I’ll Take That As A Win

I believe most of you have heard the story about my not being allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964. That’s old news. When I finally did turn my hand to writing fiction, I wrote mysteries because that was what I had always loved to read. (That bit of advice is one Creative Writing professors might consider inserting into their lesson plan. Right along with their edict to “Write what you know,” they should also mention “Write what you love.” But I digress.)

I started out by writing nine mysteries in a row featuring J.P. Beaumont. That many books in, I was tired of him and ready to knock him off. That’s when my editor suggested I write something else, perhaps by revisiting my first novel, a never published, 1400-page tome called By Reason of Insanity. That was written as barely fictionalized true crime. (By the way, true crime is another form of genre fiction.) When I tackled the rewrite, I ran head-first into a creative stone wall when I realized that by redoing the book as originally written, I might inadvertently bring myself to the unwelcome attention of a serial killer who was then and still is serving a life without parole sentence with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Now I had a looming deadline for a book with no bad guy, a situation that resulted in a serious case of writer’s block. During that struggle I happened to visit the U of A campus. While walking through the Modern Languages building, I spotted a bulletin board displaying the covers of books written by alumni who had earned their degrees in English at the University of Arizona. Shortly thereafter, back home in Seattle, my Arizona Alumni magazine showed up in the mail. Near the back of that issue, just before the obituaries, was a boxed article saying that the newly reconstituted Creative Writing program at the U of A was going swimmingly. At that point, I turned to Bill and said, “I have all these published books. Maybe they’d like me to come to Tucson and be writer in residence for a semester in the sun.” “Call them up and ask them,” he told me. So I did.

The resulting conversation is indelibly etched in my memory. After explaining to the department head who I was and what I wanted, his reply was pointed and brief. “Oh,” he said, “we don’t do ANYTHING with genre fiction here. We only do LITERARY fiction.” (Emphasis is definitely his!). That’s when one of my all-time favorite writing miracles happened. Within a matter of hours of that conversation, the missing villain in what eventually would become Hour of the Hunter turned out to be a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. (In case you’re interested, that’s what’s commonly referred to as writerly revenge!)

Back in 1964 my not being allowed in the Creative Writing program seemed like a gross injustice, but I’ve since come to thank my lucky stars for that piece of discrimination. Had I been allowed in a class where only literary fiction had been considered acceptable, I probably would have failed the class, and I might very well have abandoned my dream of becoming a writer. As it is, I’m perfectly happy to be writing “genre fiction”—am now and always have been!

Over the years, I hoped the U of A might have changed directions as far as genre fiction was concerned, but in 2013, I learned from a disgruntled student that wasn’t the case. She had enrolled in the program intent on writing Sci-Fi. Left with literary fiction as her only option, she ended up dropping out. I was utterly incensed.

The last piece of literary fiction I set out to read, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, was published in 1989. Believe me, the author, a graduate of the much vaunted Iowa Writers Workshop, was serious when it came to telling ALL! When I reached the part of the book where a new bride spent thirty pages boiling a pot of water, I threw in the towel. I put the book down and never finished reading it—the first time in my life that ever happened.

Feeling for that disrespected would-be Sci-Fi writer, I decided to do something about bringing the world of genre fiction writing to the University of Arizona. With the help of the University of Arizona Library’s Special Collections, I offered to do a two week genre writing workshop during the summer of 2014. I wasn’t exactly writer in residence at the time, and I taught the workshop for free, but it was June, and believe me, there was plenty of sunshine!

Fourteen or so wannabe writers showed up for the program–two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. It consisted of lectures during which I tried to share as much as I could from decades of writing experience. I explained how I developed characters and story lines. I talked about the importance of including telling details. I told them there were two kinds of writers—outliners and non-outliners—and that both ways of getting the job done were equally acceptable. I talked about the importance of making writing accessible to ordinary readers. If individual paragraphs took up twenty or so lines of type, what was written was likely to come across as a treatise rather than a story. And if pieces of dialogue ran longer than three or four lines, they would sound more like someone delivering a speech rather than carrying on a conversation.

Over the course of that two week period, I encouraged each of them to write a short piece of fiction. The resulting papers were subsequently published in a small anthology by Special Collections. The most memorable piece of the bunch was one that took place in a grim post-World War I hospital ward. What I recalled most about it was the sense of the sense of place and hopelessness. The action occurred on a hot, miserable day in the dead of summer. Without consulting the actual text, I believed the locale to be either St. Louis, Missouri, or New Orleans, Louisiana. I learned today that it was actually set in Beaumont, Texas. How I managed to forget that very important location, I have no idea!

Yesterday, though, after I came in from getting my steps, the mail had arrived bringing with it an envelope addressed to me. The return address was to Ingrams, a national book distributor. Inside, I was delighted to find a book called Changing Woman, the first published novel by Venetia Hobson Lewis. She was one of the attendees at my genre-fiction U of A workshop. She was also the author of the one piece of storytelling that has remained in my memory ever since—the haunting one set in that awful hospital ward.

In the years between then and now, she’s continued on the lonely path of becoming a writer and has published numerous short stories. Changing Woman is historical fiction (That’s another genre, by the way, right along with mysteries!) telling the story of the Camp Grant Massacre through a woman’s point of view. The massacre itself took place in the southeastern corner of Arizona, maybe a 125 miles from where I grew up in Bisbee during an era when the realities of what it meant to “win the West” were mostly left on the cutting room floor.

Changing Woman is the kind of work I can envision being created by my fictional writer, Diana Ladd. In my mind’s eye, she writes books about the American Southwest that are more her-story versions of history than they are his-story.

Here’s to Venetia. Congratulations on never giving up. Congratulations on keeping on writing in spite of all the people who probably told you it would never work and wasn’t worth the effort. I know exactly how you felt when you finally held that physical book in your hands for the first time—a book with a cover that held pages filled with the words only you put there.

If being involved in my two-week workshop was part of what helped encourage Venetia to stay the course, I’m honored. And I have to say, one success out of fourteen students isn’t bad odds.

I’ll take that as a win!