by Sean McManus
When Arnold Wood was just another Jacksonville teenager in a rock band in the 1960s, he was writing really bad songs.
“I loved the Beatles,” said Wood from his office at the South Campus of Florida Community College at Jacksonville. “But I couldn’t write.”
Wood was more interested in football and girls than polishing his lyric technique. But he was always an avid reader — just a little lazy, he said.
In 1968, when Wood enrolled in something called the Experimental College at what was then Florida Junior College, something changed him as a human being and a student. Wood described the program as “honors for kids are aren’t living up to their potential.” It stressed ideas and discussion, real world experience and developing individual creativity.
Suddenly, Wood loved writing, something that he says he does with the familiarity of breathing.
“I breathe and I write,” he said.
Wood went to FJC for two years before transferring to Jacksonville University where he received a bachelor’s degree in English. He worked in the library at the University of North Florida for three years before going back to the University of Florida for his master’s degree in English.
Wood started teaching part-time at FCCJ in 1977 at the Downtown Campus before going full-time in 1980. In 1986, Wood moved to the South Campus.
In 1977, Wood opened the FCCJ Writing Lab while he was finishing his thesis for the University of Florida.
“In the late 1970s community colleges were all staffed out,” said Wood, referring to the wave of graduate students that emerged from the system following the Vietnam War. “But the lab caught on.”
Wood modeled the lab after one at the University of Michigan, which he called café style — fixing student’s papers a la carte. Today, all FCCJ campuses have writing labs like the one developed by Wood.
“I was working at the writing lab which meant all of a sudden I had to know about all different kinds of writing,” said Wood, “from biology papers, to psychology, to technical reports. But I was a quick study.”
And the diversity groomed him to teach writing.
“People don’t realize that literature and writing are not the same thing,” he said. “Writing is writing. Literature is literature.”
Now Wood teaches writing. He said he has to keep up with “what’s going on mechanically.” He reads textbooks on writing and dissects student essays. His classes range from college preparatory writing, which is just basic grammar and paragraph structure, to essay courses that include world literature, to a course he really enjoys, movies as art. Wood is the former executive director of the Film Institute of Jacksonville.
“Writing starts with the five-pointed knowledge star,” Wood said, referring to a visual pneumonic, or “who, what, when, where and why.” Wood said he sometimes throws in how so and to what degree, depending on if there’s time.
Wood said that writing is all about discovering patterns and exploiting them.
“I don’t believe in writer’s block,” he said, “just writer’s laziness or writer’s fear.”
And in one of those statements that can only come from a writer, Wood said creative writing is pretty rigid.
“In my creative writing classes, we teach haiku and sonnets, which are all very structured,” he said. “I mean if you think about it, even T.S. Elliot’s ‘Wasteland’ begins with the setting — April is the cruelest month.”
Most novels, he said, also have strict patterns of construction.
But Wood is also a poet. His poems, a few of which have been published, are “transcendent planes of joy.” They are free verse, he said, contain “tiny alamos,” or little explosions — like the one hanging on his door that is about a heart being scarred by life.
He also writes short stories about decisive moments that focus on a major change and the realization that now is the opportunity to seize it.
“In my stories, people have to deal with choices,” said Wood. And referring to the choices, not the stories, he said “some are real and some are not.”
Much of Wood’s poetry relates to his days in a band.
“Many times poems, for me, are song lyrics,” Wood said. “And that takes me back to when I was 17.”
Forever the Beatles fan, Wood, whose hero was John Lennon, was recently stirred to action by the death of George Harrison; he wrote a song called “Fly Away” a week after Harrison died.
“What irony,” said Wood. “When I was a kid I wanted to write songs but I had no idea what I was doing. Now that I’m 51, I can take the principles of an essay class and apply them to song writing, but I hung up my guitar.”
Verses, after all, are tiny paragraphs, he said.
Wood does occasionally send song lyrics to his brother who is in a local band called Prodigal Son.
Wood has three children, Collin, 27, who works at Citibank and attends FCCJ, Brian, 23, a student at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, and Robin, 19, who is also at Santa Fe.
His granddaughter, Dakota, is not, as it turns out, named after the apartment building in New York City where John Lennon was shot.
“I try to the same thing with my kids as I do with my students,” said Wood. “And that is impart skills, develop their minds and then set those minds free.”