Thursday, May 17, 2007

Prof. Rocky Balboa To Young Writers:

Those Who Speak For The Voiceless
Helped Me Search My Own Way To A Better Life

Editor’s Note: Daniel Donaghy teaches 19th and 20th Century British and American Poetry and Creative Writing at Eastern Connecticut State University. He spoke to New London and Windham County finalists of the IMPAC-CSU Young Writers competition during ceremonies last month at ECSU.

Daniel Donaghy
IMPAC-CSU Young Writers Program Keynote Address
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Good evening students, parents, President Nuñez, Chancellor Carter, Vice President Pachis, Mr. Thibault, and Distinguished Guests.

The heart of my talk to you tonight will revolve around some tips that I’ve put together that may be of use to student writers, but I want to begin tonight by talking briefly about how I became a writer. I grew up in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington, in a three-story row home on a four-lane avenue closer than two hundred feet from an El train that clacked past my bedroom window approximately every seven minutes. Even as a kid I understood the metaphor of that train. Mine was a neighborhood people rode past on the way to someplace better––toward the spacious houses of Northeast Philadelphia and Roxborough in one direction and toward the vibrant life of Center City in the other. The only people who got out of trains in my neighborhood were people who could not afford to live anywhere else.

The people of Kensington, the newspapers told me, were dangerous people. They were drug dealers and prostitutes. They were high school, even grade-school dropouts. They were Felix’s Bar and welfare checks and late nights laughing or fighting in the shadows of the El. They’d stab you soon as look at you and leave you to die in the street. The young men were lazy and stupid and the young women were easy. The people of Kensington didn’t matter, the news said, when it reported the neighborhood’s latest fires and shootings and arrests, with people crying into the camera before the glum-faced reporter wrapped up her live report and sent it back to the studio. In short, the people of Kensington were doomed. And I was right there, doomed with the rest of them.

I remember when I was about the age most of you are now, lying on my bed with the window open to cars racing by, roaring their engines, honking their horns, staring up at my ceiling in the half-dark wondering what was going to happen to me. Hookers worked in cars right outside my bedroom window. I felt like I didn’t have a future there. Most of all, I felt like I didn’t have a voice that mattered in the world.

If I hadn’t kept reading, if I hadn’t gone to college, if my college professor Harry Humes hadn’t pulled me aside after class one day to tell me how much he liked one of my early poems, I would probably have kept right on thinking that. But then I started reading about people whose struggles to find a voice and a place in the world made me look silly. One of the early most resonant early passages comes from Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Autobiography, in which he recounts standing up to Edward Covey, a brutal man who took pride in breaking the spirits of slaves, and beating him in a fight that went on for hours. Later I read Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, which begins

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

All of these worlds in some way reflected my world. Then there was Richard Wright’s Memphis, James Wright’s Ohio, Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, Philip Levine’s Detroit, Len Roberts’s upstate New York. My problems were not new problems. Other writers had confronted them and their accompanying feelings of inferiority and loneliness and even hopelessness, and they had found a way through. Their work helped me search for my own way to a better life. It gave me permission––that’s the only way I can say it––to believe that the place I grew up in was just that, a place, just one of many places I’d know in my life. Their work told me that my voice did in fact matter, that it had a place, even a central place, in the world. And so I started writing about that world. And I have not stopped.
I’d now like to share three of my poems with you:


We saw him every day, shooting foul shots,
lay ups, jumpers from the key, his tattooed
arms a blur when he dribbled behind his back
or between his thick legs, his headband soaked,
t-shirt yellow with sweat by eight a.m.,
when we passed him on our way to school,
fixing our clip-on ties so we could look
good for Angel, Annie, and Diane.
He mumbled to himself, shouted sometimes,
all of us stopping to hear him call
the last seconds of a game, the set-up
always the same--three seconds left,
his team down one, the right side cleared out
so he could take his guy to the hole,
his thin lips a line of concentration,
head up, shoulders faking one way,
then another, his eyes always clear
so early in the morning, before he loaded trucks
at Strathmann’s Lumber, before he smoked pot
at lunch and came home to two kids who weren’t his,
before she slapped bills onto the kitchen table,
his rough hands steady, his spin quick
into the lane for a backdoor pass on a pick-and-roll,
his man blocked off, whole world blocked off
while he went strong to the hoop,
unstoppable, rising up to seal another win,
his sweet finger roll the one perfect thing he could do.

The Power of the Keys

When Sister told our class
how Jesus, by dying, gave us
the Kingdom of heaven’s keys,
I saw again the keys we stole
from Father Flatley to guzzle
church wine, I looked over
to see Buddy Fisher steal
his brother’s car keys,
his father’s liquor cabinet keys,
I heard the key to the math test
crinkling up Tommy Ryan’s sleeve,
going on like that until
Sister wrote the power of the keys
on the cracked blackboard,
told us there was no offense
Christ would not pardon,
no man for whom He wouldn’t
open the gates of forgiveness,
staring at Joey McCook
who spray painted on walls,
at Kenny Shaw who broke windows,
working her way to Annie Palazzo
with her lipstick and gum,
Joan Keegan with her perfume,
finally to me because she knew
my father once chased my mother
with a knife, she could sense
his hard heart spreading to me
even though I sat eight hours a day
under the heavy cross,
recited the Our Father and Hail Mary
at Friday morning mass,
even though I knelt and rose on cue
and marched to the altar
for my communion host,
she knew it was her job
to fight wickedness and call us back
to faith, to remind us
this was no set of house keys
she was talking about,
this was eternal liberation,
longer than any R-rated movie,
better than any kiss,
spreading her arms to emphasize
the vastness of Christ's mercy,
making us look to the nails
driven forever into His wrists
and feet, see the blood
dripping from the Crown of Thorns,
making us close our eyes
to imagine that pain,
the lance ripping our sides,
muscle tearing from bone
under the dense weight of sin,
telling us to stretch out our arms,
to taste that holy blood,
to open our still-living souls
so that we could reside with Christ,
whose grace has saved us.


You’re under your car all night,
fightin' with the tranny,
tightenin' the brake band,

adjuster servo diaphragm,
so she’ll stop slippin',
shift slick and smooth,

get you outta Philly
to where you need to go,
which is Wildwood

wild waves wild women
walkin' the boardwalk
in next to no clothes.

Anything goes in Wildwood,
where you stay with friends
get stupid dance wild

sing the same three records:
Bruce Springsteen,
Don McLean, Billy Joel

when he was good,
and you’re real good,
always good in Wildwood,

where you make a new start --
part your hair on the side,
flip it back say you got style --

pile up your clothes
and burn 'em in the sand,
hand out beers and toast

New start new start --
that no style guy was the old you --
and you gotta do somethin' crazy

pretty quick
cause you only got three days,
and it pays to move fast

in Wildwood wild nights
wild days call for plays
that ain’t in the book,

and you look so cool
you get a chill
when you pass a mirror–

Gap shorts and shirt,
two hundred dollar shoes,
and the hat you’ve wanted

for years. You’re fearless
reckless makin' a pass
at every girl on the boardwalk

'cause you want to be
under it gettin' it,
gettin' what you don’t know,

but you know you gotta go
to the end of the pier,
get a new beer, and hear

the band in the grandstand
playin' reggae then -- heyhey --
you spot your kinda girl

on the Tilt-a-Whirl --
wild girl crazy girl
hands above her head girl,

even through the sharpest turns --
and it burns you up
to see her lean into the guy

she’s with -- all biceps
triceps his whole body
one big cep -- 'cept

he ain’t no neck,
and you can’t respect
no man with no neck

sure as you can’t beat him
in a fight and you might
be in the middle of one

if you keep starin' at his girl,
so you stop starin'
and they’re still twirlin',

and every girl in Wildwood
looks good to you now,
except they’re all holdin' hands

with someone else.
Your friends are holdin'
more than hands holdin' bodies

holdin' breath holdin' breasts
they’ll tell you about all week
at work, and you gotta work

so you gotta hear their stories,
and they’re gonna ask for yours
and you don’t want to talk

about no ocean, cause
you’re in Wildwood wild fun
wild sun burnin' your back,

when what you really want
are rope burns rug burns
somethin' to show off at work,

but nothin' you try works
so you duck into Madam Marie’s
for five bucks of advice --

her crystal ball never lies --
and your eyes are like baseballs
when you look around the place:

fake bats stuffed rats
black cats sleepin' on shelves
next to autographed pictures

of dead guys -- Bogie, The Duke,
Elvis when he was young --
you’re young got all your teeth,

don’t go heavy on booze, but
you couldn’t get lucky in Las Vegas.
Marie calls for silence patience

looks intense all that incense
is makin you dizzy, and Marie’s
in a tizzy, up against that ball

like she sees years a bad news,
and you get the blues just thinkin'
bout it. When the smoke clears,

Marie peers into that thing,
jingles her rings and tells you
to look, look for yourself,

but all you see is smoke
like you saw the whole
ride down in your rear view,

and when it starts to clear
you think you see yourself
on a boat in a house

in a Japanese car, and you know
it’s you cause of your hat --
there’s only one hat like that –

but there’s nobody else in the picture,
and now there’s nobody else
in the room, 'cause Marie’s

gone with your five bucks
and your luck’s the same
as it was, rotten, and it’s gotten

no better in Wildwood
wild screams wild dreams
in every head, in every bed

and yours are gonna stay
in your car, 'cause it’s too far
to walk back to your friend’s

and you’re too drunk
to drive, plus you can’t even
remember the address.

My main message to you here tonight is to go forth and tell your stories. No matter where you come from, your stories are important and should be told and retold. Our stories are the stuff that binds us together as human beings.
How would you describe your closest friends? My guess is that you would not describe them as unopinionated, boring, lazy, quiet, lifeless, closed-off, uninteresting people. If you would, then I’m going to assign you some homework that I want you to take very seriously: get out there and get yourself some new friends.

My bet is that the people you like to be around most are great storytellers. They make you laugh. Being around them brings out a side in you that makes them laugh. And through that laughter, through that intimacy, you have reached a place where you can share more and more personal stories. It’s through these personal stories that we form our deepest, most lasting friendships. We trust others with our stories and our secrets. They longer we know those people, the more shared secrets and stories we have. Without a sense of each other’s history, we can’t really know each other, can’t really care about each other. In that way, our stories are our humanity. We must tell our stories any way we can, and we must be just as creative to learn the stories of others. Through these exchanges, we learn to see our place in the world, how the arc of our lives compares with those of the ages.

Now I’d like to share with you what I’ve decided to call
Ten Tips for Young Writers

Remind yourself that the world is bigger than you are by reading every day for at least an hour. Mark Twain said once that the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them, so read, read, read. Read books. Read magazines. Newspapers. Stuff written on paper. Look up words you don’t know and find ways to use them in sentences. Read like a writer: See how published writers use words, then try to absorb an array of styles as you develop the style that will become yours. The novelist Saul Bellow said that a writer is simply a reader moved to emulation. Put yourself in a situation to be moved by reading novels and plays and poems and memoirs and tons and tons of non-fiction books. Read with an open mind and understand that none of your opinions should be fixed forever. You can always learn more and, chances are, someone before you were born explored the same opinions and ideas and wrote pretty good books about them. I want to stress again that there is no replacement for a book you can hold in your hands. Computer screens are fine, but you can’t become a writer without falling in love with the feel of words in your hands. And don’t be afraid of dead writers. I promise they won’t haunt you, and they just might help.

Never waste an idea. Write it down in your journal. If you have time, sketch it in to a poem or a short story or the beginning of a novel. Make note of where you found the information in case you need to go back and read through those sources again. What you’re doing when you do this sort of thing is getting yourself prepared to write when you have more time and guarding yourself against writer’s block, which is really, in many cases, your being unprepared to take advantage of the free time you’ve carved out to sit down and write. Here’s a weird, but I think apt metaphor for what I’m talking about. Look at note taking and idea hording as a way of packing an intellectual and artistic lunch box. You wouldn’t go to school or work thinking that, just because you had an hour off, food was going to come to you. “I really want to eat,” you might say in such a moment. “People tell me I’m a very talented eater. I love eating, but sometimes when I sit down to eat, I get eater’s block.” People would look at you like you were crazy if you said something like that, so of course you wouldn’t. You’d come prepared––maybe thanks to some of the people sitting beside you right now. Here’s a scoop: What many writers see as writer’s block is in many cases a learned helplessness that they actually, on some level, enjoy. As I said a moment ago, writer’s block often comes from not preparing oneself to write. We get great ideas, but we don’t write them down, and then when we have time to write, we’ve either forgotten the idea completely or we forgot the essence of the idea, the thing that made it so exciting in the first place. Acts like this are not reserved only for writers, as we all know. There is in each of us a perverse voice that tells us to put things off even though we know, if we did them right now, we’d feel a big sense of relief. And many times we listen to that voice, and every time we do we make things harder on ourselves. So pack your lunchboxes. That way, when you have time to write, you’ll have a list of ideas you can jump into headfirst.

No matter what you plan to do with your life, you will be well served by practicing writing every day. You may be sitting there and say that you can’t do that, that you can only do your best writing when you’re mad or sad or when you’re in some other state of mind. Well, I’m here to say that those excuses for not writing can become crutches that can hold you back from making real strides as a writer and, more generally, as a thinking person. Joan Didion is not alone when she says that she writes in order to discover what she thinks. Imagine trying such excuses on your baseball or softball coach: “I’m sorry, coach. I’m just not ready to play today. I’m not rested enough. Or I’m too happy or too sad to play. Or I don’t feel like playing. Or I’ll play as soon as I do x, y, and z. Or the weather’s too nice or too awful to practice.” What would happen? I bet your coach would tell you to quit, because you are more interested in excuses than the game, that don’t have the drive, the deep-down need, to be a good player. To be good at anything you have to practice, and writing is no different. Writing is hard work that requires great discipline. Novelist Joseph Heller once said that “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” There is no such thing as a natural writer, just as there is no such thing as a natural ice skater. No one jumps through a triple lutz without beginning, year’s earlier, by holding someone’s hand, then shuffling across the ice by herself, then falling and getting up again and again despite the bruises and pain, despite the cold, despite the thoughts of what else she could be doing. Henry Ford said that you can’t base your reputation on what you plan to do. You earn your reputation, Mr. Ford implies here, by doing. Those who succeed, do so by doing something. Those who make excuses and waste time only succeed at making excuses and wasting time. And make sure you read your work out loud. A piece of writing is not truly finished until no word could be cut or changed, until every mark of punctuation is exactly as it should be. To put it another way, good writing must sound good. In the words of Robert Frost, "The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader."

Fall in Love with Revising. Forget about the old myth of first thought/best thought. Dismiss the idea that you will ruin your writing by going over it again and again to sharpen your language––searching for the precise word, cutting ruthlessly all unnecessary words and phrases, maybe even the ones you thought were brilliant at first––and to push your insights further. If your work does not hold up the rigors of revision, then it was never any good in the first place. As novelist James Michener said, “I’m not a very good writer. But I’m an excellent rewriter.” While there will be very rare exceptions when things crystalize perfectly inside your head and slip seamlessly onto the paper, those moments will be rare indeed, and will most likely come only after doing a lot of revising while the ideas are still in your head, before you write them down. As Nathaniel West once said, “East reading is damn hard writing.” Embrace the idea of writing ten, twenty, thirty, even fifty drafts of something. Have that much pride in your work, think so highly of your art, that you won’t show your work to anyone until you’ve taken it as far as you can, let the work sit for a week or two, taken it out, looked it over again, revised again and again, and continued like that until there’s nothing you would change. Realize that the way you express yourself in words is a reflection of your intelligence, your maturity, and your values. Take your words seriously, because they will define you. As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” By taking your words seriously, you will demand that others take you seriously, and that will serve you well, no matter what you do with your life. Novelist Stephen King was once asked how he writes, and he responded by saying “One word at a time.”

Note that you’ll be satisfied with your work a lot sooner as a young writer than an experienced one. For that reason, among many others, know that the work you’re doing now, however good it may seem, will probably not be as brilliant when you read it aloud in five or ten years. In fact, you may look back on a lot of what you now are most proud of and be embarrassed by it. Don’t lament that such a change is inevitable. Think of how different you were, say, five years ago. Think of how much more you know now about people and the world, about what you need to do with your life and what you know not to do. Think of how much more you now know about the dangers that surround you. You won’t find the same answers to life’s questions such as “Who Am I?” “What Do I Want Out of Life?” “What’s My Responsibility to the World?” What Makes Me Happy?” and “What is God?” at 22 or 32 or 42 that you did at 12, nor should you. However, regardless of whether or not you pursue a career as a writer, you must keep searching for those answers. As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living.

Consider your audience. Writing for an audience other than yourself means that you are writing for the evocation of emotion, not the expression of emotion. That means you’re writing to elicit feelings from readers––you want to make them scared or sad or mad, you want to make them laugh––and to do that, you’ve got to create a world on the page that they feel invited into through a range of interesting and surprising sensory images. That’s a lot different than writing simply to get something off your chest, which may be incredibly valuable to you and make you feel a lot better, but which might not be as impressive––or, most importantly, inviting––to others. You’ve got to transport readers into a world they can recognize as both new and familiar, and you can’t be lazy while you’re doing it. You can’t just say “lonely” or “mean” or “scary,” you’ve got to show them. A good piece of advice comes from C.S. Lewis, who once advised a young writer, "Don't say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, 'Please, will you do the job for me?'" The great Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov said something similar once: “Don't tell me the moon is shining,” he wrote; “show me the glint of light on broken glass.” To approach this topic from another angle, think of yourself, when you write, as an actor. If you want to convey emotions to an audience, then you have to give yourself completely to the performance. If you want someone to see fear, you must not simply act scared, but in that moment be scared. If you want to evoke joy, then you must find a way to arrive at joy within that moment so that you can share it with audiences. You can’t fake it. This is one of the things that makes all art, and certainly writing, very difficult. You’ve got to go there. To quote Robert Frost again, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, not surprise in the reader.”

Get out of your house. Go out and listen. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” We all like to relax at home, space out to movies, and surf the Web, and we most of us like to talk most of all about the wonderful subjects of ourselves, but if you’re going to be a writer, then you need to become a witness of the world. Learn about other people and note your feelings about them. Note how people talk and dress, what they love, what they worry about. Don’t spend your life on a mission to judge. Judging people is utterly unproductive as a general practice, to all human beings let alone to writers, and it usually leads people down a road to bias and prejudice that ends up blinding them from the truth and keeping them from seeing things in their complex entirety. Plus, it’s too easy to judge. It doesn’t take much effort to say, “I don’t like him or her. I hate people like that.” It’s much harder, and far more valuable, to suspend judgment and try, even in the most extreme circumstances, to search for understanding about why people do what they do and about what that says about us and our country and our world. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The writer’s job is not to judge, but to seek to understand.”

Remember this: The key to the universal is through the specific. Don’t try to tell the story of all human beings. Try to tell the story of one person and, if you get that story right, you will say far more about mankind than you ever would have been able to by staying attached to huge, abstract, generalized, and almost certainly flawed theories about man’s place in the cosmos. The writer E.B. White said something similar once: "[My} advice to young writers who want to get ahead without annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about 'a' man."

Whatever you do with your life, do it because you love it, not because it might make you rich and famous. No baseball player said as a kid that he would hit 90-mile-an-hour sliders 450 feet for a living because that would probably be a good way to make a buck. If he did, if he were not driven by a deep-down need––there’s that phrase again––to keep working to be the best he could be at the game––then he would have quit as soon as the game got hard. If you don’t do what you love, then you can’t put your heart into it. You cannot achieve anything as a writer until you understand how hard the journey will be at times, how many rejections will come your way, how many doubters and negative thinkers will look at what you’re most passionate about with disdain or, at best, bemused politeness. You cannot achieve true insights by wasting time looking outward for acceptance. Keep reading, keep writing and rewriting, keep striving to live fully within the moments of your lives, and never quit.

This leads me to my last piece advice, which something no one can teach you, but it’s the single-most important thing you need to do in your life: Learn how to persevere. I’ve quoted a lot of writers here tonight because I thought their words perfectly and, I hope, memorably expressed important ideas, not only about writing, but also about life. As a native Philadelphian, however, I would be remiss if I did not at some point in this speech quote from the great pugilistic philosopher Robert “Rocky” Balboa, who tells is son, in the film classic Rocky V, that going that one more round when you don’t think you can is going to make all the difference in your life. To prove that no important idea should go unrepeated, Rocky returns to the phrase seventeen years later, when he tells his son, “It’s not how hard you hit” that determines your strength as a person, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Know that there will be times in your life that will seem impossibly difficult, even cruel, but you need to have the faith to keep going no matter what happens. The world, it will seem, I guarantee you, will seem like it wants you to give up. There will be times when it seems like everything is closing in on you, but these times will pass, like winter just passed, and open up into beautiful days like today. This advice applies as fully to writing as it does to anything else in life.

I want to end by wishing you lives filled with good luck and always just the right words.

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