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McCourt entertains crowd

Meghanne Downes | Friday, October 17, 2003

Frank McCourt delivered the 20th annual Red Smith Lecture to a packed Carey Auditorium Thursday, leaving many laughing as he explained his storied writing career.

McCourt, a high school English teacher, is best known for his New York Times hard cover and paper back best seller “Angela’s Ashes.”

McCourt said when he left Ireland at the age of 19, he knew he wanted to be a writer but did not trust himself to tell his own stories. It was not until after over 30 years of teaching students about simplicity and telling their own stories that his students inspired him to write his story in the form of “Angela’s Ashes.”

“I was a teacher, but more and more I wanted to be an author,” McCourt said. “They said I could write a book. I do what I am told and that’s why I am here.”

While the best selling author and New York high school English teacher entertained the audience with his witticisms and anecdotes, he detailed his desire to write since a young age.

McCourt spoke of his Irish schoolmasters who emphasized grand sentences and reprimanded him for his simplistic writing.

“You have to find your own way in the world and in writing,” McCourt said.

McCourt said his family was so poor he scraped plastic and glue from discarded wallpaper to chronicle his loosely based version of Irish history and had to steal his family’s only pen and hide his wallpaper from being thrown in the fire.

His schoolmaster discovered the wallpaper at school and told him he could not write on wallpaper and gave him two composition notebooks.

“He made me uneasy because he acted differently than normal school masters who weren’t supposed to pat you on the head but rap you on the head,” McCourt said.

McCourt said his closeness with this schoolmaster ended when he read aloud to the class his version of Irish history, leading many classmates to tease him as the schoolmaster commented on his imaginative version of history.

“Language was all we had and it was free … Our tradition was oral and later literary,” McCourt said.

He said he struggled to write his own story because his teachers never emphasized writing your own stories or about your community.

In college, McCourt said he failed when he tried to imitate others instead of telling his own stories. As he continued to find his own voice, he recorded stories in over 40 years of notebooks.

Joking about this collection, McCourt said, “I keep these to remind myself what an ass I was.”

McCourt finally found a way to write his own story with “Angela’s Ashes” and is currently working on book that chronicles teaching in New York.

“When I was a high school English teacher trying to get [students] to write, I said ‘When in doubt, write a story,'” McCourt said.