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Robert Koehler

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Apostle of Our Inner Genius

Posted: 12/17/09 11:01 AM ET

"Go home and write anything that comes to your mind. Don't stop. Write for ten minutes or till you've filled a whole page."

Ken Macrorie said this just in time, as far as I'm concerned.

The date was May 5, 1964. I was still in high school, a month shy of graduation. That fall I'd be going off to Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, 120 miles from suburban Detroit where I grew up. I had never heard of Ken Macrorie, had no idea he was a member of the English Department who taught classes called freshman comp and advanced writing.

I had no idea the man who would become my mentor, lifelong friend, coach and truth-telling goad -- my best teacher -- had just had the biggest breakthrough of his career, and my destiny in two years was to have him change my life as a consequence of that breakthrough. I was going to Western on a hunch, an ironic shrug. I almost joined the Army -- I was seeking, I think, some sort of reality shock therapy. I was sick of school, bored, confused, desperately looking for something I couldn't even begin to name.

I chose Western, finally, because it wasn't the University of Michigan (where 95 percent of my college-bound classmates dutifully trudged), and because the nation's leading scorer in college basketball that winter was WMU star Manny Newsome. So much for rational decision-making.

I'm thinking about all this because I learned only recently of Ken's death. He died in July, at age 90. We'd corresponded for many years, but had fallen out of touch in the last few years as Alzheimer's set in, a process he'd joked about ("it got me out of jury duty the other day") and described in one e-mail as "fascinating." A lover of Joycean wordplay, he said in another letter, "I'm making ugh-ress again" -- but I wasn't sure if he meant in his life or on his latest book, or if he was just glad his computer was working again. I'm making "ugh-ress" myself today; it's the best I can hope for.

What a gentle soul he was. He signed most of his letters "Love, Ken." I've never had a more encouraging teacher. He was a genius at encouragement, showing such delight in honest and surprising writing from his students -- such joy, such ecstasy over what he called truth-telling -- that his commentary had the power of a blessing. When he praised a sentence I had written, a phrase I had loosed, he did it with such piercing enthusiasm, I felt like Faulkner. I felt like Shakespeare.

But that was his shocking message to us: that we had it in us. "In every work of genius," wrote Emerson in "Self-Reliance," "we find our own rejected thoughts." This quote was written on the blackboard of his advanced writing class one fall morning in 1966 and I copied it into my notebook. In the four-plus decades since, I've never felt far from those words, as they apply to me or to anyone else. I gladly proclaim myself an apostle of both Emerson and Macrorie -- an apostle of everyone's inner genius.

What an academic heretic Ken was. He spent the first 16 years of his teaching career, beginning in the late '40s, struggling with a system that disdained undergraduates and mercilessly belittled their work. The writing such a system squeezed from students was hollow, turgid and grammatical. "This dehydrated manner of producing writing that is never read is the contribution of the English teacher to the total university," he wrote in his 1970 book, Uptaught.

But the worst frustration of all, as he explained in Uptaught, was with his own teaching, which produced the same deathly, say-nothing prose, such as these typical sentences from a student essay, which he quotes in the book: "I consider experience to be an important part in the process of learning. For example, in the case of an athlete, experience plays an important role." He eventually found a name for such dead language -- "Engfish" -- and knew it was the product of a system that was squeezing the life out of students and teachers alike. He vowed to find a way to defrock Engfish.

The instructions to his class in the spring of 1964 -- "free writing," as he came to call it -- were delivered in desperation. All he wanted was honest language, shreds of truth, words that mattered to the writer. The results of these instructions, revealed in the next class, may have seemed to Ken like the equivalent of Edison's first light bulb: bursts of clarion imagery and careening emotions, irreverence, humor, irony, anger . . . truth.

By the time I found my way into his class, two years later, he had developed a teaching method with free writing at its core. He worked us hard and expected us to be tough and disciplined with ourselves, but his expectations were delivered with joyous enthusiasm. My inhibitions cracked and buckled under his enthusiasm; I let myself go and found my writer's soul and life purpose in his class.

Ken has passed on and I mourn his death, but no way is he gone. He's still here, deep in my writing subconscious, urging me toward ever more vulnerable honesty, blessing each right word, cheering for me when I'm otherwise alone with a blank computer screen.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

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