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.