Robertson Adams

About ‘Writing Strategies’


It begins on a sweaty, barely civilized island off of Africa. It begins in a chilly apartment in Evanston, Illinois. It begins in the Latin tenements of Queens. The immigrant culture of America is responsible for its bounty of diversity and the evolution of its grammar (or gramar or grammer or grammah as you see fit).

But our story really begins in ancient Rome.


Romans left a legacy of art, mathematics, culture and literature for posterity. And despite their wine-clouded judgment, they also managed to lay out the vocabulary that became the bulk of the English language. Without so much as a toast to the Phoenicians or Sumerians, their slurred verbs and puked pronouns were left for generations that followed. At least we also inherited their grapes, because the language has been stomped into juice since then. Valiant American academics have worked for the better part of the last two hundred years doing a so-so job of protecting the English language from an onslaught of immigrants bent on abusing subject-verb agreement.


Stan and Maria Galanter found an inexpensive apartment in a safe part of the remote African village and moved in with a couple of suitcases and a large crock pot. Their main criteria were a well-lit corner where Stan could work on his electrical diagrams and a decent little stove on which Maria could make curry. They were only in town for a year – the duration of his contract. But she managed to get pregnant. As soon as their daughter came, they pulled up stakes in Mauritus and headed home to Singapore.


Perhaps the seventh grade was hard on young Kevin Hall. He learned his grammar like all the other boys in school just after the second World War. In the ninth grade he learned to write term papers. And by college he was cranking them out. He became a journalist. But news briefs written off the police blotter were not meaningful enough fodder for story-telling Kevin. A stint as the Editor of Tropic Magazine, however brief, put a spark in his writing. The magazine won awards for its flair. He began his creativity crusade. He joined the ranks of academics, mounted a tower at Florida International University and wrote a best-selling textbook that became the cornerstone of creative writing in the school. His grammar teacher would be proud.


In the snow-bound apartments of Chicago in 1963, Bob and Marlene dreamed of the day they would escape to Miami. When she became pregnant, he quit his job, they bought a convertible, and drove nonstop to Miami. Bought a little house on the bug-infested western edge of Miami, and watched the Palmetto Expressway being built outside their living room window. Little Robertson Adams learned his vocabulary from the foot-high high drawings of arrows, beetles and carrots that garnished the tops of the walls in his room. In school, he was saturated with language — his parents packed the house with books by Shaw, Shakespeare, and Yeats.


Stan and Maria brought baby Rafiah from Singapore with them to the Philippines and finally to Thailand. She was inculcated with the idea that English is the language of currency in the workd. She grew up watching export editions of Melrose Place on Bangkok television. But her globe trotting was only just beginning. She knew someday she’d satisfy her itch and move to the United States. Rafiah Galanter boarded that plane to Florida in 1997 and has hardly looked back.


As a girl of nine years, Esther Arcila studied diligently in her apartment in Queens, New York. Her parents helped her as best they could with her English grammar homework, but she knew it was up to her to surpass her immigrant parents’ ability and go on. She went to friends’ homes to study. She soaked up American culture and language on TV and in movies. And her parents brought her to the multilingual Mecca of Miami to go to school. At Braddock High she knew students from every country in the hemisphere, and met speakers of every tongue. And so Esther was ready to make her Venezuelan parents proud when she came to FIU.


On August 24 a magical convergence occurred. The African dreams of the Galanters, the snowbound promises of the Adamses, the immigrant visions of the Arcilas, and the stringent legacy of Kevin Hall’s tutors were realized. Dr. Kathleen Donnelly strode into the third-floor computer lab, switched on the lights and waited for the huddled masses of the world to appear in twenty orange plastic chairs before twenty glowing blue computer screens. And they came. Students like Rafiah Galanter, Esther Arcila and Robertson Adams had their creativity bent into new pretzel-like shapes, and their literary view expanded.


Someday the Arcilas will be proud of their daughter Esther when she writes her first book, and someday the Galanters will get to see their daughter Rafiah beamed into their living room television. And the Adamses will read Robertson’s account of his cooking classes when it appears in The Miami Herald.


Over beer and pizza at a bar across from campus, Kevin will congratulate Kathleen on sending off another class of future writers. The kids will all give credit to their parents, but the two academics know they can take a percentage of every byline the students produce. That is why Writing Strategies happens every semester. And that is why they’re teaching it.

By Robertson Adams
September 14, 1999 for “Writing Strategies” at FIU with Kathleen Donnelly