A Commonplace, Extraordinary Man

Jon Manchip White was Lindsay Young Professor of English and then Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee.
Jon Manchip White was Lindsay Young Professor of English and then Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee.

“If a movie doesn’t have any characters that you care about it, it fails. It is not a good movie.” Dr. Jon Manchip White said to our class of English graduate students and would-be writers at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990’s.

“Many wonderful writers did not come into their own until they reached middle age,” he said. How encouraging! We were eager to think that we had time to grow into our writing careers and become the published (ah, published!) writers we were meant to be.

One of Manchip White's historical novels, Solo Goya.
One of Manchip White’s historical novels, Solo Goya.

Unlike many of my college professors whose words I cannot recall, Manchip White’s ideas have remained with me. Even though for many years I have written for a living in a different way–writing brochures, annual reports, newsletters, and gift proposals–the possibility of writing a novel or a memoir has been in the attic of my mind. Could be. Might be. Maybe at some point. If I ever find the time.

whistling past the churchyard

“Your last name is Welsh you know,” he said to me. He wore his own Welsh heritage proudly and let me know I too was a member of this hardworking, larger-than-life, creative tribe of people. As an American, I am always thrilled to know more about my ancestry, about where my forebears came from before they arrived on this continent and (hopefully) found a better life.

everyday lives in ancient egypt

What I didn’t know was that Manchip White was also an expert in Egyptology, who started his career writing for the infant British Broadcasting Company (the BBC) in the 1950’s or that he was a  screenwriter and script doctor in the 1960’s. I didn’t know he wrote poetry, or that he founded the creative writing departments at the University of Texas El Paso and UT Knoxville. How lucky did Knoxville get to attract this man who had lived in Madrid and Paris and contributed to the screenplay for the movie El Cid?!

Jon Manchip White hat

And yet, he was so generous, encouraging, and gave us students small, but ever-so-powerful, clues about becoming successful writers: “Keep a commonplace journal where you write all the snippets of inspiration you see or hear each day. A quote; an overheard conversation; a scenario. You can use those details later to make your writing more grounded in reality. To make it come alive.”

A too-short 89 years after his birth in Wales, a celebration of Jon Ewbank Manchip White’s life is being held on Saturday, September 14th, 2013, at 3:00 in the afternoon at the Foundry here in Knoxville. His obituary states he was “native of Cardiff, Wales, and a U.S. citizen by choice”. He wrote his life on a wide page and a wide screen. I am privileged to have learned from him, was encouraged to be my most full writing self because of him, and have never forgotten him. He was a writer; what could be a higher calling than that?

Cheers and Godspeed, Professor Manchip White. As my Irish Mamaw would say, I am proud to have known ye.

~ Anna, 9/12/2013

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Books, Tribute and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Commonplace, Extraordinary Man

  1. Mary Cruise says:

    Didn’t know him but wish I had.

    • aamontgomery says:

      Yes, I was so lucky to have had him for my one graduate class. I didn’t find the time to follow up and take more classes, but I wish I had and could have had more classes with him!

  2. Curt Pegram says:

    Dr. White was my advisor when I was a creative writing and jazz performance student at UT in the 1980s (I played piano at The Copper Cellar for five years). One day in class he quietly suggested to us all: “Most of you are so young. You need to go out into the world and live a little more so you will have something to write about.” I took that advice to heart and withdrew from a later semester to venture out into a beautiful, wonder-filled, disturbing and dangerous world, as a father and husband, a divorced Marine, a cocktail piano player, and later on as a nurse, medical missionary, disaster relief volunteer, and even a few years as a pastor/teacher. At 53 years old, I am now completing the first draft of a work of fiction into which I have poured the distillates of my heart, education and life experience. I recall, with great respect and appreciation, a man of enormous presence, of compelling wisdom and gentle strength, of singular generosity and kindness. I am grateful for the time and encouragement I had under his instruction. I intend to see him again one fine day. –Curt Pegram, Henderson, NC

    • aamontgomery says:

      Oh, my! I see that Dr. Manchip-White had the same effect on you that he had on me! I have never forgotten what he told me about writing books, what makes a good movie, the writing life, and most specifically, of course, my writing. It has always been encouraging to me that he said some of the best writers do not write their best work until they reach their 50’s, an age I have acquired but I have not yet produced the novel or memoir that I hope will speak to people as Dorothy Allison (“Bastard of Out of South Carolina”) and Dr. Manchip-White spoke to me. When she visited the University of Tennessee, Dorothy told us that she is hungry to read our stories. That’s what writing is about, she said, sharing our stories, which is our gold, our treasure, what we have to give. Congratulations to you for reaching the first-draft stage on your work of fiction. It sounds as if you have led many lives and have had many adventures to draw from for your work. I look forward to reading your book one day, and thank you so much for reading my blog and getting in touch with me. Sorry it took me so long to reply! — Anna Montgomery, Knoxville, TN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s