New York City
“Let’s go to the language.”
Perhaps that’s my most vivid aural memory of Frank Conroy. I took his writing class at Brandeis University in the Spring of 1985.
First there was the “story” all that narrative stuff, usually about dead grandparents, the most dramatic event in most middle-class white American College students’ lives, which he knew and could care less about. But then there was “the language.”
The language was what we were there for. The language was the soul of the writer, regardless of class or experience, or rather, in response to class and experience, to all that’s in the world and all the author imagines is beyond or before it.
Conroy was tall, and dressed as if style weren’t an issue — it wasn’t. Fink corduroy pants, multi-colored checkered jackets. But really style was the issue, for no one else I have met before or since, dressed like Frank Conroy. Cloths, music, language — all modes of expressing the inside to the outside. All saying that for better or worse, there was only one Frank Conroy, and here he was.
He was easy on us with our “stories” — after all, what would one say? If you want stories, go to the movies. And that was perhaps the greatest lesson Frank Conroy had to teach writers, readers, musicians, anyone. If you want stories, go to the movies or watch TV. Books, or I should say, “the written word,” whatever form it takes (i.e. the Web) contain the one thing movies never will: language.
“It’s just a code,” Conroy would say. “A code. Symbols on paper. But what does it mean?”
Everything. Poetry, prose; fiction, philosophy, history, politics. All that we are. So when Conroy, honing in on a particular student, the one whose “turn” it was to present a story or prose work, would say, “let’s go to the language,” what he was saying was “let’s see who this person really is, and whether he/she has discovered there right set of symbols, the right code, to convey it to others.
Frank Conroy was a talker, that is, he loved to talk, to communicate. Hence, his music, his prose, his position in American Letters not so much as a creator — he wrote five books, among them the classic, Stop-Time — but a communicator. Teaching the young and inexperienced, and bringing together the greats among his peers. Conroy wasn’t selected to head America’s most prestigious writing program on a whim: he had a reputation of knowing how to be with people. He knew their language.
One sin Frank exhibited unselfconsciously among the “politically correct” was his compulsive smoking. He chain-smoked, getting in a few butts before class started, and as many as three during the break. Sometimes, lost in thought, he’d light up during class and have to stomp out the butt and chuck it out the window. It wasn’t fashionable to chain-smoke in 1985. “You’re gonna die way before your time,” people would chastise him in 1985. I suppose, in 2005, at age sixty-nine, he did die “way before his time.” But such things, for a man like Frank Conroy, could not be helped, for there were always countless ways in which he might die, but only one way he could possibly live, by “going to the language” of his essential self.
So much confusion, weirdness, madness in America today. Some people thing we need more of what got is here: false, language, corporate language, language by committee. Maybe we should say, as Conroy, “let’s go to the Language.” That is, let’s get to essential truths of our individual selves, and assert the fact of our individual unique nesses to the world, that fact that we all count. What else is language for?
Thank you, Frank Conroy, for teaching me this valuable lesson early on.
Books by Frank Conroy
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org