Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2509 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Knowing Writers

by Walter Cummins

The first writer I ever knew may have been the history teacher I had my sophomore year in high school—a wide-hipped, thick-lipped man, around thirty, with short colorless hair and eyes wobbling behind pink-framed glasses, who wrote stories about a character named Philip Wedge. I know this because he took class time to read his latest to us.

But I don’t recall what my teacher’s stories were about or if they were any good, something I had no ability to judge at age fifteen. He probably was violating some school rule by inflicting them on us instead of bringing us up to speed on the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 or the Treaty of Utrecht. I do recall that I didn’t look forward to his stories, unlike a red-haired young woman a class behind mine who eloped with the Wedge-writer in must have been a much graver rule violation. He was fired in public outrage, and the couple fled town. I heard about this when I was in college and should have taken it as a cautionary tale that writers—even the unsuccessful ones—live on the edge.

When a college freshman at Rutgers, I learned one of my senior fraternity brothers had published a number of stories in the campus literary magazine and was considered very talented, though he took a real job and never did pursue his talent after graduation. Two people I knew casually during my undergraduate years did fulfill theirs. Mark Musa, who went on to a Ph.D. in Italian, began translating Dante under the tutelage of John Ciardi. Ciardi, then the entire creative writing faculty, was famous for his version of The Inferno.

Ciardi also taught a young man named Norman Fruchter, who published a novel called Coat Upon a Stick when he was only twenty-five. Ciardi praised it glowingly in The Saturday Review: “Which is to say Fruchter has taken on nothing less than the ultimate tragic themes. Astonishingly, he has been equal to them. If he can go on from this first novel, there will be few in his generation to stand as his equals.” (Fruchter did produce another novel eight years later, but most of his career has been as a social activist and academic.) For a year, when I was a senior and he a sophomore, Fruchter and I co-edited the college literary magazine, though then, while we sat around a table shuffling submissions, I had no inkling of his astonishing talent. When, later, I bought his book, I still couldn’t connect its skill with the slight, young-looking man who wrote it.

But I fantasized being a real writer too, with only a vague idea of what that meant. Back in the days when I was signing up for lit courses, authors mattered, still enjoying a post-Romantic aura of significance. While not spoken in awe, their names commanded respect. Even non-English majors knew important books they should have read and claimed they eventually wanted to read. Some actually did, and it was through them I heard about, say, John Fowles and Par Lagerkvist.

Occasionally, writers came to campus. Robert Frost made an annual appearance at which, from one visit to the next, he made contradictory statements about the sources and meanings of his famous poems. Was he toying with us for his fee? One of my fraternity brothers—the talented writer—was given the “privilege” of meeting James T. Farrell at the train station. The faculty hosts who avoided the station meeting must have been toying with my friend, who had the job of sobering up Farrell to a state where he could stand in front of an audience and speak coherently. Still, I thought being a writer was special. I had read and liked Farrell’s Studs Lonigan novels, which sat, along with his story collections, on my shelf of Signet paperbacks. Besides, writers drank. Everybody knew that.

It wasn’t until my junior year that I worked up the nerve to enroll in a creative writing course—with an excess of angst. Though I had been a reporter for the campus newspaper since a freshman and was turning out short so-called humor pieces, fiction writing was to my mind an elevation to a much higher literary level. Was I being presumptuous? Would I humiliate myself? (Actually, I did at one point, reading out loud what I had written as a horror story and having my classmates crack up, the laughter louder with each sentence, the instructor along with the others, unable to keep a straight face.)

John Ciardi was off translating Dante’s Purgatorio the semester I signed up. (It wasn’t till years later, when I was teaching, that I met him in person.) I don’t even recall the name of his replacement, a man on leave from another university. I didn’t think to look him up. Despite my day of well-deserved ridicule, I came out with a B. But what else can you give a student who turns in the minimum word count, shows up for every class, and tries his best, however limited that best might be?

Eventually, a couple of my stories ended up in the campus literary magazine, my copies of which were tossed long ago in the triage of packing for one of many moves, the stories themselves forgotten. Did Fruchter approve of them? Would it matter? We usually were desperate to fill pages.

After graduation I took a job as an advertising-sales promotion trainee, dragging my very young then-wife to a snowbound company town with only the haziest conception of my future. I had to earn a living because that’s what people do. Certainly, no one encouraged me to pursue fiction writing, but I found I couldn’t stop. Back then, with a much steadier hand than now, while neighbors barbecued, I fixed blank paper in a clipboard and filled sheets with words, eventually typing versions of those stories on a manual Smith-Corona, aching to make them better, ashamed of my limitations, wondering if a virtual classroom were laughing behind my back.

By coincidence, one of my fellow trainees, a man who had dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Indiana because he couldn’t contemplate living on an academic salary, was married to the daughter of Granville Hicks. Hicks, then a well-known critic, wrote a Literary Horizons column for The Saturday Review—in a further coincidence, the same weekly that contained John Ciardi’s regular column, one of which exalted Fruchter.

Hicks was teaching a community writing workshop in Grafton, New York, the village in which he lived near the Vermont line. I signed up and once a week drove an hour back and forth to a room in which I was the kid, just twenty-two, sitting in a circle among retired women missionaries working on their memoirs and schoolteachers turning out pedantic essays. Hicks, a kind, soft-spoken man, tolerated my stories, offering a few words of praise about a passage or a sentence. At the time, I hadn’t known he was a former member of the Communist Party, fired from college teaching for being a Red. Instead of subverting me, he provided enough incentive for me to keep writing and keep showing up for group sessions, even on treacherous roads after winter snows.

By the time I was engaged in the Hicks workshop, I had seen far enough into my future to know I didn’t want to become a corporate advertising-sales executive. Instead, I decided to apply to graduate schools, a path that had never crossed my undergraduate mind, as much as I liked reading and writing. But first I had to complete military service, a given for males of my generation, manipulating my way to just six months active duty in the National Guard by lying that I wanted to be an officer, a status with as little appeal as being an executive. That meant infantry training despite my inability to shoot straight or complete a round of morning pull-ups. Basic training verified that I had even less aptitude for a military career than I did for a corporate one. What is there but teaching and writing for a person too bored to manage budgets and too inept to lead troops into combat?

Halfway through my infantry days, my mediocre typing skills got me the role as company clerk, sitting behind a desk to peck out morning reports while my company-mates trudged through mud, weighted down by knapsacks. The role was an omen of future decades seated with fingers on a keyboard, slogging through the muck in my mind.

Back on civvy street, I applied to grad schools and found a job as a technical editor with a small technical manual firm, using a skill gained during my abortive corporate training. My then-wife was finishing college. We found a one-room basement apartment in Brooklyn Heights, not far from where Hart Crane had written The Bridge, just a single BMT stop from my workplace, itself a much larger shabby one-room space stuffed with desks, easels, and filing cabinets. Saturday mornings, anticipating grad school, I took a Ph.D. German translation course at NYU, and for one evening a week I signed up for a non-credit fiction class at the New School.

That’s where I really changed my life, choosing the section taught by R.V. Cassill. I don’t recall why I picked Verlin from the long list of available instructors. The catalog probably listed some publications. But everyone teaching there had equivalent lists. They were all real writers, certified by works in print.

On the first of weekly meetings, the classroom was crowded with about twenty students. Verlin, a small man with dark hair, thick eyebrows, and a sharp nose, sat behind a desk. He spoke softly and hesitantly in a deep voice, punctuating his words with hand gestures, immediately warning people that in his experience most people dropped the course early on, but that they could get a full refund if they made the decision that very night. No one left, though by the final weeks of the course only five of us showed up regularly.

At that point, after class Verlin and I regularly went to a bar across the street for a burger and a beer. He lamented of the stresses of making a living as a part-time writing teacher, forced to put aside his serious literary drafts to turn out quick potboiler novels for the paperback market of that time, frustrated by all the good ideas he was wasting to meet deadlines—characters and situations ripe for real delving had he the time. But one recent commentator on a Forgotten Books website who reread those works said, “Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects.”

With life in New York not what he had hoped for, Verlin would be going back to Iowa, the state of his birth, where he had chopped off the tips of three fingers in a farming accident and later earned an MFA in the Writers’ Workshop. He had taught there previously and would be teaching there again the following fall. The return to Iowa was good to him. He wrote a long novel, Clem Anderson, and after a few years moved on to Brown’s creative writing faculty, where he wrote more, helped found AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), compiled anthologies, and produced a text called Fiction Writing that’s still available. His novels are as well, some digital and some used.

While I was in his New School class, Verlin didn’t have much to say about the long-forgotten stories I was writing. He put them in a category with E. M. Forster’s speculative fiction, a form he didn’t get and didn’t feel comfortable commenting on. Still, he encouraged me to apply to the Iowa Workshop, though I don’t recall how enthusiastically. In any event, I was accepted, perhaps with a good word from him, perhaps a reward for listening to his woes.

Before Iowa, as I’ve explained, my knowing writers was rare. But you couldn’t walk down the street in Iowa City without bumping into at least two or three, some pulling you aside to ask urgently if you were working on anything new. Of course, Workshop classrooms were packed with writers, spilling over into frequent parties held in cramped student housing and into booths with pitchers of watery 3.2 beer at a bar called Kenny’s. Writers, writers everywhere and only swill to drink.

Even then, young as most of us were, we knew who was destined for fame and awards, and the predictions were usually right, including likely laureates even before there was such a thing as a American poet laureate. Others, including me, developed more slowly, perhaps surprising themselves in the years ahead. Beyond the impetus to write and the collaborative revision advice, one of the important lessons of the Workshop was knowing that you weren’t the only oddball in the crowd, the weirdo who skipped neighborhood small talk to put words on a clipboard.

After that—what with teaching colleagues, many students who achieve, and a longstanding fiction group—my life has overflowed with writer friends and acquaintances, or just writers with whom I’ve exchanged greetings, handshakes, and a few words of conversation. Because of who they are and whom they know, I estimate I’m two degrees of separation from most of the major writers of the Western world, as well as many in Africa and East Asia. Even if the great majority has no idea who I am, I consider myself very fortunate in these connections, the resonance of the panorama of the literary world. But that’s just the surface. What lies beneath is another matter.

Where writers are concerned, the nature of knowing involves a degree of mystery. Non-writers have inner lives and secret thoughts, of course, but they don’t express themselves on the page, revealing a very different depth and dimension than they express in normal conversation or even in moments of confessional revelation. Good writers do reveal intricacies and insights in ways unavailable to them when they are being their social selves.

One friend, after reading a long essay that analyzed one of his best-known stories, told me, “I didn’t know I was so smart.” That is, the critic unearthed strategies and intricacies the writer had no idea existed. Did I do that? He did, but it wasn’t a result of his conscious mind, instead the outcome of a process he couldn’t really articulate. Perhaps my red-haired schoolmate had been drawn to profundities our teacher revealed within the words of the Wedge stories.

I learned very early on that the writer I know as a person, no matter how well, is not the writer whose words I read. Even when the material is autobiographical, even based on incidents I’ve heard about in great detail, the written version is another reality and the voice or character experiencing the situations a much more complex being than the person who told me about them. So, what does it actually mean to know a writer?

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury