Excerpting Senior Writers: Mac McAnulty '12
McAnulty reflects on his non-fiction thesis.
You get selected for the creative thesis in, I don’t know, March or April of the year before the year you’re going to spend writing the thing, and you get this wonderful, attentive advisor, and—here’s this open project. And all this time. Yikes.
One great thing was the leeway. I worked on an essay or two in the fall, barely; I worked and worked in the two weeks after February 22, 2012. That’s Ash Wednesday—the longest essay in my collection was set on that day, the day after Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, LA. I was remembering and revisiting locals I had met the summer before, people who were in a lot of ways trying to recover from their city, with their city. I wrote fast about all the slow time I spent knowing them.
I got the idea for that essay—the bulk of my thesis—in early February. I met Walter Isaacson, of recent Steve Jobs fame, who’s a New Orleanian, and I told him I’d been an “interloper” in the city the previous summer, and he said, “Everyone is,” and I told him I’d grown up there, too, and then he suggested I go back for this Ash Wednesday angle. I booked.
I guess you come to know something in your own time. My advisor, Darcy Frey, if he’s being generous, will say I came to write something in my own time. He gave me the leeway for it.
Writing quickly on a deadline—that’s what came of a creative thesis in nonfiction, literary journalism, and I’m glad I had those editors, their encouragement, and all that time, given and compressed and expanded and made.
Robertson “Mac” McAnulty is an English concentrator living in Dunster House. He is a member of the Harvard Men’s Tennis Team and has won the English Department’s Thomas Wood Award in Journalism.
EXCERPT FROM “SQUARES”
The 1-bus in Cambridge runs from Harvard Square, down and through Central Square, passing some other Squares, I’m sure, on the way. Hunched people from the no-name places scatter around the open bus. If you see one of them getting off at Harvard, across the street from an Au Bon Pain on Massachusetts Ave., and not wearing the glum, how about this bus? look that other riders do, know—there’s a chess player.
What he was—he was a chess player. I watched him sit down one night at a stone chess table. There are half a dozen chess tables here on Mass. Ave., all with the black and white of them chipped into rock. It’s the tables that take the people from the bus. Chess players. They play—they array, they position, they clock, and they place pieces. Their hands flit and wring and think and press. It has a certain rhythm to it, what they do, like a symphony at street side.
“We only talk about chess,” this guy told me, later.
“That’s how we know each other,” said another.
I saw that first chess player, and I kept watching—he was playing himself in chess. Strange. He looked ragged. A homeless guy heckled him.
“Eighteen minutes,” the guy said, and he had a bearded clock-mouth, and he sunk into a pile of blankets. Near the door, the place was a gallery of fools. There were two addicts, each weaving around the other, like a pair of boxers, muttering. And still this man in blankets, still berating the doors.