Why I write

If I wrote to make money, I would be badly disappointed. The tax documents that I am preparing to file remind me that what I earned through writing last year was a tiny sum, nowhere near enough to support the year’s mortgage or groceries.

If I wrote to become famous, I would be badly disappointed. Some of my writing has been read by others and even quoted by others, but I have probably been noticed more for my public speaking than for anything I have written.

If I wrote to change the world, I would be badly disappointed. A few people have told me that they were helped by something I have written, but for the most part the world has gone its own way without paying any attention to the things I have written.

Why, then, do I write? Largely I write because I must write. I have thoughts that must be expressed. People sometimes ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas swirl around in my mind like flies in a stable. When I am showering, or when I am mowing, or when I am driving, my mind is composing sentences and paragraphs on various topics. For me, writer’s block is not a question of nothing to say; writer’s block for me is too many things to say, crowded together like too many people trying to get through a doorway at the same time.

I earned good grades in school. I scored highly on standardized tests. I could easily have been a scientist, a mathematician, a businessman, or an engineer. I would probably have earned far more money in any of those careers. But my primary fascination has always been language. I read about science, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret refusing to pursue a career in that field. I read about economics, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret failing to work in the world of business.

A few years ago, I was invited into a classroom to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders about writing. I encouraged the students to do three things. Read a lot: being exposed every day to samples of good writing will always improve one’s writing. Write a lot: even when one writes something that goes unread, the exercise sharpens skills. Rewrite a lot: no one but God gets it right the first time. Good writing can always be improved. At the end of the session, one of the students heading out the door asked, “Are you famous?” I smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I wouldn’t mind earning more money for my writing. I wouldn’t mind becoming famous for my writing. I wouldn’t mind making the world a better place by my writing. If none of those things happen, I still must write. It’s who I am; it’s what I do. If I did not write, I would not be who I am. J.

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Five back-to-school movies

When I was a boy, school didn’t start until the middle of the last week of August. We had half a day, and then a full day or two, and then a weekend before the school year really got rolling. Of course these were the days when I walked to school, uphill, even in the snow, twice a day. Gasoline was forty cents a gallon, milk was $1.32 a gallon, you could buy a loaf of bread for twenty-four cents and mail a letter for six cents. No, I did not have a pet dinosaur!

Anyhow, certain movies from the late 1970s and from the 1980s remind me of going back to school. The movies on my list are based in high schools and colleges rather than elementary school, and some are more true-to-life than others. A lot of other movies are set in schools, but the following movies mean the most to me this month as children, teens, young adults, and teachers are on their way back to their respective classrooms.

Grease (1978): This movie is nothing like my high school memories. I did not attend school in the 1950s, none of my fellow students were in their twenties or thirties, and only a few of them regularly broke into song and dance. (Some of those who did, though, were pretty good.) The “Summer Loving” bit of the movie, though, perfectly captures the feelings of the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. My favorite memory of Grease will not be shown on the screen—I remember a ten-year-old girl who had just seen the movie trying to explain its plot to me. Priceless!

Animal House (1978): My college was nothing like this movie, but some students there definitely tried to reproduce this movie on campus. We had fraternities and sororities, excessive drinking and partying, in the setting of stately buildings and droll professors like Donald Sutherland’s character. Many of the guys wished they were John Belushi. This movie is raunchy enough that I would be embarrassed to watch it with my parents or my children, but it has its moments. “Seven years of college—wasted!” “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Fame (1980): Based on a real school in New York City, this movie shows scattered events from the lives of a few students and teachers at a high school dedicated to the fine arts (music, dance, and theater). Fame is more a collection of short stories than a movie with a single plot or theme, but the characters and their situations are entirely believable. Every song-and-dance number fits the movie. When I was in high school, I was involved in music and in theater, so some parts of this movie strike close to home.

Big Chill (1983): I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. All my friends saw this movie too. We were certain that we would keep in touch with each other, care about each other, and support each other. If it wasn’t for Facebook, most of us wouldn’t even know where the others are today. Not one scene in this movie takes place in a school, but this movie still reminds me of the intangible things that mattered most about college. It makes me think of the times we said to each other, “This is what college was meant to be.” Every fall I try to watch this movie the weekend of my alma mater’s homecoming celebration.

Footloose (1984): A young man from the big city must attend high school in a small town, a town where the council has banned dancing. Footloose is a typical coming-of-age, teen angst movie from the 1980s, but it is one of those movies that gets it right. Kevin Bacon shines as the central character, and John Lithgow is brilliant as the minister opposed to dancing, but the two of them are surrounded by smaller characters who are thoroughly convincing. Although the fist fight near the end of the movie seems contrived and unnecessary, every other scene builds the story, and the soundtrack is notable as well. I haven’t seen the recent remake, and I don’t want to see it. This movie is nearly perfect just the way it is.

Tomorrow: five more back-to-school movies from the 1980s. J.