BUILDING D: REMEMBERING THURSDAY NIGHTS WITH SMITH
No matter how old you get, September always means going back to school, and, this year, all I can think about is what happened every Thursday night in Building D at the University of Florida. Building D was a temporary wooden barracks delivered from Camp Blanding after World War II with a lot of other surplus military buildings brought in to accommodate all the guys coming to Florida on the GI Bill. And it just stayed on about 40 years too long. It wasn’t a real building, like McCarty or Anderson Hall; it was a rickety two-story rabbit cage across from the library and what was then a Krystal. Building D was a dusty shadowbox of grad student offices and classrooms—including the one where our fiction group met every week.
Some of us were enrolled, and others just showed up, week after week, year after year, men and women of college age and older who were passionate about writing, who brought their short stories or chapters from their novels to be read and discussed by the rest of us.
Leading the class was Smith Kirkpatrick, a soft-spoken man from Arkansas who had been anointed by the Old Man to carry on the tradition of teaching craft in writing at Florida. The Old Man was Andrew Lytle, a novelist and literature professor who was a leader of the Southern agrarian literary movement, along with poets Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Mr. Lytle left Florida before my time to become the editor of the prestigious Sewanee Review. All I remember now about him was that when he came down from the University of the South on the rare visit, he drank his bourbon from a silver chalice. He called me “daughter” and once delivered to me in the space of 45 minutes the entire history of the Judeo-Christian civilization. He was brilliant, Southern, eloquent and the father of what is now Florida’s master of fine arts program.
Smith was his devoted student and the man who carried on Mr. Lytle’s message that narrative required discipline (“moving easy in harness”) and a love of language. Showing, not telling. The importance of point of view. Smith, a successful novelist himself, would read our stories aloud into the night in that soft twang of his, bifocals perched on his nose, an unlit cigarette rolling between his stubby fingers.
And he also read us Hemingway, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty. We were in that room for hours, listening to our own words and those of the greatest writers we knew, learning the awesome distance between craft and vision, wanting so badly to be good that we could taste it.
The writing group endured for years and became the reason I woke up most mornings. And, always, the calm center of that class was Smith Kirkpatrick, the most gentle man I think I have ever known, a man who believed in me and what I could do.
But then, like all families, people began to break away, graduating and getting jobs, going to grad school, moving to L.A., all kinds of things. We drifted apart, and, then the time warp that is adulthood took over, and suddenly we were all 30 years older.
In 1992, Smith Kirkpatrick retired from teaching. This summer I went to see him at his home. He was dying from lung cancer, and his hospital bed faced the sloping backyard and pool, the towering live oaks, the exact place I had sat at the feet of the Old Man all those years ago. Now Smith was the Old Man, slipping away from me, from all of us. “You changed my life,” I said to him loud enough so he could hear me. He asked if I had children. I asked if he had regrets.
He paused at that one, eyes far away.
“I have done so much,” he said slowly.
“Yes, you have,” I said to him.
I found out they tore down Building D sometime in the late ’70s. But it’s still there in my mind, and so is Smith Kirkpatrick, reading my stories into the night.
This article first appeared in the July-August 2008 issue of Boca Raton Magazine.