of the chaos from whence she came.
“Trish?” I called, having lost myself in her poems. “You there?”
She reappeared in the doorway and gave me a furtive glance before returning her gaze to the floor. “You took a long time.”
“They’re fantastic,” I said, tapping her binder. “Why don’t we switch you into my section and see what happens?”
“You like them?” She squinted suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that so I won’t quit?”
“I love them, and I’d love to see you try your hand at writing a story or two.”
“I just write poems,” she said, picking up her binder. “Poems that rhyme.”
So Trish became a permanent member of my morning section, and over the next three weeks she changed considerably, something that happened to many of the students who attended CSSSA where for the first time in their young lives they found themselves in the company of fellow artists and social misfits and original thinkers, free from the constraints of parents and old haunts and habits and educational dogma—breathing the air of creativity and freedom, however fleeting the experience.
Trish eventually wrote several good poems that did not rhyme, at least not overtly, and she wrote a brilliant and painfully realistic story about a young man who robs a liquor store, flees on his motorcycle to the trailer park where his girlfriend lives, and convinces his sweetheart to ride with him into the desert where they are ambushed by the police and the young man dies in his girlfriend’s arms—drenching her in his blood.
For the Creative Writing denouement that first year, we commandeered a large conference room and invited students and faculty from the other disciplines, as well as parents and friends, to attend a performance by our writers of their best new work. Participation was voluntary and those writers too shy to read were encouraged to enlist fellow writers or Drama students to read their stories and poems for them.
I very much wanted Trish to perform her story because I thought it by the far the best short story produced by anyone during that long hard month of work. But Trish said she couldn’t possibly get up in front of an audience and the only way she would consent to having her story read was if I read it.
The great day dawned, and in our audience of a hundred or so students and faculty and parents were Trish’s big handsome boyfriend en route from jail to Camp Pendleton, and Miss Engle, Trish’s high school English teacher.
The show was a resounding success, the audience applauding loudly after every poem and story. For the grand finale I performed Trish’s tragic tale. When I finished reading the last sentence and looked out at the audience, there was not a dry eye in the place. Then came thunderous applause, everyone shouting “Author! Author!” until Trish stood up to receive her due.
When she came to say goodbye to me the next day, Trish declared, “They only liked it because you’re such a good reader.”
“Not true. They loved it because it’s a great story. And you wrote it.”
“I’m not a writer,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I don’t have enough to say.”
“That’s what life is for. To give us material.”
“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said, gifting me with a rare smile. “From wherever I go after basic training. Promise.”
But she never did write. So it goes. That’s just the way the wild wind blows.
Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.