Finding the Elements of My Style
It was the first class on the first day of my freshman year at Hamilton College. The year was 1971. The class was English 101 (or whatever number was then assigned to first-level classes). As I sat in a second-floor classroom in Root Hall, awaiting the arrival of our professor, Ivan Marki, I could hear the sounds of Rod Stewart issuing from nearby Dunham Dorm as my fellow students filed into the room and took their seats, seemingly, like me, a bit wild-eyed and nervous.
Actually, I was more than nervous. I was suffering from the soul-shocking death of my older brother the previous June, still emotionally numb, experiencing the twin guilts of leaving my grieving parents to come to school and being relieved to escape the torture of being home that summer. I alternately wondered whether I was fit to take on the intellectual and social challenges of college, and hoped that Hamilton was the change of direction I needed to revitalize my spirit.
I was also a bit peeved that I was taking a level-one English class. I had been lauded in high school for my writing ability--essays, plays, editorials, term papers, you name it--and thought of myself as a pretty good writer. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that, based on my writing samples, I'd need to begin at the beginning. No study of the plays of Shakespeare for me, at least not yet. No long list of titles to purchase at the campus book store (at least I saved some money). The only books I'd been required to purchase for my class were John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty"--an essay that, while dense, was relatively short--and "The Elements of Style," by Strunk and White. A thin treatise and a primer? Really? How could this last us the entire term? How hard could it be? Boy oh boy, was I about to find out...
About Professor Marki I knew little, only what had made the rounds in the days before classes began. He was described as small of stature but nonetheless imposing, with a penetrating intelligence and dry wit that invariably put doubters in their place. He was, everyone claimed, a notoriously low grader. It was said he had been a colonel in the Hungarian army and emigrated to the U.S. after the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Supposedly, he had known little English when he arrived but managed within a few years to earn a masters degree in English literature from Columbia and launch his teaching career. I still have no idea if any of this history is true, but it made for good gossip and engendered an appropriate level of fear and respect.
When Prof. Marki entered the room, all talking stopped, and I first laid eyes on the diminutive man with a handle-bar mustache and regal bearing who was to make that class perhaps the most intellectually painful--but undoubtedly the most valuable--of my life. He explained that his mission was to take our writing from prolix chattering to concise analysis (or something like that). Our assignment was to read "On Liberty" and describe what we viewed as its central points and why. He would be returning our papers with appropriate numerical citations to Strunk and White's rules of grammar.
Over the next few days I read "On Liberty"--twice--and began outlining what I thought was bound to be both extremely well written and insightful. I expected to see very few, if any, citations to Strunk and White from Prof. Marki. I was about to demonstrate what a mistake it had been to direct me to this first-level course. With enthusiasm and confidence, I finished my paper ahead of time and submitted it with a sense of excited anticipation.
What I got back at our next class stunned me. My paper was so awash in red underlines, circles, and citations that I could barely read it. Was I that bad a writer? No page, no part of a page, no sentence--not even a phrase--was left untouched. I waded through the morass, dispirited, but determined to eliminate most such marks in the next draft. But the next draft was not much better. How could this be? Was this some elaborate practical joke involving even the serious Prof. Marki?... On I plodded, week after week, a combination of dejection and determination, still incredulous as each draft found its way back with only slightly fewer notations than the one before.
At a mid-term conference with Prof. Marki, my frustration spilled out as I questioned whether he was simply trying to force me to write in his style rather than in my own equally valid style. Not one to mince words, he responded that earlier drafts had been overwhelmingly subpar, that I should not confuse sloppy thinking and writing with individual style, and that only through a mastery of the basics would I be able to achieve a style that could convince the reader. The turning point for me came when he said, "Mr. Kulle, I'm simply trying to help you think and write with the force of which you're capable... Precision, economy, intellectual integrity, discipline, Mr. Kulle. Those are the keys."
Over the rest the term, I replaced frustration with a newfound attitude that saw every red mark as a gift that helped me to be my best. I painstakingly whittled the text to try to make every word that remained on the page truly matter. And it paid off. I clearly remember picking up my last draft at our last class and scanning it, with one eye shut. Flipping from page to page, I was now stunned to see that there were no red marks anywhere! Every page--nothing but white! Prof. Marki had written only two words on the last page, this time in blue ink: "Good job."
It turned out that he was in fact a low grader. I received a B-minus for the course, one of only three grades that he gave above C-plus. But I'll tell you something--in all of my time at Hamilton, at music school, and in law school, I was never as proud of a grade as I was of that B-minus.
For me, Prof. Marki's class was about so much more than English. It was about perseverance, intellectual discipline, not accepting less than my best, and finding solid ground amid the enduring tremors of my brother's death. It was about establishing important elements of my own personal and professional style. I have always been immensely grateful to Prof. Marki for those lessons that served me so well throughout Hamilton, grad school, and two careers.
One specific example comes to mind. Some years ago, I was writing a motion for summary judgment to be submitted to the federal district court on behalf of a client. Lawyers routinely include in such motions the governing standards for granting or denying summary judgment. Aware that the court was awash in such motions, and wishing to persuade, I decided to omit that section from my brief and instead include this footnote: "The court is well aware of the standards for granting summary judgment, so the defendant will not repeat them here." I won the motion, I think in some part because of that footnote, that exercise of economy, that saving of space for what really matters. Professor Marki would have been proud.