Truly great high school teachers are crafty as hell. Not quilting crafty or Cricket crafty, but psychologically crafty.
The raw material they work with is the adolescent brain, a transitional cauldron of hormones, ignorance, ego, insecurity, emotional extremes, and, often settling into the bottom of the brew, fledgling talent and potential. Maybe even a dash of intellect. It is a brain that lacks discipline and resists compliance, the rebel without a cause. But it is easily tricked, that brain. Great teachers know this, and they use this knowledge to stir the boiling cauldron and bring bits of that latent talent and potential to the surface.
Mrs. Roberts was such a teacher.
Yes, I have named my nemesis, the extractor of my confession – my hallway Torquemada.
Here’s what she must have known: I was not a great poet, and I certainly did not merit comparison to Emily Dickinson. She knew, too, that my writing was adolescent hogwash. Yet she also knew I could actually write intelligible paragraphs and enough of them in succession to complete a short story (an ability not imparted to me by mastering sentence diagramming or puzzling out legal arguments over the meaning of “a pound of flesh,” but through countless hours spent reading Roger Zelazny novels with a flashlight under my covers at night).
She also knew, because she’d read every short story I’d ever written, that I dipped snuff when I wrote, this because I’d written an hallucinatory tale of metaphysical contemplations brought on by dipping snuff at my writing desk. Since the story hadn’t been published in the literary magazine yet, my obtuse teenaged brain hadn’t understood she knew all about my disgusting writing crutch because I’d already confessed it, in absentia.
So it wasn’t a hapless confession I’d made that day: Mrs. Roberts had orchestrated it, appealing briefly enough to my teenaged vanity to get me talking.
Hence, the hallway lecture ensued. She went on for some time about writing and talent and how some writers had subjugated their abilities to nicotine or booze – or worse.
“With every word they write,” she exhorted, “they poison themselves with cigarettes or alcohol until they can’t write without it. Those addictions sap their talents and twist their minds and bodies until the work – their writing – loses its edge, and they become sickly shadows of what they might have been or once were.”
Even the great writers, she said, like Faulkner, Hammett, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald wasted their lives and talents away with booze.
The great ones you never heard of, she continued, succumbed to their addictions so early they never got off the ground. In her voice, I heard a lament for those lost souls. (Today I wonder how many she had known. What had she seen to make her so virulently motivated to steer me away from such things?)
Much of the lecture was punctuated with, “Don’t, don’t, don’t.”
The cleverness of what she was doing eluded me at the time. On the one hand, she was doing her damnedest to warn me off of any kind of addiction that would become intertwined with my writing. On the other hand, somewhere in the admonition lay the strong suggestion that I might actually be a writer if I’d concentrate on writing without the crutch of addiction. In essence, she was telling me I had the talent to become a writer if I could manage not to fuck it up.
Mercifully, at some point, a bell rang, and I was freed from the encounter. After that, I never took a dip of snuff or smoked a cigarette while writing – without remembering her exhortations. But dipped I did, and, later, smoked I did. And drinking I did, too.
* * *
When I was in the Air Force, I’d stay awake through the night, from midnight to six or seven a.m., writing in the amber glow of the tiny screen of a Brother word processor. (This was long before home computers more sophisticated than a TRS-80 or Commadore 64 were available to replace the typewriter.) What a thing of beauty and magic that little word processor was! I could finally write without backspaces and overstrikes and Whiteout. I could rewrite and change my work on the fly, without reading through a stack of typed pages and making corrections in cross outs and ink-penned insertions and going through the laborious task of retyping the whole thing with my edits and changes, only to discover new edits and changes were needed after I’d typed the next pile of paper.
The typewriter was dead, and I was glad for its demise.
But in that amber glow, there would always be the orange glow of the cigarette dangling from my lips. The writing ritual was interspersed with long drags from a Marlboro or Newport, sometimes even an unfiltered Camel because I thought that was cool. With the long drags, I would sink back into my chair and look at the tiny amber letters I’d written, thinking, assessing, and sometimes even admiring. I’d squint against the burning smoke drifting up into my eyeballs and exhale in short bursts through my nose to keep from inhaling the smoke through my nostrils. Steeling myself against the pain of the smoke made me feel manly, like Bogart squinting after a drag and staring down Sidney Greenstreet or admiring the slim figure of Mary Astor.
Eventually, I’d find resolve in a long exhale, put the cigarette in the ashtray, and begin typing again. As the words piled up, so did the extinguished butts overflow from my ashtray.
There is no dignity in addiction, even an addiction that falls short of opium or heroin. How many times have I looked through the trash for discarded cans of snuff to scrape out dried bits of the stuff to add to other bits I’d scraped from other cans to try to find enough to fit into my cheek? How many ashtrays have I combed through to find discarded butts with just enough tobacco left to light for a rancid drag before lighting up the next discarded butt?
None of this helped me think. None of this helped me to write. This simply made me desperate to feed the addiction to ease the withdrawal. And true to Mrs. Roberts warning, I could not write without the approval and allowance of nicotine. Without its permission, I could not write. That I kept a constant flow of beer feeding into my gut at the same time seemed innocuous in comparison.