Friday, October 5, 2007

"Find Your Tree"

“How do you write? My answer is that I start with the trees and keep right on straight ahead.”William Saroyan

This is a story about the bloodline of wisdom. It comes, down through the generations, from William Saroyan to Mark Arax to my students. “Writing can give you many things,” Arax told the class on Wednesday morning. “There is a power to the written word, especially in the Armenian culture.”

With these words, Mark Arax began his two-day writing seminar with some eager high school journalists led by a resourceful band of senior girls. Day one would be dedicated to journalism; day two was reserved for Arax’s “Essay Masters” seminar.

“Essay Masters” is a workshop Arax runs for high school seniors who are writing application essays for college. He helps them brainstorm and begin composing this often-difficult piece of writing to help them make a good impression on the various admissions committees at colleges across the country.

These days, schools use holistic admissions criteria, meaning that all facets of a student’s application are given equal weight: grade point average, SAT scores, extra or co-curricular activities, hobbies, jobs, volunteer efforts, and the application essay. Therefore, none of these areas can be overlooked in its importance to the whole package. Students take great pains to build their resumes and application packets to reflect their achievements during the high school years. My school decided to help the students in this endeavor by bringing in a high-caliber journalist like Mark Arax to help. We are not the only ones doing this; several schools in the Fresno area are hosting Arax as well, and he also works with students individually. His website offers dates and other information at http://www.essaymastershome.com/.

The first day was devoted to journalism. Arax began with a discussion of his conflict and resignation from The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Managing editor Douglas Frantz pulled Arax’s story on the Armenian Genocide, scheduled to run April 24 to commemorate this dark day in history when Turkey targeted Armenians for annihilation. Frantz claimed that as an Armenian, Arax could not be objective in his reporting.

Even though no one, including Frantz, found fault with the piece, Arax’s work never saw publication. He left the Times shortly after, ending twenty years of memorable and brilliant journalism with the paper. A few months later, Frantz left as well. His heavy-handed hatchet job was not without its own stain of bias: Frantz had been bureau chief in Turkey for two papers, The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Frantz had close ties with the Turkish embassy in Los Angeles, and made no secret where his loyalties were placed.

In this first session, Arax immediately revealed himself to be a natural teacher. He discussed how to take notes, how to approach a story without preconceived notions, and offered his take on the state of journalism today. “In the midst of a war, we are fixated on trailer trash,” he said, referring to the media’s current preoccupation with Britney Spears. “It is a privilege to run a newspaper,” he told them, and they should never take it for granted.

He told them about his adventures in high school journalism, how he was kicked off his paper for reporting the shenanigans of the faculty at a party where they trashed students. Arax had a source at the party who reported, word for word, what the teachers said. He went underground, developing a mimeographed rag to be distributed secretly to students when he could not write for the official school paper.

Probably the most important thing he told the young journalists was not to think only about issues on campus, but address the wider world outside the school. He described how students might approach politicians and local officials. The students’ affiliation with the school newspaper gives them an entry to speak with people in the outside world. No one will turn down an interview request from a high school kid, he told them, which translates into access and the chance to ask questions. However, to do this successfully, they have to put on “outsider’s eyes.” They must see the world as observers.

Although he cautioned the students always to take an objective approach, he also admitted that a reporter could not be entirely objective. Who we are, we bring to every story, he told them. He explained how a selection of facts could color the writing, and shift people’s perception. “You have to be smart; you have to be clever how you do it,” he said.

He ended the day by brainstorming with students for story ideas. He prodded them to fill in the angles and avenues they would pursue on each one. He made valuable suggestions and clarifications. He energized the students; many hung around after the session to continue the discussion with the journalist.

Day two of the conference began with a piece by William Saroyan, a writer who influenced Arax when he was young. He met the author at an influential point in his own development, and he related the story to the students. Arax gave the students an essay by Saroyan called “Starting With A Tree and Finally Getting to the Death of a Brother.” It is from this essay that Arax draws his tagline for “Essay Masters”: “Find your tree.”

Saroyan uses a variety of metaphors in the piece, including “the old English walnut tree with every year literally thousands of the magnificent hard fruit, which, when you removed the black casing, which dried and could be made to crumble away to the grooved shell, which then you could break with a hammer and then behold as a design of intricate engineering, of art, of construction, the hardwood slick and light brown in its convolutions in which the meat of the nut, as it is called, had ripened to a substance with the most subtle and satisfying flavor implanted into anything that creatures including human beings and small boys, like Henry and Willie, as my brother and I were referred to be other members of the family and neighborhood, and still are, thank God, could remove from the shell and put into the mouth and taste and chew and swallow and never suspect that indeed that is how we do, how we live, how we die, how we write, and how we read.” Surely a perfect example of a run-on sentence used to its maximum descriptive potential.

Saroyan’s wisdom, on display throughout the piece, reaches a climax at the end: “If you practice an art faithfully, it will make you wise, and most writers could use a little wising up.”

Then Arax took over—“What is your tree?” he asked them.

In many ways, the second session differed from the journalistic focus of the previous day; in many ways, day two continued the thoughts and ideas of day one. Writing is writing. The things Arax advised them to do could apply to any kind of writing—fiction, journalism, poetry, even literary analysis. He encouraged them to put in their unique Armenian point-of-view, and to show, not tell.

He also offered insights into the recently added SAT writing portion. The prompt often involved one of three areas: education, current events, or personal experience. “Read the newspaper,” he commanded them. “Your I.Q. points will go up if you read the paper.” Being cognizant of current events from reading newspapers would help them be better writers on the SAT, he assured them.

The session then became about the act of writing itself: lead paragraphs, the meat of the middle, the bang of a sentence at the end. It is about the details, he told them. Linger on them. “When dealing with a heavy subject,” he said, “it is not necessary to bring a lot of adjectives to it.” Arax channeling Hemingway. Do not be too maudlin, he warned, or too purple.

He ended the session by going student to student and brainstorming ideas. Many began by saying they did not know what to write. Within three minutes with Arax’s probing and questioning, they “found their tree” and were off and running. It was intense, provocative, and ultimately draining for all the participants and the teacher. Yet, many stayed after for almost forty-five minutes to continue the discussion with Arax.

After the students left, we went to lunch in the cafeteria. Fatigue from the intensity of the two days hung on Arax like a heavy coat. I told him he had a big future in education, and that if he ever needed a steady job, just give me a call. For this, I got an ironic chuckle from him. He admitted that he had thought about teaching after the fiasco at the Times, but the writing life was all he knew, and he did not want to give it up. We talked about his upcoming projects: articles for Los Angeles Magazine, a piece he is currently working on about Armenians in Glendale and the Zankou Chicken Restaurant chain, familiar themes of family, murder, history, California. He had interviews scheduled around the sessions at our school. He was, is, will always be a journalist. There are book ideas, article ideas, the writing life, always waiting for him just over the next metaphorical hill. It was a bittersweet moment: I had spent enough time with this man to recognize him as a born educator, a brilliant teacher, a passionate advocate for students and learning. I have read enough of his work to see his brilliance as a writer, a man who could focus the power of the written word to move people, make them think and feel and understand. Good writers are good teachers. Mark Arax’s place would always be behind the keyboard, not the teacher’s podium. The classroom would always be his second choice. I knew, inside, that was how it should be, but it made me sad anyways. There are too few gifted classroom teachers in this world.

I walked Mark Arax to the parking lot on this mild autumn afternoon. We promised to keep in touch, do this again next year, do dinner some time. I wished him well and safe journey home to Fresno, and watched him walk heavily toward his car, the fatigue of the two days and the cold he was fighting evident in his gait.