Since I learned of Robert Stone's death, the word confluence keeps rising to the surface of my mind, like a worry bead it is there when I wake, when I'm boiling the water for coffee, when I'm walking from bird feeder to bird feeder, filling them with seed--confluence, confluence, confluence, the crazy-making mind-worm finally forcing me to the page where I can lay it down, see its contours, its context.
Confluence, a coming together, a place of intersection, the time and place when my life came to a juncture.
There was the decision on the part of someone at Sewanee to assign me to work with Robert Stone even though I'd asked to work with Tim O'Brien. It probably wasn't someone who knew better than I; it was random, I'm certain. Yet to have Bob Stone look closely at my writing and to come to know him--that felt anything but random. It seemed in the stars. My life changed because of some decision in some office in some place.
When we met, I was thirty-eight and he was fifty-two. It was deep summer in the deep South. Now I think--we were so young.
I write this in gratitude and in remembrance of Robert Stone.
I'd flown from Houston into Nashville and then rode a bus from the airport to the campus of University of the South. At the airport there'd been a tall, lanky guy wearing cowboy boots and a starched white cowboy shirt who'd come up to me, introduced himself, shook my hand and asked me in the biggest drawl I'd heard in a long while if I was going to the writer's retreat. When I said yes, he grabbed my bag and took off. I followed him to the bus. He sat behind me and talked for the entire hour as I craned my neck to listen. He was a Vietnam vet; he came specifically to work with Tim O'Brien; he had PTSD. Tim's book,The Things They Carried, had just come out. I panicked, thinking that the entire conference would consist of vets who were making a pilgrimage to work with Tim O'Brien. I thought my stories would pale in comparison.
The first morning at Sewanee, I walked through the coils of gray mist that floated knee-high, covering the tops of the headstones in the old cemetery that I'd passed on my way from my dorm room to the cafeteria where the list of who we were assigned to work with was taped to the wall. My name. Robert Stone's name.
In the cemetery were the graves of Civil War soldiers and past presidents of the university. This campus seemed full of ghosts, a perfect place to meet a man so haunted, a man who slept with a chair leaned into his door, the rungs up against the door knob. He had demons. He was often scared.
I didn't know this about him yet.
I had demons. I was often scared.
Months before I'd sent in the requisite twenty-five pages for the twelve-day summer conference. Those twenty-five pages were the extent of what I had to show for myself as a "creative writer." In the preceding eight years, I'd been writing literary criticism for my Ph.D., the last three of those years had been spent writing a dissertation on Lillian Hellman's memoirs. For my prelims, I'd specialized in the literature of the South, Faulkner primarily, but I'd read all of the works of Katherine Anne Porter, Andrew Lytle, Peter Taylor, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy. William Styron.
I'd been full to bursting with southern rhythms and cadences, stories where the past was, as Faulkner said, never really past.
While finishing my dissertation, I was also in psychoanalysis.
After earning the doctorate, I'd decided to apply for psychoanalytic training and was accepted.
I was thrilled and then I wasn't.
The whole damn experience was problematic; the atmosphere was toxic. Too many shrinks, too little compassion and too much competition.
After a year of hearing the fascinating "cases," the stories of patients, people who we practiced on, who we diagnosed out loud in a windowless room to hone our diagnostic skills.
I hated thinking in that way--simplifying their complexity into diagnoses.
In response, I began to write about my family, short stories thinly disguised as fiction.
I was on the cusp of quitting the Institute when I met Richard Howard--poet, translator, "genius,"--in a dog park. He had a pug named Maud. I had an Airedale named Rosie. What a confluence! (that's a whole blog post--Caddy meets Henry James).
He told me rollicking stories of his time with Lillian Hellman at a guesthouse in the Hamptons. But he had no interest at all in my dissertation, which I'd hoped he'd help me get published. I was still not sure what I should "be," but I had put in a lot of time preparing to be a scholar, a professor of literature.
During the first dinner with Richard, I told him stories about my wild and crazy Louisiana family. At some point, he laid down his knife and his fork rather forcefully and asked me, "What else have you written?"
Richard Howard is a formidible man, his credentials so impressive that when I'd gone into an independent bookstore in Houston and asked for one of his books, the bookstore owner had said--there is his shelf.
Richard Howard had a shelf in the bookstore!
This was what was in my mind when he bore down on me, interrogating me about what I'd written besides a dissertation. I was scared of him. Intimidated is a better word.
"No, no," I said, "I don't 'write' like THAT." I meant like REAL writers. Like him. Like Faulkner. Or Tim O'Brien. Or Katherine Anne Porter.
"Oh you have written," he said. Then he commanded--"I MUST see what you have written."
He was right. I'd written just about twenty-five pages of what I was calling fiction.
He was teaching in the graduate program in creative writing at UH and lived in a rental house in Montrose, a few blocks from me. I delivered my pages to him a few days after our dinner, and he'd called within a day and left a message. On the recording, he'd said--"Hmmmm, my dear, of course you are a writer." But he said it as if he was delivering very bad news. He said these pages were the beginning of a novel, and that I had a long, long, long road ahead of me, which he would help me travel, but that it would be very, very difficult.
After listening to his message--after dancing around the living room in such a wild manner that I did something horrible to my neck that required weeks of physical therapy--I called him and made an appointment to meet and talk about "the work."
When I got to his house, I realized he was going to read my pages while I sat before him, waiting (for the verdict?). Right in the foyer--where piles of mail was stacked on a table-- he sat with the batch of pages. He would read one page, slap it down on the table and take up another, his mouth wide open as if he were a child concentrating on something quite difficult.
"VEEERRRRYY good," he would say in a gravelly voice about every three pages. He wore large red spectacles, a magnifying loop hung round his neck, his shirt was red striped and his socks were striped, multicolored. He was a bright bald flamboyant bird.
In the twenty-five pages,he found and underlined five lines that he wanted GONE.
I was stubborn then. I'd just begun this ordeal. I'm embarrassed to admit how stubborn and foolish I was! In those early days, each line seemed a precious beam of a house I was constructing. I thought the whole structure would cave in around me if I took one line away.
I submitted these pages to Sewanee--the five lines still in there--along with Richard's letter of recommendation.
I'd just read The Things They Carried and wanted to work with Tim.
Oh how fortunate I was to have been assigned instead to Robert Stone!
I was to be up first for the workshop--I'd never been workshopped-- so Robert Stone and I met right away. He perched on a rock, and rather formally--and I later learned some of the formality was because of his shyness-- told me that he admired the work a great deal. He didn't sound enthusiastic; he simply seemed to like the work. He looked down at the ground as he spoke to me. He said things about humor, about despair, about honesty and being fully human. I just scratched down words, scribbling on a legal pad, trying to match these words to mine.
He had underlined the exact same sentences that Richard had declared must go.
I told him this and he stroked his beard, looked down at the ground and smiled slightly, almost to himself.
Maybe he had on sunglasses. I don't remember, but I do remember that he never looked directly at me but spoke to my pages, or to the ground, or toward the horizon.
Robert Stone looked as if he had just come off of an African safari byway of Key West-he resembled Ernest Hemingway so much it was startling. But his manner of speaking was so Bostonian, so upper-crust that it was hard for me to fathom he'd been born in New York under pretty horrendous and poor circumstances. He seemed born and bred a gentleman. He was a soft-spoken man who absolutely had no airs about him.
Bob had told the people in our workshop to pick up the stories to be workshopped the next day from a table outside the cafeteria. These sort of hum-drum bureaucratic details were the kind of thing that threw him. I know now that most of his mind was on the finishing of his book Outerbridge Reach and after the first days at Sewanee his mind wandered completely away from the day-to-day of the conference, and he declared himself a terrible failure at running a smooth ship of the workshop. He wanted to swim, to walk up to the memorial statue in the hills, to go to Nashville, or to the casinos. He was ravenously curious about the area, and wasn't easily reined in by Wyatt Prunty, who was overseeing the conference and had EXPECTATIONS. I must say Prunty had his hands full with that first group. Tim sort of dropped out after the first two days--his marriage was at a perilous place and his head and heart weren't in the conference--the young woman playwright was recently out of Bellevue--Ellen Douglas was put out with the lot of them. Tina Howe managed to work hard yet flow ethereally through our midst.
My pages were stacked outside the cafeteria. I also didn't follow rules or directions very well. I'd given Bob twenty-five pages instead of what the guidelines had been--8 pages. I did not do this on purpose. I honest-to-god don't know how it came about that all of my pages were out there, but I wasn't so naive or so unassuming not to be glad to have 25 pages read---since I'd really only been "read" by two people so far--Richard Howard and Bob Stone. I WANTED readers, but I had not broken the rules on purpose.
As I walked up the hill--past the cemetery--to the cafeteria, I saw several people under various trees reading from white xeroxed pages. I didn't realize until I got into the cafeteria that those were my pages. I was being read all over the place, and I was completely perplexed at such a reading frenzy.
Later I learned that Bob had told several people that he had "discovered" a wonderful writer and that her pages were on the table. It wasn't that all those people were interested in my work. THEY WERE INTERESTED TO KNOW WHAT WRITING ROBERT STONE THOUGHT WAS GOOD.
Well, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven no matter what.
I set down my tray on the table where several students sat, and scooted my large picnic hamper type bag under the table. Because I'd had a good meeting with the great man Robert Stone, I was planning on a small celebration--with myself--and had brought along a bottle of scotch.
I was about to get a taste of the shark tank of writers' conferences. A woman from our workshop sat next to me. She put her hand on my arm and said--"You put too many pages out there to workshop. We shouldn't be expected to read that many pages. You have to tell Mr. Stone to make an announcement that we don't have to read that many pages."
I was perplexed about how crazed and hectoring she was about this. Throughout the dinner, she talked about the inordinate amount of pages "they" must read before the next day.
Bob, Tim, Wendy and Tina Howe entered the cafeteria and st at a table far far away from the "masses" of student writers. I could tell that there was a deep chasm and protocol seemed to declare that such a chasm should not be crossed.
Yet this woman was impossible! She grew almost apoplectic.
Finally I said, ok ok. I'm somewhat shy myself, and the thought of crossing the room full of strangers and telling Bob Stone that he had made a mistake was not on the top of my list of fun things to do. Oh yes, Now I remember. HE had made the mistake. That is what the woman told me and that turned out to be the truth.
I finished my meal but had not bussed my tray when I screwed up my courage and decided to cross the chasm and ask Bob to make an announcement that only eight pages were to be read for the next day of workshop.
I was somewhat Annie Hall-ish breathless when I stood over the ADULT table of FAMOUS writers. I had on a long flowing skirt, my huge bag over my shoulder. I stood and waited for Bob to look up at me. But it was Tim who looked up and said, "You must be Marsha."
I swear to you I thought I would faint.
I said, "There's been a terrible mistake."
Oh how they laughed later about this--There's been a terrible, terrible mistake, they repeated in a mock southern accent.
" Mr. Stone, " I said, you ran off too many pages."
Bob didn't understand what I was saying, it was such a strange moment.
Tim broke the silence when he said--Oh sit down, and he pulled out a chair. " So you are the writer Bob has been telling us about." And then he added, "I wish we had some whiskey so we could make a toast."
" I have some whiskey, " I said, and pulled out a large beautiful bottle of unopened Johnnie Walker Red.
This was the beginning of a long, long night.
What followed was hours and hours of storytelling and laughter, first in the faculty house and then outside by a bonfire. I was told to step into an ice chest of ice cubes as my hazing or as my christening or both but as a ritual entrance into the world of writers. They declared me a writer as we drank and Tim smoked and Bob was the quiet Zen-like presence presiding over it all.
The next morning was a hungover-as-hell morning. I remember drinking one cup of orange juice after another and making my way to the classroom where I was to be workshopped--I was in the clothes from the night before. I was close to being sick. I was close to being sick for hours and hours. When I got to the room it was packed--not only our group was there but twenty people from other workshops had come to hear what Robert Stone thought was good about this work.
Bob was seated at a desk and we were in chairs as if in a regular classroom. There was no circle as there had been on the first get-to-know us day. He took a sip of coffee with a shaky hand and then began to speak without really looking at anyone. I remember that he said he did not want to put my work before the group, that he wanted to talk about the work. ( I have all of this written down but it is in storage.) I kept my head down and wrote--mainly because if I raised my head the room spun, and I was scared I would puke from my hangover and my nerves. Bob spoke about my work for an hour. He said such unbelievable things that I thought perhaps I'd be struck by lightning the minute I left the building, or that I'd drown in the swimming hole, or that my plane would go down into the swamps of Tennessee. Those were the kind of thoughts I had in those days. Later I learned that those were the kind of thoughts Bob Stone had on most days. Of my work, one of the things he said was--Her stories make all of us less lonely.
That was my favorite line and what I chose to use for the blurb of my memoir that came out ten years later.
Lonely. such a word, and the perfect word to describe how I felt when I learned online at two in the morning of Bob's death.
His novels and stories have taken me to the places where loneliness seems a given; yet out of these stark and bleak visions there is the light, always the light, albeit sometimes only the palest light of a New England morning dawn. When I read "Helping," when I see Elliot bravely lifting up a a hand to wave at his wife from where he stands outside in the snow, I feel the courage of the act, feel the hope in this smallest of gestures. Then I feel less alone.
Good-bye good-bye. Mr. Stone.