Learning to Write and Jack Kent Cooke

I’ve always wanted to be writer. Or more precisely, a storyteller. When my first daughter was born I was in my mid-thirties. I worked as a firefighter/forestry worker still going through the motions of writing stories and poems and getting some published, but realized how inadequate it was. I had bought into the notion that writing couldn’t be taught at the university. One just needed to write. As I looked down on Sophia’s new born head I recited Walt Whitman’s “Oh me, Oh Life,” and vowed to go to college to study writing. It was an overwhelming feeling of need. If I wanted her to go to college, then by God, I needed to set the example. Also in those moments, I realized how I would never really be a successful writer unless I went to college and learned from those who knew the art and craft of writing. I know about the contention that writing can’t be taught and MFA programs create monotone (workshop) writing (if you really believe that then you’ve demonstrated you don’t read very much). Well, sure writing is taught, duh. But they say, creative writing, can’t be taught. Yes and no.
Bob Dylan said, “An artist is always in a state of becoming.” Meaning artists are never done growing and learning. Seriously, show me an artist who is done and I will show you a dead artist and even then… Going to college is not learning creative writing, but being taught the skills and tools of a craft and to help novice artists on their life long way of becoming.
I fell in love with school again as an undergrad and desperately wanted to continue, but worried how to finance it. Grad school is not cheap and by that time we had added another daughter, Madison. Then something wonderful happened. I was nominated for and received a Jack Kent Cooke graduate scholarship. My professor Claire Davis at Lewis-Clark State College threw my name in the ring and out I came after the application process. It made grad school possible without worrying about tuition, a place to live for me and my small family, and instead of having to spend time working a second job, I could spend that time writing, reading, studying, and becoming a writer (and not just someone who writes). I often think of that. Jack Kent Cooke wanted to go to college and couldn’t afford it, but became wealthy enough to set up the largest private scholarship foundation in the world. Quite impressive. He was a life long learner and believed we all should be. Because of him, we Cookies, as we call ourselves, were and still are given the opportunity for an education beyond our reach.
What was our passion? It didn’t matter. We all studied many subjects from neurology to dance. Sculpture to city planning. Some even branch into other fields. Environmental science to memoir writing like my friend Christine Zarella’s project Turbulence in the Veins. We study it all. But the thing Uncle Jack also wanted was a group of people who did not stop. Those selected not only had to be tops in their class, have an economic need, but also needed to demonstrate they gave back to the community and possessed the fire in the belly to keep moving forward. He gave us opportunity, then it was up to us to go out and do something worthy of that opportunity. What are you doing to make the world better?
Today is Uncle Jack’s birthday. He did not teach me how to write anymore than he taught one of my friends how to be a photographer (Check out Harun Mehmedinovic’s project) or another how to argue in front of a jury or any of these young musicians how to play (seriously check this out!). Not even my professors taught me how to write. But if it wasn’t for Uncle Jack’s gift, “the tap on the shoulder with the magic wand,” I would never have had the chance to learn from professors at East Carolina University and the University of Idaho’s MFA program about what it means to live as an artist and how to develop my artistic self. It is more than the product. Also I would not have had the pleasure to meet many inspiring and talented people in both college and in the Foundation, my fellow Cookies. Can creative writing be taught? That’s like asking if you can teach someone how to live.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Jack, wherever you are. And thanks.

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