notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Last Tuesday I had the privilege of spending an afternoon at Open City, a diner and bar in D.C., in the company of writer J.C. Hallman, author of six books of nonfiction and a collection of short stories. A few hours with this man invigorated, inspired, illuminated, pushed, and so completely impressed me, I’m still processing the event a week later. I’d like to share with you some of his writing advice, a bit of his new book, and why I walked away from our meeting feeling like a more informed, and ambitious, reader and writer.
J.C.–or Chris, as he asked me to call him–and I met last winter during a campus writing event at the university where I formerly taught. He read from his newest nonfiction title, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, and I was moved by the seemingly effortlessness of his prose, the way he wove in and out of scenes so seamlessly, and just loved his coy sense of humor. I’ll copy here a favorite passage of mine, one that he read during his campus visit and which appears at the start of the book. (In the scene, Hallman is attending a reading of much-beloved novelist James Salter with his girlfriend.)
“Sadly the event was underattended: sixty or so undergraduates and teachers spread thin through a lecture hall built for three hundred. Salter was unfazed by this. Standing there reading, he was the precise opposite of fazed: a model of calm serenity. I realized that I enjoyed Salter’s on-page and off-page presences equally well. He had had an amazing life, full of adventure and literature and amazing dinners–before the reading began, Catherine and I stopped at the vendor table and bought a copy of Life is Meals, a book of days Salter had produced with his wife, Kay–and you could see all of it on him: Mustached and dapper, he looked like a seasoned explorer holding court at an adventurer’s club. When he finished reading and the time came to answer a few questions, Salter let the initial awkward silence pass for a moment, and then pivoted theatrically on his feet to present us with a flattering three-quarter portrait of himself. He elbowed the lectern, and huffed a swaggering Dean Martin impersonation into the microphone. ‘Well–here I am.'”
I loved that. I loved that he said that, and for me that was all he needed to be. But other people actually wanted to ask questions. For a time, Salter batted away the usual student queries about influences and work habits, but then he stumbled–and this was the crucial moment of the evening–when a man off to our right stood up and posed a question into a wireless microphone, speaking in an Eastern European accent.
“What is the purpose of literature?”
“What?” Salter said. “What’s the question?”
“What is the purpose–of literature?”
Salter squinted and shook his head, stepped away from the lectern. He cupped a palm by his ear. “What? I can’t–”
The man was young, dark-haired, thin to the point of emaciation–he might have walked out of Kafka–contrasting in every way Salter’s sturdy, octogenarian vigor. There was some back-and-forth, and after the young man repeated his question two or three more times he began to grow embarrassed. Perhaps his English was not as good as he thought. But it was. Everyone in the audience understood the question, and that began to look suspicious. Might Salter’s inability to even hear the question indicate that it was a particularly penetrating question? Could he have been dodging the question, like a politician, because it was the only good question? In any event, the audience wasn’t going to let the miscommunication stand. A couple of helpful people sat up in their seats and repeated the question in raised, insistent voices, and were you to have walked into the lecture hall at just that moment, you might have thought they had an interest in the young man’s cryptic query, that they were converts to his cause.
“What is the purpose of literature?” “What is the purpose–purpose–of literature?”
To be fair, the young man’s accent was fairly thick, and Salter’s ears were probably not what they once were. As well, Salter had been going on for more than an hour by then, and what is sometimes true of reading even enjoyable books–there comes a time when you simply want them to be over–had long since become true of the event. So most people didn’t mind when Salter, having finally grasped the question, flicked it away with the back of his hand and mumbled something about his pay grade.
“You need an expert for a question like that,” he said. And of course he meant a literary critic.
I nearly leaped out of my chair at this. Which was fine, because that was what everyone else was doing, leaping out of their chairs. It was the final question Salter took, and it was time to head for the doors. But I was raging inside. An expert? James Salter, you’re the expert!
(The very day I heard Hallman read on campus, I went on Amazon and pre-ordered B & Me. After that hilarious, well-rendered, thought-provoking passage, how could you not?)
Hallman carries around a beat-up and fading messenger bag. It was bursting with stuff, and I so badly wanted to comb through its entrails and see what lay inside. I think I spotted a few hardback titles, and some Moleskine-esque journals. He did show me one item I found so fascinating: the handwritten notes for an upcoming book. He begins a new project by jotting down ideas onto a piece of white printer paper. In some areas there might be lists or names; in others, a web begins to form, and some words are circled while others are linked with lines and arrows. When that piece is filled another is taped alongside and the web-arrow-line-list is continued again and again. From end to end, the map for his new book was at least twenty feet long. It reminded me a little of Jack Kerouac’s miles-long teletype madness for his composing of On the Road.
A lot of writers, I think, dread the question, “What are you working on?” So when Hallman asked me this, I froze. Honestly, I’m ashamed to admit: I’m not really working on anything. I have a lot of ideas about things I’m thinking of writing…one day…eventually…but I haven’t sat down and knocked out an essay–aside from revising my PhD application materials–in a year. A pretty embarrassing conversation to have with a prolific writer (not to mention slightly terrifying, seeing as I’m about to enter a Creative Writing PhD program in two months).
Hallman basically saved my writing career. That’s an oversimplification and I might be giving him a little too much credit (I would have started putting those ideas on paper eventually), but that is how he made me feel. He spent hours asking me questions, pulling out of me the story–no, stories, many stories, stories I had forgotten about and now will completely reconsider–that I know I need to tell. Writers, he said, have to make things happen. You have to put yourself in a situation and go with it. Get into trouble. Orchestrate chaos. Find what’s at stake, and then find the story about the story. I think back to the Violette LeDuc quote I have scribbled on the front page of my journal: “Spit out on paper everything that makes you so unbearable.” I’ve been writing more in the past week than I have in the past year.
I spent six hours with Hallman, and I wish I had recorded our conversations or taken notes. But the best advice–the sweetest moment–I can never forget, despite the copious beer consumed. It’s scrawled on the cover page of my copy of B & Me. It says: “To Traci, Your job is to capture the moral atmosphere of particular moments in time.” When he handed me my book he mentioned that his inscription was a puzzle, and to let him know when I figured it out. Which, of course, means that I’ll be ruminating on and interrogating this sentence for the entirety of my writing life.
I will think often in the coming years about my evening with J.C. Hallman. I’ll remember the mussels, the french fries and mayonnaise–accompanied by many, many beers–we shared at our tiny table by the open windows at Open City. Something has changed in me, and that’s what good books–and good people–do.