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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
Sunday, March 11 2001

Robert Kisrch (last in a series of 13 entries on teachers and mentors)

My final formal education was at UCLA, where I took a master of arts in journalism in 1972, commuting 100 miles each way several times a week for two academic years from the UC Santa Barbara campus where I was ministering to students at the time. All of my faculty members were good teachers, but one stood out. That was Robert Kirsch, who taught the freelance writing workshop. It was the most popular class in the department, by far, and probably the most creative course I ever encountered. Like most writing teachers, his lectures were mixes of principles of good writing and examples of the same, or of the opposite. For many years, teaching creative writing courses myself afterwards, I shamelessly imitated his approach as closely as I could.

His standing assignment was, "write 300 words every night, seven nights a week." Wait until just before retiring to undertake the assignment. Being tired is good. Writing fast is salutary. Putting 300 words (about one typewritten, double-spaced page) when you're tired and doing it as fast as you can type it is the idea. (Handwriting may or not have been excluded...having been a faster typist than handwriter for years already, I'd long since abandoned handwriting for much more than my signature.)

Pick a topic that you can discuss for 300 words. But alternatively he suggested or "almost" assigned topics, too. "Describe the gestalt" was a favorite. For example, look at the window in your room. What's on the window (fly specks? accumulated dirt streaks?) and what's beyond it—the former is the ground, the latter the background? If it's dark out, as is likely when this is written, what do you "see" from memory as you look through that window during daylight? That sort of thing.

The results were surprising, as his samples read aloud to the class showed. But his teaching technique is not the most notable aspect of Mr. Kirsch's approach. That would be the fact that he read every word. A class of 50 students producing 300 words seven nights a week...I'll let you do the math.

He taught himself speed reading in able to keep up with his assignments, and other reading he also did. One of the favorite topics in his classroom was speed reading...I often tried it but never became adept at it. But not only did he read it all, he wrote comments on each paper, almost without fail.

And here's the clincher: Robert Kirsch was also at the time the "fulltime" book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, which has one of the best reputations in the country for its book reviews. He wrote book reviews every day, probably six days a week, though it might have even been seven (or five).

Tragically, disease (cancer, if I remember correctly) claimed him at an early age, a few years after I met him, in 1980. The Times established a writing award in his memory, that it still gives each year.

Besides his prodigious output, Mr. Kirsch was also a nice guy whom everyone seemed to like. Though he wasn't a Ph.D. like most university professors and even instructors, I had to have him on the committee that reviewed and passed or failed my master's thesis, which he graciously agreed to do despite his workload. Something he brought up in the class resonated with me and was included in my thesis. That was the thought that every good piece of writing must have a spiritual root, and in order to give your work good roots, you have to have roots yourself, know what they are, and how they form and inform your work. That was a principle, I felt and still feel, to live by.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Don't pester me!

An exasperated mother whose son was always getting into mischief, finally asked him, "How do you expect to get into Heaven?" The boy thought it over, then said, "Well, I'll just run in and out and in and out and keep slamming the door until St. Peter says, 'For Heaven's sake, Jimmy, come in or stay out!'"

Sent by Trudy Myers

Lenten thought

The saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" actually refers to a question about fasting. St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica, were living in Milan, where St. Ambrose was bishop. St. Monica went to Rome for a visit and was surprised that Roman Christians didn't fast on Saturdays to prepare for the Eucharist on Sunday, as she was used to in Milan. When she got home, she asked St. Ambrose about it, and his famous advice was to follow the local custom: in Milan, we fast; in Rome, we don't. All of which is to remind us that fasting is a matter of grace, not law.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

From an email from Frederica Mathewes-Green
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