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An Example of a “Process” Rhetorical Approach I Never Shared with My Students

How I looked forward to the day of the final exam!―although not simply because it meant the end of reading and commenting upon at numbing length those dreadful papers.  In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unappetizing plans to flunk one or more of their students. 

The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”―one of which the student was free to choose.  Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate.  A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course.  Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor.  The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.  

On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.”  The atmosphere was buoyant, often giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s and mercifully nothing more on the insides of the books’ back covers.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared.  Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry.  More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule.  (To wit: “I question evolution.  How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”)  Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to blowhole. 

Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards, such as they had evolved, aligned with those of my fellow instructors. 

A final, traditional letter grade for each student who passed the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester.  Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm―twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well.  However, after several beers, I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering.  In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades. 

Nonetheless, throughout the semester, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades.  That is, grade-inflating.  However, a few beers with said assistants at a popular bar on Central Avenue directly opposite the campus would make this feeling go away, providing I didn’t spot a student I was preparing to flunk imbibing there―perhaps, like me, to drown a concern―as well.

I went on to teach another semester.  Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates.  Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so derided.  Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane.  I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a computer programmer.

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Until Drops of Blood Form on Your Forehead

Teaching was indeed often “fun,” yet not without its frustrations.  I suspected my students dreaded reading Only Yesterday only slightly more than I.  I had never heard of Frederick Lewis Allen.  Unless it addressed, however tangentially, Hemingway’s experience as a meteoric literary figure in Paris, twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me.  In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s twenties classic, The Great Gatsby.  Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible; his subject matter pulled the student, if only for a little while, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny” 2 Live Crew; and the book’s various rhetorical techniques offered topics for discussion and writing.  Nonetheless, my “lectures” on the book were often met with bewilderment and silence. 

The second half of the course was somewhat enlivened with the next text: a collection of essays.  Its authors spanned the ages, from Swift and his famous “A Modest Proposal” (which, to my private embarrassment, I had no recollection of ever reading) to Stephen King and his explanation for our fascination with horror.  The essays, which could be read in a sitting even by the most easily-distracted youth, illustrated basic non-fiction rhetorical techniques: description, narration, compare and contrast, evaluation, process, argumentation, etc.  Many of the essays were interesting; one, Jessica Mitford’s discussion of embalming, was morbidly fascinating.  Yet generating classroom discussion of even contemporary matters was difficult.  Was I that unprepared, frightened, lacking in confidence as a college freshman?  Probably.  In any event, I enjoyed the discussions, lopsided though they often were.

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, seven hundred to one thousand words per paper.  In the words of the great Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes . . .”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of eighty percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every ten days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; correction fluid applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.”  Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered, among other things:  Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  


[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  

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And You Feed Them for a Lifetime

It wasn’t until my third year at UNM that I realized a graduate student could get some potentially worthwhile experience and earn money in the process by becoming a university teaching assistant instructing freshman composition.  The assistant received a modest stipend, was provided a shared office in the Humanities building, and was required to take several classes in composition theory while teaching. 

On the one hand, the bookish introvert I fancied myself to be recoiled at this possibility.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself in a blazer, dress shirt, bolo tie, khakis, and penny loafers standing―or, perhaps, sitting with an I’m-on-your-side casualness on the edge of an imposing desk―before thirty pimply eighteen-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, and bored, pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction.  Then again, the eagle hadn’t flown for me in three years and I was beginning to feel guilty about it.  Furthermore, after graduation, a part- or full-time job teaching English at one or more of the various community colleges within a commute from my home in Albuquerque did strike me as a respectable way to make extra income while reaping royalties from my “underground bestsellers” and generally establishing my œuvre.  Of course, I invited Linda to weigh in on the idea of husband-as-professor.  I never doubted that she minded being, in Rilke’s words, a “guardian of my solitude.”  Still, a natural extrovert, she felt that teaching, in addition to bringing in some money, would expose me to new people and new experiences and thus do my craft and sullen art some good.  So I applied for the assistantship, and was accepted. 

Standing outside Mitchell Hall on a late-summer morning, professorially decked out, I clutched my Samsonite attaché case.  It was stuffed with thirty copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric department, for the first half of the course: Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.  I felt reasonably confident as I prepared to teach my first class.  I strode into the building, made a left turn down the first-floor hallway to my classroom, realized what I was about to do . . . and commenced to come apart.  My hands shook and my face flushed.  Surprised, astonished, terrified by the multiplying cracks and splinters in my composure, I paused in the hallway, furiously attempting to understand what was happening and pull myself together.  A minute later, I entered the classroom, breathing shallowly, feeling as if I were staggering, aware of but avoiding the thirty pairs of limpid eyes on me. 

After placing the Samsonite on the massive metal desk at the head of the classroom, I picked up a stick of chalk and prayed my trembling hand would legibly write “Mr. Davis” on the blackboard.  After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by Mike, my thesis advisor who also happened to be in charge of the freshman composition program―that was supposed to soothe the nerves of the novice teaching assistant: “You know more than they do.”  When I first heard it, the obviousness of it seemed to render it useless.  But, by heaven, it worked, and I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours. 

Throughout the fifty class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood, paced easily a few feet to the left and right, and, yes, even sat on the edge of my desk like a lovable, venerated coach delivering a pep talk.  Finally, I issued my first writing assignment: “Four hundred to five hundred words telling me about the last book you read.”  I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained to my students. With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and tentatively asked, “Can I write about a biology book?”  Obviously a budding science or engineering major, I thought. In any event, almost certain he was referring to a textbook assigned by his high school, I was tempted to somewhat jokingly and with smug erudition reply, “Yes, if it’s On the Origin of the Species.”  Then, realizing this might be met with thirty baffled expressions, I instead offered to the young man: “How about a book from your high school English class?”  He thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded, which I regarded as promising.  By the end of class, I was thoroughly relaxed, thinking: They respect me, perhaps even fear me.  Wow.  This might be fun.  And I then proceeded a door or two down the hall to meet my one additional class. 

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My Thesis – Part 2

The next individual who agreed to be profiled was my “plateau” resident.  Jim was a thirty-six-year-old Native American, a member of and resident at Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico.  The first in his family to attend college, he was degreed in agriculture from New Mexico State University.  Employed by the pueblo, his job was primarily the restoration of Zuni lands.  When I interviewed him, his focus was erosion caused by years of unfettered timber harvesting, firewood collection, and road-building on the reservation.  I engaged him for several days over the span of seven months in his office, in his truck while we toured his reservation, and while walking the backcountry of the reservation.  Among other things, I learned about the Zuni tradition of the naming of landforms no matter how inconsequential they may seem to a non-Native; the construction of small sandstone “check dams” to retard erosion in arroyos; the development of “seed banks” for corn, the mainstay of the Zuni diet; and traditional wood verses carbon-composite bows for bow-and-arrows.  Jim was soft-spoken, respectful of other cultures―including those of the non-Native―and always cordial.  He had traveled broadly in the world.  His passion was mountains and their spiritual significance.  And he liked the music of James Brown.  I’ve never forgotten his observation, “In a hundred years the reservation will still be a safe place, a place we may need to protect even more than we do now. . .  We’ve been here thousands of years, and if the rest of the world’s societies fall apart, we’ll still be here.”  I believed this then, and I really believe this now, in the time of Covid-19.

Jim struck me as an unusually quiet man.  I’m not sure if his silence was simply his personality, or caution about revealing too much to a non-Zuni.  Today, I’m not at all sure I would attempt a profile of any Native American.  Before weighing a profile of Jim, I wish I had read more carefully Erna Fergusson’s 1940 book Our Southwest, for in it she observes, “As a rule the Pueblos are polite to visitors and ready to do business.  But they deal with [non-Native Americans] only at the periphery of their real life.”  More recently, I think Robert Gish echoed this sentiment when, in his 1996 book Beautiful Swift Fox, about late-20th-century New Mexico and Fergusson’s life and literary contributions, he observed: “Today, American Indians speak forcefully against cultural appropriation, and rightly talk much for themselves, and eschew―indeed protest―‘outside’ interpreters, whatever their motive.”  And discussing the 2017 movie Wind River, about a modern-day murder on the Native American reservation of the same name, Kevin Noble Maillard, a part-Seminole, part African-American writing in the New York Times, stated, “Marriage, affinity or even lifelong residency may change the white man, but he will always be a foreigner in Indian Country.”  I’m now of the opinion that a non-Native―Charles Lummis and Tony Hillerman, perhaps, being the exceptions―cannot be trusted to correctly interpret a Native American perspective on anything but the most superficial of observations.

Today, I admit it:  With Jim, I was hoping for more Dances with Wolves―that is, what a white man might define as “Native American mysticism,” even a rebuke of the modern white man’s ways―and less check dams and seed banks.  That’s how little I knew about Native Americans then―and now.  Still, I’ll always be grateful for my experience with Jim.  My profile of him resulted in my first piece published in one of my much-ridiculed “scholarly journals.” 

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My Thesis – Part 1

So, two years into my graduate school experience, I knew I didn’t want to be a “scholar” and I didn’t want to be a novelist.  Yet I still longed to write and read.  Then I took a class with Michael Hogan, a professor of rhetoric and writing, in which the students read and discussed the various styles of contemporary non-fiction writers, including Hunter S. Thompson, whom Mike particularly liked (although I did not; I couldn’t get past Thompson’s chronic debauchery) and Richard Selzer, who wrote eloquently about surgery.  Mike informed me that I could be awarded a master’s degree in English with a “creative non-fiction” emphasis.  So, with his guidance and that of Professor Sandra Lynn, whose class “Writing about Place” I also took, I began working toward this goal.

I had my cherished novels―Deliverance, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Farewell to Arms, Black Robe, Wolf Song, Flight from Fiesta―but it was the memoirs, “personal histories,” and essay collections in which land played a central role that I had been increasingly preferring to read.  It began with Desert Solitaire.  Then I devoured Hal Borland’s many books that focused on his life in New England’s Housatonic River valley, books I especially liked because I had vacationed there as a child.  I liked John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, in which he and his dachshund navigate for two weeks in a canoe the Brazos River of Texas, and Gretel Ehrlich’s account of ranching in Wyoming.  I loved The Colorado, Frank Waters’s sprawling overview of the Southwest, including his personal adventures throughout it over many years.                  

Soon I had a plan for a master’s thesis.  In the years following my arrival in New Mexico, I had identified―to my satisfaction, if not necessarily that of scientists and geographers―five basic landscapes in the state: the shortgrass prairie in the northeast; the Chihuahuan Desert in the south; the Colorado Plateau country in the northwest; the piñon and juniper forests roughly between the 5,000- and 7,000-foot elevations; and, finally, all that existed above the piñon and juniper woodlands: the high-elevation forests of ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and spruce.  In the interest of space and time, I decided to devote my thesis to three of those landscapes: desert, prairie, and plateau.  Each discussion would consist of a brief impression of the land―its physical features, but also its peoples, cultures, flora, and fauna―and a much lengthier profile of an individual who resided on that land.  Of course, except for the high-elevation forests, cities of various sizes exist on each of these New Mexico landscapes, but I didn’t care to give much attention to any of them.  I wanted to write about the more raw and tranquil lands beyond the cities.

Researching New Mexico’s small towns and their sparsely-developed surroundings was pleasurable.  Finding an individual to profile for each of my chosen landscapes was a challenge.  At the very least, the individual I had in mind had to feel a connection to the land, the deeper the connection the better.  Seeking possible subjects, I reached out to, among other people, the officers of my chapter of the Sierra Club, instructors at the university, and the staff members at the Albuquerque branch of the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, the latter managing, in addition to the state’s federal forests, much of northeastern New Mexico’s federally-owned shortgrass prairie. 

However, the first individual I profiled I met merely by chance.  To research the Chihuahuan Desert backcountry, I spent several days in early May backpacking in the Big Florida Mountains of southwestern New Mexico.  I took photos and filled my notebook (or, rather, journal) with details about canyons, ridges, peaks, trees, birds, flowers, thunderstorms, and, after five years in New Mexico, my first encounter with a rattlesnake. 

Not far from the Big Floridas is Rockhound State Park.  Even after five years in the Southwest, I didn’t honestly know who or what a “rockhound” was, so, out of curiosity, I stopped at the park, at the base of the Little Florida Mountains.  After covering the modest park’s loop drive, I entered its headquarters, a small trailer, and met “Frank,” one of the park’s rangers.  He informed me that the park was devoted to the understanding and appreciation of semi-precious gemstones such as agates and geodes. 

Frank looked to be in his late sixties.  He wore a tan, short-sleeved shirt, olive-green trousers, and dust-impregnated work boots.  He had a Ronald Colman mustache and was deeply and thoroughly tanned―he looked as if he should have been accompanied by embers.  He seemed to have a heavy Northeast accent, the first I’d heard in years, which I found intriguing.  He was relaxed, loquacious, witty, and wildly enthusiastic about gemstones.  I took to him immediately.  After conversing with Frank for twenty minutes, I explained to him what brought me to the Chihuahuan Desert.  I asked if I could profile him for my master’s thesis, and he consented.

As I had suspected, Frank from the East Coast―up and down it, in fact.  Born in coastal Massachusetts, he lived in Maine for a quarter-century, and then worked in Florida.  En route to Arizona with his wife to visit friends, he would pass signs on Interstate 10 indicating Rockhound State Park, which piqued his interest.  After his wife died, and now retired as a radiologic and lab technician, he returned to southwestern New Mexico and paid his first visit to Rockhound.  There, he settled in, camping―that is, sleeping on the seat of his pickup―and prospecting for gemstones at the park and on the surrounding public lands.  Soon, he began volunteering at the park, maintaining its campsites and overall landscaping.  By the time I met him, he was a park employee, sleeping in a bedroom of the trailer.  For three days, two of which were his days off, Frank and I conversed in the trailer, prospected for geodes in a pit southwest of Deming, New Mexico, toured the northern reaches of New Mexico’s “bootheel,” and visited Frank’s pharmacy and favorite bakery just over the border in Palomas, Chihuahua.  Throughout this, I filled my notebook and captured our conversations on a portable tape recorder.  I left Rockhound confident and eager to begin the formal writing of my thesis.  Frank was no mystic, nor much of a philosopher, but his love for the desert was as real as the hardened dust in the creases of the palms of his dusky hands. 

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“Fly Fishing” with John Nichols

Two years into my graduate studies, I decided to give fiction writing one more try, and signed up for a creative writing course to be taught by novelist and “visiting professor” John Nichols.  At the time, New Mexico mystery writer Tony Hillerman had likely sold far more books than John.  However, John, a longtime Taos resident, was equally well known, at least in New Mexico, his popularity having taken off with the publication, in 1974, of the novel The Milagro Beanfield War.  Prior to meeting him, my favorite book by John was The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, a memoir, with John’s fine photographs, about his life and friends during that season in northern New Mexico.  The writing in the book was personal, economical, and vivid, honest and seasoned with just right amount of his characteristic humor.  I figured that if I did nothing else in Nichols’s class, I would try to learn from his admirable style.

Although John owned an old pickup truck, he arrived for class on campus on a well-traveled, one-speed, fat-tired, Huffy-styled bicycle.  (I wouldn’t have been surprised if he never locked it on campus: If someone needed it more than he did, I suspect he figured, so be it.)  His jeans and sweater might have been purchased from a used-clothing store, his tennis shoes found along a Taos highway at the end of a long, hard winter.  A contemporary of Robert Ward’s, John was lean, loose-limbed, and boyishly handsome.  One could easily have imagined him a lady’s man.  That said, I wondered if he was a bit vain: On the back cover of The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, there’s a photo of him, probably about age forty, hoisting a wheelbarrow stacked with split piñon and juniper in front of a dilapidated garage door and a wall that badly needs re-plastering.  Wearing jeans but naked from the waist up, he reveals vein-popping arms and a muscular torso.  Cheekbones flushed with fall’s chill, he stares into the camera intently and with the slightest smile, as if to say, “Sure, there’ll be a wood stove, outhouse, and a lot of pinto beans, but look at what else you’ll nightly get, muchacha.”  Into the classroom John would dance, grinning, singing Buddy Holly’s “Oh, Boy!” (“All my love / All my kissin’ / You don’t know what you’ve been a-missin’”).  Yet, for all his energy, he always spoke softly and eloquently.  He was an unabashed liberal; Marxism, even, seemed to be at his philosophical core.  He was genuine.

I struggled through two more stories in John’s class, dissatisfied with both.  The stories were largely autobiographical, and the writing of one was more cathartic than creative.  When the course was over, I knew I wasn’t destined to be a fiction writer.  Yet John taught me a number of things I’ve never forgotten. 

Above all else, writing for a living is a job.  “Every day,” he told us, “you grab your lunch bucket and hard hat, and you go down into the salt mines.  You may be tired, hungover, fretting about next month’s rent, but you go to work.”  And you work every day, for a set number of hours, without interruption.  (I got the impression John slept most of the day and wrote well into the night.  But he wasn’t a masochist:  His annual one-month vacation from writing, he told us, occurred in the fall, which he spent grouse hunting in the mountains above Taos.) 

You learn to write mainly by reading, voraciously, John told us.  And by writing.  (Thus, I secretly wondered if John thought creative writing classes were a waste of time.)

Writing is revision.  You get that first draft out there as quickly as possible, and then you revise it, and re-revise it, and re-re-revise it.  And no matter how discouraged you become with a manuscript, you finish it.   

Writing is disappointment, sometimes crushing disappointment.  He told us of the many finished manuscripts stacked around his house: novels rejected by publishers, even after he had published a half-dozen or more.  Writing for a living likely means, if not abject poverty, living close to the bone.  John was brutally honest about the monetary rewards, or lack thereof, of the writing life.  He once shared with us his most recent annual income from advances and royalties; the meager figure stunned me.

John shared with the class the following metaphor about the craft of writing, which I’ve never forgotten.  His fans know he’s an accomplished fly-fisherman who, likely during his annual vacation, can be found in Rio Grande Canyon near Taos.  He told us that writing is often like casting for trout: throw out too much line, and you get tangled up.  In other words, accept and respect your intellectual and creative limitations; exceed them, and you wind up lost and looking like a fool or a fraud.  I left John’s class knowing I never again wanted to write fiction, but I also left a far better writer.  I would watch my line, write vividly but also simply and coherently, and accept that I would never be a sui generis stylist like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy.

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More of My Craft and Sullen Art

One of the first classes I took at UNM was “Creative Writing/Prose Fiction,” taught by Rudolfo Anaya.  Today the New Mexico native and long-time Albuquerque resident, who died in 2020, is known as the “dean of Chicano Literature.”  Yet, even a quarter-century earlier, nearly any resident of New Mexico with a fondness for fiction was familiar with his work, particularly his celebrated debut novel Bless me, Ultima.  When I arrived in New Mexico, there wasn’t a bookstore, and likely not even a gift shop in a museum or hotel, that didn’t have copies of Ultima for sale.  Thus aware, I, too, read the book, and enjoyed it.  What engrossed me about the novel was its evocation of place―the high plains of eastern New Mexico, which recalled for me my Pawnee Grasslands due north in Colorado―and the door it opened to the family life, society, and customs of rural Latinos.  Except for the setting, it was a world unlike any I had ever known.

“Rudy” wasn’t the first published novelist with whom I was acquainted.  At Hobart, I got to know Robert Ward.  “Bob” arrived at the college a couple of years after I entered.  Shedding Skin, his first published novel, a comic one, appeared in bookstores about the time of his arrival.  Bob was a late-twenties, extremely easy-going fellow.  He was often visible on campus, wearing sneakers and dressed from head to toe in faded denim, his shoulder-length hair bound in a headband.  He walked with animated arms and hands, a bounce and occasional mashed potato in his step.  Originally from Baltimore, he had a mild southern drawl.  He admired such satirists as Burroughs, Roth, Pynchon, and Celine.  He was the first person to acquaint me with One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s masterpiece.  He mixed freely with students of all ages.  He was often wired, riffing on one humorous aspect of life or another, floating ides for novels by us.  He was a good basketball player who played forward on our intramural team, scuttling around the court, clamoring for the ball, accompanying his gyrations with the “whoa-whoa-whoa-WHOA-whoa” riff of Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford’s raucous R&B classic “I Need Your Loving.”  I took a creative writing class with him, spending the entire semester laboring over an insipid short story.  I received an undeserved “A” for the class.    

Rudy, on the other hand, was soft-spoken.  His words came out slowly and measured.  He had a trim mustache and a head of thick, wavy hair.  He was serious but not in an intimidating or overbearing way, and there was a great calm at his core.  He dressed smartly: slacks and button-down shirts, although the shirts were always unbuttoned at the collar and sometimes adorned with a bolo tie.

There were some dozen students in Rudy’s fall semester class, and we all sat in a rough circle around a couple long tables pushed together.  During class we would exchange and discuss photocopies of our stories-in-progress.  I wrote two long short stories for the class.  One of the stories I based upon a personal experience as a sixties New Jersey teenager.  It included an expression, a common putdown among us boys back then: “Smell me.”  I’ve never forgotten how Rudy, no stranger to juvenile cuts in his fiction, erupted into a rare cackle when I read that aloud to the class.   

Both stories were long, and I finished each one mentally exhausted.  Like Bob, Rudy gave them respectable grades, even suggested I attempt to publish one after “re-working” it.  However, I didn’t care to return to either of them.  I told myself I had described the setting of each more than adequately.  I felt each one had a satisfactory narrative arc.  But neither of them glowed like, say, a tale by Cheever or Malamud, and I wondered if I was designed for fiction writing.  If I had the imagination.  If I had the radar required to constantly scan for life’s conflicts and possible resolutions of those conflicts.  If I even had the meagerest philosophy of life or moral grounding that I could summon to explain or justify such resolutions.  I thanked Rudy on the final day of class.  

But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Márquez, Proust, Greene, Hemingway, Forster, Woolf, Kafka, Lessing, Camus.  I took “Chicano Literature,” in which I read Anaya, Ernesto Galarza, Tomás Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, northern New Mexico-born Sabine Ulibarri.  Yet, although I rarely took more than three classes a semester, I felt that I never had enough time to carefully read many of the assigned books.  Nonetheless, I read them all, and without amphetamines.  I took a seminar on metaphor.  I even cranked out several of those dreaded “scholarly papers,” including one on Dickens’s Hard Times and another on Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, the title of the latter novel aptly describing my condition upon finishing both papers.  Neither paper was suggested by a professor for publication in an academic journal.  Mr. Davis, meet Perish.