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Oh! Those Papers!

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, 700 to 1,000 words per paper.  In the words of Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes.”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of 80 percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every 10 days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; Liquid Paper applied with all the economy and delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.” 

Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered: 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]  

I usually graded the papers in my study at home.  However, when I began to sense that my desk was weakening beneath the blows of my frustrated fist, or that the spine of my often airborne-and-crash-landing American Heritage Dictionary was further deteriorating, or that my next-door neighbor was about to call the police and report what he erringly believed was a domestic violence incident, I’d shove the loathsome papers in my Samsonite, drive to my lonely BNSF railroad crossing in the desert 30 miles southwest of Albuquerque, and grade the travesties in relative composure while imagining hopping the Amarillo- or Flagstaff-bound cars of the passing freights or summiting the ethereal peaks of the Sierra Ladrones in the distance.

Meanwhile, I knew the exasperation would only repeat itself, for I was certain that 90 percent of my students, upon receiving the graded paper, flipped immediately to the final page and, with yet another shrug of resignation, merely looked at the familiar “C-” and headed to the student union for a cup of coffee or the Frontier Restaurant on nearby Central Avenue for a sticky bun, forever ignoring my written comments and corrections smeared by my blood, sweat, and tears.  As the term progressed, I had a terrible feeling that my students were perceiving me less as an advocate and more as an adversary. 

Given this, how I looked forward to the day of the final exam, although not simply because it meant the beginning of the end of reading those 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 unpleasant 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, even giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s―and, mercifully, not a damn thing more―on the insides of the books’ back covers. 

Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared. 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 kick back and let go. 

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

A final, traditional letter grade―that is, “A” through “F”―for each student who survived to 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 somehow 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 at a popular bar on Central Avenue, the alcohol managed to unlock a tender spot in my heart and 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, as the fall semester progressed, 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, several beers, once again, with said assistants would make this feeling go away.  And 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 poked fun at.  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.  Finally, I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a hard-rock miner or a computer nerd.


[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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Professor Davis, I Presume

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 solitudinarian (in Colin Fletcher’s word) 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―and pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction before 30 pimply 17- and 18-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, distracted, and bored.  

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 30 copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric branch of the English 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.  Astonished and 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 30 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.  (Perhaps I should have written “Professor Davis.”  The comic implications of that might have relaxed me somewhat.)  After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by my thesis-advisor Mike, 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 patent obviousness of it seemed to render it useless.  But, by heaven, it―coupled with my recollection of Mike’s characteristically sly smile as he offered the mantra―worked!  And I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours. 

Throughout the 50 class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood still, 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 500 words telling me about the last book you read.”  I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained―delicately, I felt―to my students.

With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and haltingly 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 the book is titled On the Origin of the Species.” 

Then, realizing this might be met with 30 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, remarkably 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. 

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.  Nineteen-twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me.  In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s 1920’s classic, The Great Gatsby.  Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible.  His subject matter pulled the student, if only briefly, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny.”  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, comparison, contrast, evaluation, process, and argumentation.  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. 

 

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Writing the Southwest, Part 1

So, two years into my graduate school experience, I knew I didn’t want to be a “scholar” or a writer of fiction.  Yet I still longed to write.  Then I happened to take a class with “Mike,” a professor of rhetoric and writing, in which the students read and discussed the various styles of contemporary non-fiction writers, including historian Barbara Tuchman; Richard Selzer, who wrote eloquently about surgery; and the popular, if debauched, Hunter S. Thompson. 

Mike informed me that I could be awarded a master’s degree in English with a “creative non-fiction” emphasis.  Thus, with his guidance, that of another writing instructor, and that of a professor of American Studies, I began working toward this goal.

I had my cherished novels―Deliverance, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Brave Cowboy, A Farewell to Arms, Black Robe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, On the Road, A Separate Peace, Wolf Song, Naked Lunch―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.  Deeply familiar with the area, I devoured Hal Borland’s many books about his life in New England’s Housatonic River Valley.  I liked John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, in which he and his dachshund navigated for two weeks in a canoe the Brazos River of Texas, and Gretel Ehrlich’s account of living 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 identifiedto my satisfaction, if not necessarily that of scientistsfive 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 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, plateau, and prairie.  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 existed on each of these landscapes, but I didn’t care to give much attention to them.  I wished to write about the 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. 

The first person 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 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 was Rockhound State Park.  I didn’t know what a “rockhound” was, so, out of curiosity, I stopped at the park, located 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 a fellow named 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 60’s.  He had a slender Ronald Colman mustache and was deeply and thoroughly tanned―he looked as if he should have been accompanied by embers.  He had a thick Northeast accent, the first I’d heard in years, which, being originally from New Jersey, I found intriguing.  He was relaxed, loquacious, witty, and wildly enthusiastic about gemstones.  I took to him immediately.  After conversing with Frank for 20 minutes, I explained to him what brought me to the Chihuahuan Desert.  I asked if I could profile him for my thesis, and he consented.

 Frank was indeed 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.  On regular trips to Arizona with his wife to visit his mother-in-law, he would pass a sign on Interstate 10 indicating Rockhound State Park, which always piqued his interest.  After his wife died, and now retired, 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.  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 New Mexico’s bootheel; and visited Frank’s pharmacy and favorite bakery just over the border with Mexico in Las 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 not a deep man, not a desert mystic or much of a philosopher, but his love for the desert was unquestionable.



After numerous phone calls with contacts I’d made at the university and in New Mexico’s environmental advocacy community, I connected with an individual who shortly thereafter agreed to be the subject of my next profile.  Jim―my “plateau resident”―was a 36-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 in Las Cruces.  Employed by the pueblo, his job was primarily the restoration of Zuni lands.  His focus was erosion caused by years of 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 and in his truck while we toured the backcountry of the reservation.  Among other things, I learned about the construction of small sandstone “check dams” to retard erosion in arroyos.  Jim also described for me the development of “seed banks” for corn, the mainstay of the Zuni diet since time immemorial. 

Jim was soft-spoken, respectful of other cultures―including those of the non-Native―and always cordial.  As a representative of his tribe, he had traveled broadly in the world.  His passion was mountains and their spiritual significance and power.  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 certainly believe this today, in the time of Covid and climate change.

Jim struck me as reticent.  Today, I’m not sure if his reticence was simply his personality, or caution about revealing too much to me, a non-Zuni.  Prior to considering a profile of him, I wish I had read more carefully Erna Fergusson’s Our Southwest, for in it she observed, way back in 1941, “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.”  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 a Native American reservation, 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.” Given all this, today I doubt I’d ever approach a Native American about a profile.

Still, I’ll always be grateful for my experience with Jim.  Extremely grateful: my profile of him resulted in my first piece published in, of all things, a “scholarly” journal.                  


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More of My Craft and Sullen Art

Another early class at the university was “Creative Writing/Prose Fiction,” taught by Rudolfo Anaya.  Today, Anaya, a New Mexico native and long-time Albuquerque resident who died in 2020, is known as the “dean of Chicano Literature.”  Yet even three decades earlier, nearly any resident of New Mexico with a fondness for literature 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, customs, and religion of rural Latinos.  Except for the setting, it was a world unlike any I had ever known.

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

There were some one dozen students in his 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 stories for the class.  One of the them I based upon a personal experience as a 1960’s 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 an unexpected high-pitched cackle when I read aloud the passage containing the putdown to the class.   

I finished each story mentally exhausted.  Rudy gave me reasonable grades for both stories, even suggested I attempt to publish one after I “re-work” 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 (admittedly, ridiculous goals for me to set at the time, or perhaps any time).  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.



But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia M rquez, 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 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 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.



Two years into my 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 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 him 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 vivid, candid, probing, and seasoned with just right amount of John’s characteristic humor.  I figured that if I did nothing else in his class, I would try to learn from his admirable style.

Although he owned an old pickup truck, John arrived on campus on a well-traveled, one-speed, fat-tired, Huffy-styled bicycle.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he never cabled-and-locked it at UNM.  If some unfortunate had needed it more than he did, I suspected John would have figured, fine.  His jeans and sweater, meanwhile, 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. 

John was lean, loose-limbed, and boyishly handsome, extroverted and charming.  I imagined him a lady’s man.  Yet I also wondered if he was a tad vain.  On the back cover of Days of Autumn, there was a photo of him, probably about age 40, hoisting a wheelbarrow stacked with split piñon and juniper in front of a dilapidated garage door and a wall that needed re-plastering.  Wearing jeans but naked from the waist up, he revealed vein-popping arms and a muscular torso.  Cheekbones flushed with fall’s nip, he stared into the camera 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.”  

Well, maybe not nightly: John told us he regularly wrote throughout the night. 

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.  However, he never proselytized.   

I struggled through two stories in John’s class, dissatisfied with both.  They 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 the writer works for a set number of hours, without interruption.  Still, John was no typewriter-bound hermit existing only in his head.  Every fall, he told us, he took a one-month vacation from writing, which he often spent grouse hunting in the mountains above Taos. 

One learns to write mainly by reading, voraciously.  And by writing, constantly.  Thus, I secretly wondered if John thought creative writing classes were a waste of the student’s 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 . . . well, you get the idea.  And no matter how discouraged you become with a manuscript, you finish the damn thing.  

Use a dictionary, not only for spelling, but also for . . . diction, of course.  It bugged John that in his published novel An Elegy for September a pair of sneakers were described as “aerobic.” Sneakers don’t exercise, John reminded us.  People do.  And when they do, they often wear “aerobics sneakers.”  He failed to catch this difference while reading the galley proofs for the novel.  Carlos’s “pebble in the boot” was now apparently also John’s.

Writing is disappointment, oftentimes crushing disappointment.  John told us of the many finished manuscripts stacked around his house: novels rejected by publishers, even after he had published a half-dozen. 

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.  His readers know he’s an accomplished fly-fisherman who, likely during his annual vacation, can also 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, understand and accept 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 simply and coherently, and accept that I would never be a sui generis stylist like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. 

Dear John: Thank you.