Why Every Writer Needs Two Educations

Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former college athlete, learned from Carter G. Woodson that teaching yourself is just as important as being taught in the classroom.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

After Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven, learned he’d been accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he got no Girls-style celebration. His basketball coaches and teammates at Susquehanna University were mostly baffled, even angered, by his literary hopes. They couldn’t understand why Burke, a gifted athlete having a standout season, would throw away a lifetime’s training trying to write fiction. They wanted him to keep playing in Europe, not cast his bet with the writing desk and art’s uncertain lot.

I first met Burke, who later became a classmate of mine at Iowa, when he visited the program as a prospective graduate student. When he joined us at the Foxhead, a writers’ bar in town, he seemed nervous but giddy, like someone who knows he’s about to a burn a bridge—and wants to. “People don’t get the writing thing, not at all,” I remember him saying, but I could tell he was ready to trade in his old mentors for a set of new ones.

In his interview for this series, he discussed how a line from Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro helped him build the confidence to turn from sports to literature. We discussed the ways that context, relationships, and race can come to define us, the hard work of unlearning who you’re told to be, and the ways stories can break down barriers.

Team Seven takes place south of Boston, in Milton and Mattapan, where suntanned ladies bake out along Lothrop Avenue, reggae and rap battles mix with blunt-smoke in Kelley Park, and street gangs scuffle on the streets. It’s the story of Andre Battel, a gifted athlete who lets his basketball dreams slide as he gets in deep with Team Seven, a squad of local dealers. With multiple narrators and voices that range from freestyle rap to Jamaican patois, the novel depicts a West Indian community as its young people struggle against darkness.

Marcus Burke spoke to me from his home in Iowa City.


Marcus Burke: I still remember the first sentence I ever wrote. I was a junior in high school, and we had just moved to another city from my hometown—Milton, Massachusetts. It was a rough time. I can be a person who clams up—I didn’t want to talk, but then I had a lot on my mind. One day I went to the computer, and a blank Word screen was there, waiting. I don’t know why, but I started to write:

“The holiday season reminds me of how fucked up families can be sometimes.”

That’s how it began. From there I kept going. It was a deeply personal urge to just start writing. Why did I do that? I still don’t know. Sometimes I think the law of attraction keeps the world together—you eventually come to what you’re going to do.

I kept it very quiet. My sisters knew that I would write sometimes, but I didn’t have much confidence in it. I didn’t want to show it to anybody. Senior year, while I was I playing basketball at the private school Brimmer and May, I would get rides into school from the registrar—the school was far away from where we lived, and she lived nearby. I’d read to her from my stories sometimes. She didn’t mind me cursing and cutting up in the car. Instead, she’d laugh—and say, youre good. You should do something with this.

Writing was the highlight of my academic life, which wasn’t saying much. In public school, at least the school I’d been going to, I could squeeze by doing very little. In class, you could put your hoodie on and keep your head down on the desk, and nobody would really bother you. I had to get good enough grades to get into private school, but there I didn’t really push myself there, either. The great faculty there did their best to start molding me into a student, but I was having success on the court, and I knew what I could get away with. For me the term, “student-athlete” was something of an oxymoron. I wasn’t an NBA prospect or anything, but you couldn’t really convince me that there was going to be consequences to my lack of action.

When you get recruited it puts you in a funny mind-space—coaches and colleges all calling, and they want you. But it’s really just setting you up for a fall. Because once the ball stops bouncing, the world wants to know what else you can do.

I was recruited to play Division III basketball at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. By the end of my freshman year in college, I was in trouble. I was failing out of the business school. I’d gotten three Fs, and was on academic and financial aid probation. Not only that, I didn’t mesh with my coach’s system initially. So basketball hadn’t been rewarding the way I’d hoped, and chronic patellar tendinitis—jumper’s knee—kept me from being the player I’d wanted to be, too. The only thing I felt like I had any confidence in was that I liked telling stories. I didn’t know that you could even major in such a thing. I didn’t know it existed!—until I saw a little video on my school’s website about the university’s undergraduate offerings. I was like, wait—on this campus here I can major in creative writing?

I went and saw the chair of the department. I told him I wanted to change my major, and asked about what writing students do when they get out of Susquehanna. He hemmed and hawed a little, and then he told me a story about a guy who graduated and was a manager at a Chili’s. I signed up anyway.

My sophomore year, I showed up for “Intro to Fiction.” The professor was Tom Bailey, who was an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was publishing novels. The other kids were talking about all these books that they’d read, and all their favorite writers, and what their “process” was. I had no idea what they were talking about. I felt so out of place, so overwhelmed, that I skipped the second class.

But I did do the homework assignment. I wrote a story called “The Big One-Two”—it’s part of my novel now—and gave that to the class. It wasn’t very polished. It needed lots of fine-tuning. But my professor responded with praise and encouragement. It was confusing for me. I didn’t understand what he was reacting to, or what constituted good literature. I couldn’t see what they saw. But I’d been in so much academic trouble the year before, and I was struggling athletically, and I was glad at least one thing was seeming to go well.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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