Harry Crews, who died last week, was one of my first literary mentors, during a twelve-day summer workshop in 1970 at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. We must have certainly seemed like an odd match: the grizzled and tattooed, already iconic 34 year-old writer of crazily inventive Southern Gothic fiction, and the 40 year-old late-blooming suburban Jewish woman with only a handful of domestically oriented short stories to her name. I’m sure there were as many freaks and misfits in Harry’s fiction as there were straying husbands and lonely housewives in mine. Yet I’d specifically asked to work with Harry Crews because I loved his novel The Gospel Singer. Although its violence and religious fervor were far removed from anything in my own experience, I still felt a shock of recognition when I read it, and heard the beating heart at the heart of it.
Harry didn’t seem to mind our differences, either, or see them as something that might interfere with his job, which was to help me—even in that short span of time—improve as a writer. One of his responsibilities was to have a one-on-one conference with each of his assigned students. I can’t remember now how long our conference lasted, but I have total recall of sitting on the sun-warmed steps of Maple, the house where faculty resided for the conference, alongside this incredibly dynamic and sexy man who appeared to take my stories, with their landscape of supermarkets and schoolyards and frequent mention of Jello-O molds, seriously, and worthy of constructive criticism. He didn’t suggest I borrow a few of the several “midgets” in his own work for color or variety, or that I lose the Brooklyn accent in either my speaking or writing voice. His teaching method consisted of our looking at my heavily marked-up manuscript together, while he noted what worked, sentence by sentence, word by word, and what didn’t, and why.
But what I remember most from that encounter is the stuff we talked about that had nothing to do with my particular stories, and everything to do with what matters, in art and in life—the universal ache of being, the redemption of compassion and grace. Years later, reading his indelible memoir A Childhood, I learned of some of the tragedies of Harry’s hardscrabble early life: his father’s death before the son’s ability to know him, an abusive stepfather, a crippling bout with what must have been polio, an accident involving a cauldron of scalding water. And I saw the connections between those traumatic events and the only somewhat more surreal content of his novels.
That day in Vermont, he asked about my family, and I mentioned the serendipity that had allowed me to send my two young daughters off to 4-H camp for precisely the twelve days of Bread Loaf. I said that I had never had a room of my own before that summer, having left the bedroom I shared with my two sisters to marry at twenty-two, without ever having gone to sleep-away camp or to college. He listened with fierce attention, like someone being read aloud to. And he told me about the drowning death of his little son, Patrick, in a neighbor’s pool soon after the birth of his and Sally’s second child, Byron—how it happened, and how Sally had sustained him during that horrific time. Sally walked by in the distance as we talked, and they waved to each other, and he remarked on her beauty. What he said, exactly, was “I lust after that woman.” That was the way he spoke, the way he wrote.
Bread Loaf was quickly over, but Harry’s tutelage was not. He agreed, with extraordinary generosity, a couple of years later, to read the manuscripts of two novels in progress I’d been embarrassed to show to anyone else. I sent them to him, and he soon wrote back to say that one of them was viable and the other wasn’t. “You could probably publish that the way it is,” he said about the former. “But it needs some work.” The criticism he offered was as straightforward and honest as his approach to my stories. I still have his letter—a single-spaced, hand-signed typewritten page. He was right about both of my tentative attempts at writing a novel, especially about the “work” needed on the manuscript he deemed better. When a revised version of that novel came out, the dust jacket bore words of praise from Harry that still thrill me because he’d prefaced the comments in his letter by writing that “this is as good place as any to say what I’m sure you already know: I never lie or bullshit about fiction.”
Somehow, I lost touch with Harry, although I heard with dismay about his struggles with alcohol, and read and marveled at everything he ever wrote. Then, a couple of weeks ago, prompted by an email from his biographer, Ted Geltner, seeking anecdotes about his subject, I sent Harry a copy of my latest novel and a note of very belated thanks for the jumpstart he gave to my career, for validating my very sense of myself as a writer. I don’t know if he ever read the book or the note, or what he would have made of them if he had. I doubt that I’ll ever know. But in thinking about Harry Crews, as I’ve been doing rather obsessively since his death, an answer to that recurring question: can writing be taught? comes to mind. Yeah, it can. Or, as Harry might have put it, hell, yes!