A Writing Education
When I was considering colleges back in the 80s, I looked at a lot of different factors. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I tried to find places that featured that. There were several choices, but everything seemed to favor Washington University in St. Louis. It had several notable writers, Howard Nemerov, Bill Gass, Stanley Elkin ... names that don't mean as much now, but were drawing points then.
Unfortunately, shortly after I got there, our poet laureate, Mr. Nemerov died. I remember seeing him on campus several times, always wearing a jean jacket, always smiling. I wish I would have gone up and spoken to him, but I never did.
I did meet Bill Gass on several occasions. He, of course, is considered one of the major and important novelists of the 20th century, and he was always trotted out when some literary figure came to campus. I was lucky enough to get to be on a part-student part-faculty committee called the Assembly Series. Washington U was well-known for having a weekly speaker series where the speaker was a national figure in his or her field. you might not know all the names, but people in that field would. It was great for me, because I was determined to meet and see all the people there were to meet and see. I saw Elie Wiesel and Barbara Jordan, Toni Morrison and Studs Terkel, Bob Costas and John Singleton. Jesse Jackson and the Dalai Lama both made appearances, and I saw them both. But when I joined the committee, I got to occasionally take these people to lunch, which was the absolute best.
One day I got to be part of the group that took Kurt Vonnegut to lunch. Gass was there, and he came with a list of topics, sure he was going to dominate the conversation and Mr. Vonnegut, who had proven at the lecture that he really knew how to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. Trouble was, Vonnegut didn't want to talk high-fallutin' topics; he wanted to talk baseball. Particularly, 1992 Mets baseball, which was not a topic Gass was ready to touch. But guess who was: Me! So our lunch was filled with banter between this famous author and me about Gregg Jeffies and other non-pennant winning baseball players, who mesmerized him. It was the one time when I was a more fascinating dinner guest than Bill Gass!
I had lunch with Joyce Carol Oates in the same way, and once again, she wanted to talk Mike Tyson and boxing. And perhaps the best of all was Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who had to be the inspiration for The Most Interesting Man In The World commercials. At lunch he had an audience which included a couple of co-ed girls, and he had a charm about him I don't think I've seen since. They all swooned and would have run off with this sixty-something man. Someone asked him if he was truly bilingual and he said, "I can write in English and Spanish, I can read in English and Spanish, but I only make love in Spanish." He talked about planning a trip to Cartegena with Gabriel Garcia Marquez to look for first editions of Don Quixote. I told him that absolutely sounded like a novel. He looked at me and said, "You write that one. I do not want to write it."
But the one writer I became most acquainted with was Stanley Elkin, one of the true geniuses of 20th century literature. Elkin had MS, and was confined to a wheelchair. But man was he a brilliant man. He was stuck teaching undergraduates some of the time, which meant that people who had really no devotion to the craft of writing would sometimes end up in his class. He didn't like that. I remember one time when someone wrote a story he particularly didn't like, and he didn't let the students talk. He hated it up and down and he said so. It was funny and sad and scary all at the same time. Halfway through the class, he said, "Well, I don't want to beat up on you the whole time." Then he read another sentence and said, "YES I DO!" and he spent the rest of ninety minutes beating up on this same person, who now makes his living as a writer. Man, he was something else.
I got an A and a recommendation out of that class, which, I'm pretty sure, was rare. He told me, "You can write, but you can't plot worth a damn," which was high praise from him. It was also a good introduction into the world of writing. Between those things and interviewing 2 Live Crew and John Danforth in the same week, it was a fine writing education.
Dale Wiley is a Missouri attorney who has had a character named after him on CSI, owned a record label, been interviewed by Bob Edwards on NPR's Morning Edition and made motorcycles for Merle Haggard and John Paul DeJoria. He has three awesome kids and spends his days working as a lawyer fighting the big banks.