Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

Just a year ago, as a participant in the annual Southampton Writers Conference, I was at sitting in a classroom with thirteen other people, waiting for our teacher to join us. When he did, he took a few moments to organize himself, then looked at us and asked, “Who do you think you are?”

That teacher was Frank McCourt.

Frank’s pre-conference assignment gave an inkling of what was in store. He gave us a list of four names--Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus—and asked us to write a short commentary on some aspect of contemporary society (it didn’t have to be negative) from the point of view of the person we chose. I chose Moses, commenting on today’s ease of travel. (Imagine if he’d had a GPS…) And when I got my paper back and saw that he’d written on it that he’d enjoyed it, that I had “an intriguing way of looking at things”, I practically danced across the campus.

In our morning sessions with him over the ten days of the conference Frank challenged us, pushed and prodded us. He didn’t stand there and give step-by-step instructions on how to write a memoir. Instead, he told us his stories, and asked for ours. He asked us questions, and had us ask questions of each other and of ourselves. When one of us read an assignment aloud, he listened intently, sometimes pouncing on a detail he liked, saying, “There’s your story.” He had the ability to draw from you more than you thought you’d tell—sometimes more than you wanted to tell—and it was all right.

The writing community has lost one of its own—our Teacher Man with the quizzical blue eyes, wry wit and perceptive observations on life and the world around him, who led so many people to discover that they have a story worth telling. We mourn our loss, and say a prayer for him and his family. And when the tears have dried, we can raise a glass in celebration of the time he was with us, saying, “Slainte, Frank—and thanks.”

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