Recalling Harry Crews’ fiction class

Back in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, my friend Andy and I both majored in English, took a writing class with Harry Crews, and then blundered into law school together.

He recently wrote to tell me about a Chuck Palaniuk reading he attended in North Carolina, and to fill me in on his new life plan:

Apparently, nearly every Chuck Palahniuk book is in some stage of movie production. Nihilism could be the new Scientology soon . . . . If these movies are popular, I’m going to try and figure out a way to cash in on Harry Crews screen adaptations. Sean Penn has had at least one of them optioned for years, but no dice.

A couple of films based on Crews’ books are already in the works, it turns out, but Andy’s message touched off some recollections about the class we took with Crews. I reproduce our largely unedited reminiscences here.
Andy: I was in the first group to submit a story in that class — I figured he’d go easy on me because at the first class I knew who wrote the saying tattooed on his arm (it was that e.e. cummings thing: “how do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?” or something like that). Anyway, I wrote a forgettable story about the woman who may or may not have had sex with a dog because she thought it was the reincarnation of her old heroin-smoking lover.

Crews opened with my story the next week, and the first thing he said was “I just want to read you all something because this might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.” He gave me a D. I also got a C or a D on my second story and a B on my third story, but somehow I ended up with a B+ in the class.

My knowledge of e.e. cummings might have paid off after all.

I also recall that you and I were commiserating about our grades (I think you might have gotten a C on your first story as well). Then, near the end of the term you busted out with that pretty explicit guy in the backyard tent story that Crews loved. His eyes just lit up talking about the sex scenes in that one, which I think we found pretty funny at the time. I don’t really recall, but I’m pretty sure my third story had a long unnecessary exposition about big tits — I was just playing to the crowd at that point.

There were some real freaks in that class. There was the older guy who had been in prison for stealing some sort of secret government I.D. (or so he claimed – he was probably cheating on his taxes) who would never shut up. I wanted to kill that guy — he was soooooo irritating. There was also a very nice older guy who had been in ‘Nam (Wilson?) who did pretty good work.

Finally, I remember Crews used to just tell us these crazy stories every week – not much was said about writing, as I recall. Stories about being drunk, how he was now sober, how he grew up on a “dirt farm” somewhere in the south, how he got to meet Sean Penn and Madonna, how his family all slept in the same bed to keep warm (as the south is well known for its sub-zero temps.), how his dad died in the bed with them one night (“mommy, daddy won’t wake up – and his nose is cold”), etc., etc., etc.

Those stories were great, but about 2/3 of the way through the semester he started to repeat them as if he had forgotten what he had told us. I remember thinking that he needed to start drinking again to develop some new material.

I took that class after being warned by an MFA student that it was entertaining, but that I wouldn’t learn anything. I think that was pretty accurate. It was a fun class, but mostly what I learned was that anyone with a few books published can get a job in a mediocre English department.

I almost felt sorry for Padgett Powell, who, despite being technically worlds better than Crews, would always play second fiddle to Crews in the department, mostly because Powell lacked one key Crews trait — he wasn’t crazy as a loon. I may be selling Crews short. I was more into LSD than school at the time, so I don’t think I gave him my best effort.

I am interested to know what, if anything, stuck out for you during that class.

 

Maud: My blase attitude toward the C- Crews gave me was all bluster. I must’ve been trying to impress you, because actually I was crushed. My only consolation lay in a mystifying note he had scrawled beneath the grade: “I think you’ll do well in this class.”

He wrote that, I suspect, because of a passage in which the protagonist’s grandmother lifts her breasts to reveal a reddish, blistered heat rash and then lectures him on what it’s like to be old. (I recycled the breast sequence two semesters later, in Powell’s class.) I didn’t know anything about Crews’ fiction then (although I probably pretended I did), and didn’t bother to read any of it until the following summer, when I fell in love with Body, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place and A Feast of Snakes. It just turned out that I shared his fascination with the ugly and macabre.

Anyhow, I wouldn’t have minded a low C in math or science, but that was the first time in my life I’d written a story for school that didn’t get a gold star slapped on it. (Obviously this says more about the low educational standards I’d had to meet than about my abilities.) It was good for me, though, that Crews saw through my bullshit and made me realize that you can’t just sit down and write a 10-page story in four hours.
I remember that he kept his hair in an abbreviated mohawk and always wore muscle shirts that showed off the cummings tattoo you mention.

And I was impressed that you knew the cummings line. I would’ve thought it was a line from a rock song. The quote seemed so bad-ass then, much more than any Clash lyrics I could think of (The Clash were the height of bad-assedness to me then). I wanted to run out and tattoo something like that on my arm — something like “I wish you luck with a capital ‘f'” (from Elvis Costello’s “Love Went Mad”) — but fortunately I realized that the appearance of my pallid, not-especially-toned bicep would not be improved by a big, black tattoo.

Your story about the woman marrying the dog was hilarious, and I suspect Crews thought so, too, despite his scathing reaction to it. He was even more dismissive of a short story written by a girl named Thuyvi. In hers, the narrator sat in her room longing for a postage stamp and wondering if she should mail a letter to her boyfriend. As we discussed the story, he leapt up from behind his desk, grabbed a piece of chalk, and drew a circle with a line through it.

“Fiction is an action!” he yelled, slamming the chalk in the center of the circle. I thought poor Thuyvi was going to faint dead away from fear.
When I wrote that tent story you mention, I was in a phase (at the inception of a particularly terrible relationship) of wondering what it would be like to completely separate sex from love, for the rest of your life. The story was supposed to be about that, in some cockeyed way.

I’ve lost the manuscript, but as I recall it was about a nymphomaniac woman whose husband moved into a tent in the backyard because she refused to have sex with him. She loved the husband, you see, and would only have sex with men she didn’t love. So she went out every night, picked up a guy at a bar, took him to a hotel and fucked him. Every night, as the man of the evening climaxed, she scratched the hell out of his chest. And then she kicked him out of the hotel room and took a bubble bath.

That was the second story I wrote. Crews gave me an “A” on that one, although he was unimpressed with the ending, in which the husband shot the wife and then himself.

(You’d think I would have seen the folly of this story originally, but last summer I started rewriting it from the man’s point of view, changing it so that you see the beginning of the relationship, and so that he’s one of the guys she sleeps with once and intends to discard.)

I remember that several women in the class were appalled. “As if you’ve experienced something like this!” one of them said, huffily.

Crews, chivalrous fellow that he was, leapt to my defense: “Miss Newton has written a convincing story, except for this ending, and we don’t need to know how she came about writing it.”

The best part of the aftermath of the tent story was that this woman — some sorority girl type in a big, lacy sweater — later dropped the class, and for the rest of the term Crews called me by her name.
That older guy you mentioned — Rick Something-or-Other — claimed to be a bank robber. He said he’d robbed many different Florida banks and had been locked up in prison for years and just gotten out. At first I was all excited about him. He reminded me of some of the drifter guys who’d gone to my mom’s church when I was a kid.

But you’re right: he never fucking shut up. I remember one day he was going on and on about one unclear pronoun reference in someone else’s story, and finally I called out in the middle of class: “Okay, okay, we get it. You don’t have to be so rude.”

And then Crews said: “If anyone is being rude, Miss Newton [this was before the tent/sex story], it’s you.”

I remember that older, talented guy. (Actual talent and dedication to craft were so rare in those classes.) His first name was Wilson. Wilson Tenant? Tenet? He was the one who first called Crews’ haircut an “abbreviated mohawk.” I wasn’t fully able to appreciate how good his stories were then, but I know Crews offered to put him in touch with his agent.
Your final story that term was great. I recall the big tits — and that there was some sort of party in the story, a party where all the characters were walking through crabs’ legs or crawdad shells that they’d thrown all over the floor. I can’t remember the plot, but it had a really nice energy and pace to it. I still say you should quit the practice of law and become the next Hiassen.

I took a class with Padgett Powell a couple of terms later, and he was a great teacher — blunt and critical without being harsh. Did you ever take him? Remember anything else about Crews’ class?

 

Andy: I didn’t mean to imply that you were blase about the C-. I was kind of in shock with my D as, despite being a pretty lazy student, I had never gotten less than an A on anything I’d ever written (oh, how that would change in law school!). I guess I was also used to the gold stars. Also, my previous creative writing teacher — a grad student — spent the prior semester telling me how great my writing was.

I forgot that girl Thuyvi was in that class (and I’m impressed that you still remember how to spell her name). She was hanging around with a friend of mine at the time, Rob the Drug Dealer, so I kind of knew her from around town. I remember being surprised to see her in that class — she was in my English 1102 class and lived in my freshman dorm.

I also forgot about Crews’ mohawk. I remember now that I thought he looked like the evil alien in “Predator” with those deep-set, beady eyes of his. He was only missing the fleshy dreadlocks.

I had read all of Crews’ stuff that was available before taking that class (I think Body was the latest release at that time) so I was surprised to find him so incoherent – at least part of the time. I was pretty disappointed, but was probably too insecure to show it.

I do recall that, after he got done eviscerating the dog story, he told us all a story about a woman he knew who “had a relationship” with a dog. He told us in kind of general terms about how she had trained the dog to “do whatever she wanted.” I thought at the time (and still think) that he was full of shit but it was a good story.

There was a Student Government wonk in that class, [name expurgated], whom we also went to law school with. He lightly criticized my dog story with some stupid point about it being unrealistic that the protagonist was a pot-smoker and a nurse, and I was always pissed at him for it. I knew plenty of pot-smoking nurses. Anyway, this kid couldn’t pass the bar and ultimately went to work in another field. I later took pleasure in that fact, all because of a stupid story I wrote in 1991(?).
I have to admit that I loved your husband-in-the-tent story for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first really explicit story anyone had the guts to submit in that class. I thought at the time, and still think, that writers spend a lot of time messing around avoiding direct explanation of socially unacceptable scenes. That is why I liked Crews and also why I like otherwise uninspiring writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Palahniuk.

Creative writing kids tend to describe scenes, especially sex scenes, in a very clinical way which I think is misinterpreted as “too” explicit; however, in reality there aren’t a lot of adjectives in there. The directness is mistaken for explicitness (is that a word?) which I think is interesting. I mean, is “he penetrated her with his throbbing manhood” really any better than “he fucked her”? Anyway, I liked your story because the “explicit” scenes were pretty direct which was unusual. Also, you seemed pretty normal, but when I read your story I got the idea that you had a little hidden inner freakiness. It was a nice idea at the time.

Finally, I loved the fact that the tent story got the class talking. Other than that jackass bank robber guy, it was like a crypt in there. I think everyone was afraid to talk.
The sorority girl you mention managed to irritate me as well. My second story was about a guy who had just discovered that his girlfriend, who went to a different school, had (a) gotten pregnant by another guy who she was dating the last time he visited her and (b) given him VD or something. The story was him driving in the car to “see” her, denying in his mind that he had set things up so that a confrontation would develop so the protagonist would be justified in beating the shit out of her. The point, which I didn’t make too clearly, was that people map out conflicts in their minds before those conflicts occur, and then do everything they can to make the real conflict unfold as closely as possible to their imagined conflict, even if the imagined conflict ends disastrously. The idea came from a conversation with my one ex-girlfriend I was still on speaking terms with, but nothing like that ever happened to me. I think we were just having a stoned conversation about what a person would have to do for either of us to actually physically attack that person.

That sorority girl must have asked me three times if the events in the story had actually happened to me. I kept telling her no, but she refused to accept it. Finally, I told her yes, the story had a basis in reality, but it happened to a friend. Of course, you know how stories about “friends” work — everyone immediately assumed it was me but I was too damaged to admit it. That really made me angry for some reason.

Interestingly, after I wrote that story a girlfriend of mine really did get knocked up by another guy. At least she didn’t give me VD. I didn’t, for the record, beat the shit out of her. In fact, believe it or not I still talk to her all the time. She became a lesbian somewhere along the line, and has been living with her girlfriend for a couple of years. Somehow the fact that she switched teams excused the infidelity, although I can’t explain why.

The crab story was based in reality. My friend Damon’s dad used to have parties like that. All of the names in that story (Fast Eddie, Big Bob, Papa Joe, Romundo Ripple, Earl the Pearl and Earl the Pearl II) were really nicknames of various West Palm Beach booze hounds.

I can’t remember much of what anyone else wrote in that class, or much of what we discussed. As you can probably tell, my impression of the class was that it was an almost total waste of time. I don’t remember Crews telling you that you were rude, but I don’t recall any of his actual criticism, other than the criticism directed toward me early in the class.

I took Powell’s class, but at the time I was pretty depressed (the aforementioned girlfriend thing + all kinds of other stuff) so I was sitting in a dark room and writing all of my stuff at the last minute. I didn’t do my best work in his class, but I thought he was a great teacher.

There was a Master’s student who, because she was friends with my roommate, was at my house a lot. She must have told him to cut me some slack because he gave me a total pass when I didn’t turn in a story. He brought it up and I told him to go ahead and fail me – I didn’t plan to write it. Instead, he referred me to the UF counseling dept. Nice guy and a good writer. I just found the Edisto river last weekend driving from Durham to Columbia, SC — I-85 runs right over it.


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