Mr. Degnan was published in the most prestigious reviews and magazines imaginable, among them, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review, and The Sewanee Review. My favorite piece of his, entitled “On Career Drinking in San Francisco,” was a retrospective of the San Francisco Chronicle essayist Charles McCabe.
He did not suffer fools. He could not hide his disdain for someone who did not care enough about words to think long and hard about what each word meant and what happens to the meaning of a sentence when you add such words, remove them, change them or rearrange their order.
Acclimation to Degnan’s methods began with a quick introduction to failure. He would hand out short tests that might contain only 10 questions, like this one:
You would rejoice to receive a solid “F” on these tests—that would be like getting four or five out of the 10 questions right. Typically (and I was typical), you began getting only two correct. Your humiliation would be complete the following week when, given the exact same test, you would demonstrate that you either were too stupid or too lazy (or both) to research the answers to the ones you previously got wrong.
Suddenly, Strunk and White became a veritable survival guide in his class. When he told us to memorize the book, he wasn’t kidding. I clutched that slim little softcover like purloined porn (though in a post-Internet age that concept might be a little difficult to, um, grasp).
Mr. Degnan’s was a losing battle, and he knew it. Instead of appearing as a Know-It-All, as some professors did, he seemed to be an Endure-It-All, causing many of us to sympathize with him and his struggle, which, in time, we would take up as our own.
He once observed, “I’VE BEEN AT THIS SCHOOL LONG ENOUGH THAT I REMEMBER WHEN THE JESUITS STILL BELIEVED IN GOD!”
Mr. Degnan exuded a sort of hopelessness, evident to me in the subtle fraying of his still natty rep ties. He was universally misunderstood by students and faculty, who tended to avoid him. He got the worst administrative reviews of any English professor at the school. I assume among the worst any tenured professor had ever received.
But the die-hards, like me, loved him. I think we found in him an adult who would not lie to us. When you got an “A” on an assignment, you would stagger nearly drunk through the Mission Gardens staring at the same hand that harassed you in barely legible cursive from the margin and you would think, “My God! How is this possible?” It seemed like a fluke.
But it wasn’t.
You could, with rare exception, get an A from Degnan in only one manner. By rewriting.
And rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.
It seemed like cheating.
He would mark up all your errors and tell you to start again. And so we would.
But if what you submitted could not be saved, he would drown that baby in the bathwater. Or choke it to death while you watched. And he would not bother opening the window when he threw it through the pane.
Writing was laborious under Degnan. It was physically hard work. You would be required to read your own words over and over again until you became snow-blind to their meaning—nothing made sense. Never before had any of us sweated over the placement of a single punctuation mark. But in his class precision was everything. There in the land of semiconductors, we were called to write code for the human heart. And there would not be room enough in the processor of his mind for so much as one additional comma.
Frustrated with my early work, he drew a line through the first three pages of what I hoped would become a novel and wrote, BEGIN WITH ACTION!
That edit hurt: 750 words gone.
But the lesson stuck. BEGIN WITH ACTION! I am mindful of that specific command every time I face a blank sheet of paper: BEGIN WITH ACTION! It bears repeating.
Did he break your spirit? It could have that effect on some, but the goal was to negate your spirit—to make you think as a hypercritical reader of your own work might in order for the gem of what was to be communicated to shine forth. But so much ego is behind writing—so much personal thrust. It was hell to clack away one’s thoughts on actual typewriter keys only to have him draw a line through such thoughts, concluding with a single word: NO!
Again and again we were to spool up our engines while he held fast our brakes.
OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS! he would yell through the soundproof canopies of our solipsism.
And then, finally, a thumbs up!
Our flight-plan thus approved—a thesis—Mr. Degnan sent us rocketing down the onionskin runway of our ambition once again.
Jenise Ellis ’84 had ambition. She bragged about taking Degnan.
Doesn’t she know who this guy is? I wondered. Doesn’t she know what he does?
At her worst she put on airs, but after college she would date Bill Gates, so it was evident even as an undergrad that she had reason to do so. So maybe I was the idiot, I mused, given her bravado after registering for his class. But the topic she chose for her first paper was something like “Aquatic Imagery in Lesbian Poetry in North Texas”—it was that obscure. To my mind, she had just packed munitions-grade plutonium in the fuel rod of her Ticonderoga No. 2 and started scribbling away subconsciously at the launch codes. I presumed I would soon recline in the shade of the resulting mushroom cloud, but no explosion was heard—until Mr. Degnan himself took me aside and spat out, “WHO . . . WHO IS THAT . . . THAT GIRL? WHO IS THAT ELLIS GIRL?”
We have ignition!
The invectives Mr. Degnan chose for Jenise’s work exceeds my capacity for recall. I cannot remember a word he said—she was too good a friend of mine (I loved her, frankly), and her motivation for writing was as suspect as my own. I just stared beyond him and endured the beating as her proxy.
“WHY DO STUDENTS THINK THE ONLY CREATIVE WRITING IS FOUND IN FICTION?” This complaint of his was repeated often as I walked him back to his office after class. “THE BEST WRITING IS PENNED BY JOURNALISTS! PICK UP THE WALL STREET JOURNAL! READ THE NEW YORK TIMES! READ HARPER’S, FOR GOD’S SAKE!” I nodded violently in agreement, but I did not believe it for a second.
“WHY, OH WHY, MUST EVERYONE BE A NOVELIST?” he would ask as he unlocked his office door and threw his books on his desk.
I shrugged my shoulders and silently took my place in the chair beside his desk reserved for the contrite.
I wanted to be a novelist.