My office has always been a mess. It’s a failing. Sometimes I’ll pick a loose page off the floor, scrutinize it for a minute or two, and still not be able to tell if it’s something I wrote or something written by one of my students.
So how many of those hundreds of stories and novels written by my former students do I remember? Not all of them, by a long shot.
What’s more astonishing is how many of them stick. My wife and I are taking a vacation this week to get out of the Texas heat, and it’s impossible to go anywhere without setting off flares of memory. In New Mexico, there’s Alix Ohlin’s eco-terrorists, in Oregon, Mike McGriff’s loggers. If I drive through Idaho, it’s not hard to imagine Brian’s Hart’s carpenters framing up houses.
It’s as if, after a couple of decades, these talented young writers had plugged me into my own literary GPS. Mention Columbus, Ohio, and I sooner or later I’m going to bring up Ladan Osman’s stories of Somali immigrants. Talk to me about Beijing and I want to talk about Frances Cowhig’s “The Year It Rained Mud.”
Bars in Las Cruces, battlefields in Iraq, burnt out steel towns, Viennese opera houses, schools for brilliant misfits in Iowa, skating rinks in Salt Lake City, I’ve got them all covered. This morning, as an exercise, I made a list of all the work that has stayed with me. I stopped at about thirty-five, but I could have gone on.
But what I remember even more vividly are those sessions in my office, going over thesis manuscripts. I remember how intense they can get, how much can be at stake. Everyone, including me, wants to be told that what they’ve just finished is a masterpiece. Part of my job is to say when it’s not. No matter how much time I spend talking about what works well, about the beauties of the language, the delight I took in the characters, there’s no fooling these young writers. They know when the hammer is about to fall.
Much of what I have to say is properly ignored. Some of it is used. But what is impressive is the way these students rebound from criticism (not just from me, but from agents, editors, trusted friends), and go back for a third, fourth and fifth draft when it’s needed. It’s a little like when I was a kid and you had to keep taping and retaping an old baseball to keep the game from ending.
When I look at their books on the shelves of the conference room, when I attend their plays or watch their movies, all of it seems so solid, so accomplished, so inevitable. What almost no one who doesn’t write can understand is how many times these books and plays and movies teetered on the brink of disaster.
These days I can’t always remember where I parked my car. But I will always remember how fiercely these young writers worked. What they’ve done, over the past twenty years, is re-imagine the entire globe for me, to ignite, in the words of another Texan, a thousand points of light.