Monday, March 30, 2009

The Birth of a School

The fall in Tuscaloosa seemed an odd amalgam of earthly effects: the leaves burned with color and curled to crackling on the ground. The late afternoons felt like New England with a refreshing breeze, while the sun in its mid-day arc leaned down on the dry, baked ground so that you thought that summer with its humid swelter might go on forever.

We gathered in Morgan Hall for orientation into the graduate writing program, sizing each other up as we sat in neat rows of student desks, tuning our ear to the spoken tongues from New York and Chicago and the small towns of Dixie, wondering what our peers would sound like on paper.

The poets were an odd lot, easily given to maudlin sentiment, while fiction writers fell by turn to the mimicry of suburban prose, the K-Mart fiction of drunks, hypochondriacs, used-car salesmen, and adulterous wives that populated the fictional worlds of Ray Carver, Anne Tyler, Bobbie Ann Mason, or John Updike. I had read too much of it all, with its facile repetitions of brand names and parking-lot angst. And the poets, with their gnashing and wailing about poor dead John Berryman (a suicide) or the sad Montana taverns of Richard Hugo just seemed a bit over the top for me. I trusted neither.

That year, too, the writing world was reveling in what later came to be called "Sudden Fiction", works several paragraphs in length that mapped the immediate launch of a skyrocket without the fuel and oxygen sufficient to sustain your interest. They once might have been called "tone poems", but to me they were examples of Fiction Lite. It was like leaving town under the cover of darkness after selling snake oil to the locals.

That fall -- and perhaps always -- our writing faculty believed in the shorthand of drinking and adultery, and they led by example. In my first semester, I knew of at least four professors who were walking a sloppy line. One writer was sleeping with a current student and another wooed a married departmental secretary. A literature professor had a casting couch in his office and students delighted in speculating who was attending his darkened seminars.

That fall as we crowded into the seminar rooms of the writers' workshop, our fiction teachers championed two themes regarding our stories: the avarice of puerile prose and the requisite pearl of literary verisimilitude.

Let's examine each, shall we?

French or Latin; French puéril, from Latin puerilis, from puer boy, child; akin to Sanskrit putra son, child and perhaps to Greek pais boy, child; 1 : juvenile 2 : childish , silly

Don Hendrie, or Red Don as we called him, could make you cry in front of the workshop. He had a crimson beard and spatulate thumbs. He would do anything for you as a writer. But his face flushed raw and you could see him building up to an outburst when he found a line you wrote that was objectionable; he jabbed at it with his finger, then slammed his palm on the table and stammered. He called your writing "puerile".

Hendrie was sleeping with one of his students--a dark foreigner who would goad him during workshop and once remarked quite proudly that while he trashed her prose in the small classroom with the large table, he'd call out her name in religious fervor in their bedroom later that night.

from Latin verisimilis; 1 : having the appearance of truth : probable 2 : depicting realism

Meanwhile, our other fiction professor, A--, was all about the baroque possibilities of language, was soft-spoken, and insisted that while the prose might reflect the complicated observations of the emotionally charged mind, it should bear verisimilitude on the page. He was wooing a fabulously stunning English Department secretary (whom he later married). But her divorce wasn't quite final and so A-- fearing that the ex was stalking him -- brought a loaded pistol to workshop in the briefcase which bore our stories for discussion. He asked the men in the fiction workshop to surround him with our bodies as we escorted him to his car in the parking lot. Got verisimilitude?

On one afternoon, after school let out, I was privileged to see both workshop expressions brought to bear at once in a convincing way. Hendrie asked me if I could help out in a delicate matter. As I was brand new to the school and invested in presenting a helpful, eager facade, I agreed.

I climbed into A--'s pickup truck and we drove out in the fall light to the secretary's former residence where A-- was to help her remove some possessions before her ex returned. Hendrie held a loaded shotgun as he guarded the driveway against demons. And when we had spirited the marital artifacts into the pickup, Hendrie put the shotgun into his Honda, and I climbed in for a drive to the tavern. A-- went his own way, having squired the last of Helen's finery to his personal Troy.

It was nauseating and delicious at the same time, for that night a fresh genre--Sudden Nonfiction--was born pink and screaming into the deep heart of Dixie.


Char said...

what an excellent unseen twist to the essay. beautiful

tangobaby said...

Oh my goodness. I wasn't expecting that loaded shotgun.

I hope they were better teachers than I am expecting they were, for their faults.

Gabby said...

Hendrie, may he rest in peace, was simply an outstanding teacher who always--always--had our best interests in mind while in the workshop. Cannot attest to his judgment on the streets of Tuscaloosa, however. =)

A Cuban In London said...

Oh, dear, never, ever trust a hypochondriac!

Have a nice trip. I look forward to your commentary.

Greetings from London.