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If it’s Wednesday, it must be Woodward (Feb. 1995)

Carefree as the “shortest, gladdest years” are supposed to be, they can become pretty routine. Mundane chores reduce the academic day to a pattern of drudgery. I eat, I go to class, I sleep. Caught in a deadline-to-deadline cycle, I skim the campus calendar half-heartedly, looking for a particularly interesting extra-curricular event. There always is one, and, almost always, it conflicts with my schedule. Oh, well, I think, and turn back to my computer screen. I briefly consider—and quickly reject—the idea of cleaning up the books sprawled open on the bed, the papers scattered across my desk, and the Coke cans piling up in the corner. Holed up with myself, I could be at any school, anywhere.

Then something—or someone—reminds me that I’m at Yale. For the week of October 3, the calendar included visits by Bob Woodward, the veteran journalist from the Washington Post; Tom Robbins, the best-selling eccentric; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African civil rights activist. Not at all sure I was doing the right thing, I shoved the rest of my schedule aside.

As it turned out, Woodward was scheduled to sit in on one of my writing classes. In the course of it, the professor invited Woodward to field students’ questions about his craft. Frustrated by several unsuccessful attempts at starting an article for a campus magazine, I listened for helpful hints. Halfway through the discussion, Woodward stressed that the beginning of a piece should set up the situation and “locate” the reader. That night, my own piece nearly wrote itself.

When Robbins took the microphone in the Art Gallery lecture hall the next evening, I didn’t know what to expect. The title of his lecture was: “Writing from the Inside Out, or, Style is Not the Frosting, It’s the Cake.” At the least, I hoped to get a few tips on writing with the same individuality that characterized Robbins’s whimsical prose in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I’m still not sure what Robbins meant when he encouraged us to practice “writing that says ‘I am a jelly doughnut,’” but I’m working on it.

The day after the Robbins lecture—and hoping for less of a Zen experience—I staked out a seat in Battell Chapel 40 minutes before Archbishop Tutu arrived. The Archbishop’s speech moved the audience to several standing ovations. The response was more subdued but no less enthusiastic at a Master’s Tea later in Calhoun. As the gathering drew to a close, I reached for a tea-time delicacy—and found myself shaking hands with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

I realize now that once in a while I’ve got to stop, grab my coat, and go. For this particular junior, the calendar only has a year and a half left on it. As a friend said to me just as Archbishop Tutu was beginning to speak in Battell: “It’s such a Yale experience!”

Filed under 1990s
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