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Saturday Diary: A writer's life, a teacher's message: Describe the world in vivid detail

Saturday, February 17, 2001

By Lori Shontz

Nearly a dozen books and 200 magazine articles into a distinguished writing career, Penn State professor Bernard Asbell knew the power of the first sentence. So one day he walked into my writing class and announced, "I'm going to say a four-letter word, and I want each one of you to write down the first thing that pops into your head."

  Lori Shontz is a Post-Gazette sports writer ( 

Like any good storyteller, Bernie had perfected the dramatic pause. He waited until our pens had been poised above our notebooks so long that they hovered, and then he whispered, "Pain."

One of the students began to cry (a relative had died recently). I remembered the ingrown toenail a doctor had removed the week before. Bernie himself had a headache. None of the people sitting around the table wrote the same thing.

"See?" Bernie thundered. "Don't ever assume that you know what someone's talking about. Make them explain what they mean. That's how you find out what's really going on."

Bernie died earlier this month at age 77, nine years after he retired from Penn State's English department. The news would have saddened me at any time, but it came as an especially big jolt because recently he has been so much on my mind.

Last month the Post-Gazette's writing coach, Peter Leo, asked me to speak to his college journalism class about generating story ideas, which led me directly to memories of Bernie. (I took four of his classes, and he was my honors thesis adviser, too.) Then some colleagues and I started brainstorming about better ways to tell stories, and I realized that most of my ideas were based on - or copies of - Bernie's.

Bernie wasn't a typical professor. He didn't even have a college degree. He simply kept asking questions until he turned himself into a top-notch free-lance magazine writer and book author.

His mantra: "Show, don't tell." His greatest fear, his wife said last weekend at a memorial service, was: "Uttering a boring sentence."

Bernie couldn't stop being a writer, not even to be a teacher. He didn't tell his students how to write. He showed us, whether by presenting parts of his own works-in-progress, convening a classwide discussion on someone's rough draft or pestering us with questions. "Why do you want to write on this topic?" he would ask, and if we didn't have a reason more concrete than "It sounds interesting," we had to submit another query letter.

I never turned in an assignment that Bernie didn't mark up with parentheses and brackets to indicate extra or imprecise words, sentences and paragraphs. One rough draft was 15 pages along. Helped along by Bernie's brackets, my final product was half the length - and twice as interesting.

It wasn't until the parentheses began to appear in my mind's eye - just as bold and red as they were on my assignments - that I realized how Bernie was molding me.

At the 1989 NCAA Wrestling Championships, I had to interview Penn State wrestler Jim Martin, a defending national champion who had just lost in the semifinals by the slimmest of margins - the score was tied, and the match was decided by a rather random list of criteria. When I found Jim, he was cutting weight before he wrestled back the next day in the consolation bracket. He was wearing several layers of clothes and frantically pedaling a stationary bike. Every few seconds he jumped off the bike and sat in a chair, wiping his face with a towel. Sweat, I assumed.

When I got closer, I realized most of the liquid was tears.

Between sobs, Jim graciously answered my questions, even the one about what it was like to lose a match after winning 58 in a row. He told me, "I feel like I failed to live up to God's standards."

I was flabbergasted. Jim was not only one of the country's best wrestlers, but he carried a 3.94 GPA in premedicine, was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was engaged to his high school sweetheart. If he was failing, I thought immediately, I was in serious trouble.

My second thought came practically on top of the first. Clear as day, I saw Bernie's brackets around my copy with a note in the margin: "Not specific. What are God's standards?"

So I asked. Jim, incredibly enough, responded, giving me material for one of the most honest, emotional stories I've been privileged to write.

To this day, I don't know why Jim answered. I like to think that at least part of the reason was that he somehow sensed I really, truly wanted to know.

Which brings me to the most important thing I learned from Bernie: It is a great gift to be genuinely curious.

This past year has been hard for me. I'm only 32, but I have attended far too many funerals and comforted way too many grieving friends. The worst moment came this past August, when my mother died after a brave battle with breast cancer that lasted more than 16 years.

As my family and I received friends at the funeral home, I felt as if I were participating in a Sesame Street skit, the one in which Guy Smiley announced, "This is your life."

Neighbors from our old street stopped by. So did our old dentist - and our current ones. A couple of mothers from the swimming team days. Even a distant relative of my sister-in-law, a bus driver who remembered taking Mom to work. Everyone had a touching memory or funny story to share, and I kept thinking, "Too bad Mom can't be here. She would get a huge kick out of this."

I know Bernie isn't reading this, and I'm irritated at myself for not writing it sooner. But I take comfort because several years ago, thanks to a lucky coincidence, I got to thank Bernie for leading me to a fun and challenging career.

When I worked in the Post-Gazette's State College bureau, I once ran into Bernie at the gym. He was walking on a treadmill, his apple cheeks redder than usual. In between huffing and puffing, he was grilling his personal trainer.

I re-introduced myself, and Bernie invited me to his house. I spent an afternoon there and answered - in great detail - all of his many questions. He loved the story about my Jim Martin interview. "If I ever do a book about writing," he said, "you'll have to write about that for the foreword."

Bernie never finished that book, so I'm telling the story here. Because if there's one thing I've learned from the past year's losses, it's this: It's important not only to mourn the deaths of your loved ones, but to celebrate their lives.

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