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.

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.

If you guys like it, I thought, wellI do, too.

From there, I think I could feel my loyalties switching. It was a baffling paradigm shift from being a basketball player to becoming a writer, and it required a lot of soul searching. At the same time, I was out in the middle of central PA—which wasn’t the most hospitable place. I had fallen out of grace with a lot of the big basketball people, and the coach responsible for linking me into to Susquehanna wasn’t jazzed about the writing thing, and he didn’t have good things to say about it. It’s hard not to listen to what a coach you once trusted says is best. This was the guy who believed in me enough to pull me out of a bad situation in high school, and paid for me to come. It was a complicated split and it rattles your confidence to pursue another endeavor with no backing.

I’d burned a lot of my bridges at Susquehanna, by sophomore year, and the coach that put us at Susquehanna wanted us to leave. He said he saw a way forward for me. He wanted me to forget about the writing thing and go to Robert Morris, where he knew the head coach, who he thought could get me into shape. That world is all a big fraternity—he could get me a spot, he said. He’d even buy me a computer to write on if I’d behave.

The coach at Robert Morris at the time was Mike Rice—who was later fired from Rutgers for abusing his players. I was in the game early enough that I knew Coach Rice back in Boston. And I knew he was crazy—he was throwing balls at me, he was screaming at people. I left that workout feeling like I took part of something completely not OK. That man? Is a lunatic.

So, when my coach said, you go play for Mike Rice at Robert Morris, I was like: Have you lost your mind? I’ll pass on that one. And he snapped.

He said, Youre going to be an alcoholic. Youll be suicidal. You’re not going to make any money. He said, What the hell is a writer going to do? You going to wait tables? He held his authority over my head. The message was: Youre coming out of my graces, so you better not run too far from the money pot. I knew our relationship couldn’t be the same after that.

But I had to figure something out. At a basketball camp one time I had a coach who said, “Listen guys, use the game but don’t let it use you.” In other words: don’t be 24 years old, still trying to reclassify yourself to get into a Division I school. You’re delaying the process of your life. Go to school, man! If it hasn’t happened, it hasn’t happened. The longer you skirt that truth—thinking it applies to everybody but you—the harder you fall on your face. But me, my teammates in college, nobody really prepared us for what would happen if it didn’t work out. I don’t think anyone really thought past that point. It was too hard to think, “Oh, so it’s just over now?”

So I decided to stay in Pennsylvania and keep writing, try to turn it into a viable Plan B. That summer, instead of working on my game, I stayed on campus to work in the library. I put myself in a well of books. It was total immersion. My “Intro to Fiction” teacher gave me reading suggestions—but I mostly blew them off. He broke it down for me in basketball terms: “You think your jump shot’s going to get better if you don’t work on it?” But I wasn’t a huge reader growing up. It had never been my thing. He’d kept telling me to read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, and though I’d tried and hadn’t cared for it, that summer I opened it again and just fell in. I had to ask myself: What the hell have I been doing? Why have I not been reading this?

I took his suggestions more seriously after that.

I remember reading “Sonny’s Blues,” “Nilda” by Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer’s stuff, Edward P. Jones, and James Alan McPherson. Jim McPherson's stuff made an impact on me especially: I’d never seen fireworks like that on the page. That’s when I started to realize, now this is the stuff I like.

As I read, my confidence in my ability to learn and comprehend grew too. And in Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, I found a quote that I returned to countless times as I wrote Team Seven:

Philosophers have long conceded … that every man has two educations: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.

I feel like I could have those words tattooed on my heart. I couldn’t only teach myself. I needed Tom Bailey to point out certain writers he knew I’d like, people I’d never find out about on my own. That’s the education you are given. But it’s another thing entirely to actually read these authors, see what they’re about, and decide how much they matter. Nobody can do that for you. That’s the kind of education you can only give yourself.

And it’s applicable in a broader sense, too: People are always going to be telling you who you are. But you’ve got to learn to make your own decisions about who you can and can’t be.

That fall, two things happened. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I started playing the best basketball of my life.

As a senior in college, it was the first time I’d ever been healthy. At the same time, I could see my athletic life coming to a close. In my senior year bio, the first line was “Marcus Burke is healthy through preseason for the first time in his whole career.” I understood; how much longer could I do this to my body?

I would pray before every game that I didn’t get hurt. I got nervous every game. We’re all out here, and we’re all really strong. If someone hits you in the wrong way, that could be bad.

But it didn’t even necessarily take that. I saw guys get career-ending injuries just turning around on the court. Nothing drastic. I had a teammate—we were just laughing in the tunnel, and suddenly his ACL is done. Nothing dramatic had to happen. Your number can get pulled any day.

But I played. I played so well that eventually that coach reached out through my head coach on campus, and said he wanted to get back in touch. Basically, by the end of that season, me and that coach were back in touch. He said, “I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be playing the First Premier League overseas, but with these numbers you can get a roster spot somewhere. I can say you’ll be able to live, make some money, and figure out your life.”

When [Iowa Writers’ Workshop director] Sam Chang called, it was towards the end of the season. I was at team lunch, and I almost didn’t answer the call because I didn’t know the number. I answered it and Sam came through the phone—“This is the Workshop!”—I made such a fool of myself. I asked her name probably four times. I felt so vindicated. I kept yelling, “I’m going to come! I know already!” She kept saying, “slow down, slow down—I need to tell you: you have a fellowship!”

The world had taught me I could be a pretty decent basketball player. I’m grateful for that; it taught me a lot. But I taught myself, with the help of some great teachers, that I needed to write. So I went.

It’s very easy to be defined by your circumstances. We’re all dealt such drastically different hands of cards. Think about it: Some kids’ parents are 100 percent ready for their arrival. They have a dope room, great clothes, and a whole bunch of people ready to love them. Doesn’t that teach you certain things about yourself? But other kids, they pop up at a very inconvenient time for everybody. And that teaches you certain lessons, too.

Nonetheless, there comes a time when you start to just feel responsible for yourself. Yes, you’re at the mercy of whatever life grants you—but that second education is taking the power back. Developing the ability to say, well, certain things happened, but now I would like to do this or that, and I don’t see why I can’t. We’re always being told who we can be or we can’t be, we’re always having labels slapped on. This is what black guys do, exclusively. Or if you do that, you’re maybe not such a black guy. Of if you’re an athlete, you can’t write—and so on. The second education means broadening your horizons—taking risks to definite yourself against all odds. History is written every day, and nothing is certain. Maybe you’re writing towards a thought of school or tradition that you’re not really aware of yet—and maybe it doesn’t yet exist. But you can come to define it.

This is part of what’s at stake for me in literature. I refuse to be put in a box. I think I wrote a novel that’s not just “street lit.” And yes, while I’m an African-American writer—if you even want to say that, because it’s just a P.C. term for “black”—I’m not African-American in the way most people consider it, because my family comes from Jamaica, and not so long ago. (Jim McPherson would always joke—“The reason you get so charged up is because your family hasn’t been here that long. Your people are still trying to learn to be a minority. Your people in their recent past where in the land of majority, where they are. Don’t be a moral dandy, kid.”)

There aren’t many white characters in this novel, but I never thought about it. I wasn’t really trying to write “black” characters either. I’m blessed to say that everybody that I’ve worked with doesn’t really subscribe to that nonsense. One of the things that charmed me about my editor when we spoke—something that really moved me was, he said, “This isn’t just a ‘black’ story or a ‘white’ story. This is an international story. I wouldn’t want to ghettoize this story.”

Just because I’m a black guy doesn’t mean that every action that I make defines who I am in relation to my blackness. Of course, I know that people are tribal. Mankind doesn’t like what it doesn’t understand—if people can’t drop a couple boxes around something, we have a hard time saying what it is. We rely on those kinds of categories. It’s human nature. I don’t even look at it as a bad thing, necessarily. Every time you look at somebody, a whole bunch of boxes get checked. A certain amount of this is unavoidable.

And still, I think, we can transcend these labels, too. That is another one of my stakes in literature. When I came out to visit Iowa City, I went out to a bar to watch the Red Sox play. And there was a guy sitting there in a Pawtucket Red Sox hat. I thought, what is this guy doing out here, in the middle of Iowa, wearing a hat for the Red Sox minor league team? We started talking, and it turned out it was the writer Paul Harding—he was teaching at the Workshop that semester, and a few weeks later won the Pulitzer Prize. We had so much more in common than I could have known, sitting there: Boston guys, sports fans, writers. And that night, he told me something I’ll always remember.

“One of the only requirements for literature,” he said, “is that the reader can feel a heart pulsing back from them on the other side of the page.”

That feeling is indiscriminate. It’s not black or white; it’s classless, sexless. It doesn’t matter where you fall on any kind of spectrum: emotional truth is emotional truth. And this is the standard I’m trying to reach for. People are different and aesthetics are different—there’s so much variety in literature. But the universal needs the singular, and the singular must contain the universal. If you can put yourself in it, the labels fall away and it becomes art.