Recalling One Who Taught, Wrote, Inspired

July 23, 2009|By Lauren Eisenberg Davis

He seemed every bit as charming and funny as when I last saw him.

Thirty-odd years ago, I sat in Room 205 of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, two or three rows directly back from Frank McCourt's desk. He perched on the side of his desk and looked out in my direction, talking about creative writing, long before he had written anything of consequence.

With certainty, I know that he is largely responsible for the writer I have become.

And now I sat up in the Grand Tier of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, so far away from the stage that I could barely make out the features on his face. Yet when he began to speak in his trademark Irish brogue, the lilt of his voice and his unmistakable humor reminded me exactly why every girl in Stuyvesant - few that we were - fell in love with Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes who died Sunday at age 78.

He asked: How can you possibly prepare yourself for outlandish success in writing? It makes no more sense than preparing yourself for the news that your spouse has had an affair. "You don't take a course in remedial betrayal." The crowd roared with laughter, but to me, a writer, it was a double-entendre. Memoirs are rife with betrayal - mine no exception - but I wanted to know more about how to reach the point of outlandish success in writing ... or even modest success.

The saddest thing in writing a memoir, he said, is what you learn about yourself and those you love. You may think you knew it all before you started writing, but you're wrong. "She led such a wretched existence," he said of his mother. "Imagine, three children who died in the space of a year. I would sit up at night just because my daughter had the sniffles."

But how do you start a memoir and make it interesting to others? an audience member asked. "Don't worry about the beginning," he said. "Just start scribbling. Don't worry about openings and flourishes; it'll come."

He left us with the statement, regarding his current work, that he was "Gonna live like a monk for a year and finish this damned book," and one last gem of advice: "Sit down, shut up and write."

Lauren Eisenberg Davis is coordinator of the Maryland Writers' Association Creative Nonfiction Critique Group, and the author of "Fear to Freedom," an essay about Frank McCourt's influence on her writing. A version of this essay was originally published in the anthology "New Lines from the Old Line State." Her e-mail is autumnleaves1997@gmail.com.

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