As many of you know, both my parents died last year, my father in November and my mother in December. Everyone who’s been through any form of grief knows what a strange animal it can be. One of the things I’ve found myself reflecting on is the importance of examples and mentors in our lives, not just our families, but the people in the larger communities who, for no obvious reason, supported us in ways that might not even be obvious until decades later.
One of my important mentors in writing only entered my consciousness when I became the World’s Oldest MFA Student™ at the University of New Hampshire. It wasn’t until much later I realized the impact he’d had on my writing. I wrote this on the occasion of his death in October of 1990.
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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
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
on one of her hands
You must let that strange hand
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 imagery back on its head, reads “I have wasted my life.” It was fear of failure that kept me from writing about Tom for a long time. 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.