This all happened the same year that Jim Greco switch stance frontside 180 flipped the stairs at Lincoln High, which was also the year you—then a senior at a small liberal arts college— were enrolled in Techniques of Fiction (ENGL 293).
Though 293’s course catalogue description was rather unremarkable—This introduction to the elements of fiction and a range of authors is for people who want to write and through writing increase their understanding and appreciation for a variety of short stories—it would be hard to exaggerate how fraught with significance it was and what it meant to you, and the other aspiring authors on the campus of a school we shall simply refer to as a Good School.
It had, after all, been your lifelong ambition to become an author. Even as a sweet and innocent child, you had once written in your diary:
Jack London became very rich through writing. His house cost 350,000 dollars. He only wrote at night.
Indeed it had been gratifying merely to gain admittance to Professor Wright’s competitive, rigorous creative writing workshop, whose enrollment was limited to 9 and to which applicants were required to submit a 3-5 page sample of prose, on the appointed day, no later than 4 PM, NO EXCEPTIONS. No phone calls please!
After submitting your sample in April, and withstanding an excruciating 4-6 week response time, you could go, in fear and trembling, to Sunset Cottage, the English department headquarters to find a typewritten list of names pinned to a bulletin board on the porch.
Still, how remote that moment would come to feel the following September, once you were actually mired in English 293: Techniques of Fiction, as Professor Wright himself could be quite combative (to say the least) on those Wednesday evenings— evenings when you sometimes stared at the leather-bound books locked behind glass, stared down at the light reflected off the conference table, or up at the photograph, set against a wood-paneled wall, of Robert Lowell.
That adversarial style of Wright’s was, in large part, why the class was such a part of campus lore, such a rite-of-passage. With his moss of white hair and martial-manner, his sulfurous cigars and bulldog- jaw, Wright was an imposing, supremely masculine, famously unsparing figure, who wrote successful novels about war and prisons, who in at times painfully polite WASP bastion could be cruel—the prerogative of the artist.
He could be cruel.
“I get a lot of trips-to-Europe-breaking-up-is-hard to do stories and scenes where granny has just kicked the bucket and now you’re going through her effects,” he said. “In student fiction there is always a dead body.”
He could be explicit. “None of you have your subject matter yet. Life hasn’t [expletive] on you yet. You haven’t [expletive] on life,” he said.
He could be graphic in his assessments of undergraduates and their feeble attempts at fiction but also of many more seasoned practioners as well. (Of a Pulitzer Prize-winner he once said, “She gets these great stories but then she always ruins them by having a miscarriage.” He described a Nobel Laureate’s novel as, “a semi-pornographic piece of [expletive].”)
Not surprisingly, Wright did not have a reputation for handling the fragile egos of 20 year-old aspiring writers with care. “Kids here are too soft,” he was fond of saying.
You often had to, in his estimation, burn a village to save it.
Like, oh man, do you remember the night he basically incinerated your own incipient novel?
Oh, it was brutal. So brutal.
Techniques of Fiction (ENG 293)
As he pushed one last time he pressed down on the nose, heard the clean snap as it hit the pavement and felt himself flying through the air. Rising, wanting, drifting. This was a good nollie. He locked into the handrail for the crooked grind, again heard it, felt it in his bones. This was a good solid crooked grind on a 10-stair. And not a flat bar, a round rail. The flash went off. No time to think about it.
Continuing to grind, he took his left back foot, and flicked it quickly for the nollie-heel while at the same time lightly pressing on the nose again and popping the board off for the nollie.
He barely remembered landing. Everything was black as he rode away. “That’s the cover!” the photographer called out. When he came to that was all he heard. That’s the cover.
It would be on the cover of Thrasher.
“Dude, you just landed a nollie crooked grind, nollie heelflip out on a rail. You just made history, how does it feel dude? You are so stoked right now!” Animal, his best friend through thick and thin, asked and high fived him and hugged him and jumped with him.
His heart was pounding, running, jumping, seething. Palm trees swayed. The sun burned in the sky.
He had come a long way from Ohio. A long way from Ohio indeed.
“It feels amazing,” he said.
“What in God’s name is a nollie?” Wright inquired with his typical brusqueness, which is an example of coaching dialogue.
“It’s a skateboard trick,” you stammer. “It’s where you press down on the nose to…”
“Who cares?” Wright interrupted. “The point is you have to make the reader want to know what a nollie is. You’re not doing that. No one cares at all. Unless you want to write for yourself and a small circle of friends, you have got to begin engaging the audience immediately. Right now you’re face is covered with zits and you’re never going to get kissed.”
“And what was with the triplets? Running, jumping, seething…?” a blond co-ed asked with genuine perplexity.
“Rangy and confused triplets,” Wright added appreciatively. “… Running, jumping, seething… How can a heart run and jump? These are sentences that should be dragged out in the street and shot. And… The sun burned in the sky… Where else would it be? And again, these adjectives. Talk about logorrhea. You’re using adjectives like parsley. Sprinkle a little here and there you figure it won’t hurt.”
“B-b-but…” you haltingly rejoin, “what about Faulkner, Conrad, Nabokov? They all use triplets. They all string together adjectives. If they can do it why can’t we? Why do you criticize us for doing something they do?”
“That’s simple. You deserve it. They don’t. You can reinvent the English language in graduate school, now why don’t we just work on getting a sense of an audience… Get your license and I’ll cut you a few extra lines. You’re still on your skateboard. "
“Something more needs to be at stake, I feel like the skateboarding is just not working for me. Like, you could have, uh, a story about a pie-eating competition, but that doesn’t mean anyone would want to read it, you know?” another of your peers added.
“Well I’ve read good writing about sports, even golf. Skateboarding isn’t really the problem here, per se,” Wright said. “It’s the author. The lack of imagination. There’s no imaginative leap and that’s a hallmark of amateur fiction. You can see it from a million miles away. The main character is usually a thinly disguised version of yourself and you give yourself all the most poignant lines all the best moments.”
“Besides that, what was wrong with it?” you ask.
“That’s like saying, besides the brain tumor what’s wrong? You have to remember no one likes your writing except for you and your mother. You have about 30 seconds to capture a reader’s attention. You won’t have a chance to defend each one of your aesthetic decisions. The story can’t stop constantly to comment on itself.”
“But that’s… my voice,” you quaver.
“Change it,” Wright said with a shrug before sliding your stapled pages/shattered dreams across the conference table.
Tastefully framed photographs of Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht looked on.