These were all people who didn't really fit in with their surroundings. Their work and their lives were a bit off-kilter.
Mr. Bockius wasn't just trying to teach us literature. He was trying to teach us that it was ok to be different. That's quite a lesson for a 15-year-old to take in. Today, I suppose, we'd call it an affirmation--be your Best Self, or some vomitous hallmark-sentiment.
Occasionally in Mr. Bockius' class, we'd get a writing assignment. It was the hardest assignment you can give a person. It was this: Write something.
No topic. No length. No suggestions. Just write something.
I had been reading Greene's "Our Man in Havana," which involves a wayward English spy who's done no spying only drinking, being pressured to provide Cuban state secrets. At a loss, he does the only thing he could do. He copies the blueprints from a vacuum cleaner he just bought and sends it to HQ as the plans for a top-secret new weapon.
In my essay, I took off on this idea and created a giant state-run vacuum cleaner that sucks up all reality and leaves New York an Elysium, a paradise.
Later, I was encouraged to use the piece as my college essay and I got in everywhere I applied but for Princeton, and one school told me it was the best student essay they had ever read.
Mr. Bockius taught me something else.
Often in this final stage of my career, I have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. I have close relationships with senior-level clients and they want me to solve things. They don't want to wait. Nor should they. I charge them a lot of money.
People ask me--don't you ever feel like you just have no ideas, nothing to write? Of course. But then I think back and remember Mr. Bockius taught me this thing.
"If you have no ideas, if you can't think of anything, write at the top of your page (we still used paper and pens in those days) 'I like.' Then in a second column write, 'I don't like.' Just write a list. If nothing else it will get you going.
I've always found it does. I'm no longer thinking of big problems to solve or the shape and sound of words, or 29 people who want 47 different things from my copy, including my art-director who wants no more than nine words.
I'm just writing.
Pre-pandemic I had a cup of coffee with an old friend of mine. Someone who had risen to the highest heights in the business, had built a great reputation and also found time to lead one of America's premier portfolio schools.
I had signed up to teach a couple of ad classes at different schools and we were talking about teaching and techniques.
"George," he said, "We have a weekend boot-camp at school. This is a full-time accredited school, so it's different from some other programs. I tell the kids during a Friday night class that they have to come up with 100 ideas for, say, shoe polish by Saturday night's class. Not 50 ideas. Not 97 ideas. 100 ideas."
That made me nervous and I'm not in the class.
"During Saturday's class, we kick the shit out of those 100 ideas and get it down to ten. On Sunday, they have to make those ten ideas better. Then on Monday, they have to present three ideas."
That might be a little Draconian, that process, that workload. And I'd bet that if you instituted it where you worked there'd be a line down in HR as long as the line of c-suiters' black cars leaving the agency at 4:45 every night.
But I think it's right.
The best way to work, to create, to think, to do, to write is to do. Not to noodle on your phone. Not to search for a bag of Doritos you might have forgotten about. Not to call a friend and shoot the shit. Not even to take your very doe-eyed puppy out for a much-needed walk.
The best way to work is to work.
Ted Williams used to take batting practice until his rib-cage bled, abrading against his elbow.
Somedays, I feel the same, my fingernails down to the quick from writing and writing and writing.
I'm forty-one years in this business come May. Forty-one years making my living clacking on a keyboard.
The only way to write is to write.