One of the last things my father did before he died in 1994 was dictate a story into a tape recorder. He was seventy years old, had retired only months earlier and had spent those months pursuing long-deferred dreams. One of those dreams was to take a creative writing course. My father had always considered himself a raconteur. No longer able to attend classes or sit up to type or write by hand, my father completed his last story from his hospital bed, using the tape recorder.
Like my father, I’ve always enjoyed writing, and, like my father, I postponed doing anything about it for the majority of my life. But I decided several years ago that I was no longer going to wait. After eighteen years of practicing law, I left my firm, went back to school and became a high school English teacher at a yeshiva—an Orthodox Jewish high school. Teaching English kept me in constant communion with the world’s great writers, both classic and contemporary. By immersing myself in their voices, I hoped to develop my own and help my students develop theirs.
I loved teaching writing to teenagers. The writing teacher is confidant. The writing teacher is mentor. The writing teacher is cheerleader. The writing teacher is the center of a community composed of people striving to reach others, the facilitator of human connection, and, as such, experiences the joy of being touched.
My students quickly figured out that their teacher was an idealistic and sentimental person. I told them that their goal as writers was to enable their readers to live vicariously, to gather insights about life. I explained that they wouldn’t be able to reach this goal unless they allowed their work to be inspired by what moved them, both intellectually and emotionally. I urged them to write from their hearts.
I meant what I said to my students, and they actually seemed to believe me. Take, for example, Zach. As a senior, he asked me if he could do an independent study course in writing, an opportunity not normally available at our school. I agreed, if he would do two things: (1) revise a rough but promising memoir he had written in my class as a junior and (2) submit it to a writers’ contest sponsored by a leading magazine. For the next eight weeks, Zach and I met regularly to work on his story. I commented; he revised. We did this over and over, and when the story became more polished, we solicited comments from friends and family. Again he revised. The result was a poignant piece about the night that Zach’s brother died, which Zach submitted to the contest. Later, he described the outcome in a speech to an audience of teens whose loved ones were ill:
A couple months later I heard I was a finalist and that during school the next day I’d find out what I had won and where I had placed. I received a phone call at lunch telling me that over 10,000 applicants had entered and I had placed second. Needless to say, my jaw dropped, and when I told my teacher, we were so overwhelmed we couldn’t push down our smiles. Then I began to think what about it is so special? Winning is fun but writing is not exactly a soccer game; the thrill of winning is not the same. Then, as I thought about it, I realized that my story is going to be published and distributed in over eight million homes worldwide. If in one of those homes one person will read my story and possibly be consoled or gain an insight from it, then I will have done what I thought could not be done, I will have brought hope and optimism out of something that I thought would only be sad and depressing.
When that hit me, the excitement and thought of winning was secondary to the idea that I might be able to help someone who otherwise may not have been reached on that same level.How proud I was of Zach, and how personally gratified. For Zach had learned—miraculously from me—several things about writing that I believe and had taught him: writing is a process, and although it begins in the individual heart and depends on the individual writer’s toil and perseverance, it often develops within a community of supportive writers and readers who are willing to react and comment as the writer, through repeated revision, brings the piece to completion. Thus, most good writing is a joint effort. Collaboration is what gives writing its special, and to my mind, greatest potential: to work positive change not only on the writer, but also on the community that reads.
Now, amazingly, it’s my turn. My first book, Pieces of Someday, a memoir, has just been released by Gemelli Press, a small Seattle publisher. The memoir is the product of four years of work on my part, and like Zach’s story, countless hours of writing and revision. Also, like Zach’s story, my memoir would not today exist were it not for the community of people who inspired me to write it, and who read it, commented on it and cheered for me as I wrote. I now offer them heartfelt thanks.