Current Occupation: Teacher
Former Occupation: Mail Carrier
Contact Information: Mark Blickley is a widely published New York author of fiction, nonfiction, drama and poetry. His most recent book is a text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, Dream Streams (2019). He is a proud member of the Dramatist Guild and PEN American Center as well as a 2018 Audie Award finalist for his contribution to the original audiobook, Nevertheless We Persisted.
“Blood on the Page”
The title of this essay, “Blood on the Page,” refers to the red marks with which teachers slash up a student’s composition to highlight writing errors. A student is returned a paper that looks wounded, bleeding. I like that image. It’s not only poetic and powerful, but also true. Blood on the page perfectly describes how I felt each time a paper was returned to me as a young student.
I am not an academic. I am a professional writer. I’ve had over a dozen plays produced in New York and abroad, published scores of short stories and essays in journals, magazines and book anthologies, worked as a reporter for a top New Jersey newspaper, written for television, have had screenplays optioned, written art reviews as well as biographies, and a book of fiction, Sacred Misfits and recently a text-based art book, Dream Streams. And all of these writing credits occurred, indeed weren’t even attempted, until I was past thirty years of age. Why did it take me so long to become a writer? The answer is blood on the page.
When I first entered the New York City Public School System decades ago, it had a pretty good reputation. But well before I completed elementary school, the Bronx had collapsed and the schools reflected the decline. Emphasis shifted from teaching to discipline, and then to safety. I never learned grammar.
Was I taught grammar? I suppose so, but to this day I know I never diagramed a sentence. What I do remember was the introduction of new curriculum—phonics, word attack skills, and such. My acquaintance with grammar was my teacher’s mysterious, red-ink scribblings that admonished me for my lack of it. Grammar was a nuisance, something that slowed down and took away the pleasure from words and their sounds. I thought of the rules of grammar as some sort of invisible predator, ready to pounce and destroy the fun of writing. I just wanted to go ahead and do it, create something personal with my pencil.
I loved writing. I was gifted with a strong imagination and nothing gave me more pleasure than creating tales. My mother handed me a second grade report card at the funeral of her second husband when I was in my mid-thirties, and I was surprised to read my teacher’s comments: “Mark likes to write original stories and has a talent in this area. He should be encouraged.” Well, I wasn’t encouraged at home, but more importantly, I was actually discouraged to write at school.
Perhaps the most crushing attack to my writing aspirations came during the fifth grade. My teacher, Mr. Mucelli, asked for a writing assignment that was wide open. We could write a letter, a poem, essay, story, anything. I don’t remember the question he posed, but I remember the title of the assignment I turned in, “Mr. Mucelliland.” It was a fifth grader’s satire about his class. I loved working on it. The assignment was supposed to be two or three pages; my composition was triple that. I really liked Mr. Mucelli and was excited and proud to have him read my opus.
The paper he handed back to me looked like a bandage from a massacre. Just about every sentence had a red line running through it with phrases scrawled in red describing my shortcomings. The shock of my mutilated paper was nothing compared to the written comment he penned in red on the last page.
I expected Mr. Mucelli to acknowledge, if not applaud, my story’s humor and mythological characters. But his only comment was that titling the story, Mucelliland, showed a profound disrespect for the teacher—not one other word concerning the content of my composition. My grade was a seventy, five points above passing.
I didn’t care about the grade. I didn’t write my piece for “material” reward, I wrote out of pride and excitement and pleasure. I would have gladly flunked the assignment because of my poor grammar had my teacher engaged me at all about the story I wove. I was dying to talk to someone about my writing; the only dying that took place seemed to be the red blood bath that drowned my words.
I was promoted each year, although my disinterest in school manifested itself in more than just sloppy and neglected class work. I became a behavioral problem, and like many of my Bronx peers, I dropped out of school and went into the service.
After a stint in Vietnam and being laid-off at one too many dead-end jobs, I decided to wring a benefit from Uncle Sam by getting a monthly check from the G.I. Bill. Enrollment in a school was no problem—Jersey City State College had open admissions.
My writing ambitions were both fractured and resuscitated as a result of the college entrance essay exam I was forced to take. I received two very different analyses of my writing sample. The first reprimanded me to the college’s writing lab to work on my grammatical inaccuracies; the second was a congratulatory response, as I had been selected to participate in an Honors English course.
I shrugged off the paradoxical results of my essay. I figured it must have been reviewed by two examiners—an aged Mr. Mucelli, as well as one of those bearded, laid-back type of professors I kept bumping into all over the campus. When I attended registration the two conflicting assessments collided. I was informed that after completing a remedial semester at the Writing Lab (at no credit) I could then go directly into Honors English. Go figure.
My “good” writing was a direct result of a covert passion, reading. It had to be a secretive hobby for a boy growing up in the Bronx. I would have been tormented by my peers had they discovered my “faggot” fondness for the library.
By the time my father died when I was nine, he had thoroughly trained me in the pleasures book offered. He was a compulsive reader of history and politics and had turned me into one, too. His campaign began when my sisters and I were pre-schoolers. The nighttime stories he read us weren’t the simple fairy tales of youth: my sisters concur with me that our favorite book of the late 1950’s was Animal Farm. When I re-acquainted myself with that work as an adult in my thirties, I laughed out loud thinking of how much my father must have enjoyed pouring those words into our little heads, and the amount of improvisational “re-writing” for clarity he must have done to make those animals’ situations become so real to such small children.
After “successfully” completing my Writing Lab stint, I enrolled in an Honors English course. It turned out to be an independent study with a very good teacher. Every week I read lots of interesting material and spewed out opinion and reaction papers. I was praised for my writing, although my professor would periodically tell me to get a grammar book and brush up on my weaknesses. He, like most other educators I encountered, thought that grammar was such a simple, basic thing to grasp that all I needed to do was to briefly apply myself to a study of it.
I tried. I truly tried. It was just too overpowering, too many rules and concepts that all seemed to melt together and become indistinguishable from one another. But I still received an “A” for his class.
One more anecdote from my undergraduate years. I was taking a World Literature course that I adored. The readings, dating back to antiquity, held me spellbound. I loved attacking the many papers I was required to write. One day, after two months of World Lit, my professor was passing back papers. When she handed me mine she said in front of the entire class how much she enjoyed my paper with its original and well-detailed insights. I felt like bursting with pride. The she said that after class there were two books she wanted to recommend to me. I was too excited to wait until the class ended, so I pleaded with her to immediately tell me the name of those two books. She fended off my pleas, but I was adamant. The professor then looked at me with a smile and said, “a dictionary and a grammar book.” I was humiliated.
By the time I graduated, I was confused. Unlike my elementary and secondary education, I was praised and rewarded for the content of my writing in college, but I felt like a fraud because I knew the thing I loved the most and did the best—writing—was incomplete. I was always flying by the seat of my pants (intuition), taking dangerous chances instead of using the radar (grammar) that could guide me to safety and security. And I felt quite stupid. Ph.D’s dismissed my writing errors as some kind of minor obstacle that was easily correctable. It wasn’t minor, or easily correctable. My grammar problems were insurmountable. In fact, after I graduated I covertly took an evening adult education course in grammar and did horribly in it, even though I was the only one in class with any college experience.
I’ve always seen words as part of something bigger. I just had an awful time deconstructing language into phrases, clauses, and parts of speech. It was like staring at a tiny corner of a huge canvas. I was too impatient and bored to slowly survey the entire painting; I wanted to either energetically attack a blank canvas, or step back and admire an entire painting, not waste my time on the artist’s pile of sketches and false starts that led up to the completed work in front of me. Anyway, that’s the line I clung to whenever grammar reared its ugly head.
I eventually became a playwright because I figured that grammar would be less noticeable when people were speaking, not reading, my words. My poor grammar also became the foundation for my prose style of shorter, simpler sentences that needed compression in order to achieve clarity.
It may appear that the preceding paragraph is my triumphant declaration of how a writer can overcome and ignore the oppressiveness and restrictions of grammar and usage. It’s not. Through the enormous repetition of all the writing and reading I do, I’ve learned to write grammatically correct English. I still do it by intuition. When I read grammar books they’re a little less incomprehensible to me, but my eyes still glaze over anytime I read one for more than ten minutes. Everything still becomes muddled.
Based on my publishing credentials, I’ve been fortunate to secure a teaching position at the City University of New York. But now, as I approach my first assignment of teaching composition to college freshmen, I’m beset by some pretty unsettling questions. How can I translate my method to students when there really is no method, just my overcompensating for not having learned what I needed to learn when I was a child? Are my creative writing gene and the familial propensity to read that formed me as a writer so esoteric that I’ll be unable to share this with anyone else? Will having to explain grammar to my students finally be the successful battering ram that breaks through my block about grammar?
I’m quite excited by the challenge of teaching composition, but I’m not fooling myself into believing that teaching composition is going to be easy. What I do know is that I’ll use any color ink, save red, when I make comments on my students’ papers.
Since working on this essay I have to admit to the fantasy of being able to confront my grammar school teacher, Mr. Mucelli, over how his blood on the page retarded my intellectual, creative and career growth. But what’s truly frightening is that I can also imagine that old teacher drawing himself up, standing eyeball to eyeball with my inner child and challenging me with a shout of, “Prove it!”