I’ve always been interested in how we know where to go before we know why.
It felt accidental some years ago that, at a time in my life when I was suddenly free to make choices based only on my own interests, I had a message on my machine from my former boss in Army diving. Frenchy and I had lost touch for a while, in part because I had never wanted to put him in a position to have to choose between friendship and the job. (Once, after retrieving one of his young charges who’d been arrested in Newport News, Frenchy accidentally turned down a dead-end street. “I thought he was gonna kick my ass, man!” the soldier, a friend of mine, laughed. He wasn’t laughing at the time. Frenchy was a First Sergeant first, friendly older-brother figure second.)
Frenchy had served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter crew chief, and I was born in Saigon, and as the centerpiece of our post-Army friendship we planned to return together. It took a while to save the money, which I didn’t have, and to get visas in that time before rapprochement. Frenchy, after all, was still active-duty U.S. military. But it was worth it. I’d been writing in a dead-end corporate job; after we got back I wrote a book-length travel narrative and decided to apply to Master of Fine Arts programs. But which one?
The decision process became a quagmire. Who taught where? And who were those other people I’d never heard of? Time was short, and I didn’t know how many of their books I could possibly skim. Besides, who ever said good writers were necessarily good teachers? There was also the issue of money, doled out in varying amounts by programs with wildly varying tuitions and living costs.
I was using bookstores to do my research on MFA programs and my reading on Vietnam, and it seems now like another accident that I found in the intersection of the two subjects a book called Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew. The photos were by Geoffrey Clifford, a helicopter pilot during the war, whose credits included National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, and the text by John Balaban, who had written poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and was then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. As I read what I could find of Balaban’s work in my suburban library and chain bookstores, my interest grew.
He’d gone to Vietnam during the war with International Voluntary Services and taught linguistics at Can Tho University, where he was wounded by shrapnel from an American cluster bomb during the Tet Offensive. After recovering he became a field representative in Vietnam for the Boston-based Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children, sending Vietnamese children to the States for medical treatment, then getting them home when there was a home to return to. He became, as he writes, “an expert in Vietnamese misery.” After being released from alternative service, Balaban went home and taught at Penn State. But he returned to Vietnam in 1970 on an NEH grant, with his young wife, to walk the paddies and villages and record oral folk poetry called ca dao, which few in the West knew existed. Since then, he’d published nine books and been a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry.
I applied to and was accepted at Miami but was not automatically offered a fellowship. (I later saw my application file with its judgments on my writing sample, by a professor who thought I was trying to be Nabokov, or Miller, or Somebody. This was probably a fair condemnation. I was reading voraciously and might have been under anyone’s influence. Later still the same prof told everyone in class that maybe I had read too much ever to be a good writer.)
The teaching fellowship had been endowed by James Michener, who used Miami’s facilities while writing Caribbean, and there was a tuition remission that went with it. Without both, I couldn’t go. I couldn’t have afforded a state school then, let alone a private one, and I wasn’t about to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an MFA degree. Being a hardhead, I got on a plane and went to meet John Balaban. Mrs. Churm, who was then Miss Wallace, went with me.
Balaban’s secretary, Mary, showed me to his office. He wasn’t in it, and I did what I always do in other people’s offices and homes, look at their book titles. The office was dark and warm, and I began to sweat and then to feel ill. Balaban strode in, looking a little like Rodin’s Balzac, if Balzac had been less plump and suffered from migraines. I introduced myself and could tell I was a distraction from administrative duties, which were themselves distractions from the real work, but he was polite and soft-spoken and showed an interest in where I was coming from. I lied and said I intended to come to Miami whether I got funding or not. I also didn’t tell him I’d been recently rejected by a neighboring MFA program, whose faculty specialized in writing mystery novels.
Finally we got around to how I’d come to be born in Vietnam, and I showed him something I’d brought just for this interview—my birth announcement, which my mom had had printed, in Saigon, in English, French, Vietnamese, and Chinese. He gave that small quizzical smile I would see often, which distracts from his eyes growing sharper. He muttered a little over the Vietnamese, and I told him I’d visited the year before. He asked where and said he was returning in a few months. We talked a little more, then suddenly he said, “How about the fellowship?”
I said I’d like one.
“It’s yours then,” he said. “Mary will help you get the paperwork started.”
It was what I’d come for, but I was still surprised, since I wasn’t used to sudden kindnesses. “Most people wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire,” Frenchy said once in a bad mood, and I’ve found that to be true in writing. There are so many good struggling writers and so many cross-currents of ego that it’s hard to get going. Most of us probably start with less apparent promise than the few. Dave Eggers told us recently that his undergraduate writing teacher and peers didn’t know what to make of him. “Nobody wanted to read that all that cancer stuff,” he said. Of course, the raw, painful cancer stuff, once shaped, became A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
I was lightheaded from humidity and glee as I walked over to the Rathskeller, where the future Mrs. Churm was having a beer on the patio and watching scrawny tropical squirrels claw up and down the palms. She looked up as I approached, and I said, “Want to move to Miami?”