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Death of a Mentor
May 1, 2008 - 4:22pm


Only yesterday did I hear of the death, last September, of Professor Emeritus James J. McNiece, Jr., of Northern Illinois University.

Jim McNiece was my first creative writing teacher, but oddly enough I can’t remember how many classes I took with him—certainly two, maybe three. Was there an independent study? I obviously took whatever he had to give; he once bemusedly told the class that when he walked down the hall in the department, I kept popping out from behind corners to ask him even more questions. (He retired a few years after; I hope I wasn’t the last straw.)

By the time I knew him, Jim had white hair and the flinty look of an aging Irish writer. He’d obviously been at it a long while, and while he was always soft-spoken, he could be snappish. I wondered aloud once if Hemingway’s style had been formed in part by his work in journalism, and Jim said, “Most certainly not! Don’t be ridiculous.” He was small and slumped behind a table at the front of the room, but he had a strong presence and suffered no fools. After a campus (and classroom) visit by novelist Larry Heinemann, still radiating pleasure from his 1987 National Book Award, Jim scoffed at his “self-indulgent prattling” about the plot of his next book, which he’d only just begun, when he was supposed to be doing a reading.

Jim represents for me the last generation of American writers before academic bureaucracy really took hold. If I remember correctly, he had an MA from Iowa (I’m not sure it was from the writing workshop) and to my knowledge he never published a book. Indeed, he didn’t seem to care about recognition at all. He was generous enough to be first and foremost our teacher, focusing on literature and our work, not on his own reputation. He likely wouldn’t be hired today.

Since he disdained the thrashings of professionalization, and since much of his work was written before I came along, I never knew he’d placed 40 stories in a wide variety of journals, or that he’d been chosen for the “Best American” series three times, going back to 1964, or that he had received state arts grants regularly. After I graduated I found one of his stories in a tiny lit mag in a used bookstore and was stupidly astounded at how good it was. All this was done before the Internet, and he has no digital presence.

I got at least three important gifts from Jim McNiece: The first was his writer’s close reading of Hemingway, done line-by-line over an entire semester, which taught me things about writing that scholars never had. The second was having his deep focus applied to my own writing.

The third gift came as I was about to finish my degree. He and I were sitting in his office in Reavis Hall among stacks of stories and books. Faint strains from the marching band came in a high window. It was May, and school was over—forever, as far as I knew—and I was worried about employment and other things. He finished critiquing my last story, which he thought was good but not good enough, then looked up and said, “Writing will be your life’s work.” He wasn’t talking about publishing or career. He meant taking seriously something so worthwhile that one paid tribute with one’s life. Then he added with a grin, “But don’t starve to death doing it.”

The teacher-student relationship is largely one-sided: Teachers give; students take. The next time I spoke to him was to ask for a recommendation letter for grad school. Then when I was about to finish the MFA I wrote to thank him again and let him know I hadn’t wasted the opportunity. He’d been writing plays, which was a surprise to me, and we again fell out of touch. I’ve thought of him often, intended to drop him a line or even pay a visit one day but didn’t know if he really wanted the attention. I always like to hear from former students, so I guess he would have too, if only out of writerly curiosity.

There’s no knowing who will get what from a teacher, or how students will react to or remember you over time, or which students will make it or what that even means. Like everybody else, I’ve had brilliant cold students and loveable thuds (yes, thuds) and any manner of people in-between, and they all turn out in the most surprising ways. That's why I rarely do this--also because it's a benevolent condemnation--but once or twice I’ve looked up at a student desperate for some word, and in a calm, low voice I've reminded her not to starve. And Jim McNiece felt very close.


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