James Degnan taught, ripped, cajoled, and inspired generations of Santa Clara writing students—all in his own discomforting style. This article was first published in the Autumn 2013 Notre Dame Magazine.
“Bruno, I found a letter addressed to you in that book you left on the breakfast table.”
“What book?” I asked my former business partner, Brandon Chaney, who routinely searches for his possessions among my own when he visits from out of town.
“That grammar book.”
“Oh,” I said. The Elements of Grammar, that bastard stepchild to Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, which I had taped over my heart on the disposable polyester gown I wore when I crossed the stage at Santa Clara University—when I crossed the stage even though I had not accumulated enough units to have my name so much as appear in the Commencement Program.
I had found the book in a stack I had been sorting through recently. Realizing I could use a refresher, I had stuck it in my computer bag, and read it on planes and in hotel rooms in my travels up and down the State of California managing a group of technology salespeople.
“Yeah,” Brandon said. “It was from someone who liked your writing.”
There in the land of semiconductors, we were called to write code for the human heart.
Must be from Eichten, I thought. Chuck Eichten ’84. The undergraduate cartoonist to my serialized fiction written when both of us worked on the school paper, The Santa Clara, in the mid-1980s. “Keep writing!” he always goaded me in letters and postcards over the intervening years. “You’re going to get published!” When his The Book of Better was published by Random House in 2011, I chastened him that obviously he was the writer and he ought not to commend skills of mine which were now employed chiefly in the creation of cover letters, sales proposals and emails to my clients.
But in the interest of seeing again what Chuck had to say, I flipped to page 168 of the grammar book, which, evidently, I had never reached in my many attempts to re-read the thing. There I found a small envelope from April of 1986 that bore the red crest of Santa Clara University.
Obviously this was not from Chuck.
I opened it to discover it was . . . The Letter!
The very one I had told stories about all my life but assumed was gone forever.
It was the letter I prized among all others I had ever received. A letter, now framed above the desk at which I write, that is the most valuable possession I have ever owned—more valuable to me than the gift of a German first edition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It represents in totality the struggle I have had with the written word throughout my life and the collision that occurred when I ran into the brick wall of James P. Degnan when I was 19 years of age.
The very name Degnan was lobbed like a hand grenade into conversations Santa Clara English majors had with one another in my day: “I’m taking Degnan this quarter,” one would say with an air of understated superiority.
“You . . . you are?” would come the hesitant response.
“That’s his, his worst—isn’t it?”
The very wording that Mr. Degnan used on the door of Office 303 in St. Joseph’s Hall was once cribbed by an overly ambitious student magazine editor on campus, who told me when I interviewed him for the school paper that he wrote more than eight hours a day: “Should you not find me in . . .” stated the note on his own dormitory door. He thus duplicated exactly the construction of Mr. Degnan’s advice to students approaching the literary confessional he manned on the third floor of a Depression-era former dormitory given to darkened hallways, secretive stairwells, and offices that served as small, select libraries to educators devoted to the written word.
Should we not find him in Office 303 . . . we would do what every English major had done before us—give thanks to God that he wasn’t and then fold our papers lengthwise as prescribed, slide them carefully into the manila envelope attached to his door, and run like hell.
But the campus was not big enough to shield the uninitiated from the concussion of the resulting editorial blast: “WHAT YOU NEED IS A POINT!” was all he wrote on a 25-page paper a classmate of mine submitted to him.
|James Degnan. Photo from SCU Archives|
“IF YOU DO NOT INTEND TO COMPLETE THE ASSIGNMENT, I SUGGEST YOU DROP THE CLASS!” He wrote this to me—me, the consummate professorial kiss-ass—after I submitted the single-most creative paper of my undergraduate career: an argumentative piece in which I argued whether or not to write the paper itself, ending very Vonnegutian with my being shot to death in the Slightly Oval Office after being elected president of the United States.
IF YOU DO NOT INTEND TO COMPLETE THE ASSIGNMENT, I SUGGEST YOU DROP THE CLASS!
Geez, Louise! Who was this guy? I wondered, as I rapidly pounded out a 1,200 word replacement that had something to do with whatever we had been reading in class.
Who was this guy?
James P. Degnan was a professor. Not a Ph.D. He was the only professor at Santa Clara who achieved tenure on the strength of a master’s degree—his from the University of Notre Dame in 1956.
And he lectured on writing to self-absorbed students whose egos, to his mind, had been inflated along with their grades as they floated like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons from one level to the next, year after year, without ever being taught how to think or to examine carefully the words one selects and places into a sentence in order to communicate as much meaning as concisely as possible. His essay on the subject in Harper’s Magazine, “Masters of Babble,” popularized the term straight-A illiteracy, which he believed afflicted every student at every college in this nation. And probably most professors.
He was a Brooks Brothers-attired Southern gentleman who motored his smoky, late-model Mercedes Benz over the Santa Cruz Mountains each day from Aptos to teach in an adobe-enclosed oasis in the heart of Silicon Valley. On a day-to-day basis he operated more as one’s editor than as one’s teacher. Classes were informal, short and loosely organized, but serious—because he was serious. Mr. Degnan did not truly engage with you until you submitted something to be edited, and then in a physician’s scrawl he would question how you think (and by extension, who you are), not just what you wrote. He was the kind of man who edited even your cover letter to him when you sent him something to look at—he edited your cover letter and sent that back for you to consider. The man would edit Jesus: “The dead by definition are incapable of hard physical labor: re-do.”
|The editor: Degnan was renowned among students for his liberal use of the editorial pen—even editing published writers when students quoted them—in pursuing the sense of a story. Read more about his style in “The Degnan Way,” published in the Fall 1988 Santa Clara Magazine.|
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.
But writing fiction for him was so difficult for me, and the result so artificial, that the only stand-alone short story I ever wrote in my life convinced me never to attempt it again. Ever. And despite my love of my own writing (I can quote from it), I can only tell you this about the story: one character was named Kathleen, after my sister; there was a fountain that did not work; and I thought I was oh, so clever for using the word ophthalmologist instead of optometrist, but Mr. Degnan knew the difference between the two and asked me why I chose one instead of the other.
Because it sounded better?
Poor Mr. Degnan.
I recall running up to him one time on campus to see if I had been selected as editor of the student newspaper, and immediately he exclaimed, “WHAT? THEY DIDN’T HAVE THE COURAGE TO TELL YOU?” He patted me on the shoulder and said, “CHRIS, YOU ARE MORE HATED ON THIS CAMPUS THAN I AM!” He then steered me toward his office in St. Joseph’s Hall, opened a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of red wine from a religious retreat near Los Gatos called The Novitiate, where Jesuits, having lost the faith required to turn water into wine, still did a pretty good job with grapes.
We drained that bottle as the fading sun illuminated the spines of the books he believed in and he told me stories of his writing career and admitted his great professional regret: “I SHOULD HAVE BEEN A LAWYER!”
My joy at losing the editorship and at being so universally disliked as an undergrad could not have been greater. All the money my parents had spent on four (er . . . five) years of private higher education was contained in every ounce we drained from that bottle. Looking back, that heartfelt conversation with Mr. Degnan was not just the highlight of my college career, in many ways it was the highlight of my life, for it represented to me my induction into the life of a writer, even if such a life would not necessarily result in publication.
Besides, “HAPPY PEOPLE DON’T WRITE FICTION!” he told me. “HAPPY PEOPLE DON’T WRITE!”
Christine (Long) Brunkhorst ’83 and I howled over this one. We shared our many insights on Degnan during long nights “editing” the literary magazine on campus—though I use the gerund loosely. I would merely lie on a couch in the basement of Benson Cafeteria as she would read aloud poetry submissions (many of them from faculty members). The ones we ridiculed the least got published. She and the university at the time were being sued for $80 million for libel for an article Christine had written in the student newspaper about intercollegiate athletics that tangentially referred to a local businessman in a manner not to his liking—it was at the time the largest libel suit ever filed in this country.
In confirmation of Mr. Degnan’s theory, Christine was not happy.
The tensile strength of the apron cable between Mr. Degnan and me insured that no formal break would occur between us once I left school. I still returned to St. Joseph’s Hall. I still slipped things into the envelope attached to his door, and, dutifully, he would crib in the margin his many disagreements with my newest approach.
When I returned from a year in Ireland in 1986, I announced my arrival on campus by submitting in that envelope the opening chapters of yet another novel. This one was to be set in San Francisco, peopled by characters who, not surprisingly, were based on former classmates of mine at Santa Clara. The protagonist would be a phlebotomist (allowing me to use my experiences working in and around hospitals my senior year), and the plot, if there was one, had to do with the accidental death of an old woman, which—oops!—may not have been accidental after all.
When I hopefully mounted the marble stairs within St. Joseph’s to collect my sample work from the manila envelope attached to his door—please note I have used the term “hopefully” in this sentence as he taught me (despite The Associated Press recently caving in to popular and unintelligent usage)—when I hopefully mounted the marble stairs within St. Joseph’s and read his criticism, sure that this effort would have changed his mind about how good writing could be found in the fiction of the young, I literally slumped against the wall in that gloomy hallway and sank to the carpeted floor where it seemed my heart stopped beating as he bled me of nearly all literary ambition with his exacting dissection of my work.
Sitting there in the quiet outside his office, I pulled out a pen and fired right back at him, telling him why I disagreed with his assessment, why I would prevail regardless of the odds against me, and why good writing can be found in popular novels. I further told him how hard I had been trying to write well, how greatly I endeavored to use what I had learned from him in my work and how I was sure I would eventually succeed. This I stuffed back into that envelope, effectively rejecting this most recent venomous attack of his.
I never expected a reply.
I didn’t want one.
To hell with him!
In my memory, I had thought that he had hand-written his response on that same sheaf of paper—those initial chapters—but I realize that wouldn’t make sense. Not expecting a reply, why would I ever return to receive one? Hence a short note was sent to my parents’ home and, evidently, tucked in the pages of a book I had been reading at the time.
What I realize now is that Mr. Degnan developed within me at a young age a critical faculty—a set of brakes—to hold myself back when the jet engines of irrational youthful ambition demanded publication now. Because without a grammarian’s guidance system and a fuselage made rigid from strict adherence to form, these creative power-plants within me would invariably have shaken themselves apart had they ever gotten aloft—I would have published crap. Holding this letter again in my hands, after a span of some 26 years, I see clearly that in addition to these gifts which would eventually provide for navigation in the high altitudes to which I aspired, Mr. Degnan had given me a much greater one—something unused and underappreciated until now: the steam-catapult of nonfiction.
Chris Bruno is a technology executive in Silicon Valley whose mind is always on his third unpublished novel, written over the course of 15 years, which weighs in at 650 manuscript pages. He hasn’t told Mr. Degnan about it yet . . . he’s afraid the shock will kill him.
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