Today I am in Jacksonville, Florida, the city where I grew up. I am here because I was invited to go to my old high school, Robert E. Lee, and speak to students who have been reading my novel, Picara. I had just finished breakfast and I picked up a copy of the Florida Times Union. As I glanced over it on the elevator on the way up to my room, my heart lurched. One of the teasers on the front page of Section C said that Harry Crews had died. My literary father was gone.
I’m sure most writers have a literary father or mother or both. My literary mother is the artist and short story writer examplar, Lynda Schor. She was the teacher who gave me permission to use my voice and to own my writing. We are still friends to this day. I still feel supported by her, encouraged by her to eschew the mundane, and reminded by her about what makes the writer’s life worth living.
Harry Crews was my literary father. I will never forget my first fiction writing workshop with him. We were all undergraduates, and he was drunk for nearly every class. Most of the other students were terrified. Having grown up around alcoholics, I was right at home. The first story I turned in was about a girl who works in a liquor store and decides to run off with a guy who comes in to rob the place. He accused me of playing fast and loose with point of view and he spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the sex scene which he called “the rut,” but he took the work seriously, and that made a difference. It was the first time in my life I had been taken seriously as a writer.
When I went in to have a conference with him about my next story, he pulled a tall boy out of the bottom drawer of his desk and asked me, “Ms. MacEnulty, did you really write this story?” I told him that I had. It was based on my experience at the prison farm where I had been housed a few years earlier after an unpleasant run-in with the law. I guess I didn’t look like someone who would be able to write about that topic. But then he said, “Well, it was so good I thought you might have stole it.” And let me tell you — that was the highest compliment I’ve ever had in my life.
Harry Crews schooled me in the basics. He excoriated me for putting a comma before a prepositional phrase. He made me adhere to the rules for point of view, which I still religiously obey, and he exhorted me to let fiction be fictional, an idea to which I have not been so faithful. I took as many classes as I could take with Harry. I got drunk with him just once. When I reached for a glass of water that turned out to be vodka, I realized I’d never keep up with him.
But it wasn’t in the classroom or even in the barroom where I learned the most important lessons that Harry had to impart. That lesson I learned from his writing. I recently re-read a few sections of his autobiography that were publishedin the Georgia Review, in which he talked about a time during his childhood spent in the (at that time) gritty Northside area of Jacksonville in a rooming house on Main Street. From his writing and from his take-no-prisoners style of teaching, I learned the first tenet of transformative writing: brutal, naked honesty.
“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told,” he told one interviewer.
“To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get to where the blood is, where the bone is,” he told another.
I only saw Harry a couple of times after I graduated. I always wanted to go back and find him, get him to sign a book for me because I was too stupid to do that while I was a student. But I didn’t. Yesterday, for some reason I was singing an old James Taylor song with a lyric that goes like this, “I always thought I’d see you one more time again.”
Today I did my power of voice exercise with the students at Lee. You never know what’s going to come out. That’s why I like these exercises. What you need to say arrives just like that. Today I started writing about my “Down Home Jacksonville Self”:
“Me, driving the highways for hours, going through the grime, soaking in the overwhelming sadness, the stagnation, and how you captured it so well when you wrote about living on Main Street. You opened it up like a ripe cantaloupe and the seeds spilled and the meat was sweet and full of juice. This is my mourning self, my sad self. Sad that I didn’t come back to you or say thank you over and over again or let you know every word I write is a love letter to you.”
Who is your literary father? Your literary mother? Have you thanked them lately?