The kind of writing I do, so-called creative writing, is, at its root, a very selfish even juvenile activity. It is necessary for me to put myself in a childlike state of mind to be imaginative, to be innovative, to be daring, even to be silly. Without that eccentric kind of thinking I cannot create fiction up to the level of my capabilities.
Daring, imagination, innovation, and let’s include silliness–these are all virtuous and exemplary human qualities. But there is a dark side to the creative life, at least as I’ve experienced it. There’s an arrogance mixed with a terrible vulnerability.
One reason I write is that while I am working on a novel I feel grandiose, godlike. Believe me it is a very heady feeling, and it’s why I look forward so eagerly every morning to take my place at my writing desk (which by the way these days is my couch, my writing tool a Google Pixel chromebook laptop). As long as I am working I am buoyed by this feeling. When I was coming of age as a writer I was told that writing was hard. No, not for me. For me, writing is easy or it is impossible. It is never hard. I was told that writing is agony. No, just the opposite. For writers of my ilk the dirty little secret is that we like it. Writing is our cocaine.
Alas, this feeling of power vanishes the minute I show my work to somebody else. Now I’m a little kid again begging for attention. In the end what so many of us writers really crave is attention, financial reward, praise, the envy of our peers. We are not pure hearts. We are infants screaming for something, we’re not sure what. I suppose there are pure-heart writers of talent, but of the talented writers I know most are stuck in a narcissistic mind-frame. It’s not just writers, it’s actors, musicians, athletes, artists, and politicians–anyone who gains their identity, their self-esteem and/or their livelihood from what is reflected back from their efforts is at risk from drowning in their own juices. We narcissists do just fine when we are loved, admired, and rewarded. But what happens when our efforts are no longer appreciated? Writers, actors, singers, athletes, artists, politicians–when they cannot produce or when they find themselves no longer trendy–often discover that they have no self, no sustaining identity. They are what their admirers make of them. When the admirers go away the artist discovers that there is no there there. When this event occurs these people of accomplishment and talent find that even their families and loved ones cannot sustain them. It has been said that the two occupational hazards of the creative life are alcoholism and suicide. There’s good reason for this old saying: it is too often true.
In my case I knew I needed another meaningful activity, something besides creative writing where it was not all about me and my accomplishments. I found that activity first in ten years of news writing, which is about as a selfless kind of writing you can do, and later–indeed for the last three decades–in teaching.
Students don’t want their teachers to be super stars. They want you to know your stuff, but to be over the hill, on the down side, an admirable person but not a superior person. Their attitude, perhaps unconscious, is: “Thank you very much, but get out of the way, it’s my turn.” You have to enable them in this enterprise. Students can’t let loose their own powers if they are suppressed by a power figure. To be a good teacher you have to play down your wild side and your achievements. It doesn’t hurt to reveal your failings. In my case that was easy enough. You can be a good writer and a narcissist, but you can’t be a good teacher and a narcissist.
I think the great burden that many teachers carry, especially in these days when college instructors often teach four or more courses a term, is that they give so much to their students and to their institutions that they never have the time to develop their creative side. I was lucky. I was able to find a balance between the selflessness of the teaching life and the selfishness that is inherent in–and perhaps even necessary for–the creative life.
It was KSC President Barbara Seelye who gave me the break I needed to start a career in teaching. I walked into her office in 1984 or maybe it was 1985, and I said something to the effect of, “I’m a New Hamsphire born son of a Keene a working family and a graduate of Keene State, and I’ve published three novels, and you should hire me to teach creative writing.” And you know what? She did. Without the subsequent two years of teaching experience at Keene State, I never would have been hired on the tenure track by Dartmouth College.
It was Dartmouth that gave me the balance I needed. I teach no more than two courses a term, with classes limited to twelve students, which leaves me plenty of time for me to write. It was Barbara Seeley and Keene State that made the last thirty years of my life possible.
Let me now go back in time. It’s November 22, 1963, White River Junction, Vermont.
I am a 22-year-old somewhat athletic and nimble but not particularly skilled telephone company central office equipment installer, which is why I am sitting on a cable rack in a telephone company building with no windows. Cable racks run along the top of eight-foot tall bays of relay equipment. On hands and knees, the ceiling a foot from my head, I move cables down the racks to various bays. Below me are the older more skilled telephone men. We are in White River Junction, because WRJ is the toll switching center for northern New England and it’s where the work is to make the changeover to the dial system. There’s a lull, and no one is feeding me cables to move, so I rest.
I sit on the cables and brood over my existence. My failures. Failed quarterback, failed student.
Ernie, you almost flunked out. Remember? Two D’s and two F’s in English your junior year. You are stupid.
No, I’m not.
Okay, mediocre, and at the low end of mediocrity.
Well, I was good at geometry.
Yeah, you got B’s–big deal. All the rest C’s and D’s. You never got an A. Never, not even in grammar school. Look what happened when you applied for admission at Keene State College.
My inner voice reminds me that I took the ACT test and ended up with a 6 percentile in English. Ninety-four percent of the people who took the test did better than I. Fred Barry, the then dean of men at KSC (and who, by the way, later became a friend) told me that some people are just not suited for college. I was denied admission. I did six months on active duty as a Army reservist, went to work for the phone com[an, and in 1961 I served another year in the Army during the Berlin wall crisis.
Failure! The voice shouts in my head.
But I read, I read a lot, I say to the voice and feel self-conscious because I realize my lips are moving. I may even have whispered my thoughts. I want to go college. I want to learn.
You’ll never do it. Deep down you’re afraid.
Afraid you just don’t have what it takes to succeed in anything. You’d just embarrass yourself in college. Stick with this job. It’s the best you’ll ever do.
It was my inferiority that I was brooding about that day on the cable rack.
The lull seemed to go on too long, and then I heard some of the telephone guys walking down the aisle. Though I couldn’t see anybody from my position I could tell there was something wrong by the tone of their voices. Moments later I heard them clearly. President Kennedy had been shot. The news affected me in an odd way. Suddenly, I experienced my isolation, a great distance from my fellow workers. It was as if this cable rack was in outer space and I was alone, far away from people, far away from my planet. Unless I took some action I was going to die up here on this cable rack. That night I made the decision to reapply to Keene State. My president’s life had ended, mine had just begun.
I was accepted second time around at Keene State and matriculated in the fall of 1964.
I will always grateful for the support of my parents. They were suspicious of this move. My father, a weaver in a textile mill with only eight years of education, couldn’t understand why I would leave a good job just to go to school. My mother, a nurse, feared that quote-unquote you’ll lose your faith. What she didn’t know was that I never had faith. Even as a child I was a hopeless agnostic, a skeptic, an epicurean, an aburdist, a surrealist, an existentialist; I had the feelings, though I didn’t have the language available to me in those days to understand those feelings. Maybe that was why I was going to college: to find the lingo to express my deepest self. I think today that such a search is the best reason for a young person to seek higher learning. Despite my parents reservations once I’d made the decision they stuck by me. Indeed, I lived in their house freshman year without paying rent and eating their food for free.
I was 23 years old and I was terrified of failing in school. I decided to spend my time doing nothing but studying. I did my assignments and then some. No social life, no recreation time–I just hit the books. And … and … I was happy. I started studying out fear and ended up studying out of love for the learning life. Freshman year was miraculous for me. After my first freshman composition, the instructor Mr. Francgon Jones called me into his office and handed me my paper. There was A on it. It was the first A I’d ever received. Mr. Jones told me I had writing talent. How he was able to divine talent from one paper I don’t know. All I remember is that it was the first time anybody had ever told me that I might be good at something.
By the second semester, I was writing for the school newspaper, then called The Monadnock, and the editor Ros Gessner gave me my own column, Hebert Says. It’s a little embarrassing to think about today, but what the hell. I published a piece in The Keene Shopper News, a satire on motorcyclists. Kind of ironic since a couple years later I became a mad motorcyclist myself. I was paid five cents a column inch, my first payday as a writer, and the editor, Barbara Shakour, offered me a full-time job, which I declined because by now school meant everything to me. I will forever be grateful to Mrs. Shakour for showing faith in my potential.
How I went from being a non-writer–never wrote letters, nor diary entries, never wrote anything–to being almost instantly a pretty good writer remains a mystery to me, but it might have something to do with my ability to diagram sentences that I learned from the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph’s School. Diagraming sentences and geometry were the only topics I was half-way good at in school. Somehow without actually writing I had acquired a good understanding of how words are put together to make meaning–the architectural floor plan of the English language, if you will. When I started to write I was ready.
I finished my freshman year with all A’s and one B, tied with a senior for the highest average in the school, and a place on the President’s List for academic excellence. All my insecurities vanished or, more likely, were suppressed by this sudden success. I transitioned from insecurity to confidence, even cockiness. Probably I was a horse’s ass, I dunno.
I moved out of my parents house and into an apartment with fellow students Jeff Parsons and Dwight Conant. Later we were joined by Larry Howard and Jack Brouse. I was with those guys through sophomore, junior and senior years. I remember many heated discussions over issues–philosophy, art, literature, politics, the meaning of life; but we never had a serious argument. I think a college education is founded on a three-legged stool of academics, mentors, and peers. I was fortunate in all three areas.
To pay the bills I worked odd hours as a factory worker, landscaper, gas pumper, laundry man at Elliot Community Hospital, now Elliot Hall, paper corrector for Dr. William Felton and–my favorite job– taxi driver. Tuition was low in those days and thanks to my part time jobs, savings, and the GI bill I was able to graduate debt free. I even had a little leftover in the bank to drive my Chevy and my bride to graduate school at Stanford University.
My grades declined sophomore year at Keene State, because I worked, wrote a column for the school paper, and made time to socialize with my new friends. Really, my education had just begun. I established a major in English and a minor in History. I latched on to mentors–Ella Keene, David Battenfeld, Malcom Keddy, Bud Lyle, William Felton, David Leinster, James Smart, Robert Collins, Peter Riley, Chris Barnes, Charles Hapgood, Fred Fosher and, yes, Fred Barry to name a few. I am sure I am leaving somebody out. Forgive me.
My apartment on 152 Church St. in Keene and later on Pinnacle Mountain with the roommates and girlfriends and male friends was always full of music, conversation, and good times, but it was not a place for meditation or even for sustained reading. When I wanted to read and to be alone I retreated to my favorite building on campus, the library. For one thing, I liked the librarian, Chris Barnes. He ran the library with great efficiency. At the same time, he had sense of humor; he made you feel welcome.
I did most of my reading and study at library tables, but I often took breaks and wandered around the stacks looking for treasures packed with words. I loved the smell and feel of books. One day I happened upon the collected letters of Mark Twain and his pal William Dean Howells, two big fat volumes. I never signed out either book. I would go to the location, which was on a lower shelf, and I would remove one of the volumes, find the place where I left off and, sitting on the floor, read a letter or two or three. Over the courses of my junior year I read every word in both volumes. Twain and Howells wrote to each other about literature, politics, people in the news, but many of the passages revolved around their families. In the end I think I derived a clear and accurate understanding of what a writer’s life was all about. It seemed to me the kind of life I might be suited for.
I think the most important part of my college experience, the part that set me on a life course occurred in of all places–hold your breath now folks–the classroom.
Mr. Malcom Keddy’s creative writing workshop, limited to twelve students, produced at least three writers who went on to publish books–not bad for a small state college: myself, Joe Citro, author of thirteen novels and nonfiction books, and Marilyn Treat, author of a book of poems, Green Apples for Dr. Dave. Last I heard she was a dean at Brewster Academy. That class got me started in creative writing and also established the workshop model that I use in my own teaching today.
Dr. David Battenfeld taught a course in 20th Century American Literature. I loved the class and I loved Battenfeld, who went on to be my number one mentor at Keene State, but I did not love the writers we studied. As a young man from a working class background I was looking for models in literature that I could relate to in some way that would help me grow as an individual. I didn’t find those models in the authors we studied. Here are my thoughts about those writers. You’ll note that my comments cannot be considered literary criticism, but pure gut reaction.
Ernest Hemingway’s characters were strangers to me, his macho philosophy outside my own sensibilities, his descriptions kind of vague. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, though I thought it shallow. I loathed The Great Gadsby for its sneering portrayal of working people. To this day The Great Gadsby, that so-called great American novel, remains in my mind tied with James Dickey’s Deliverance as my favorite books that I love to hate. John Steinbeck’s writing style impressed me, but I felt he overly romanticized the working people in his books. I pretended to like William Faulkner, but secretly I thought he was a windbag and a bore. My books in the Darby Chronicles are sometimes compared to Faulkner’s works, and every time I hear the comparison I want to puke.
Women writers? The only one offered in the course was Gertrude Stein and then only because she mentored the big shot male writers of the time. Stein’s writing struck me as pretentious and not very interesting. The only woman literary writer I read in those days was Willa Cather. Her novel Death Comes to the Archbishop remains one of my all time favorites. By the way, she is buried right down the road in Jaffrey. I identified with Jack Kerouac, not because of his writing or his connection with the beat generation, which struck as immature and smug, but because like myself he had French-Canadian ancestry and New Hampshire roots (his family was from Nashua). My favorite American narrative of the period was not even a novel. It was Wanderer, a memoir by actor Sterling Hayden. I admired Evan S. Connell’s sad, satirical novel Mrs. Bridge and Norman Mailer’s crazy self-indulgent reportage Army’s of the Night and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, but really none of these works touched me in any deep, personal way.
I found the literary models I was looking for in a 20th Century British Literature course taught by Dr. Robert Collins.
In D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover the working guy gets the girl. Yippee! That never happened in the American novels I read. I was fascinated by Lawrence’s adventures in New Mexico and by his essays, which were daring and insightful. Example: Lawrence postulated that the Victorian idea that sex was dirty probably came from fear of sexually transmitted diseases.
A character in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, greatly moved me. In Leonard Bast, an ordinary, clueless guy trying to better himself, I saw moi. A theme in Howard’s End of big city values and demographics spreading into small towns and screwing them up resonated with me when I was writing the first Darby Chronicles novel, The Dogs of March. I felt so indebted to Forster that I named my protagonist Howard in honor of Forster’s book title. In face, the working title of The Dogs of March was Howard’s End, and six books later the working title of the latest of the Darby Chronicles, Howard Elman’s Farewell, was also Howard’s End. One of the books that played a role in my development as a novelist and a teacher of writing was Forster’s book Aspects of the Novel.
Another work by an English author that affected me deeply was Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. That book greatly influenced two future science fiction novels that I would write, Mad Boys and I Love U. That’s the letter “u,” a reference to a dyslexic cyborg named Wiqi Durocher who is a co-protagonist with Luci Sanz, another humane cyborg. Those characters, by the way, appear in Howard Elman’s Farewell as real people or maybe they’re still robots, I’m not sure myself.
Dr. Collins also assigned The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I never did understand what was going on in that book, and yet Woolf’s interior monologue in The Waves and elsewhere in her Mrs. Dalloway writings greatly influenced my own desire later to interrogate the inner lives of my characters. It’s that inner world of the mind that most interests me as a fiction writer.
I never took a course in James Joyce, but read him on my own. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man remains one of my favorite novels. Joyce’s Ulysses might be considered among the great novels of all time, but it only annoyed me. Why didn’t Joyce just underline or put in italic all the interior monologue? It would have made my job as a reader more pleasurable. Also, in identifying with characters I realized that I was as much Buck Milligan as Stephen Daedalus.
The writer who most affected me, my greatest influence, and who remains a hero to me today was George Orwell. Dr. Collins didn’t assign Orwell’s signature works 1984 and Animal House. Instead he asked us to read an obscure novel called Coming Up for Air. For me reading that book was a transformative experience. The main plot line is simple. An ordinary middle-aged man goes back to his hometown and finds the place and his notions about it ruined by so-called progress. In a sense what that book did was give me permission to write about small towns and regular people.
Other Orwell books, in particular Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, books that focus on working people and poor people in an honest, insightful way without any romanticized balderdash, inspired me, gave me courage to write about people that I knew, even then, we’re not going to put me on the best seller list. I can pick up any Orwell book or essay, crack it open on any page, and find myself engrossed.
It was these British authors–Lawrence, Forster, Woolf, Huxley, and above all Orwell–that gave me the world view and nerve I needed to be a writer and in particular to write the novels of the Darby Chronicles.
I’d like to end by saying that I am indebted to you all–my teachers, my roommates, my fellow students at KSC. Thank you. And thank you, too, to the KSC people of today who have welcomed me back with open arms. And to you in the audience, thank you for coming today to hear this old alumn speak his mind.