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 is 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 opens 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 thick, 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 always 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 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, 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, 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.
But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, 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 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 is vivid, candid, probing, and seasoned with just right amount of John’s characteristic humor. I figured that if I did nothing else in Nichols’s class, I would try to learn from his admirable style.
John was a character. Although he owned an old pickup truck, he 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 on campus. If some poor soul had needed it more than he did, I suspected John would have figured, fine. 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.
John was lean, loose-limbed, and boyishly handsome, extroverted and charming. I imagined him a lady’s man. That said, I wondered if he was a tad vain: On the back cover of The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, there’s 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 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 bite, he stares 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 writes 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. But John was no typewriter-bound hermit existing only in his head: Every fall, he told us, he takes a one-month vacation from writing, which he often spends 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 no matter how discouraged you become with a manuscript, you finish it.
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 are 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 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 fans 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.