Teaching Lessons

Follow the Thread Into the Labyrinth

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By Merrill Joan Gerber

May 9, 2016


 

 

When I first entered Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957, I was a 19-year-old girl from Brooklyn who had come to the University of Florida by way of Miami Beach. My family had moved to Florida when I was 14 to escape the cold winters of New York; to me “the South” was mainly a place where a person could get a good suntan.

Our writing class met at night on the second floor of a rickety wooden structure just opposite the glowing windows of the library on campus. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily.

Before discussing the students’ stories, he liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Mr. Lytle’s eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then, he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another.

Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew. We were aware that Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but we women had no such privileges.

One day, I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I’d been writing a story about a young girl who had spent a summer crocheting a snake-like rug. The story seemed sad enough and dense enough to be “artistic”; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville. He showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; a snake eating its own tail. I asked him to help me with “my plot.” He said, “Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning.” I left his house pondering this. I am pondering it still.

After I graduated, I came back to the University of Florida to begin a job as a teaching assistant in the English department. A day before classes were to begin, I received a wire from Brandeis University informing me that I had won a scholarship. My husband-to-be was a graduate student at Brandeis; I wanted to be with him and to study literature there. But I had committed my services to the university. I went to Mr. Lytle with my desperate dilemma; he suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth?) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer on my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, and took me to the airport. He kissed me goodbye and wished me Godspeed.


Merrill Joan Gerber has published ten novels—among them King of The World, which won the Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award, and The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine. She teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. Her new memoir, Beauty and the Breast: A Tale of Breast Cancer, Love and Friendship, will be published in October.


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