Viewpoint: Rosemary Adam leaves lasting impression

John Darnielle is a noted musician and author best known for his work with the band The Mountain Goats. Mr. Darnielle, who graduated from Claremont High School in 1985, was deeply influenced by his creative writing teacher Rosemary Adam. Upon learning of Ms. Adam’s death, he sent the following tribute to the COURIER.


Last night we played to about 500 people in Bristol, England. From the stage I can see people singing along to our songs; during the better-known numbers, I can hear them, too, all joining together to sing things I wrote.

It’s an incredibly rewarding and validating feeling, and it happens night after night—not every night, all tours have their ups and downs—but often enough that I try to make a point to stop and reflect on it at least once a day. It’s a blessing, a huge honor and privilege.

It is no exaggeration to say that none of this would have happened had I not enrolled in Rosemary Adam’s Manuscript Writing for Publication at Claremont High School in 1982. It was a class for juniors and seniors; I was a freshman, so I had to petition to be admitted. “Petitioning” was an unofficial process; all you had to do was make an appointment to see Ms. Adam and tell her about your work. “I want to be a writer,” I told her in her office in the 800 quad—it had been my single ambition since I was about six years old.

She answered very quickly, waving her hand, moving the conversation along: “You are a writer,” is what she said, and it’s hard to tell this story without making it sound more dramatic a moment than it was—because she was saying it to casually but utterly dispel this notion that a writer is something you become, that it’s a condition to which you have to aspire. For Rosemary, if you wrote, then you were a writer: that was the end of the hunt. You’d already arrived at your destination by setting out on the first step of the journey.

This is a very powerful bit of news for a young and, at the time, very bad writer. I thought pretty highly of my work, but it was terrible; its sole virtue was the heat of the desire it reflected, my need to say something that somebody else might take pleasure in hearing, to have the effect on others that the writers I loved were having on me.

By taking my poems and stories seriously—by talking about them as if they merited serious discussion—she forced me to do the same: to always try to make them better; to hunt down their weak spots and make them strong; and to honor each work, great or small, significant or inconsequential, as an expression of myself, and therefore worthy of being honored, of inherent, immediate value—of great inherent value, because in writing we construct and heal and reveal ourselves in ways we seldom can out there in the world beyond the page. 

It would be hard to get a count of the students to whom she imparted this blessing, this great secret: you are a writer. Whether you publish or not. Whether you succeed or not. Whether anyone’s listening or not. You are what you hope to be, because you’re doing the thing you hoped to do. I’m in touch with many of her former students, and many of them remember her class as a place where they were accepted as I was: as already somebody who counted, whose work deserved serious consideration. The effect this has on a young writer is lasting. You get to keep it for your whole life. 

She let me sleep on her couch when I ran away from home. She talked with me for hours in that magnificent, resonant, husky voice I’m sure everyone else is also telling you about, as if I were her equal, which I’m not.

She submitted my stuff to contests, and I got invited to go to read at Literary Cavalcade in New York, which I wasn’t able to do, but just the hint of the possibility kept me going, made me feel like everything was going to be worth the effort. It was one of our proudest moments together; her classes often won all the major regional poetry competitions, but Literary Cavalcade was nationwide and she told us up front, “we never win this one, but we have to keep trying.” I was given honorable mention and felt like a batter who’d driven in the tying run, or at least put the tying run on first. 

I’m 48. I am a deeply imperfect person, but my dream of being a writer whose work reaches people and speaks to them in some way is something I can say I have realized. I owe my success largely to many of my teachers, and to my mother and father, who believed in me. But there is no single figure in my writing life who looms larger than Rosemary Adam. She made sure that I believed in the value of my gifts, as meager as they were when she took me under her wing.

The world is inestimably poorer without her in it, but I have faith that the spark she lit inside many of us will be carried forward for many years to come, and that we will pass it along. 

—John Darnielle


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