Meeting Your Heroes

What happened to me when I had a chance to meet one of my writing heroes.

June 7, 2012

I cringe when I hear the word “hero.” Not when it’s used in the actual “heroic act” sense, as in someone risking their own health and well-being in order to save another, but in the “so and so is my hero” phrasing.

I especially cringe when I say it, because in my mind, the word carries too much weight, a connotation of perfection, of admirableness in all things, a standard no mortal and very few contemporary comic book superheroes can even approach.

Hulk has a pretty bad temper. Batman can be moody. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is a bit of an asshole.

And yet, there are some writers I call heroes. The recently passed Ray Bradbury was one. I read his classic short story, “All Summer in a Day” in junior high, and the simple tale of some casual school kid cruelty detonated inside my emotional core in a way that knocked me back. I’d been a reader from always, but this story felt different, somehow more meaningful. Stories were suddenly more than stories.

James Baldwin, whom I wrote on previously, was another. He authored one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking novels in the history of the English language in Giovanni’s Room, and that this story of a life and experience so different from my own could break my heart, showed me that there is far more that binds us together than separates us.

Twice in my life, I’ve had a chance to meet and speak to writer heroes, but in each case I choked. The first time was at a relatively small dinner with the writer David Foster Wallace whose work had been very important to me on two separate occasions nine years apart. While we met and exchanged pleasantries, I never had the chance or the gumption to tell him that one of his books encouraged me to start writing seriously, and that another helped me keep going when I was certain I’d had enough.

The second time was recently, when Richard Ford and I both participated as readers at the Clemson Literary Festival. I was invited because I’d worked there for six years and the organizers were many of my former students. Richard Ford was invited because he’s won the Pulitzer Prize.

I read The Sportswriter in graduate school, and it is one of those books that feels like a living example of what novels should be. I wanted to write a novel like that, and even started to do so, getting all the way to page 150 before I realized I was no Richard Ford. Since then, I’ve read everything he has to share, the rest of the Frank Bascombe trilogy (Independence Day and The Lay of the Land), his story collections, and his very recently released novel, Canada.

At the festival, he read from Canada to an overflow crowd. In any profile you read they’ll mention his penetrating blue eyes, which are indeed striking. He’s very handsome in that late-model Clint Eastwood way, tall and fit from regular squash matches. In his introductory remarks he talked about hanging out with his friends Ann Beattie and Ray Carver, which to my ears sounded like, “So Zeus and Athena and I were talking…” He told us how he’d started the book 20 years ago and kept his notes in the freezer, that it had taken that long for the story to come home to him.

I’d already had one chance to meet the man and shake his hand before the reading at a buffet and open bar reception, but there were lots of old friends to check in with and I told myself I’d have plenty of time.

The reading was mesmerizing. The first lines of the novel are, “First I’ll tell you about the robbery my parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

The folding chairs had been placed too close together leaving our legs cramped and forcing a kind of sideways straddles, but it didn’t matter because we were lost in the story. When he paused at the end, before the applause started, I wanted to shout out, “keep going.” The novel wouldn’t be released for another three weeks and I’d have to wait that long to find out what was next. Afterwards, one of my former students came up to me and we agreed that it was amazing. “How’s he do that?” he said.

“I know, right?” I replied.

The second chance to tell Richard Ford how much his work meant to me was at the post reading gathering at Nick’s Tavern, which is small and dank, but has the most amazing beer list within 500 miles and provides a kind of home to the liberal and fine artists of Clemson. Richard Ford must have been having a good time because he stayed late, talking, greeting people. I think he might’ve been drinking wine. I had plenty of people to talk to myself, but periodically I’d see him, and I’d circle a little closer, playing Io to his Jupiter. I’d rehearsed an opening line or two about the excerpt or my memory of first reading his work. But then I fell into some reminiscing with more former students, and at some point I looked around and Richard Ford was gone. I think I felt a kind of relief, actually.

Paradoxically, when I drink, I have a hard time falling asleep, so while I waited for it to  come, I thought about how I’d blown my chance to meet one of my heroes. I thought about why and how Richard Ford was a hero to me and I realized that meeting him once, briefly, wasn’t really necessary or desirable, that I had something much richer, his work, his example.

Because that’s how heroes are useful to us, as examples of what’s possible for ourselves. James Baldwin could be a hero even though he died before I’d ever read a word he’d written. I also realized that when it comes to writing, I’d already met quite a lot of heroes, I just didn’t know they were heroes at the time I’d met them. I’m thinking of people like my former professors, Philip Graham, and John Wood, and Robert Olen Butler, who have provided on-going examples of how to be a writer and a teacher both. I’m thinking of writer/activist Dave Eggers who has been a simultaneous friend and supporter, as well as an example through his own work.

I’m even thinking of this space’s namesake, now “Professor” Churm, who has persevered through some dark days without ever sacrificing those things that we agree matter. If I said he was my hero, he might deck me, but he's been an excellent example.

At this late date, with a mere greeting and a handshake, Richard Ford is not going to join that crowd, but he doesn’t need to because he is fulfilling his hero role with his books, one after another. I hope he’s working on another one.

I had one final chance to meet Richard Ford the next morning as we found ourselves at the hotel’s free breakfast at the same time. He was having a sensible meal of cereal and yogurt, while I’d gone with the malted waffle. He sat alone with the newspaper for company, as did I. He was wearing the official t-shirt of the literary festival, a purple number, which had both of our names on the back, his preceded by “Pulitzer Prize Winner.”

I thought about using my cell to take a picture, but these words will have to suffice.


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