The Degnan Way

First the students write and James P. Degnan edits. Then rewrites and rewrites and rewrites.

First the students write and James P. Degnan edits. Then the students rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, as often as necessary.

To say that James P. Degnan, professor of English and 25-year Santa Clara faculty member, is a writer who teaches (as opposed to a teacher who writes) is true. But it’s not the whole truth.

Degnan’s ascerbic, no-nonsense prose has been found in hundreds of articles, short stories, parodies, and satires in publications as diverse as Harper’s, The Atlantic, Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, American Heritage, and Reader’s Digest. He confesses he went into teaching so he could afford to write.

Without question, Degnan is a writer of substance, style, urbanity, wit, and no little passion. But to concentrate on the writing exclusively would be to fuzz over the importance of Degnan the teacher and to miss the point of what he’s been trying to do all these years.

In the early 1970s, Degnan was asked to devise a writing emphasis that would not dilute the undergraduate liberal arts program and, at the same time, would offer gifted students practical training. “What I tried to do,” he says, “was to create an approach to writing that would emphasize ‘creative nonfiction’ (or ‘nonfiction as literature’), the sort of writing the best writers in all of the disciplines turn out—writers ranging from Edmund Wilson to Lewis Thomas and Edward Abbey; from Tom Wolfe to Loren Eisley and Fred Hoyle; from Joan Didion to Jacques Barzun and Lewis Mumford …”

Did Degnan pull it off? You be the judge.

During the years Degnan has goaded student-writers into producing prose of publishable quality, between 200 and 300 students in assorted disciplines—everything from philosophy to combined sciences—have passed through his informal writing-for-publication program. The rite of passage is not easy, but the gain appears to be directly proportional to the pain.

Deceptively simple, Degnan’s approach involves two stages.

First, he sets the would-be writers to writing—if they haven’t already whipped out their nomination for this year’s Pulitzer Prize and slapped it on his desk. Those Degnan deems capable of writing publishable nonfiction meet with him regularly in one-to-one tutorials. The students write and Degnan edits, critiques, and makes them rewrite—and rewrite and rewrite—as often as necessary. These are the winnowing weeks when the thin of skin and fragile of ego usually bail out.

Second, Degnan tries to match promising students with compatible publishers or organizations. Over the years, this writer-teacher has arm-twisted and cajoled uncounted magazines, newspapers, and corporate public relations departments into providing internships for his young writers, some of whom have, in their professional maturity, made room for subsequent Degnan students.

If all that sounds like hard work, it is. That’s the Degnan way. Writers learn to write by writing, and they learn to distinguish good writing from bad writing by turning their bad writing over to a good editor. Jim Degnan is nothing if not a good editor.

It is, of course, only a step from good editor to good teacher, and, in Degnan’s case, to good friend.

Six former students, all of whom credit Degnan with more than passing responsibility for their professional success, see him in those terms.

When they talk of Jim Degnan, the warmth and affection they feel for him are palpable and far transcend mere professional respect.

Julie Sly ’82 always aspired to a career in journalism. Since May 1988, she has been the information officer, spokesperson, and de facto lobbyist for the California Catholic Conference, headquartered in Sacramento; but she put in a respectable apprenticeship first. Jim Degnan got her started.

“I took several courses from Jim,” Sly recalls, “and it was the one-to-one part that really helped me—that, and the personal encouragement. There was plenty of criticism, but it was always tempered with, ‘No, don’t give up. This is good material; it just needs refining.’

“Then, in my senior year, he helped me shape an article on why Catholic lay missionaries are persecuted.” That piece, “Missionaries, Marxism and Murder,” appeared in the now-defunct journal Sign. It was the beginning of a career.

Sly went on to a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University, did a piece for the National Jesuit News on Father James Vizzard of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and his impact on farmworkers, worked for Catholic publications in Los Angeles and Kansas City, and settled penultimately as editor of Catholic Key, the diocesan paper in Kansas City.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Sly, “if it weren’t for Jim Degnan. He taught me to be less self-centered, to take criticism. He instilled responsibility in me. We met only once or twice a week, and he left it up to me to research and write—and rewrite. I learned from Jim that nobody’s going to get the story for you.

“Yes, I’d agree he’s a writer who teaches, but he never stops caring about you—or teaching. When I sent him my first copy of the Key, he wrote a brief note on a half sheet, written on that battered old manual typewriter of his. ‘Nice looking paper,’ he said, ‘but watch your use of commas.’”

Jim Degnan calls Neil Jimenez ’80, screenwriter and author of the powerful, if controversial, River’s Edge, the “fastest study I ever saw.

“We’d go over something he wrote; I’d suggest changes. He’d come back with them, not next month or next week, but next morning.”

Jimenez, who completed his undergraduate work at UCLA, calls Degnan “the only worthwhile thing in the program [at Santa Clara]. It was the confidence he gave me in myself.

“The first story I ever gave him, he gave me a C. He could be very specific about what’s good writing and what’s not. Through his class I sent off a piece to California magazine. They didn’t buy it, but they bought others.” It was a start.

“I remember one afternoon in his office: We were going over some of my stuff, and I was worried. I’d decided to transfer to UCLA, and I wasn’t sure I could make it as a screenwriter. But Jim said, ‘Don’t worry; you’ve got what it takes.’ Coming from him, that meant something.”

Paul Kuykendall ’80 didn’t aspire to be a writer. In fact, he took his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then drove a cab in Reno.

“I got an excellent education at Santa Clara,” he recalls, “but not the skills most tangible to employers. It was Jim Degnan who opened doors for me.

“I always felt I was a good writer, but I learned through Jim’s classes that writing is a discipline. He turned my attitude around right away. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jim Degnan has had a major impact on my life.”

Because Degnan believed Kuykendall had what it takes to succeed, he persuaded high-tech Amdahl Corporation to let the philosopher–cab driver edit its employee newspaper.

“I didn’t know business,” Kuykendall confesses, “but I did know how to write.” Kuykendall left Amdahl to try his hand at freelance writing, joined Fujitsu America, and ultimately gravitated to sales, where Silicon Valley’s serious money is to be found.

“Even in sales, though, if you can write, you have an edge. You can document what needs to be done to serve the customer best.” While at Amdahl, Kuykendall made room for some of Degnan’s student interns, with nary a qualm. “Jim would never recommend a writer who’s going to fail.” In Kuykendall’s view, Degnan is an unsung hero.

“You know,” he philosophizes, “it’s not what you learn from someone, it’s what you admire about him that affects you in later life. I admired—still admire!—Jim Degnan’s writing and editing skills. He is truly a writer who teaches. He let us watch him write, and I learned from that what I wanted to do.”

Dave Beers ’79 cherishes what must be a unique experience among former Degnan students.

Now a senior editor at Mother Jones, a San Francisco–based national magazine of social and political commentary, Beers tells this story:

“Last year Jim came to me with a story, [when Beers was with Image magazine] and I don’t mind saying I was nervous. I’m not by nature a vengeful person, and I wasn’t looking forward to marking his copy. But I kept remembering how it was when I, an English major heavily into poetry and term papers, handed Jim my first article. He gave me a C. I asked him why.

“He peered over those glasses of his and replied, ‘Well, to begin with, it’s incoherent and barely literate. Do you want to go into details, or shall you just do it over?’ I did it over.” Degnan’s candor, however, is not unfeeling, Beers says. “The thing about Jim is he’s a warm, friendly, collegial person. He never patronizes you, always treats you as an equal—as a human being, that is. If you want him to treat you as a writing equal, you have to earn it.”

Beers remembers with some amusement “the diarists and creative scribblers the high schools sent to Santa Clara.” It didn’t take Jim Degnan long to set them straight about writing.

“He’d read a piece from a magazine, for example, and then he’d say, ‘See how easy that reads? Well, realize that there is an inverse ratio between ease and agony.’”

In other words, the easier it reads, the harder it writes. That’s how it is, as Jim Degnan is wont to point out, when words have meaning and moral consequences. To English graduate Lewis Buzbee ’79, Degnan is “a hidden jewel.”

Buzbee, now a sales representative for Chronicle Books in San Francisco, recalls how “I went to Santa Clara for all the wrong reasons: A girl I was in love with lived in San Jose … but once on campus I began hearing about this almost mythical person, ‘J.D.’ He was a writer, everybody said, and since I thought I might like to be a writer, I submitted a story. He agreed to look at it, and we worked together for the next two years.” [The first story was later published in Western Humanities Review.]

Buzbee, who still publishes short stories and literary criticism in major literary journals (Paris Review, for example), is negotiating with a publisher for the rights to his first novel, “Fliegelman’s Desire.” He credits Degnan with inspiring the determination to keep at writing.

“He instilled in me a love of writing,” Buzbee says, “and a scorn for incorrect use of language. He established a powerful teacher-student bond; he was a real mentor. And it has lasted. Even today, when I write something, I ask myself, ‘Will this get past J.D.?’”

Mike Malone ’75, MBA ’77, is a freelance writer; author of The Big Score, a semisociological examination of Silicon Valley; a television personality (Malone, KTEH, channel 54); and the Degnan alumnus perhaps best qualified to call himself a Degnan-watcher. They maintain an ongoing, mutually respectful relationship.

“Jim Degnan is a consummate professional,” says Malone. “He is utterly ruthless in cutting the fat out of a piece. He is a marvelous storyteller; I’d say his sense of story is one of the best things his students have going for them—that and his refusal to compromise.

“You write something that matters to you, turn it in, and he goes at it. Cuts you off at the knees. I’ll always remember those long paragraphs crossed out with ‘LOOSE’ scrawled across them. But that’s how he gives you what I call writer’s sensibility, that sense of story. The Degnan method is hard on the ego, but if you don’t have what it takes it’s better to find out in college than later.

“Early on, Jim Degnan gave me two solid pieces of advice: ‘Get a skill; have something to write about. Then figure on putting in at least a five-year apprenticeship in developing your craft as a writer.’”

That, of course, is the surpassing value of Degnan internships. They help students “hit the ground running,” in Mike Malone’s words, and he should know.

Malone’s Degnan-arranged internship at Hewlett-Packard, in the instrument and computer firm’s public relations department, “put me on the corporate jet the day after graduation.”

Malone stayed there four years and then abandoned the boardroom for the newsroom, at the San Jose Mercury News. Book authorship, television, and a successful freelance career followed inevitably.

“I just wanted to be a writer,” he shrugs.

Jim Degnan, who gave Malone his first boost up the ladder, would have no trouble understanding.

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