Writing Lessons

What I Talk About When I Try To Talk About the Most Important Writing Advice I Ever Received

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By David Huddle

September 29, 2014


 

I’d written a story that began with a couple having sex on a kitchen table. I thought it was a darned exciting story and only moderately explicit. But rather than schedule it for workshop discussion, my teacher asked me to come to see him during his office hours so that the two of us could discuss it. I was disappointed. I’d envisioned the members of my workshop getting riled up—in a good way, with shock and envy but also with begrudging admiration—when it came time to talk about my “Molly and Tenbrooks” in the classroom. To my mind the story had an authenticity that had been sorely lacking in the work of those classmates.

This was the fall 1967 semester at the University of Virginia. Recently discharged from the army after a tour in Vietnam, I had just returned to UVA to try to gain readmission after flunking out in 1964. My teacher was the distinguished Tennessee writer Peter Taylor, who had just arrived in Charlottesville. Mr. Taylor’s office was in a little gray house across from Cabell Hall on Jefferson Park Avenue. We sat opposite each other at his desk, with the pervasive silence all around us suggesting that he and I were the only people in the building.

While I was in the army I’d done a fair amount of reading, including all of Hemingway and all of Faulkner. Though I’d written nothing other than letters to my parents while I was stationed in Germany and Vietnam, I’d daydreamed about becoming a writer when I got out. My notion of the writing I would do was that my material would be startling, sexual, and tastefully violent. My style would be direct, no-nonsense, and crude when necessary. I confess that I’d glanced at some Peter Taylor stories in his Happy Families Are All Alike and judged them to be exactly the kind of thing I intended not to write: too much attention to manners, how the relatives behaved at the breakfast table, small-town gossip, and who said what about whom. A story that struck me as especially tepid was “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” which began this way:

Their house alone would not have made you think there was anything so awfully wrong with Mr. Dorset or his old maid sister. But certain things about the way both them dressed had, for a long time, annoyed and disturbed everyone.

In our conference, Mr. Taylor explained that he himself was not at all offended by “Molly and Tenbrooks”—and a smile passed briefly over his face that made me imagine us as boys talking about a dirty magazine—but he worried about how other members of the class would respond.

He had never seemed professorial in our classes, or even teacher-like. He addressed student work as if he were a kindly uncle who’d been called in to advise a niece or nephew who’d shown an interest in writing. He read aloud and praised passages from student manuscripts he liked, and he only hinted at what he didn’t like. He seemed the opposite of what I imagined a real writing teacher would be. He did not make wise pronouncements, offer strong opinions, or give instruction or tips. He read aloud to us stories by Katherine Ann Porter (“Old Mortality”), Caroline Gordon (“The Last Day in the Field”), and William Faulkner (“That Evening Sun”), but he never mentioned what he thought we might learn from those stories.

In our afternoon conference, Mr. Taylor told me that in his younger days he’d had trouble locating the material that he was best suited to write. He said that he counted himself lucky when he finally did realize that his family and how he’d grown up were his true subject matter. He said that the only drawback was that occasionally his writing had hurt the feelings of a family member. He said that once when he visited his home in Memphis after having been away for a while, his father greeted him at the train station by telling him that if he’d been around when he’d read that story Peter had written about Aunt so-and-so, he’d have taken a swing at him. Sitting at his desk, Mr. Taylor shook his head so ruefully, I knew he was reliving the moment.

I’d been waiting for him to get around to commenting on my work. I’d hoped he’d have suggestions for revision, but he kept musing aloud for such a length of time that I finally understood he hoped he wouldn’t have to discuss “Molly and Tenbrooks” with me. Almost immediately I realized that what I’d really wanted from him was praise, and if he were going to give me that, he’d have done it already. When he finally stopped talking and looked me in the eyes, I thanked him and made my exit. I kept telling myself that our meeting had been a waste of time, but I found myself feeling oddly cheerful walking down Jefferson Park Avenue toward my apartment.

In the hours and days that followed, I kept remembering Mr. Taylor’s father’s anger over what he had written about his aunt—whom I envisioned to be a quaint little old Tennessee lady. That aunt probably resembled my Aunt Iva and my Aunt Stella, and his father sounded as if he had a lot in common with my father. In fact, several months later when my family came to Charlottesville to see me finally graduate, I arranged for my father to meet Peter Taylor. Their countrified manners with each other were surprisingly similar. They conversed warmly and at some length about Wythe County, where my father had grown up, and the times when Mr. Taylor had driven through that area. Afterward, my father always referred to Peter Taylor as “the old man Taylor.”

Retrospection can kick up disturbance and shed light on matters one thought long settled. Happy Families Are All Alike was Peter Taylor’s third book, while my third book was Only the Little Bone. Both are story collections, both are primarily autobiographical and concerned with family matters. My book contains an army story called “Save One for Mainz,” which has a salacious scene in it like the one in “Molly and Tenbrooks,” but the others have elements that remind me of “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.” For example here are the last two sentences of my “Summer of the Magic Show”:

My father and I kept driving around the ridge, both he and I watching the road in the headlights and occasionally glancing out our side windows at the dark. Then, at almost exactly the same moment, though our tunes were different, we each began whistling through our teeth.

Later that year, Mr. Taylor invited me to his house for social occasions, and I became friends with him and his wife, Eleanor. Even so, I left Charlottesville believing he’d had little influence on me when it came to writing. And even now I fancy that my writing and Peter’s are not at all alike. But this is not as true as I wish it were. When I look at sentences of mine like the ones above, I can’t help thinking, “Peter might have written that.”


David Huddle is the author of 19 books, the most recent of which is a novel, The Faulkes Chronicles.


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