There comes a time in every writing class when the students discuss the work of their fellow students with the instructor as moderator. These critiques are charged moments with great potential for mischief. In Mentor, his memoir of life at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tom Grimes tells what happened when, prodded by the instructor’s “Come on. I know you have more thoughts than that,” he let loose on a fellow student’s story.
Several weeks later it was Grimes’s turn to lay a story before the class, and the student whose story he’d savaged said nothing during the discussion, but handed him a note that read:
Congratulations, you’ve created the most despicable narrator in American literature! Your misanthropy is matched only by your arrogance. And your snide narrator isn’t a persona, it’s you.
Grimes’s grim tales of the major leagues of creative writing got me to thinking about the only creative writing course I’ve ever taken in my life. It was Introduction to Fiction Writing at Allegheny College 40-plus years back. While there is an MFA-based creative writing industry in America these days, a fundamental question remains unanswered: is it possible to teach fiction writing? Is there a body of accepted knowledge and theory that can be passed from one generation to the next in the way, say, chemistry teachers teach chemistry?
You’ll get no answer today to that giant thumb-sucker of an issue, but with the benefit of four decades’ perspective, I can answer a more modest question: what effect did that lone writing course have on my own efforts to write stories?
Here’s what I remember about that class. The professor was Alfred Kern, a man I admired. Kern was an actual working novelist, a mid-40ish guy from Alliance, Ohio, who’d published two novels at that point, and he was the lone English professor at our little college with no Ph.D. A real writer in short.
Kern was also a genuine adult male of the sort you don’t see much nowadays. He’d been in the Army Air Force in World War II, had worked for a labor union, and had seen something of the world. He had a way with a cigarette that would have impressed Humphrey Bogart and a wise-guy’s grin. Later that year at a moment of great tension, as I waited to defend my senior thesis before a panel of three profs, Kern entered the room and paused to give my ample right sideburn – remember, it was 1968 – a tug, a gesture that put the proceedings in perspective and me at ease.
In the fiction class, Kern’s primary motive seemed to be “First, do no harm.” We read our stories aloud in class and followed up with rather genteel discussions, Kern raising pointed but unhurtful questions. One of my stories called “The Happy Couple” was autobiographical, focusing on a thinly disguised bad relationship I had with my girlfriend of the time. Kern zeroed in on the fictional girl’s name – Mare, short for Mary. “You’re right,” he said. “from the protagonist’s point of view [gulp, that would be me], she is not a human being. She is a mare.” Lesson #1: the subconscious works in truthful ways.
Another memory: a kid from Brooklyn wrote a story in which a stickball game occurs and a player blasts a ball “four sewers down the block.” Kern was taken with that phrase, raving about its vibrancy and unusual way of describing a commonplace event. Since then, I’ve heard that stickball “four sewers” thing many more times. Four sewers, I’ve learned, is the standard for a home run in stickball, and the great Willie Mays was renowned as a four-sewers man when he played stickball. Lesson #2: literary originality is overrated.
The other story of mine that I can remember from that year involves a prissy professor riding an airplane during a thunderstorm. Autobiography again, but the epiphany is fictional all the way. The prof spots a little kid shouting in glee as the plane bounces and feels slightly better – my attempt at writing an upbeat Saturrday Evening Post-type story. Kern did not find the prof’s transition convincing. Lesson #3: don’t write for the commercial masses; write what will please yourself.
So I did get some enduring truths out of this course, but the biggest came at the end when Kern called me into his office. He had a question for me.
”How serious are you about this writing business?” he said. “You’re older; you’e a more sophisticated reader and writer than everybody else in this class.[Back story: because of my hangups about writing, I'd delayed the English major's required "writing" course till senior year.] You can write. It all depends on you.”
Al Kern was right. It turns out that I do have the writing bug, what Kaze calls Gottawrite Syndrome, but a relatively mild case. It was 20 years before I tried to write another story. Instead there was a half-finished dissertation and a lot of magazine articles. Writing, of a sort. Maybe some people practice for fiction by writing nonfiction. Mark Twain certainly did. At least that’s what I tell myself as I ponder sitting down to attempt my next story. It all depends on me.
Postscript: Alfred Kern, who died in 2009, lived most of his life pre-Internet. Consequently, I could find no photo of Professor Kern online and there’s none in the original version. After reading this post, however, his daughter, Sheri Kern, sent me a couple of snapshots of him.. Here’s the Al Kern I knew. Thanks so much, Sheri.