Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, and the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.
I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.
I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.
I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?
I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).
I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.
Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.