In February 2007 I received an email from a Santa Clara University professor named Chris Vaughn, inviting me to talk to two of his classes – Popular Culture Studies and Journalism – about Chet Helms, The Family Dog and the San Francisco ’60s scene. I told Professor Vaughn that I would be happy to share my vast store of knowledge and wisdom with his students and we set a date for what I began referring to as to as my “Lecture Series.”
Many years earlier I had received a similar invitation from Stanford University. A Creative Writing professor at the school had made one of my books required reading for a class that was exploring the fine and elusive art of writing humor. When the instructor discovered that I lived not far from Stanford, she called and asked if I would pop over and spend an hour or so discussing my book with her class.
I was very nervous and, as usual, completely unprepared when I entered the Stanford classroom a few days later and faced 15 students who were staring at me expectantly. My first impulse was to flee, but I hung around and had a great time telling stories mostly about, well, mostly about me. Actually, the stories were exclusively about me. But the best part was that when I was leaving, the instructor handed me a sealed envelope. I opened the envelope in my car and was astounded to find a check for $500 inside. I had just been paid $500-an-hour for talking about myself to a group of strangers. It was the best job I’ve ever had or ever will have.
Then, in the spring of 2000, my step-daughter’s best friend invited me to participate in Career Day at Aragon High School in San Mateo, thereby putting a severe dent in their friendship. In any event, my name and occupation – Greg Hoffman, Writer – were added to the roster of career choices from which each student would choose two. The roster even included a local rap singer.
When Career Day dawned, I drove to Aragon, as usual, completely unprepared and fighting nausea. I was terrified that nobody would show up in my classroom and I was equally terrified that someone would show up.
At the school I was met by the English teacher who had been assigned to guide me through the process. The teacher was an extremely attractive blonde. She was also very young. I mean, I had socks older than her.
She escorted me to the classroom in which I would be holding court and I almost fell over when we went in. Every seat was taken and a dozen or so students were standing along the back wall. After the teacher introduced me, a female student in the front row raised her hand.
“I write poetry,” she said, “and I was wondering…”
“Poetry’s not real writing,” I said.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the teacher stiffen in her chair and out of the front of my eye I saw the young poet’s confused expression.
“It’s not?” she said.
“Nope. Poetry doesn’t use enough words. Real writing uses tons of words.”
I immediately made it clear that I was joking and the proverbial ice was nicely broken. Questions flew at me from the assembled and I told a few stories mostly about, well, mostly about me. The time flew by and the session was drawing to a close when someone asked me if I was working on a new book. Coincidentally, I had just begun writing the brief, meteoric history of what was at the time the fastest-growing company in Internet history. The company was less than a year old and on the verge of going public.
I described the book for a few minutes then decided to push the envelope…again.
“Let me ask you something. Are your teachers always demanding that you do an outline before writing an essay or a term paper? I know mine did.”
Their answer was a resounding ‘yes.’
“Well,” I said, “I have written five books and dozens of magazine articles and I have never used an outline. Not once.”
The kids were smiling, nodding their heads and exchanging high-fives. Meanwhile, the teacher’s features were etched with an expression of sheer fury. She seriously wanted to kill me.
“So when I started this new book, I never gave a thought to doing an outline. I just started writing the thing. But there was a problem. The story I was trying to tell was a very complex one, with a lot of important stuff happening very fast and often simultaneously and I was having a really hard time with it. So in desperation I sat down and did an outline. And you know what? Your teachers are right.”
During the break before my next and final session the teacher asked me if I would do the ‘outline’ bit again. I did, but for some reason it fell flat in front of another full house.
Now, seven years later, I was once again going to face a group of students, only this time I wouldn’t be talking about myself, I would be talking about a long moment in time that had occurred 20 years or more years before most of them were born. Consequently, I suspected there might not be a great deal of interest in what I’d be saying, but I knew I’d be saying it for a very long time because Professor Vaughn had informed me that the back-to-back classes were each an hour-and-forty-five-minutes long.
(To be continued)