Writing and Kicking Butt at 80-Plus
Geets Vincent teaches autobiographical writing. Contrary to the claim that those who fail at something resort to teaching it, she can and does write herself.
When we first spoke, we were with a group of travel writers learning that the major garlic producer in California’s “world garlic capital,” Gilroy, offshores much of its East Coast garlic production to China. Vincent said she didn’t mind where the garlic came from, so long as it didn’t come anywhere near her.
Vincent is a pretty woman with soft white-gray hair, cut to enhance the gentle wave. She is forthright in manner; ready to call a spade a shovel to make her point. Her height peaked at “not quite five foot one and a half — and I’m shrinking.”
Her first name, Geets, she says, is an adaptation of a Russian-Jewish family name — a derivative of “good.”
That the name is genderless “got me many a freelance assignment over the years from people imagining I must be a man,” she says with a satisfied chuckle. She started writing at a time when sexual discrimination was the norm and it worked in her favor, so why not?
Vincent is 83 years old. The average age of the students in her autobiographical writing class is 85. At the writing of this story, one was 96 and there were 103 students registered for the two off-campus Thursday classes she teaches for the Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County. Natural causes give or take a malady are more often than not responsible for class attrition.
Vincent graduated with her first degree, from the University of Washington in Seattle, in 1948. In all, she has five degrees — given that she gets a perverse satisfaction including two “Ph.Ts”. (“That stands for Putting [first] Hubby Through — his bachelors and a masters,” she says.)
Vincent initially went to Seattle in 1944 to study journalism. “It was wartime. There was no school of journalism in Canada. I was lucky and got special permission to cross the border.”
She switched from journalism, after a break that included a stint on the Vancouver Sun, to a new program called General Studies. To get her B.A., she had to write a thesis. Hers was titled The Psychological Approach to Literature in Fictional Form. (“It still sits in a box under my bed to embarrass me,” she says.) The thesis grew out of a writing course she did with the late Grant Redford, a professor in the English department who wrote plays and had stories, in 1947 and 1948, in Cosmopolitan.
“Story Magazine, which is no longer published, and The New Yorker, were our textbooks,” Vincent remembers.
“We read The New Yorker every week from cover to cover. In those days, the author’s name was at the end of a piece. We were put on the honor system to not look at the end till we’d read the whole thing, at which point we would analyze it and try to recognize the style — John Cheever’s, for example, or John O’Hara’s. At the time, Thomas Wolfe was my hero. He wasn’t in The New Yorker and by then was already dead, but we had studied him and my standard was comparing everyone to him.
“It was exciting discovering new writers — and, of course, you get a bunch of snotty kids sitting around who know everything … We all had opinions about who was a flash in the pan and who would never be famous. We argued over John Steinbeck and decided he wouldn’t amount to anything. And I had no use for Ernest Hemingway. His sentences were too short.
Other writers, like A.J. Liebling, we thought marvelous. A fellow called J.D. Salinger wrote beautiful stories. Seven of his first collection (Nine Stories) at some point appeared in The New Yorker. And of course our hero was E.B. White. He wrote Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Do you know that when I was in library school (at U.C. Berkeley, 1964 and 1965, getting her masters in library science), Charlotte’s Web was the most popular book for elementary students in the whole library? They had more than 20 copies and couldn’t keep them in. White also wrote with James Thurber, whose cartoons, of course, were in The New Yorker.
“It must have been 1946 that I began subscribing to The New Yorker, because it was a text book, and I just kept renewing and renewing. I don’t know if their records go back that far but if they do, they’ll find my maiden name (Chertkow), my first married name (Buroker), and my present married name.” (Stu Vincent died in December 2004.)
Back to the past, Chertkow returned from Seattle to Canada in 1948 with her Bachelors degree, got married to Buroker, and saved all her New Yorkers. In 1952 when she and her then-husband moved to the United States, “I had to get rid of my collection and it broke my heart. I took them to a used bookstore.”
Then, when she got divorced in 1969, she had to get rid of her collection a second time.
“I moved into a one-room apartment, there was no place for them and they got thrown out.”
At that point she stopped saving them, “but I make sure they get circulated.” Her students read them — “some just read the cartoons.” Some subscribe. “As it’s a no-credit class, I can’t tell them what to do, but I can make suggestions. I tell them to read anything autobiographical in The New Yorker.”
When I paid a recent visit to a Thursday morning Vincent class, she was at the mike, midway through part of a chapter written by 20-year UPI and 18-year Miami Herald veteran Marty McReynolds, now retired. He is one of Vincent’s students, writing an autobiography focused on the period he spent covering Castro and Cuba. He was passing around copies of photos he took, in 1975, for UPI.
One showed a young Barbara Walters interviewing Fidel.
“Geets keeps pushing to get students to look at their lives, set down what is important to them and share it with others,” McReynolds said in response to a question about Vincent as teacher.
“Her patience is remarkable, but she can be cranky when the class gets unruly. A remark can set off two or three animated side conversations — loud because many are hard of hearing. That disrupts the class until Geets rings the cowbell and calls them to order. She scorns sentimentality, bans poetry, rails at the use of weak or unnecessary words, and pushes to get students to produce fine writing dealing with events that were precious — or terrible — in their lives.”
Before the class ends, Vincent is given a new story to read. The writer tells us that it is set in beatnik time, before hippie time.
Vincent will stop at the end of the first paragraph to note flavors of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. But before she begins, she gives a qualifier: “I’m going to take a chance and read this cold. I usually read them at home first” — she eyeballs the assembled — “to ensure you’re not writing scurrilous political crap.”
© Wanda Hennig, 2009