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Home » Start Your Own Discussion Thread » A Tribute to Ken Macrorie

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7/31/2009 11:57:02 AM

User 413656
User 413656
Posts: 1
I knew Ken Macrorie for 45 years. First impressions to the contrary, he wasn’t an easy-going, affable fellow. He was a complicated, challenging man, who once stalked off the court in disgust after attempting for half an hour to teach me how to hit a tennis ball. He also ripped into me for saying I could actually teach writing. (Macrorie would have deleted “actually” in the sentence above. I doubt that he ever used the word in print.)

I remember driving up to Bread Loaf with him in a teeming rain, both of us for the first time, he as an instructor, me as a superannuated student. Ken started publishing the material his students produced. It was good stuff, way too good for grad school prose. More often than not we’d have evening conversations sitting on the porch stairs of the Bread Loaf inn. Nothing profound ever got said; it’s just a pleasant memory, as is his quiet determination to dine with students, rather than sit at the faculty table. In my years there, Ken was the only staff member to do so.

We appeared on many programs together, stayed more or less in touch–occasional letters, calls. We liked each other.
-Peter Stillman
edited by on 7/31/2009
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7/31/2009 12:23:20 PM

User 413658
User 413658
Posts: 1
Ken Macrorie

Probably the most famous author portrait in American literature is the one Walt Whitman used for Leaves of Grass. At a time when the Author was portrayed as solely a head, Whitman is a portrayed full-bodied, shirt open at the neck, sleeves trolled up, head tilted-- lounging, “loafing,” relaxed—a new image of the poet. Sensuous where others are stiff and formal.

Ken Macrorie made a similar announcement with his photo on the back of Uptaught, his inventive, revolutionary teaching memoir. We see him sitting on a bench, leaning against a brick wall, perhaps a break between classes. He is dressed in the faculty uniform—tweed, thin 60s tie. But so relaxed, his hand rests on his knee, the other supports him on the bench, his eyes not on the camera, but one suspects on a student coming up to talk with him, maybe to join him on the bench and tell him what absolute bull**** he had to write in some of his literature classes. It is a picture that says, “I may work for this place—but I am not of this place.”

All his career his worked against the second-hand, evasive, flat, impersonal writing that he saw as endemic in college writing. And he gave it a name that has stuck—“Engfish.” He liberated generations of students to write about life as they experienced it, with an immediacy, vividness, and humor that would reach real readers. He asked us all to record the “fabulous realities” that surround us, and would regularly invoke his own heroes, particularly Thoreau, in his invitations. But it may be Whitman, who provides the best epitaph:

"You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
though the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres
in books,

"You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."

-Tom Newkirk
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8/5/2009 11:12:43 AM

User 413975
User 413975
Posts: 1
Peter Stillman mentioned driving to Bread Loaf with Ken for their first summer together on the mountain. That was 1981, and my first Bread Loaf summer as well. I had read Writing to be Read two years earlier in an NWP Summer Institute at the University of Virginia, and though I was delighted to be in Ken’s class, I remember being a bit intimidated to learn that I would be taught by such a famous author of books about writing. The fear lasted about five minutes into the first class as Ken helped us to relax into our own writing and thinking about how to help our students recognize good writing.

Ken did eat with us, and walk with us, and talk with us. He watched movies with us in the Bread Loaf Barn. One weekend, three friends and I took a Saturday day trip to Montreal in my car. The return trip turned into an ordeal when a French Canadian Holstein cow wandered into the roadway in front of us just north of Lake Champlain in Quebec Province. There was no avoidance. We ‘limped’ back to Vermont in my bashed in car. Later that Sunday morning, I went to Ken for moral support and advice for what to do about my damaged car. He listened to my story and talked through some options with me. Then told me he had just learned that his friend Peter Cook had died suddenly. Ken was devastated by the loss; he was also concerned for another friend, Bob Boynton, who had just teamed with Peter Cook to start a new publishing company named Boynton/Cook.

When I asked him to sign my copy of Writing to be Read, I said to Ken, “I first read this book two summers ago. Now I can’t believe I am sitting in your Helping Circle!” His reply? “You know, Lynne, when you meet someone who is a so-called authority on a subject, and you realize he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just as you do, it gives you the confidence that you, too, can become an authority.” And so it does; and so it did for me that summer.
~~ Lynne Alvine, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
edited by on 8/5/2009
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8/5/2009 12:44:51 PM



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Ken Macrorie was one of the most complex and complicated people I ever knew. So am I, so we often clashed in and out of class! One evening, I joined several "Birch Women" on the front steps of Birch on the Bread Loaf campus, and we proceeded to laugh, talk, and drink too much wine. Later, when Ken walked by, he scolded us. One "Bircher" said, "You must have had a stern mother." Another said, "Stern! His mother was starched and ironed!" Ken continued on and called back with a smile, "You're both right!" The next day at lunch, he told us that southerners disarmed him, and disarming southerners drinking wine was more than he could imagine. He then went on to tell us that "it was during the war when he was stationed with southerners and experienced the warmth of their ways and heard the way they talked in narrative form that he realized how glib his exchanges with his parents had been, and this realization changed the course of his life.

When I graduated from the Bread Loaf School of English in Santa Fe in 1991, Ken lettered my Diploma himself! I treasured the uncharacteristicly gracious gesture then and today. Ken might have grown up hearing glib, minor chords, but Ken chose to become a major chord with occassional relapses, and in chosing to become a major cord he did much for many!

Geraldine Fincannon, Retired Educator
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8/5/2009 1:00:26 PM



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I only met Ken Macrorie a couple of times at Bread Loaf in Santa Fe...but I every school year, at any grade level included his work and his wisdom. No greater tribute is possible save that we all work to make sure that his work is standard in every classroom...the straight forward and brilliant work contained in each of his books can change teaching and learning nation wide. What a man...what a teacher.
Marty Rutherford, Director Poetry Inside Out, the Center for the Art of Translation
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8/5/2009 1:49:24 PM

User 413972
User 413972
Posts: 1
In 1975 the work of Ken Macrorie gave shape and focus to my teaching of writing to high school students. I had floundered in teaching writing, using the textbook the department used: Thesis-driven arguments in a strict form. I felt like a phony, since I rarely wrote that way. I was struggling as a teacher between prescriptions and truth telling (Macrorie was big on “truth telling”).

In English Journal I saw an ad for Ken’s Writing To Be Read. In that book he said so many things about writing that I felt in my bones but could not articulate. I went on to read his A Vulnerable Teacher, Twenty Teachers, and Telling Writing. In an article I recently wrote I had occasion to devote an endnote to Macrorie. I wrote:

Most good writing, Macrorie said, is surprising, delightful, and rewarding. He dispensed other sound advice, too: Write about what you know. Choose topics important to you. Avoid pretentiousness. Be metaphorical. Sharpen and tighten your language. Cultivate your written voice.

In a journal I’d begun keeping, I tried out the writing prompts Ken offered: childhood remembrances, case studies, fabulous realities, book reviews that were both personal and public. I learned a good deal about writing from keeping those journals; Ken Macrorie was with me all the way.

After my first book came out, one letter writer said that he thought my book was too much Don Graves and not enough me. That writer didn’t know the empowering, clearly written work of Ken Macrorie. If he had, he’d have seen Macrorie’s way of looking at writing and language and teaching all through Clearing the Way.

Ken Macrorie will remain in my bones as a writer and teacher. Just as James Britton does. Just as Don Murray does.

Tom Romano, Miami University
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8/5/2009 1:57:37 PM



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When I arrived at Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont in the summer of 1981, I was cold, wet, and in culture shock. I had traveled there from the hot, high, dry desert plains of New Mexico where I was a new writing teacher at a high school in a reservation community.

On my first day in class, I met Ken Macrorie who got up to dance, doing his best interpretation of a Pueblo Indian ceremonial step, and said, “Back where I come from in New Mexico, this is how the Pueblo Indians focus their energies and minds. Watch. This is what writers need to do with their minds, too.” I decided at the moment to stay and learn something from this man.

Our text book was “The Inner Game of Tennis.” It was all about finding that other place in ourselves that knew instinctively how to hit the good shots, write the good piece, be a better person. This was Ken’s gift to me—work hard, be aware, and then let go with the intention of doing it right. Treat the other players/writers/students and their work with respect. Find your voice, tell the truth. Do the right thing.

I have learned that this works with tennis, writing, and just about everything.

Thank you, Ken. Godspeed.

Vicki Holmsten
San Juan College--New Mexico
Bisti Writing Project Director
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8/5/2009 2:55:01 PM

User 414006
User 414006
Posts: 2
I knew Ken Macrorie for 45 years. First impressions to the contrary, he wasn’t an easy-going, affable fellow. He was a complicated, challenging man, who once stalked off the court in disgust after attempting for half an hour to teach me how to hit a tennis ball. He also ripped into me for saying I could actually teach writing. (Macrorie would have deleted “actually” in the sentence above. I doubt that he ever used the word in print.)

I remember driving up to Bread Loaf with him in a teeming rain, both of us for the first time, he as an instructor, me as a superannuated student. Ken started publishing the material his students produced. It was good stuff, way too good for grad school prose. More often than not we’d have evening conversations sitting on the porch stairs of the Bread Loaf inn. Nothing profound ever got said; it’s just a pleasant memory, as is his quiet determination to dine with students, rather than sit at the faculty table. In my years there, Ken was the only staff member to do so.

We appeared on many programs together, stayed more or less in touch–occasional letters, calls. We liked each other.
-Peter Stillman
edited by on 7/31/2009
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8/5/2009 2:58:12 PM

User 414006
User 414006
Posts: 2
I am at Bread Loaf in Vermont right now, where we had a loving memorial service for Ken last Sunday, with his son Mike in attendance and a lot of faculty and staff friends. It's was more than a little bittersweet to be here on the Mountain when news of Ken's passing reached us. He is a legend here, as elsewhere.

Bread Loaf has established a Ken Macrorie Memorial: the funds will be used to found Writing Centers at as many Bread Loaf campuses as we can, so please consider contributing. There will also be a special session at NCTE devoted to Ken and his work, and another at CCCC.

With best wishes to all,

Andrea Lunsford
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8/5/2009 3:08:34 PM



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I can easily say that Ken Macrorie changed my life. I taught English for twenty-five years, and my career would have been a lot shorter if I did not take his course in writing non-fiction at the Bread Loaf School of English. Whenever I was in the classroom, it was Ken's voice in my head telling me how I should approach reading and writing and my students.
I met him on the tennis court. We all know that he loved the game. I actually played against him in the Bread Loaf tennis tournament. I had played college tennis, and we had a great time on the court. When we shook hands afterwards, I knew I had to take his course the next year.
I never really believed that I could write until I took his course.
On day he invited Donald Graves to our classroom and Donald told us that there is a problem with the teaching of writing in America. If you ask a student in kindergarten if he can write, he'll enthusiastically say "yes" but if you ask a senior if he can write, this student will say "Definitely no. I can't write." There essentially is the problem. I could relate to this concept.
It's funny that Vicki mentioned "The Inner Game of Tennis" in an earlier post. At one point in the course, he came up to me and told me that I should write "The Inner Game of Writing." I was well-acquainted with Timothy Gallwey and his discussions on technique and the actual playing of the game, and I realized that Ken was making the same points about the craft of writing. But this anecdote reveals his teaching style. He truly wanted to empower his students.
Bobby Thym
bobthym@yahoo.com
edited by on 8/6/2009
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8/5/2009 8:34:54 PM

acardoni@marywood.edu
acardoni@marywood.edu
Posts: 1
I sat in a session Ken Macrorie gave at NCTE's convention in Philadelphia back in 1985. Somehow I hoped I would be able to do that again this year. I am sad to think that this "living light" of our profession is no longer with us. Yet I am enriched by the comments and thoughts of all who have remembered Ken here.
May we all teach a really fine class this fall, in Ken's honor.

Agnes Cardoni
Marywood University, Scranton, PA
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8/6/2009 4:53:57 AM

bernabei@aol.com
bernabei@aol.com
Posts: 1
Ken changed my teaching and my writing. I grew up with traditional research papers, but Ken's I-Search papers transformed that in my world back when I was a young teacher, fresh from my first NWP experience at the University of Texas at Austin.

I knew and was transformed by his work, but I only brushed shoulders with the man himself one time. I remember wandering around the NCTE convention, wide-eyed and much younger, stumbling across the Heinemann and Boynton/Cook booths, and seeing a man standing there alone. I glanced at his name tag, and oh my God, here was Ken Macrorie. I babbled star-struck about loving I-Search papers my students had written, and he listened without smiling. Instead, he jabbed me some with, "Did you read in my introduction? I asked you to send me some papers. Have you done that?" I hung my head and said no. I hadn't really thought that an author would mean, literally, send me some papers. I subsequently did send him a few, and I was astounded to receive a letter from him on some creamy Santa Fe stationery, with detailed notes of response and encouragement for my students. Of course I still have that letter, years later. It's from Ken Macrorie. I learned from him more than a better kind of research papers, more than about Engfish; I learned that all of us are in this conversation together, whether our talk is in print or in person. And it better not be one-sided.

Thank you, Ken Macrorie. The world is better because you were here with us.

Gretchen Bernabei
Teacher, San Antonio
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8/6/2009 10:11:05 AM



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I remember the first day of class in Ken's non-fiction writing class at the Bread Loaf School of English. He first asked this question, "How many of you ( a classroom full of English teachers from various parts of the US) have ever published a piece of writing? No one raised his or her hand. My girlfriend at the time had attended Harvard, and she did not raise her hand.
Then he asked, " So you don't know that much about the relationship between an editor and a writer, do you?" We shook our heads.
"Well, it's a collaborative relationship, not an adversarial one."
He added," I have a problem with academic writing. We get high school kids to write research papers so they will be ready for college. We get college kids writing papers to get them ready for their masters, and the master's thesis prepares one for the dissertation. Do you know what the audience on a dissertation is? One or two people? By the way, that's why I titled my book Writing to Be Read. I want you to teach your student to write pieces that will be read by other people."
That five minute discussion changed by paradigm on matters of writing. I will always remember that "first day" of class.

I have written other pieces on Ken on my Hubpages. See http://hubpages.com/hub/The-Inner-Game-of-Writing
Bobby Thym
bobthym@yahoo.com
Nashville Tennessee
Nashville State Community College
edited by on 8/6/2009
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8/8/2009 11:17:23 AM

bluedb@sbcglobal.net
bluedb@sbcglobal.net
Posts: 1
I am a 1970 English major graduate of Western Michigan University. Ken Macrorie was my professor for a class titled "Shakespeare in Performance." I remember him as gruff, stern instructor who had a very strong set of standards. I also recall he was the very first instructor I encountered who made it perfectly clear that if Shakespeare wasn't acted or at least read aloud, you might as well not bother with him at all! To this day, I still agree. I taught English /language arts for 35 years and am still active professionally with the Illinois Associatin of Teachers of English and working with English Ed student teachers from ISU, and Dr. Macrorie continues to influence me. Of course he is famous for his books and such, but I feel privileged to have encountered him long before all that. Lucky me.
Donna Leusch Blackall
Palatine, Illinois
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8/10/2009 2:18:54 PM



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I, too, met Ken Macrorie at Bread Loaf. I took his Writing Prose Non-Fiction course in my first summer there when I arrived gasping at the end of my second year of teaching. At the time, I wasn't sure I was going to make it in the classroom. The story of that class for me, like those of others who've posted, was both straightforward and complex. I wrote alongside other teachers, trying to find stories I had to tell and language to tell them in. I watched how others searched for their own voices and stories, some very successfully, some struggling as much as I did. I remember that Ken's course was not a class in being an expert writer. It was rarely satisfying but instead unsettling, filled with open questions, advice that gave me pause, and sometimes strong differences of opinion. Ken could be a prickly old cuss and blunt critic, and many times I'd walk away from class sharing irritation with other writers...and thinking, thinking, thinking about whether there was anything to what he had said in class that day.

When I went back to teaching at the end of that summer, I started trying some of Ken's ideas from the course and his books. I pushed students to write with their own sense of voice, coached them in editing the junk from their prose, and urged them to get curious and search for things that mattered to them through interviewing and other means. I wanted them to write like writing mattered. But the main thing that transformed my teaching—my experience of myself as a teacher—was learning how to worry about dispensing knowledge less and instead going ahead and wrangling over the ideas that come up in a class. I told my students what I thought, let them disagree with me if they needed to, and let the dialectic of our classroom take its own shape...not just one I had engineered from the start. I learned much of this from Ken, even though at first I wasn't sure what to make of his ways.

Over my time at Bread Loaf, I grew to value Ken as an anchor of the Bread Loaf community. In particular, I remember how much curiosity and interest he always showed in the theatre work being done on the mountain. He'd sit down with a few of us at a lunch or dinner table or in the barn and ask questions about how a play he knew I were involved in was going; he always wanted to know how people were working together on solving problems in a play.

Ken was someone who valued the contentious, challenging, interpersonal dimension of learning and making our lives meaningful to each other. Just as collective theatrical work fascinated him, he never approached writing as a merely individual matter, but always something filled with questioning, meaning-making, and differences of viewpoint. It's this willingness to engage with the interpersonal work that made him such an important teacher of teaching for me.

Tom Crochunis
Shippensburg University
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