Diary: Padgett Powell, Eff the Classics (Part One)

In 1975, as a lost graduate student in chemistry living on the Confederate-haunted hilltop of Knoxville, Tennessee, in a $75-per-month one-room apartment in what was essentially a welfare hotel, with a Vietnam veteran next door who was convinced a dead Black man was entering his apartment and urinating on the floor when he, the veteran, was out, and with another graduate student across the hall who was pursuing a degree in history and who said she would not use the skills that degree might confer upon her to find her birth parents lest they prove to be low-class, I neglected my remedial reading of the deans of organic chemistry Morrison and Boyd, and went instead to the UT library and checked out the entire oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, or what of it they had on that shelf, which was a shoulder-width span of books I managed to carry to the check-out desk somewhat as if I were carrying a heavy accordion, and there was met with no resistance to my checking out the entire Williams holding in the library. I felt good in spite of this act’s being tantamount to aggrandizing my remedial status in the graduate program I was in to a status more properly called one of imminent failure. Nightly I eschewed reading Morrison and Boyd and learning the chemistry I had not learned as an undergraduate, and I read the Tennessee Williams. The Veteran would interrupt these studies by coming home and screaming, “Every time I fucking leave, dead fucking ——— pisses on the goddamn floor!” and knocking on my door to ask me, “Have you been in my house?” It is fair to say this was an accusatory question. The first time, I said, “Your house?” before I realized it was possibly not the best time to tell him it was not a house but a slatternly apartment just like mine. I smartened up a hair and said, “Don’t get down on me, man. I can help you catch the fucker. Show me what you’re talking about.” He escorted me into his room and showed me what looked like water under his open window. I was adducing the prudence of suggesting it might be rain blown in when he asked me if the radio bothered me. “What radio?” “I’ll turn it fucking off then,” he said, leaving the floor about four feet from the bed and landing on it on his knees and turning the off-on knob of a silent radio with what should have been sufficient force to remove the knob.

I was more afraid of the Orphan who was afraid her parents might be beneath her were she to discover them. This was a redheaded woman who told me this on her bed with her arm over her eyes like Theda Bara or like, precisely, Blanche Dubois. I say Theda Bara without actually being certain I have ever seen Theda Bara do anything, but the name fits the gesture. I could not have imagined not joining a woman doing this on her bed until the moment I did not join the woman on her bed doing this. My imagination was expanding. Back in my room with my Williams I started seeing undeft lines, silly juvenilia, sappy poetry, late unbalanced plays—writing that a mortal could do. I could not add nitrile groups to an alcohol, I could not even make the alcohol, but I could write, I felt, some of this stuff Tennessee Williams as a boy or as a crazy adult wrote. I could do that, I’d say. The Veteran would bang on the door and I’d answer it with the filet knife I’d been slicing tomatoes with and tell him to back off so I could help him, and then I’d sit down and read A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot and say—of “your main beauty problem is not blackheads. It’s large pores, honey”—I could do that. I could not make acetyl alcohol or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but I could write large pores. This was a limited, creeping confidence, fraught with presumption—the Veteran could no doubt have eviscerated me with my own knife. The early historian on her bed afraid of her parents would have repelled me. Taking a cue from her, I proposed in fact that we have a no-bio relationship, and she said—possibly removing her arm from her eyes—“That’s too weird.” I thought that too weird and left. I have said all this as an introduction to something I want to say about writing. Neither the Veteran nor the Orphan would bloviate as I have, and you might be better off in their hands, narratively speaking.

Writing is letting readers know they is in good hands. It is no longer necessary in American English, I notice on a daily basis, to have subject and verb agree in number. The matter hiding behind the large introduction is small and possibly very obvious: when you read to steal, it behooves to read flawed work. The classics will bust you down. It is not a bad idea to have an idea of form, even of elegant perfection, but it is also necessary to have an idea of what might be possible for you. Miss O’Connor put it well, and in the spirit of this thing I will quote her long; the passage is valuable whole:
I am becoming convinced that anybody who gives anybody else advice ought to spend forty days in the desert both before and after. Anyway, when I told you to write what was easy for you, what I should have said was what was possible for you. Now none of it is easy, none of it really comes easy except in a few rare cases on a few rare occasions. In my whole time of writing the only parts that have come easy for me were Enoch Emery and Hulga …

This subterranean scheme for learning to write, which I suspect is known to many if not all good writers, is reading writing that is not that good. Let us, that is, avoid the models that are inimitable. If we pick up Absalom, Absalom! with an eye to grabbing onto what Miss O'Connor called the Dixie Limited, we can forget it. But if we pick up, say, The Wild Palms—well, maybe. If you’ll read you some late Hemingway you can see what all the fuss was about, and take up what he was doing, to the extent everyone born after 1930 in America was once trying to take up what he was doing except Cormac McCarthy, who took up Faulkner. Hemingway when he was writing about the FBI being after him for Mann Act transgressions, agents stalking him in bars in Idaho—you can do this! Islands in the Stream you can do. The Sun Also Rises you cannot. Expanding, if you’ll read some books that do not fall in the classics canon, you can get some footing.

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I was a schoolmarm teaching That Which Cannot Be Taught for 3.4 decades. It went well until it didn’t. Right at the end, as I was sensing that the teaching of writing, which was hard enough when aesthetic correctness had been the point, was to now be caught up in the undertow of a tsunami of politicalicity (a term offered me by a graduate student who understood the situation, and to whom I owe $20 for it)—right then in the last course I taught, I tried to put into pedagogical empirical form this thesis of mine that strange or bent books might do more as inspirations than the perfect.
(Read Part Two of this post here)

Padgett Powell is the author of six novels and three books of short stories, most recently Cries for Help, Various. A new volume of his essays, Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between, will appear this fall. He has written on William TrevorPeter Taylor, and Charles Willeford for Book Post.

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Image: Heritage Auctions. Group of seven New Directions books by Tennessee Williams