As an undergrad, I took workshops with Frederick Busch, and I often claim him as a mentor, though it's hardly true. I adore Busch's writing now, the taut sentences, the deeply flawed characters, those beautifully shaped stories. But back then, when I was his student, I didn't know to look for these things. I was nineteen and stupid. The days on which my work was to be critiqued were the days I skipped his class and sat drinking coffee in the dining hall. I never opened my mouth in class and took the seat farthest away from Busch, behind a broad-shouldered offensive tackle who was fulfilling a humanities requirement.
I don't know why he didn't fail me. I deserved it. But I imagine he noticed me listening to him. I don't remember being particularly attentive in that class, but I must have been; the advice he gave still comes back to me. He once told us never to put the word submission in a cover letter to a literary magazine. "Never say you're submitting something for publication," he said. "Instead, say you are offering it for publication." This was not particularly pressing advice; none of us even knew that one needed a cover letter, nor did we have anything worthy of publication. But he pointed his finger around the table as if scolding us. "The job is too hard," he said, " and a writer should never say he submits." It would be years before I remembered that and understood what he meant. It remains the best piece of writing advice—of life advice, really—I've ever received.
Another time, he walked to the classroom window. We were critiquing a particularly bad story, and things were not going well. The campus was set high on a hill in Central New York, and from that window he could see the mansion-like frat houses and, beyond those, the decrepit, failing farms where his characters lived. "There are a thousand stories," he said. "Pick up the town newspaper; it's full of tragedy and near-tragedy and very occasionally the glimmer of something better."
What did we know of what he meant? We were young and our stories were about drinking too much and making out under the stars on the lawns of those frat houses. We wrote what we knew.
Even now, I think I've probably misunderstood him. There's an entire shelf in my office closet full of crinkled newspaper pages, haphazardly stuffed there for later review. They are ideas—though not really ideas—nuggets that maybe contain a "glimmer of something better." Some of them get used, the match that sparks full-blown narratives. Others I return to and can't remember what I saw in them.
Just today I found one that may make its way into that closet. In the small Maine town where my wife and I spend summers, the local newspaper runs a police blotter. Yesterday, the cops were called to a home where a twenty-two-year-old man accidentally set his tree house on fire. I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for this: an errant cigarette, a faulty chainsaw. But my fiction-writing imagination doesn't want the reasonable explanation. It wants a story. And it wants that fire to mean something. A grown man does not just set his childhood tree house on fire for no reason. But right now I don't know the reason, and I don't know what the fire means, so the clipping will go into the closet. The closet is my little incubator.
There are a few that I can't seem to shake, ones that have been in there a while, and for which I can't seem to find a use. I often give these to my own students, hoping they will succeed where I have failed.
One is about a frumpy, middle-aged City Hall clerk who weekends as amateur-professional wrestler Johnny Fabulous in middle school auditoriums and VFW halls. I can't imagine a writer exists who doesn't love that man just a little. His potential is infinite. Another clipping shows a picture of recent African immigrants being baptized in the water of an inner city Boston YMCA. I imagine a lifeguard perched in his chair just outside the frame watching the scene. His story seems to me to be an important one. I think he falls in love with one of the girls in the water, but I've never been able to get the story off the ground.
My favorite though, from another Maine newspaper, has a headline that reads "Mysterious Beast." Below that is a picture of an awful looking creature with a dog's eyes, a scrunched snout, and tiny bat-like ears. It's dead on the side of the road and its lips are snarled to show sharp, white teeth. Someone hit it with a car, and residents of Turner, Maine believed it to be "the mystery creature that has roamed the area for years, mauling dogs and frightening residents." The woman who hit the animal took the picture, but by the time a "veteran cryptozoologist" arrived, the carcass had been picked apart by scavengers.
I thought there was so much I could do with that if I rejected the reasonable explanation, but Wells Tower beat me to the punch. The mysterious creature has a cameo in his story "Retreat." We're all, I guess, looking for that "glimmer of something more." Wherever we can find it.