spotlight on the craft - "Something will insist on being
We asked author Frank McCourt about his craft and in a previous
issue of WSQJ (Volume 1:2) he gave us candid answers. For St.
Paddy's Day, and for all who have a bit of the Ol' Sod planted
in their hearts and souls, here's an excerpt.
WITH THE TEACHER MAN
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt
decades, Frank McCourt was an Irish immigrant high school teacher
in New York City instructing five classes a day and spending
countless hours reading young people's prose. Philosophy, love
notes, suicide notes, Romeo and Juliet-type sagas, every emotion
- "blather and romantic sentimentality," as he calls
it - was represented.
In an effort to cut down on his time grading papers, McCourt
would instill in his students the importance of writing with
simplicity and clarity. "I worked out a lot of my problems
talking to those kids," he recalls, "but I was talking
to myself, too. They'd ask about my life and sit there wide-eyed
and tell me I should write a book. And I do what I'm told."
McCourt burst onto the literary scene in 1996 with "Angela's
Ashes," a heartbreaking account of his childhood in Limerick,
Ireland. The book remained a New York Times bestseller for more
than two years, was available in 18 countries, and was adapted
to a Paramount Studio film.
His follow-up effort, 1999's "'Tis," continued his
story into adulthood. Despite some criticism from locals who
felt his stories portrayed Limerick negatively - which he dismisses,
because it was, after all, his life - McCourt quickly attained
a level of acclaim that most writers can only fantasize about.
For a self-described "late bloomer," the success has
been somewhat bewildering. "It was astonishing," he
notes. "I'm still in a kind of semi-paralyzed state because
so much happened so soon. You're not prepared for it …
suddenly I have a bestseller. Before that, as they say, I was
'only a teacher.'"
For the past three years, McCourt has been writing "Teacher
Man," an account of his years at Stuyvesant High School.
"I'm going where man has never gone before - (telling)
what it's actually like to be a teacher in the classroom. Nobody
ever got into the daily life of the teacher, teaching five classes
a day, dealing with about 160 kids."
His goal, he says, is "to show that a teacher's life doesn't
stop at end of the day. You have to supplement your miserable
income or take courses. There's no respect … when was
the last time you saw a teacher on a talk show? Conan, Jay,
David, or the early morning talk shows? There are starlets,
stars, acrobats, strong men, every half-assed actor in the world
is on the talk shows, but not teachers. And yet, they have the
strongest stories. They're dealing with human flesh every day."
McCourt had a somewhat serendipitous experience as an unpublished
author. A friend who also is a writer read half of his memoir
and showed it to a friend of hers. That person showed it to
an agent, Molly Friedrich, who still represents him.
He didn't attend any publishing meetings, and the title he suggested
was the one that was used. "I haven't developed any negative
feelings about (the process,)" he says. "I was so
naïve. A lot of writers get lawyers, but I didn't want
to treat it with an air of suspicion and mistrust. I was raw.
I was a virgin. And I have no regrets."
Though he's on his third book, McCourt has no magic writing
formula. One of his routines was to process his thoughts while
running. "I used to run a lot. A lot of the stuff would
come into my head. My book was published. I became a big shot.
It was the end of my running career," he quips. "One
of the reasons I want to start running again is it helps with
the writing. Some people have a Walkman stuck to their head,
and I have my book stuck in my head."
Much of the advice he would give young students in his classes
was simple: "Scribble. Out of the scribbling some form
will emerge. Something will insist on being told. I have dozens
of notebooks. I spent a long time making notes about growing
up in Ireland. It all lodged in my head. I didn't need to use
notebooks when I started writing."
While working on "Teacher Man," he used the same approach.
"I keep scribbling. I think scribbling is the secret. I
don't try to write. There are people who can do it. Thomas Hardy
was out gardening and a complete novel came into his head. His
wife called him for tea and it went out."
His current writing regimen is to "get up, make coffee
and get to it," either at his home in Manhattan or Connecticut.
"Some days I get disheartened and walk away from it. Most
days I try to stay for four hours. Some days I go back to it
in the afternoon," he explains. But he notes that his is
not the only process. Ibsen would write from "8 to 1 exactly,
and you could set your watch by it. You'd see him leave his
front door. Graham Greene wrote exactly 350 words every day.
He wanted to live, too."
As a former undiscovered talent himself, McCourt knows "there's
many a fine novel lying in the drawer." He suggests authors
attend conferences such as one in the state of Hawaii on the
island of Maui where publishers, agents, and editors are accessible
and willing to be approached.
As McCourt works on his tales of teaching, he reflects on its
high points and disappointments. He recalls one class that was
simply "a complete failure."
"I couldn't reach them. The chemistry was all wrong,"
he says, adding, "I used to go home in the afternoon, I
wanted to put a pin in my eye."
A few years later, he was in the legendary Greenwich Village
bar Chumley's when a former member of that group approached
him. "He said, 'Hey, Mr. McCourt, you were my teacher.'
I said, 'I remember that class.' He said, 'I'm a writer because
of you.' That gave me some moment of hope and redemption."
These days, as he works with other writer's at publishing industry
conferences, his teaching experiences remain relevant. But he
also notes that other writers and English professors help "raise
you to another level of teaching and communication."
When considering the namesake of his original memoir, McCourt
believes his mother would not have liked "Angela's Ashes."
"She believed in keeping things private. Don't tell the
world your troubles. You wouldn't want to admit you were ever
poor. She'd say, 'That's an American thing.'
"Even when I became a teacher, she was more taken with
my brother Malachy's success … she didn't know what I
was doing in the classroom. She never saw me teach but she'd
listen to Malachy on the radio, see him on television, see him
work in the bar business."
But there is one thing McCourt is sure his mother would be proud
of. "My mashed potatoes are the best in the world. It's
a secret handed down from mother to older son, and it will die
"McCourt's Mash" even made a Thanksgiving appearance
at William Styron's home several years ago, and he said people
hardly touched their turkey. He speculates that if the writing
gravy train ever ends, he can become the next Paul Newman with
a line of specialty foods.
Adrienne Mand lives in New York City where
she has worked and written for abcnews.com. She has contributed
to WordSmitten online (www.wordsmitten.com) and WordSmitten Quarterly
Journal. Frank McCourt lives in Manhattan and Connecticut and has
taught at the LIU
Southampton Writer's Conference on Long Island. For more
information on this writing conference click on the link above for
details on how to apply to this conference. The annual deadline
is in April for this summer event.