Thursday, December 11, 2008

Us He Devours


A few months ago I received an email from a former student who had been in my fiction writing class at the University of Illinois. It began, "You may not remember me, for I was an unremarkable writer." When kindness drops into your laptop after years have passed, it's a remarkable gift. I only taught for a few years and probably had no more than 1,2o0 students. Not many. And I left the profession feeling that I was not good enough, that I had not published much, and while I had been a good lecturer, I was something of a fraud. The email wiped the last notion clear, and I cried with gratitude.

At the beginning, up on the hill in Santa Cruz, I studied writing with James B. Hall. He preferred to be called JB. Born in Midland, Ohio, he served in the Africa campaign during WW2. A wry, inventive writer and brilliant scholar, Hall was one of the first to attend the legendary Iowa Writers Workshops in the late 40s, and spoke of his classmate Flannery O'Connor. He authored a half dozen novels, five books of short fiction, a book on craft, and several books of poetry before passing this year in his home in Portland.

He had started the writing programs in Oregon (where he mentored Ken Kesey), at Irvine, and Santa Cruz. He gave Ray Carver a faculty spot for a semester when Carver was struggling with alcohol and beginning to publish his tales of mean suburbia in The New Yorker. Hall liked me from the start, possibly because I was older than most students, returning to school for a second bachelor's in my 30s, or because I had a newspaperman's experience, which had served many fledgling authors. I was insecure among the youngsters, and more insecure trying to speak the rarefied language of literary studies. So, I hid out in JB's office, where he never minded when I showed up or how long I stayed.

Once, when a young freshman came to visit, he nodded for me to remain seated. The visitor told JB she wanted to study writing, that she loved writing. I could see the twinkle in his eye. He asked her about her favorite authors. She told him that she loved James Joyce most of all.

"Can you tell me the opening lines of Portrait of the Artist?" JB asked. She could not. He looked over at me.

I said, "Once upon a time, and a very good time it was..."

Hall smiled. Then waved his hand dismissively. Visit over.

He could be brutal. He uttered outrageously bizarre or unnecessary things. He called my Japanese lover "baby doll". We were riding in his Volvo wagon on a way to a reading once, an open bottle of wine on the seat, when he spun an illegal U-Turn. "Hall's Law," he said.

Once he was in your corner, he was there for keeps. I had never read literature with a discerning eye before and had two years to learn as much as the four-year students. Hall would look over my short stories, pen in hand, and announce: "I can make this bleed anywhere." Or, he might say, "It's good, except for the whole thing."

I found one of his novels in a college office and stole it. It was out of print. When I took it to him for signature, he asked where the hell I had found it. Stupidly I said I discovered it at a local garage sale. He had that look in his eye, but wrote in it: "For Gabby, who has drive, initiative, and that other thing going for him."

At the end, I was to sit for an oral exam with three professors who would grill me on the 20 books of prose, poetry, and drama on my list. The idea was that you'd answer most of the questions. As the hour ended, one of the professors asked me the origin of Faulkner's title for The Sound and the Fury, and I said, "Macbeth, Act Five, Scene Five." With that, it was done.

I was to wait out in the hall while they deliberated, but it wasn't long. When I came in, I saw tears in JB's eyes. He informed me that I had earned high honors.

In February of 1991, I was living in the woods in Washington State. I had been to rehab, was trudging through a rough patch of things, and from the blue came a letter from JB. He had moved to Oregon after retiring from Santa Cruz, for there was better healthcare in Portland to assist his ailing wife. I wrote back, explaining my departure from academe, my struggles, my hopes.

A week later an envelope arrived from JB with money inside.

We wrote occasionally over the ensuing years, but our letters eventually tailed off. My mistake. After receiving the email from my former student, I was searching for JB's address when I came upon his obituary.

I have found that kindness begets kindness--but I had to have my teachers. And I need frequent reminding, for I often default into selfishness. What I know for sure is that my unremarkable writing student grew to become a remarkable woman. And perhaps JB thought the same of me, the lost orphaned lamb redeemed.

Hence, this message out of the blue is for you, JB--even though it bleeds everywhere. I hope you get it.

3 comments:

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

As I read these endlessly delightful tales, I think about the difference between memoir and blog. I've been writing my blog for almost seven years now, and there is some memoir to it, but more often than not, I'm just reacting to the particular moment in which I'm writing. The passage of time will turn this reporting into memoir, if anyone reads it.

But in this blog, the particular moments happened in the past, and the thought behind the writing is far different from the brain-to-keyboard immediacy of a typical blog like mine.

Last night, I watched Encounters at the End of the World, where Herzog presented us with a group of eccentric dreamers, each with their own story to tell. I feel like this blog could contain as many stories in it as those people were offering ... only here, there's only one person doing the telling. It's fascinating.

dutchbaby said...

This is a beautiful story with a beautiful message. It truly does make a difference when someone thanks you because you touched them. I once got a thank you letter from someone who once worked for me. That letter fed me for a long time.

desika said...

I read "Us He Devours" in an American literature class in college, and it haunted me ever after - I couldn't remember the author's name or the title of the story, and spent years trying to track it down.

I'm sorry to learn that James Hall has passed on; you were quite fortunate to have had such a mentor.