Dedicated to Mrs. Bruce and Mr. Haist
for Teacher Appreciation Week 2011
I’ve always been a bookworm, and I always loved English class in school. I had two English teachers whose influence on my life was greater than they would ever know.
Garvin Haist was my eighth-grade English teacher. He told my mother in my hearing that “Marilyn has a way with words.” That obviously made an enormous impression on me, to have remembered it for fifty years now. I’ve done my best to live up to it ever since.
Marjorie Bruce was my favorite high school English teacher. I was in her eleventh grade English class, AP English and Creative Writing classes. I loved her classes. She taught me about literature and coached my writing skills, of course. That was the least of what I learned from her. Much more fundamental, she taught me how to think about the written word.
In Mrs. Bruce’s AP English class we spent weeks analyzing an essay called “Vulture Country.” None of us was at all interested in reading about the natural history of the vulture, but by the time we were done, all of us wanted more. Mrs. Bruce took us through the piece line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word. We looked at not just what the author said, but the way he said it, and why he would have chosen to say it just that way, at the rhythm, balance and flow of his writing. From that microscopic examination, I absorbed an awareness of the subtleties of language that informs both how I write and how I read.
I didn’t plan to take Creative Writing, but in the last half of my senior year AP English conflicted with concert band, and band won. Creative Writing was probably the most valuable English class I ever had. Mrs. Bruce stretched and bent my thinking out of my expository ruts. I wasn’t particularly imaginative, but she coaxed some originality out of me.
You can’t exactly teach creativity, but you can create an environment for it to emerge. Mrs. Bruce was great at that. In the mid-’60s, before it was trendy, she was doing things like rearranging the desks in her classroom so the students faced one another. We did lots of brainstorming exercises, although I didn’t learn that term until much later. One exercise I remember vividly started with Mrs. Bruce writing a few random letters on the chalkboard, say, W-C-E-N. Then students threw out possible phrases using them as initials. (My husband and I do this with license plates all the time. He’s a lot better at it than I am.) My W-C-E-N phrase was Winter Comes Every Night. Then we had to write something, anything, using that phrase. I wrote a poem about nuclear winter. Well, I was 17 and it was the ’60s.
Mrs. Bruce’s favorite maxim was, “Writing is reading turned inside out.” The idea of putting yourself in the reader’s shoes when you write was a revelation. Aha, it’s not just how you say it, it’s how they read it. Will the reader “hear” it the way you’re thinking it?
Thinking inside out applies to all my work. I can’t think of an area where it isn’t helpful. From my first job out of college as a weekly newspaper reporter, graphic design, typography and layout were as much a part of my work as the words I wrote. Design doesn’t just make things look nice, it determines how they work and how well, whether they get read or used. A brochure or website that looks thrown together doesn’t just seem amateurish. If it’s too much work to find what you want to know or the page just hurts your eyes to look at it, do you think you’ll keep reading, or buy what they’re selling? Me either.
So whether I’m editing the text of a book, designing its pages and cover, building a website, creating logos and business cards, making brochures or whatever, I try to think from the inside out. I think, I hope, it shows.
So thank you, Garvin Haist, for giving me confidence in my “way with words.” And thank you, Marjorie Bruce, for turning reading inside out.