I know that there is no other satisfaction which lights up one’s heart with as fierce a glow as that happiness of knowing one has written well.
Arthur F. Medlyn
A couple of weeks ago while I was going through boxes searching for material to send to my friends Chase and Leanne for their new website, Stuff Kids Write, I stumbled on a forgotten file…it was my correspondence with the only bona fide writing teacher I ever had, Arthur F. Medlyn.
It was February, 1974, and I was 12-and-a-half. I was reading an issue of Yankee magazine in which I found a small ad for a company called The Writing Well in Pittsfield, Massachusetts…the ad offered writing instruction, so I sent a letter inquiring about the service they provided.
The first response came within a week…I loved Mr. Medlyn from the time I read his first paragraph:
The straightforward character of your writing, its neat arrangement, especially the clean typewriting, and its modesty are becoming. I’m sure you can write well!
Mr. Medlyn went on to explain that he had been a literary editor who had been writing for almost fifty years, and had first had poetry published while in his teens at Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a private high school founded by evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
My debt to him and to the school is great, and I’d like to repay it in part by providing for you, a young and talented person, the kind of training in writing well which would have done me good when I was young. Together, we may apply the old school’s motto: “Learn as though your life on earth would endless be, Yet live as though tomorrow ushered in eternity!”
Mr. Medlyn’s standard fee for coaching was $50/month or $500/year in advance. Knowing my tender age, he offered to give me a break:
Because you are young and full of heart, I’d like so much to help you that I’m willing to do it at less than cost (at least, at no cost for my time and effort); won’t you try my coaching service for $10.00 a month?
Mr. Medlyn asked me to send him a long detailed letter about myself and why I wanted to be a writer, two of my short pieces and $5.00 (the other $5.00 would be sent once we started working together). He would discuss my background as related to a writing career, and offer his “One Man’s Opinion” (OMO) on the pieces I submitted.
Our main objective will be to create a body of meaningful literary work which the best publishers will be proud to publish. They will do this because, through The Writing Well, your literary talent will have reached the kind of keen development which says, without another word, that you have written well.
Even at 12, I was my mother’s daughter…ever thrifty. I sent Mr. Medlyn a letter expressing my interest in his offer, but asking if I was committed to studying with him for a certain amount of time. I was worried about being locked into what I saw as a drain on my somewhat limited financial resources (my allowance was 15 cents a week, and my primary method of making extra money in the winter was babysitting for between 50 cents and $1 an hour). His response was quick to dispel my fears:
My admiration for your sensible approach to the limited financial part of your writing efforts is boundless. There is a danger here, however, in that you may very well find yourself so engrossed in the earning of money to support our pursuit together of your writing well that the pursuit may be lost in a flurry of dollars and cents. If we are to write well, we must devote adequate, undisturbed time to the matter of writing…We mustn’t let financial considerations or other seemingly weighty obstructions stop us for a minute.
Mr. Medlyn’s new proposal suggested that I pay him $5.00 a month, and if I sold a piece during that month, that I would send him another $5. Sold!
It was July (four days before my thirteenth birthday) before I got around to sending him the “long letter about myself” (I was a procrastinator even then). I found my handwritten draft, which is the only letter of mine I have. In it, I detailed my academic and family history (casually throwing in my distant relationship to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), and talked about my interest in being a writer:
I prefer writing as a possible career because I believe that I have always had a natural talent for it. It appeals to me because I like expressing myself on paper, and because I have an imagination that often runs away with me.
In one of three postscripts, I told Mr. Medlyn about the summer jobs I had lined up (babysitting and picking berries), what they paid, and how much money I had already saved: $23.65.
In his next letter, Mr. Medlyn sent a poem he’d written just for me (I added the stars to separate the stanzas):
TERCETS FOR WENDY
by Arthur F. Medlyn
The wind is telling me stories again
About the what and the why and the when
And the where and the many who‘s of men.
But now there’s no lad fetching the cows
Who wisely says nothing but only bows
As he passes by. And the faint echoes
Left by the wind are a long-kept thought
Of the pasture’s lesson I once was taught
About the might-be and what could be wrought
By the study of what and when and where
To carry the why once you knew who was there.
But now there’s a girl with an earnest air
Who certainly must have heard that breeze
As it whisked by me on the pasture’s leas
And tickled my mind with a lasting tease
To know the who and the what and the why,
The when and the where, so that it would be I
Who could make them real for her noblest try
To tell to the world what that windy sprite
Tells all young writers: “With all your might
You must learn all you can, and then write, write, WRITE!”
Mr. Medlyn was determined to turn me into a poet…I’m afraid that I disappointed him…I sent him what were probably some awful poems, a short story, and a fairly decent haiku from a picture of a volcano:
A majestic hill
Superior to all things
Stands in high splendour.
He critiqued my work and assigned me some tercets, which I didn’t do…I told him I “lacked inspiration”, “was lazy”, and “was finding the rhyming part difficult”. Mr. Medlyn brushed off my excuses:
A writer is supposed to be able to acquit himself with reasonable facility on any given occasion…even if he has a bad headache and his Walden hut has just fallen down over his ears. All of us intelligent people are lazy, by definition. We try to make our brains save our backs, and our heads save our heels. Anything worth doing is not easy, else its value is nil.
My last letter from Mr. Medlyn was dated January 11, 1975. He advised that his business no longer existed, and that he was now “just plain Mr. Medlyn.” I never did the poetry assignment or revised my short story, and that was the last time I had any contact with him.
I Googled Mr. Medlyn this morning, and learned that he had died on November 1, 1992 at the age of 78. It’s a shame that he never seemed to have achieved any major notoriety from his writing.
I didn’t become a poet, but I am a writer…I think my “sympathetic mentor” had a lot to do with it…thank you, Mr. Medlyn!