Writers on Writing #4: Richard Hackler
Why Do You Write, Richard Hackler?
This was the first day of 10th grade English. Our teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, was leaning gracefully against the lectern, reading aloud from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “The yell-oww sm-o-oke that ruuubs its muzzle on the windoww-panessss,” she said, letting her languid Midwestern vowels stretch and fill the room of each syllable. She glanced up, ignited us with an inscrutable smile, looked down. She had a wry and delicate face, Mrs. Hendrickson, and she was wearing a scoop-neck sweater. “Li-icked its ton-ngue into the corners of the e-evening, li-i-ngered upon the pooools that staand in drains…”
I sat in back, stunned. I didn’t care about literature—I was the sort of sullen, stupid teenager who doesn’t care about anything, really, who hides in his bedroom after school, worrying his parents by listening to Velvet Underground albums in the dark—but I decided anyway, right then, that I would devote my life to writing. Women like Mrs. Hendrickson—women who dressed smartly, whose smiles contained subtext, who wrapped their voices around words and breathed them out like smoke—these women, it seemed, cared about poetry. So I would impress them with poetry. That’s all.
Our homework was to write a poem. That night, I sat on my bedroom floor, a notebook on my lap, a thesaurus open in front of me, The Velvet Underground and Nico playing over and over on my stereo. I don’t remember what I wrote—I stole a lyric from a Wilco song, I know, and threw in a couple of references to heroin and street living (I had a notion that girls liked boys with tragic backstories)—but I remember handing it in the next morning, smiling serenely, imagining the impact my poem would have now that I’d turned it loose. I imagined Mrs. Hendrickson whispering to the other teachers when I walked by in the hall—I’m telling you, he’s a genius. And only fifteen! I imagined the inevitable book deal. I imagined the world’s pretty fifteen year old girls reading my work by lamplight, sighing over my weary, poetry-stained soul.
We got our poems back the next day. Mine was covered in loopy, purple script: I did not know where to put commas, it turned out, and I misused most of the words I cribbed from my thesaurus. But there was also this, flowing across the top of my paper: “This shows potential. You are an obvious talent!” And that was it. That’s what hooked me.
And on I go. Though I navigate the world better now than I did as a teenager—I don’t listen to records in the dark anymore, waiting bitterly for the world’s attractive women to kick down my door and improve my life by force— still much of human communication, of basic intimacy, remains mysterious to me. How to truly know another person? How to let another person know me? I don’t know!
But this? The idea that you—peruser of lit-journal blogs, you!—are reading this, right now, and communing with my thoughts about writing and high school English? This helps. These memories won’t circle within me anymore, wearing a path through the same tired synapses, aching for expulsion and communion. Suddenly, I’m not living in a vacuum. Suddenly, I’m not so alone.