Keep watching as we post class members writings.
This first is from our instructor, Henry Miles.
One-Eye Woman Queen?
by henry miles 12.17.2010
I began to network in 1962 before “network” entered my vocabulary; an acquaintance from church, a law student at Georgetown University named Dick Taylor, lined up the interview for my first career job. Dick and his boss, Jack Owens, met me for lunch at a sandwich place located a few blocks from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Dick must have mentioned my religion to Jack since he asked if I had served a mission. After my “yes,” he mentioned the importance of that experience to my proposed job as a contract negotiator.
“Missionaries make good negotiators,” he said, and he went on to mention the need to develop and defend a position in negotiating a price for the weapons his office purchased for the navy, where I would negotiate and administer contracts. “As a missionary, you had to defend your religion, didn’t you?” I nodded, and he said, “For us, you have to defend the price we arrive at for torpedoes and such.”
Soon I became Jack’s negotiator for the Mark 45 Torpedo, used on the Polaris submarine, and for the research related to this torpedo and its guidance system. Ray Torrey became my mentor, and three months into this job, the phone rang and the secretary covered the mouthpiece as she almost whispered, “Ray, Admiral Bottoms.” Ray picked up his receiver, and in seconds, he cradled it and left the office almost running with pen and paper in hand. I had just witnessed the admiral’s first call since my arrival, and I had to ask myself: “Of the ten negotiators in our office, why did the admiral call Ray instead of Jack or Dick, his deputy?” Ray returned and I asked him.
Ray related the experience of the three college graduates our office had hired five years earlier: LeRoy, BS in accounting; Ron, BS in business; and Ray, BA in English. At first, Ray felt lost; he had to learn the basics of finance and business—including the vocabulary—but after a year of learning by doing his job and attending training offered us by the navy, Ray began to feel comfortable. As time passed, negotiators in the office became aware of Ray’s writing skills and asked him to review letters and documents they wrote to justify the terms of the contracts they negotiated. At my arrival in the office five years after Ray, not only his co-workers but also his supervisor and friends in other offices brought him their writing problems. Knowledge of Ray’s skills had even reached Admiral Bottoms, the chief of our bureau. “In a couple of years on this job,” Ray said, “I acquired the skills Ron and LeRoy had learned in college, but they still have not acquired my writing skills.” Admiral Bottoms had called on Ray to review and revise a letter written by his congressional liaison staff addressing a senator’s question about the award of a contract.
With a bit of humility or more knowledge of writing, I might have recognized the
importance of writing for my career. Why didn’t I notice this connection in Ray’s experience and take more classes in writing while earning my MA degree at American U? Too involved in work and study. I, however, had no doubt about the adequacy of my writing skills and continued to study math, statistics, and economic theory, pursuing a graduate degree in Economics. I had Ray review many of the documents I wrote, took his advice in making revisions, but I undervalued the skills he used to make my writing clear and concise. I didn’t have the knowledge needed to evaluate his skills.
Time passed and the State Department offered Jack Owens a position in its Bureau for Latin America. We lunched together occasionally, and eventually I went to work for him because the job held the potential for working overseas. A few years later, I found myself in the Foreign Service working in Quito, Ecuador, beside an officer with an MA in French from Berkeley, a one-of-a-kind guy with languages, Jack Nixon. Jack had married a French woman, and they spoke French at home, as did their daughter, who had to learn English at a bilingual primary school. Jack had written a novel in French, which he translated into English, and I proofed before he sent the manuscript to an agent.
At the office, Jack became the last word regarding grammar in English, Spanish, or French, and we recognized him as the Czar of word games. Besides Scrabble we played a game where one person selected a word from the dictionary and the other players tried to puzzle out the definition. After a few games with Jack, I noticed he could figure out the definition of any word with Greek or Latin roots so I began selecting words rooted in other languages such as Arabic, Swahili, or Guarani and stumped him. My four years working with Jack and becoming fluent in Spanish deepened my interest in language and writing, and caused me to take a course in creative writing in Spanish at the campus of the University of New Mexico in Quito.
At age forty, after ten years abroad in Bolivia, Ecuador, Vietnam, and Paraguay, we returned to Washington DC, and I soon enrolled in a British Literature class at Northern Virginia Community College—for my edification. For my first paper, I analyzed the Dream of Rood, confident of receiving kudos from the teacher because of the number of financial feasibility studies I had written during the previous five years, the longest about 300 pages. What justified my confidence? Before handing back our papers, the instructor said if we received below a B, we could revise our paper for extra credit. After class, my C+ paper in hand, I accosted the teacher pointing to the grade, and said, “What’s this?” The teacher responded, “You write fluently, have a large vocabulary—but you can’t organize for beans.” She suggested I study two chapters in Perrine’s book on English composition to learn how to organize before rewriting my paper.
Humbled, I went to the college library, found the book, photocopied the two chapters, and read and reread them as I revised my paper. I wrote a central idea and a thesis statement in the introductory paragraph and referred to both thesis and central idea in the first sentence of each succeeding paragraph. The instructor gave me an A on the revised paper, made me feel able to organize thanks to Perrine’s model, which somehow reminded me of geometry. During this time, my agency offered a series of seminars in writing in E prime, writing without using the verb to be—no passives. The next year, 1981, I repeated my freshman composition class of 27 years before with one difference: a relevant research paper. The paper covered one of my office research projects: transferring technology to small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa—and I wrote it in E prime! My agency published the paper, and I presented it at a conference on technology transfer hosted by UC Berkeley. I received a letter from a co-worker in Paraguay, saying he had not believed one could write without the verb to be, but he had read the entire paper twice—and “by damn Hank, I have yet to find a to-be verb.”
A couple of years later, Larry, my boss’s deputy, came into my office early one afternoon with a stack of papers in his hand at least four inches thick. He apologized before saying President Reagan’s speech the coming Saturday would focus on Foreign Aid, and Larry wanted me to write the input for Africa. He needed a draft before noon the next day and apologized for the short deadline. I appreciated only his honesty: the request had arrived from the White House ten days before and had slept all that time in the bottom of Larry’s inbox. Larry’s oversight embarrassed him and almost disabled me as concern and stress boiled up anger inside me, but the Department of Agriculture had borrowed him a lot lately. His PhD in economics and years in Africa had given him a unique grasp of the food needs there. Larry ended with positive news: “You needn’t do any more research; just use the information in this stack of papers.” I said, “I’m supposed to read this stack of papers and write. Right?”
In case he needed me, I told him where in the library I’d hide. Larry asked me to leave the paper on Harriadine’s (our boss) desk when I finished.
In the library I bowed my head for a few minutes and prayed for inspiration and a clear mind; then I began poring over the papers. The papers made sense to me almost immediately; I could scan them and glean the ideas quickly because I had worked as the Bureau Evaluation Officer for three years and had guided the research needed to determine the impact of US Foreign Aid on the lives of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. I had used anthropologists to collect ethnographic data and had given it to the Bureau of Census so their technicians could design the questionnaires for survey research. We needed to find out such things as which new techniques people had adopted—in such areas as farming, teaching, and health. And we needed to know what impact the new techniques had made in peoples’ lives: in their income, diet, health, family size. Working with these studies had required me to visit our projects and officers like myself in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Ivory Coast. Once ideas began flowing and formed a thesis, my concern and stress diminished some. Within three hours or so I had enough notes and ideas to write a first draft; and maybe two hours later, I placed my two- or three-page, single-spaced paper in the middle of Harriadine’s desk.
At seven the next morning, an hour early, I arrived at work, wondering when Harriadine would read the paper and hoping it would satisfy her. To my surprise, I saw my paper in the middle of my desk with a sentence added to the end and no evidence as to who had authored it. I didn’t think Harriadine had added the sentence because she seldom arrived before nine or ten, and since I seldom dealt with her, I knew nothing of her work habits. Larry passed by my office door. Relieved that he had arrived early too, I ran to his office and watched him hang up his coat. “Did you add this sentence after I left last night?” He said he had not seen the paper, began looking at the sentence, and said Harriadine had written it. “But I put it on her desk after she left last night and she hasn’t arrived yet this morning.” Larry said, “She might have read it at ten last night or two or four this morning; she has meetings to attend during the day and often gets caught up on her work at night or early morning. I never know when.” He asked me to add the sentence, have the paper typed in final, and he would sign and send it on its way to the speechwriter at the White House. Larry apologized again and thanked me for meeting the deadline.
I continued taking night classes at my community college and writing papers and poems until George Mason University announced a new graduate degree: Professional Writing and Editing. I enquired about entering without a degree in English. “Send us 50 pages of your best writing.” GMU accepted me, and after a year of night classes, I retired and attended school full time for one semester before realizing I could live on half my former salary for half as long with three kids in college. I had almost finished a term paper on Samuel Johnson when the State Department called to offer me a year’s work in El Salvador in the midst of its civil war. After a week of thinking and praying, I signed a contract and returned to work as soon as the semester ended in June of 1987.
My first day at work in El Salvador began with a senior staff meeting to discuss an article in the Wall Street Journal critical of our land reform project. The ambassador wanted to respond to the article without delay. For two hours we discussed the project, grilling auditors, economists, engineers, and anthropologists for details until we arrived at a consensus on the status of this complex, billion-dollar project and reached agreement on some errors in the Journal article. The director of my agency turned to his deputy and said,
“Who’ll write the cable for Washington?” Everyone in this group held an MA, PhD, or law degree, some from Ivy League schools. Each officer told the director what work they would put on hold if they had to compose the cable.
The director, whom I knew well, bypassed me because I had not worked with the project. As he struggled to figure out priorities, I knew one thing: I could outwrite anyone in the room. Finally, I motioned to him and said to everyone, “I know less about this project than any of you, but I could write a lousy first draft from my notes and then work with each of you to get it right.” Collective relief filled the air as everyone praised my suggestion, and I sat there feeling like a hero, wishing I’d had such confidence in my writing skills when I had entered my career twenty-seven years before.
A year or so before going to El Salvador, my experience with writing had caused me to encourage my kids to major or minor in English, knowing the Miles family bent for math and science. I don’t recall the terms now but they consisted of paying more of their fees if they took additional courses in English. My oldest son, Nelson, sandwiched in an extra writing class or two on his way to a double degree in statistics and computer science and to a job as a program tester with Microsoft. After shipping the first product with Microsoft, he received a report to review and passed it on with suggestions for revising it. In a few days, his boss dropped in to discuss the report with him and ended up giving him a few days off to redo the entire report. From then on he stood out as the quill of his work group and on the fast track for promotions.
As you come to the end of this essay, you readers might find yourselves asking what all of these anecdotes have to do with this essay’s title: “One-Eye Woman Queen?” In my experience, most English majors look for positions as technical writers; they do not seek mainline jobs leading to management positions. My friend Ray Torrey, whom we met in the first paragraph of this essay, had passed the federal service entrance examination, qualifying him for generalist jobs at the entry level. He retired a supergrade, a GS-16, a Brigadier General in military terms. Ron and LeRoy, his co-workers, did not. My son rose rapidly in Microsoft partly because his writing skills set him apart from other technicians. As members of a group of technical writers, Ray or my son’s writing skills would not have created a high profile for them. Their skills stood out only in the land of nonwriters.
My career experience left me with this conviction: in the land of nonwriters the average writer or person with a degree in English can create a high profile become King or Queen.
Click on the link for a pdf version of this story. One Eye Queen General (2)