Thanking the Mentors

I’m riding the crest of feeling very supported lately by excellent blurbs from good friends and fellow authors (see the kind words here) as I get ready to launch In Solo Time, the prequel to Solo Act, and thinking about Bruce’s words of gratitude. I’ve also been considering the great influence of mentors in my writing life and what I owe them. I hope that when I have an opportunity to help someone up, I will be as generous and gracious as others have been to me. Here, the small tale of one of my great mentors:

Why I Tell the Truth

I didn’t meet Tom Williams the first time I was supposed to. In September of 1989, I entered the writing program at the University of New Hampshire, a thirty-eight year old graduate student with one published short story to my credit. The summer before I went to Durham, I read The Moon Pinnace, the only one of his novels in the library.

It didn’t move me, but I suspect it was more my failure than the novel’s. A month before classes began, a note from the English Department chair advised me that Mr. Williams wouldn’t teach that semester. This was the summer, I later learned, he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that killed him.

When I met him finally, it was February, his final semester of teaching. He limped into our group’s first meeting in the attic room in Hamilton Smith Hall, in the deep heart of a New Hampshire winter. I expected to hear that he’d fallen on the ice. He explained, not without smirking at the melodrama, that he’d broken three ribs coughing.

Tom’s most compelling quality was his honesty. It was central to his concept of himself and thus to the face he turned to the world. He did not fear saying uncomfortable things and that made him difficult for some people to be with, though I never knew him to be unkind.

That honesty might have given him disciples, except he maintained a distance between what he expected of himself and what he expected of you. He was honest about the costs of honesty, and did not disapprove if you couldn’t pay them. The few times I saw anyone emulate him, he seemed embarrassed.

The gift of his teaching was the ability to locate the heart of an unsuccessful story, the germ that even the writer had not recognized, and lay it bare. One student writer submitted a story about a white man eating Thanksgiving dinner in a black neighborhood restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, complete with waitress speaking homilies in urban dialect. Tom calmed those of us who mistook the story for its writer’s politics, then showed us that the story’s core was the connection between the waitress and the man, the writer’s only fault in obscuring that connection. No story was a cliché unless it was badly told.

Knowing Tom was a hunter and a fisherman, I brought him an essay I’d written about hunting for a local magazine. It was slight, but one of the first pieces I’d published, and I thought I’d captured my ambivalence about killing for food or sport. One day, I found it in my wooden mailbox in Hamilton Smith with a note attached, as if he had not wanted to mar my copy with writing of his own. “Very nicely done,” he wrote in pencil. “Not that any words of explanation will penetrate the holy sanctimony of the Friends of Animals.” I’ve thought of framing that note, but somehow it feels inappropriate, a little dishonest.

I knew he’d gone back into the hospital in October, but I was unprepared to hear he’d died. On that rainy leaf-blown day, I pulled a slip of paper out of my mailbox expecting a meeting notice. A secretary in the English Department had photocopied the news of his death three times on a piece of paper, then ripped each sheet into thirds. As an economical man, I think Tom would have approved.

A memorial service in the UNH Alumni House attracted well-known writers – John Irving, Andre Dubus, Ernie Hebert – but two speakers moved me more than any of the stars. Tom’s son Peter read a poem his father had published in Esquire:

The giraffe is disappearing

    from the world

without a word

Who are we to say its legs

    are mismatched

and look as if they are on backwards

How it runs graceful as a rocking chair

escaping in a dream

Think of a lovely girl who has

    six fingers

on one of her hands

You must let that strange hand

Touch you

Because Tom generally spoke seriously, I did not think of him as having a light side. That he was capable of such a delicate line delighted me.

Later, a lifelong friend spoke of encountering Tom on a river in northern New Hampshire. Tom was sitting on a rock, smoking a cigarette, and when the friend asked how he’d done, he said he’d caught his limit. Seeing only nine trout laid on the wet river grass, the friend questioned his arithmetic, until Tom opened one of the gutted trout to show a tiny one inside. To have spent time with him and not known him capable of silliness made his loss even worse.

One of my favorite poems is James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. The last line, turning all the beautiful imagery back on its head, reads “I have wasted my life.” It was fear of failure that kept me from writing about Tom for so many years. I feared not being able to say honestly what his teaching meant to me.

What made it possible was remembering a comment he once made about why he wrote fiction: “Nobody is going to listen to what I say anyway, so I might as well try to tell the truth.” This is the lesson I learned from him, that the attempt to be honest, more than its success or failure, makes the difference. He speaks it over my shoulder every day.

I invite you to think of your mentors, past and present, and offer a bit of thanks.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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13 Responses to Thanking the Mentors

  1. Amber Foxx says:

    You have done your mentor justice. Thank you for sharing him with us. I’ve read many great posts on this blog. This stands out as one of the best.

  2. John R. Clark says:

    An excellent look at an influential person. We all get better through giving our experience. That was one of the best things about my library career. I was overwhelmed with generosity as I began and even though retired, I continue to give back what I got from those wise souls.

  3. C.T. Collier says:

    I was moved by this tribute, Richard. I’ll hang onto the search for the heart of the story and the commitment to honesty. –kate

  4. Barb Ross says:

    What a lovely tribute.

  5. This is a beautiful remembrance, so well told, Dick. Your point is well taken.

  6. Wonderful writing, Dick. We should all remember our mentors.

  7. sandy gardner says:

    Re: mentors:
    I am so grateful to Hank Phillippi Ryan and Kate Flora at the New England Crime Bake conferences.
    Their help, their suggestions, their wisdom has been invaluable.
    Sandy Gardner

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