Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thomas Williams, Author

                           One day in 1966 I happened to walk into Thomas Williams' Freshmen English class at the University of New Hampshire. I was just a kid. I had chained my motorcycle to the tennis court fence in front of East Hall, and I was struggling to be a student. Tom was an expert writer with several published books, one of which Town Burning(1959), a novel, I always think of fondly, and he had collected some interesting shorter works in A High New House(1963). The centerpiece story that the collection was named from quickly became a favorite of mine and has remained so. Several other of these shorter works, such as toward the end in "The Skier's Progress", which was first published in The New Yorker (1963), suddenly launch themselves into a stratosphere of starry cadences of poetic prose so grand that to this day my delight in the reading actually hurts. Later on he wrote The Hair of Harold Roux(1974). He shared the National Book Award with Robert Stone that year—Dog Soldiers, a much inferior book. That a man as erudite as Tom was assessable to a frosh was a miracle of good luck, since I have never met anyone vaguely like him in my entire life.
  Now almost fifty years later, I often wonder why his works are not more often read. In the public library in Norway, Maine is a copy of A High New House that has not been checked out since 1998! And I took it out then, and afterwards I bought a copy to keep for myself. I have often felt that in places in that book such a strong light illuminates the words that the reader's first impression is analogous to embarrassment. The words are ripped out of the commonplace by the precision of their use, and worried into splendor. You must reach toward a higher level in life, so the initial impulse is an unpleasant humbling that you are habitually accustomed to avoid.
  Back in my kid days, although I had no idea about the rarity of this light or what it meant, I had a notion something unusual was going on that I had to take advantage of because I might never in an ordinary life be lucky enough to run across it again.


I wish I could find a picture of TW as I knew him in '66. He was sinewy and brown, as if he had just stepped out of a tree.

  Tom was forty, which in the opinion of the students of those days was OLD, but he didn't look old. There was no jolly extra professorial fleshing. He was lean and sinewy, nervously stoical, competent—a deer hunter, a New England Yankee. He had a facial tic (tic douloureax?). Now and then he'd scrunch his face nervously. But in general the look of him was encouraging to me because he acted like somebody you might be able to relate to, like a master you might become a disciple of. I was confused whether the master chose the disciple or the disciple the master. But since he was a teacher and I was a student, I dared to follow him around with all possible brass whether he liked it or not. I was further encouraged when I observed him riding a motorcycle. It was really just a Honda motor thing, not like a Harley. A big greasy Harley might have been off putting enough to save him some of the annoyance of my existence.

It is said by Mary Whipple that Tom rode a bike like this. It is a '75 550cc.  

This is probably similar to the Indian Pony in Harold Roux.

  I heard rumors that he was an outdoors' man. His hands were big and capable looking. Usually he wore jeans or workmen's khaki, serviceable boots and a dark shirt of checked flannel. When it rained he wore a green poncho. He didn't like being teased about the poncho. He knew many names of outdoors' objects, and he had performed with his own hands serious acts of carpentry. A reliable witness had testified to one act in particular and it was not a lie, as these things in academia usually are. It was obvious to me even then that he had gotten a lot out of books, but there were some things I doubt could be in any book. The ache between the eyes and the wrenching of the top of the skull that means thinking for yourself must be happening did not offended him. Also, he seemed very fond of young people. In his books he portrays young people that jump off the written page in a friendly lunacy.
  Then one day he was carrying around a manuscript, an amazing looking object of incredible thickness bound at the top, front and back, in brown manila. It was the manuscript of Whipple's Castle(1969), which he had just finished writing. He was acting a little odd that day and he was very protective of it. But it was an unforgettable experience for me. When it got published, I snapped up a copy. Long passages of the book stand up to more than one reading, and I have read in it quite a bit the last forty years. To think that I was one of the first people on earth to see it!
  By then, as I happened to run into this astonishing good luck, my thick notebook of stories, poems, essays, some typewritten, some handwritten, began to run over. I believed that small, nervous handwriting on a sheet of paper had meaning beyond the words' meaning. But whether handwritten or typed, the pages were very crumpled up, very disheveled. Arrows, notes, erasures, additions, explanations were every which way. My person and brilliance were not what the expert would term promising. I had BO, bad breath, my hiking boots were muddy and worn down at the heels, the professors' required reading put me to sleep. But I thought every word I wrote was important. It is another mystery how this belief came over me. In high school my parents had kept me too busy to think such a thing. Then suddenly I walked into Tom's class and that's what I thought. It was too hard that what I wrote was not worth anything, when I could show these writings to Tom!
  I began to bother him with my secret madness. That did not turn out to be a problem with Tom Williams because he never missed office hours. Isn't there a rule of life that creative persons tend to bomb the simple duties of life? Not Tom Williams! Even when he didn't have an appointment scheduled, you'd still find him in the office. Late in the afternoon I could catch him. He'd smile and put up with me. He'd even seem happy that I had come by. He was a teacher, too, though I was a student who'd try any teacher's patience. Tom may have thought, who is this numskull?, but he never let it on.
  But I had a problem with him, a serious problem. He had this weird high regard for Art. He believed that words could be fashioned in such a way that they ring true against time. The writer, he told me, must meditate about truth, and he must avoid insincerity, a natural inclination to falsehood of fact and feeling. He wondered whether what I was writing about really happened and did I really know what I felt about it. His opinion that Art should be truthful certainly was irritating. I wondered if he himself obeyed his own dicta. Why shouldn't a nice, pleasant enjoyable bullshit be Art, too? Art must be more arduous than I thought, yet I fancied myself an artist.
  The next few years I brought him everything. My works may have been quite laughable; and worse, they never seemed to end. But it was a happy time for me. I felt no loyalty at all to even the simplest conventions, such as that one should know the meaning of a word before utilizing it or that one should not mispell, either mistakenly or to be a punk. The subject matter was about drinking, puking, fighting, mashing, that kind of thing. One time he sat up and rolled his eyes backward, but he didn't say anything. There was what I called “purity” that I worried about that I didn't know the meaning of then and still don't exactly, though I think that over the years maybe, just maybe, I’m getting closer and closer to a meaning I can talk about.
  In neat, readable handwriting he wrote lengthy remarks in the margins and at the end of the manuscript. He must have known that what he wrote was often beyond me. When we are young, the roads ahead are many, and some are dark, and we walk along, whistling, and try to remember what we have been taught. It was later that I began to understand a few of the things he wrote about.
  That the student should "decide, decide" was his constant imperative to me. It was not about grammar or usage or composition so much as deciding what was important to be honest about. Vague antecedents do not ruin sentences; lies ruin sentences. He encouraged me to experience and to remember and to feel my way through what I remembered.
  "Those people you live with you'll write about one day," he said softly, smiling.
  "You're kidding," I replied, eyes blank and bleary.
  This exchange of a few seconds opened up in me a clear spring of sincerity, love and wonder that must be where Art supersedes craft and finally BEGINS. Although obvious, I suppose, nobody before or since has ever suggested to me that the foundation of Art might just be simple experience. They tell you write what you know about but they seem to define themselves otherwise.
  When I wrote about and told him stories from my family life, he listened with the rapt attention of a hound. Tom knew enough about what he was doing to know when another person was taking him honestly into their life. But he also knew when the motive was self-indulgence.
  One day he explained to me what I call the Tom Williams Doctrine of the Ten Thousand Choices.
  "Every sentence has in it ten thousand choices."
  "Ten thousand?" I said, suddenly nervous.
  "Yes," he said. "Sometimes it takes a long time to write a sentence."
  "How long?" I said. He had already convinced me to think about writing as a lifelong passion, and now what?
  "Oh, an hour or so. Sometimes maybe a lifetime."
  The lifetime thing was just too impossible, so I blotted it out of my mind. In horror of this latest bad news I said, "An hour! What can you be thinking about for a WHOLE HOUR."
  "There are lots of things. Sometimes I look up in the dictionary every word. Some words I like to know how the writers of the past have used them. And I like to think about new words, too. And there's a lot else, also. Might take a lifetime." Then he finished by saying, "Once you've written one good sentence, you can always write another. And then you can write a story or a poem or anything you want."
  I was silent, and I left and went for a long walk. Sentences that took forever, it seemed like, to put together tested my frail nerves. Armies of nouns and verbs and adjectives fought to the death on a dark plain.
  By now frustration and failure had worn me out. I had hoped for a clean up and massage of my works for instant success, but I ended with the simplest beginnings of a tradition to wrestle with.
  I did not finish college to my degree. I had some vague idea that I'd like "to go out and record what the common people say and do". I wasn't doing very well with Mr. Milton and Mr. Shakespeare, but I was doing all right with camshafts and crankshafts.
  Mr. Williams nodded and said, "Sure. You can always come back." Then he suggested a book or two I might take with me on my journey. He said "Fowler" in sort of a mumble. Now that was a convenient little book to amuse myself in life's way stations and toilets! In it are a thousand examples of good writing and bad from the mighty and the humble. I could work out the details on the American language later on.
  Soon enough my life waited on a job, which at any moment could twirl away into darkness, calamity, financial ruin. I walk on glass like lots of people. I have that tremulousness of gait that people have when they are trying not to break the glass and fall through into oblivion.
  A child of the sixties and a friend to this day, I became fascinated by the roads. I drove and walked here and there whistling tunes to myself and telling stories and trying to remember. I spent much time in the woods. I have seen the wilderness get raped. We, the land's children, think the land will support us no matter what we do to it. I worry about rape; it seems that many forms of it, some subtle, some not subtle at all, are around every corner. I try hard to keep my fingers out of my nose and mouth; but my jaw is slack and my eyes are dark and moist as if I were tipsy.
  I did not return to Tom Williams for another lesson. I had a very hard time with academia. I wondered what of value could come from the narrow confines of a school town. Thomas Williams' works themselves are proof that Art can come from anyplace. But perhaps that was not it at all. Perhaps I was embarrassed by the extremes of my youth. Perhaps I did not want another lesson. It was a memory that gave me pleasure and I did not want to gamble with it. Sometimes it happens that way: there is no going back.
  I have received over the last half century an amazing happiness in writing as Art. I swear Tom made me one of them weird foreign mystics. There's this heat under me in the very soil of the woody foothills of Maine, and then I work on my little pile of stories for hours without feeling cold. When I can't think of a single damned thing that I can defend against the darkness, I always return to the Ten Thousand Choices, and it gets light out again.

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