For Mr. Brown

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to participate in an event honoring my high school creative writing teacher, Bill Brown. Former students and mentees were asked to write something inspired by their experience of him. As I struggled to put into words exactly how much Mr. Brown means to me, I found myself reflecting on a larger struggle: how we accurately or adequately express a feeling that we can't or have not yet been able to fully wrap our minds around; how we find peace with those things which are still in process, the "rough draft" rather than the "final." The following is for Mr. Brown, whose impact upon my life continues to reveal itself to me in new ways for which I cannot always find the words. 


In 2001 I sat in Bill Brown’s creative writing class for the first time. I was 16 years old and ready to write. For the next two years, I sat in his class writing my way through my adolescent experiences and feelings. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer then, I just knew I loved writing. I wrote because it was fun. I wrote because it was serious. I wrote because the only way to get a grade in Mr. Brown’s class was to write.
So when my mom recently unearthed my final creative writing project for Mr. Brown’s class, a book of poems I thought had been lost forever, I was thrilled. And then mortified. The poems were not good. Not good at all.
As bad as my poems were, however, they were my feelings taking shape on the page. They were written with sincerity. They were a reflection of my own limited worldview. Mr. Brown didn’t tell us our work was “bad” or “good,” only to keep going, keep writing, keep editing, then stop editing, be done. Each day brought new prompts, new calls for responses to the worldview he was expanding for us, new opportunities to find the universal in our own particulars.
I’ve been working on this piece about Mr. Brown off and on for almost two months now. When my mom found my poetry book, I sat down immediately and tried to write about how Mr. Brown has affected my life. Words came in fits and starts though. Can we ever fully measure the impact a person makes upon our life? How do I say, looking back, to be your student was to be a part of something Divine? How do I say the only time I can remember writing without fear was in your class? How do I say what my heart does when you say something I wrote spoke to you? Week after week, draft after draft, I couldn’t find the words to match my sentiment.
I’d named my high school poetry book . . . or we’ll go that way. (Ellipses included). It’s a line from one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from one of the final scenes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At the end of the novel, the protagonist, Guy Montag, must escape his dystopian community or die. Bradbury writes:
Montag looked at the river. We’ll go on the river. He looked at the old railroad tracks. Or we’ll go that way. Or we’ll walk on the highways now, and we’ll have time to put things into ourselves. And some day, after it sets in us a long time, it’ll come out our hands and our mouths. And a lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right. We’ll just start walking today and see the world and the way the world walks around and talks, the way it really looks. I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after a while it’ll all gather together inside and it’ll be me. Look at the world out there, my God, my God, look at it out there, outside me, out there beyond my face and the only way to really touch it is to put it where it’s finally me, where it’s in the blood, where it pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day. I get hold of it so it’ll never run off. I’ll hold on to the world tight some day. I’ve got one finger on it now; that’s a beginning.

I can’t recall what I was thinking back then when I chose to quote Ray Bradbury, but today, when I read his words I hear him say allow everything to be material for your life. Let nothing go to waste. Seek material, but also wait for it to appear. Don’t force what already knows how to make its way to you. Then give it time to settle deep inside you. We’ll go this way. Or we’ll go that way. Neither choice will be wrong.
Sometimes when I’m writing and I can’t find the words I want to say, I think maybe the answer isn’t to wrestle with the words more, but maybe to let the words go, to let a little more life gather together inside me until it becomes me, pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day, comes out my hands and mouth.
I can’t help but look back as much as I look forward these days, mostly because I find life more meaningful when I take time to reflect upon it in this way. And so often when I look back to account for how I got to today, one of the faces I see most is Mr. Brown’s. I see the first teacher I believed when he told me I could write because I didn’t think he would lie about something so important. I see the teacher who let me be 16 years old on the page, working through the meager life material I’d accrued, and who reassured me at 28 that the page was still waiting for me if I wanted it. And now at 30, almost 15 years after we first met, I see the man who still inspires me to keep going, keep writing, keep editing, then stop editing, and be done.