WORKING WITH KIRK, 1961
For several weeks I have been living in 1961, with Kirk’s sense of things running around my mind, 2008 having receded into background. Smith Kirkpatrick died this summer, and I began to think about my time as an undergraduate with him at the University of Florida, not so much because of his death as because of our good talk on the phone just before, bringing back my sense of him as my early teacher. Then by pure chance I came into possession of a file of letters I had written from June through December, 1961, including much comment on Kirk’s fiction writing seminar that fall. The letters produced lively images of Gainesville then, details about Kirk and the other writers in his class, and a sense of my commitment, under his influence, to writing. I am learning about that all over again, after forty-seven years, as Kirk would understand. In fact it is difficult for me to separate what I think now from what Kirk taught me. They seem the same at every turn. And this is part of what getting to be sixty-eight years old feels like, I think. It doesn’t really matter which part is him and which me: I like the fact that we’re in it together.
In spring, 1961, Kirk was physically attractive. He was confident and took care to put others at ease. He was young because he was much younger than Andrew Lytle, whose assistant he was. But he was dying, doctors alleged, from the hereditary disease that had spatulated his fingers and enlarged his joints. He bore within himself an unusual sense of doom. “Death is a flight jacket lying on the floor,” he wrote in his WW II novel, never published. He had been a fighter pilot in the South Pacific. He wrote of “half-trained Japanese pilots toward the end of WW II, youths who would attempt fancy slow rolls while centered in the gun sights of our fighters.” Having lied about his age in order to fly those missions, he was about thirty-three when I first knew him, in Mr. Lytle’s fiction writing seminar for graduates and advanced undergraduates, in fall, 1960. Of Lytle’s class I have written (along with many other things about it, in The Chattahoochee Review, Summer 1988):
We got addicted to the kind of communication we were enjoying in class and sought ways of seeing each other outside. I remember Frank Hannold, Tom Hammond, Pat Waters, Pat Butler (Kwatchka), Harry Crews, Roger Coles, Alan Himber, Tony Austin, and Felicity Trueblood. Of these, Felicity was probably the most accomplished and Pat Waters the most passionate. Former students, especially Frank Taylor and Smith Kirkpatrick, attended. The class that year was distinguished by Kirk’s clear-headed observations.
Late in 1960, Mr. Lytle negotiated his way into being offered the editorship of The Sewanee Review, where he thought he could “change the course of American literature.” He would leave the university at the end of spring semester. The question for those of us in his seminar was whether Kirk, as next-in-command and our natural leader, would be allowed to teach the class in the fall. All spring and most of the summer we wondered. In the English department were vocal opponents to having any writing program at all, most prominently Dr. Aubrey Williams, whose prestige and power could not be denied. On the other hand, the chair of the English department was J. Hooper Wise, Kirk’s father-in-law.
Would we writers continue as the vital group we had been? Desire to continue the class burned in our hearts, so much so that some of us met unofficially and informally that summer on Thursday nights, as was traditional. We were a group. On June 17 I wrote in a letter:
We got back [from Jacksonville] and immediately over came Pat Waters who had just driven back from Montgomery. He had no place to stay, and we promptly sat down and began drinking beer and Robert [Fichter] came over and we watched Archie Moore box hell out of Rinaldi on the tee vee. After that the beer was gone and we went to see Felicity [Trueblood]. She wasn’t home. Pat and Joany. Not home. Ree Fee Fee has a ticket from the Gainesville Police Dept. Then we met Felicity riding down 13th and turned around and had some more beer and discussed our Thursday night [fiction writing] meeting venture, and Andrew [Lytle], and talent versus control, and such. When we came back [to my apartment] Nelson [Meyer] was waiting for us in the yard with a sixpack, which we drank listening to Leadbelly. Then we went to bed and woke up and I fed them all breakfast, a very good one I may comment.
Good times in Gainesville. We were a community of interest, and not just in beer. The values we shared, learned from Mr. Lytle and now left to our own devices, simmered more intensely within us.
Everything was getting ready to change that summer. I stayed in touch with Mr. Lytle. In July I wrote my fiancé:
I got a long letter from Mr. Lytle, and wrote him one back. He doesn’t think he will be able to come to our wedding. This summer he has been fixing up his log cabin [at Monteagle Sunday School Assembly] for winter. He forgot to write me a recommendation to Hopkins [where I was planning to attend the Writing Seminars] because he thought I shouldn’t go there, but when I reminded him, he did. Thinks I need a “harder discipline,” but I don’t know what that means. We are also having a debate on the criticism of James Dickey in the Sewanee. [I thought it was sloppy posturing. He liked the fact that it scored on the Beats.]
I was twenty years old, working all summer at manual labor for money to get married in December, and writing a story that already was titled “The Mirage Weather.” I rewrote my story all summer. At some point we learned that Kirk would indeed teach the writing class in the fall although there would be no further graduate program in fiction writing. I registered for the course. Before classes began, I turned in my story to Kirk’s mailbox on the second floor of Anderson Hall. I was surprised when, at our first class meeting, Kirk did not read it aloud.
“Did you get my story?”
“We need to talk about it.” As though that went without saying. I did not know that I had barely begun, much less finished. The next week, on Tuesday at about two in the afternoon, we met in the legendary classroom in Building D:
...a WW II barracks serving as faculty office space. The upstairs southeast corner room was crowded by one long seminar table with a desk at its end, leaving just enough space around it for a dozen chairs.
We sat in that room and talked about my story for two hours. Kirk had read it with a kind of care and attention that was astonishing.
The previous year I had written three or four stories in Mr. Lytle’s class. They were competent, I think, and one had been published, but this new story was far more exciting to me because, first, it was actually written in a style that was beginning to be my own and because, second, it explored emotional depths within me that I did not fully understand. I was fortunate that Kirk was especially interested in the second thing. To him writing the story meant exploring one’s self, honestly, without compromise, until the most powerful materials were revealed in their proper form. Ultimately, Kirk taught character. We did not learn quantifiable knowledge—facts, rules, cases, formulae, etc. (Think how quickly those date nowadays.) He taught relationships and values. In the classroom, the material was literary interpretation and narrative craft, but they led straight back to character, his and ours, as artists.
The lift in spirits I got from that first two-hour conference with Kirk stayed with me through fall semester. Kirk was a friend, sitting across the table, gently asking me one question after another about my story. He led me to confront exactly what I had written, what it meant, and whether I was willing to stand by it. Kirk understood very well that it didn’t matter whether he knew what to do about the story. What mattered was whether I knew. These simple values have stayed with me through forty-seven years of writing and teaching. The revelation of what he was going to mean to me as a teacher and a friend was energizing, and my energy was also related to the kind of optimism he had (and still had in our last conversation), the sense that if one is artistically honest, great things, unexpected things, can happen.
Kirk and I had two more conferences with two revisions in following weeks, revisions where eight pages disappeared from a sixteen page manuscript and eight entirely different pages took their place. Only then did he read aloud “The Mirage Weather” to the Thursday night class. Interesting, intense, they said, but there were problems, especially according to Harry Crews, who didn’t like the poetic elements of my prose. Kirk’s approach to my story shows that in those days he did not follow the “What’s on the Desk” method that he described in his essay of that name in The Chattahoochee Review. According to that essay, the teacher “reads aloud whatever student works were waiting on the desk.”
Class meetings with Kirk that fall were rowdier than they had been with Lytle. Everyone was on his or her own for the most part, rather than deferring to the Master. Pat Waters got very angry at someone who did not pay attention to what was present in his story, and suggested that if he did not want to listen, he should drop the class. Harry and I had conflicts. He didn’t like the poetry in my prose and I didn’t like the non-standard grammar of his third person narrator. At one point Harry and Tony Austin came close to violence in the seminar room, with all possible preliminary verbal and physical demonstrations. You could cut the testosterone with a knife. After class Felicity, Kirk, and I laughed about it.
I revised my story again, and Kirk and I conferred again, at first every week, and then every other week. Eight is the number I have always recalled with unequivocal clarity. Eight conferences, eight full-scale revisions.
That fall was the coldest I remember in Gainesville. Temperatures stayed in the forties for weeks on end, dropping precipitously into the twenties, and even when it warmed up the wind was brisk or the rain cold. My feelings about the weather were influenced by my walking through it a mile from the university to work downtown each day, then another two miles home to my apartment. Taking nineteen semester hours in order to graduate, I worked thirty or forty hours a week at a print shop in order, again, to marry in December. It was night when I got home, for hours of typing. Studying was beyond my resources. I got run down. I was failing several courses. I continued to rethink and revise. On October 9, I wrote:
Thursday night after class Kirk invited me to play a couple of games of pool [at the Happy Hour pool room in downtown Gainesville]. He is a real sharpie. Smeared me. He thinks the one thing that includes everyone in the story [“The Mirage Weather”] is Belinda’s plea, Please make me good. This is a very good point, I think. Timmy doesn’t want anyone to owe him anything. (As I write this I hear an advertisement on the radio for Youth Conservation Camp, Lake Eaton, Ocala National Forest [where the story is set].) Starr is trying to repay some debt she thinks she has. Lew thinks he has one to Belinda.
These characters in my story, Belinda, Timmy, Starr, and Lew, had become as real to me as my friends, my “sycophants” as Mr. Lytle termed them, who arrived a moment later:
As Kirk and I were finishing our second game and leaving, in came Robert, Anthony [Colson], and Nelson [college mates and friends from high school, with varied artistic interests]. And John Basso [Anthony’s half-brother, former Marine and poet, now a businessman]. Drunk out of their minds. Knee walkin drunk. Basso was all apologetic about having said he was going to kill me a couple of years ago (he was), and I was a Good Guy, Why don’t we go to California and write, That’s where it’s happening, Let me show you some poems I got in the car. Bull. There were no poems. I left as quick as I could.
Kirk thought all this was hilarious. I was pleased that he felt that I was capable of leaving behind these now questionable associations of my youth, and for once I had a ride home instead of having to walk.
So Kirk began to think my story was pretty good. At the end of October I wrote, “My story is rocking and rolling along, and Kirk is more and more impressed with it.” After all, I had answered his questions about it not with justifications or rebuttals but with revisions. But at the beginning of December it was still in process. “This weekend I am going to try like hell day and night to get a finished copy of my story.” By December 5, I did have it done, and took it over to Pat Waters to critique. On December 7, I wrote:
Kirk agreed my story is as good as done. I called him just as he got home and he ran in puffing and excited about it. I had finally got the guts of it in there, he said. I said something about some part of it being awkward, and he said, No, for you don’t write awkwardly.
That use of for was a characteristic Kirkian expression.
Shortly thereafter I sent the “finished” and “done” story to Mr. Lytle, whom I missed terribly. Letters did not seem enough; a story would communicate better. But this was a fateful decision on my part and not a good one. Although I had not submitted it for publication, Mr. Lytle replied at once, asking whether he could publish it in The Sewanee Review. Figuratively, Kirk wrung his hands. He hung his head, deeply morose. “I wish he hadn’t done that.”
“What you’re doing is fine. Stick with it. You need time to write, without all this recognition and expectation. You don’t need to get married. You don’t need that graduate school. Just write, first. Do that one thing.”
He was right. I wish I had had the sense to pay attention to him, just because he was a great teacher. That kind of avoidance is the most tempting, and most dangerous, mistake any student may make. I wish I had had the moral courage to rescind my wedding plans, to stay in Gainesville instead of leaving a month later for Johns Hopkins. The most valuable thing I had was the discipline within my self, as Kirk well knew. It had only recently been born, and I was jeopardizing it through premature publication, a desperate, doubtful marriage, and attendance at a high ranking but not rigorous graduate school. I was a “half-trained youth, attempting fancy slow rolls while centered in the gun sights.” And I would spend most of a lifetime trying to get back to what I had in those months working with Kirk in fall, 1961.
But at the end, on the phone with Kirk, I realized we were still in it together, this thing about writing and life. Neither of us had abandoned what we had been and known then. Whatever the intervening years had brought, with all their mistakes and despairs and alienations, we had been true to the values, and the love, we shared in his class.