The teacher’s advice: Write about what you know. And put a thought around that sentence!

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Many Princeton memories are faint now, or gone altogether, but I remember so well walking to the old elementary school that we knew by its street address — 185 Nassau — for Creative Writing 201, a three-hour, Monday-afternoon seminar during the spring of my freshman year. My other classes that semester were bunched in McCosh and East Pyne — and so even the short trip seemed a small adventure. A crowd of after-lunch students walked that path, along William Street, and while most kept going, aiming for the EQuad straight ahead, another contingent — far fewer of us, and far less weighed down by books — would veer slightly left, just past the Thomas Sweet ice cream shop and into the side door of 185.

The building itself brought something different: a softer atmosphere, the faint odors of arts and crafts, clay and paint-thinner (ceramics and painting were taught here as well). There was the strong smell of mimeograph machines — and here, perhaps, we need an aside for younger readers: Back in the stone age of 1981, students typed stories on portable typewriters, using mimeograph paper, which would then be fed into hand-cranked machines that produced copies. We would write our stories — one was due every two weeks — and leave our purple-inked pages in a bin; it was our responsibility to retrieve each week’s packet, read through it, and return prepared to praise our fellow student writers or pick their work apart.

Come 1:30 each Monday, we were in a classroom that looked and felt more like a place where you might have had “rest period” in kindergarten. Couches, not chairs. No desks or lecterns. No assigned place for the teacher. Not even a blackboard. Shoes off, if we liked. Eight or 10 of us, at most.

And the teacher? Well, the teacher was a novelist. Or a poet. And typically one with a number of published works and literary honors to his or her name. Joyce Carol Oates could be found at 185 Nassau. Jerome Charyn was here. The poets J.D. McClatchy and James Richardson ’71. Whoever it was, you’d sit there on your couch, in varying states of anxiety and admiration. And then one of these writer-teachers would get things started.

My first instructor was Lee Zacharias, less of a boldface name than the others, but a much-honored writer and fine teacher. Zacharias was immediately welcoming, a nice match for a nervous freshman like me. She had a gift for offering enough praise so that a dagger of criticism seemed gentle; the transition from one to the other was almost imperceptible.

The other thing I recall from a semester with Zacharias is that she selected me for that spring’s public reading; this news was at once thrilling and terrifying. I had never spoken at a school assembly, never given a wedding toast, and now I was to read from my own writing. Zacharias took me aside one afternoon and offered a few words of counsel: Try to recall whatever you were thinking when you first wrote the words; concentrate on those words as you speak; focus on the story, and its meaning; and pay no mind to the people in the room. “You’ll be fine,” she said. Easier said than done? Sure. Simple? Maybe. But I tried hard to follow her advice, and I believe it helped. I still have the program from that day, and it’s interesting to see that among the student readers were future novelists Walter Kirn ’83 and Stona Fitch ’83, the nonfiction author Liza Mundy ’82, and the actor and author David Duchovny ’82. (Had I known what lay in store for them, I would have been more nervous still.)

Next came Oates — already a prolific and well-known writer — and Russell Banks, who would soon be ranked among the country’s finest novelists. I loved the way Banks would say, as if a student’s eight-page story were worthy of top-tier literary criticism: “What do you think Tom’s trying to get at here?” or “How should we understand Marcia’s final paragraph?” He was a superb editor, too. Once, he encouraged a rewrite, which I took as a compliment (was there something promising in the pages?) and I brought back what I felt was a perfectly clean piece, pared to the bone. A week later Banks returned the story, red-pencil lines throughout. I was upset, certain he was wrong, and then realized his every markup had improved the story greatly.

William Humphrey
Photo: Agata Nowicka

Oates brought an almost incredible wealth of literary references. Something one of us had written might recall passages of Dos Passos, or Dreiser. She could summon a line from the ancient Greeks or the Victorians and show its relevance to a student’s work with never a whiff of insincerity or pretension. And of course it felt so good to imagine that anything we had written had sparked even faint connections to a real writer.

For me at least, the teacher to remember was the novelist William Humphrey. A visiting professor, he was the one I came to know on occasional after-class walks along Nassau Street. Gruff, no-nonsense, colorful, Humphrey had a Texas drawl and a dry, devilish sense of humor. He had risen from a hardscrabble childhood in Clarksville, Texas. His father died in a car crash when Humphrey was 13; he had moved with his mother to Dallas, dropped out of the University of Texas, and ultimately managed to write his way into a community of rising-star authors in the Northeast. Humphrey’s 1958 debut novel, Home from the Hill, was a critical and commercial success; the 1960 film based on the book made Humphrey a good deal of money.

In the 185 classroom, Humphrey could be stern; he made no effort to soften criticism, and his suggestions were offered more like laws of writing, meant to be followed rather than debated. He came hard at me with one such directive: Write about things you know. We were never given specific assignments, and I had tried an allegorical piece, about a Hitler-like figure in a modern European town. Humphrey didn’t think much of the story, and he didn’t hesitate to share his reasons with the class. It doesn’t feel genuine, does it? Does it feel like Tom is writing about a thing he has known and felt?

He implored us to read, in every free moment. It’s a writing class, yes, but you cannot ever expect to write well unless you read well and widely. Beyond dissecting our stories, Humphrey made time for conversation about whatever works we had enjoyed lately — giving his sessions the feel of a book group. Sometimes he read from fiction he favored, to make a point about cadence or pace in the language. Once we convinced him to read from his own work; Humphrey chose a chapter from The Spawning Run, a hilarious sendup of a salmon-fishing expedition in Wales. Another afternoon he told a story about how he’d been punished in grade school, made to sit in the back of class and read the dictionary. He had been furious, feeling wronged and hating the punishment, until he slowly realized, guiltily almost, that he liked it. He had enjoyed reading the dictionary, loved seeing easy words up against the hard ones, learning all manner of words he had never seen or heard. The point, again: Read ...

One more Humphrey-ism: The man had no patience for “writer’s block.” Sure, writing was hard. And yes, more often than not the result would disappoint. But when a student pleaded “writer’s block,” Humphrey shook his head and presented a step-by-step solution that was at once funny and withering. It went something like this:

“What are you trying to say? Let’s see — there’s a verb for that ... . All right, then — who are you trying to say it about? OK, so there’s your subject, let’s get that in there. Hmm, let’s see — we seem to be approaching ... a sentence! Fine. May not be the world’s finest sentence, but for now it will do ... . 

“Now — how about a thought around that sentence? A few words to situate us? Maybe a button to the end? And now — MY GOODNESS — we have ... a paragraph! You may think it’s awful, that paragraph you’ve just put down there. And probably it IS awful! Might be the worst paragraph you or anyone has ever set to paper. But never mind, it’s on the page, isn’t it? OK, then. Let’s get to work on making it better.

“And THAT ... (here he would smile, sarcasm dripping) … that is what we call EDITING!”

For all the sarcasm, and disdain, even, I don’t believe his students ever minded. Humphrey was a warm and funny man. He and I had those walks together; Humphrey took other students to his home in Hudson, N.Y., sometimes on fly-fishing trips in the Catskills. I wish I’d taken one of those trips myself.

Bill Swersey/Asia Society

By the time I graduated, I had taken five creative-writing courses. Those workshops taught me to be a better, more confident writer, and perhaps a better reader as well. I learned that I could improve at the craft, and enjoy it greatly, without ever making the major leagues. When I wrote a book of my own — nonfiction, but still — I pared and pared, and when my editor marked the text with further cuts, I thought of Russell Banks. He’d have found even more words to toss. I long ago found comfort with public speaking, but I still remember Lee Zacharias’ good counsel and appreciate the fact that almost nothing I am asked to do in front of an audience will match the angst that came with reading my own fiction, at age 18, to a room filled with peers and well-known authors. As for William Humphrey, I have shared his reflections on writer’s block with others, my kids included. I think his trick — write a word, then a sentence, a paragraph, and don’t fear the results — is a valuable one. 

Recently I read another of Humphrey’s books, Farther Off from Heaven, a memoir published a few years before I met him. It’s an achingly beautiful account of young Billy Humphrey’s rough upbringing in that small Texas town, the boy’s difficult relationship with his father, and the father’s sudden death.

“It was impossible now to believe,” Humphrey wrote, “that so much zest for living as was crammed into that small, explosive package, my father, could have been snuffed out. He had been as positive a presence as a rambunctious boy, snatching at life with both hands. He was one of those to leave his name on every place he went: Clarence Humphrey was here. Such intensity as that with which he went at everything, the fieriness of his feelings, his avidity for sensation and experience: How could all that have been extinguished? ... One would have thought that death could not so soon have found an opening in his defenses.”

I thought of Humphrey himself, tried to imagine him wrestling with a particular paragraph or sentence. Of course when you read a fine piece of writing, it’s hard to imagine that there ever was any wrestling, anything other than the smooth and steady flow from mind to paper. And I also thought, William Humphrey was doing, in the purest sense, what he had implored us to do: He was writing about what he knew.

I enjoyed my time at Princeton, and like many friends I look back and wish I’d made better use of the time there. But I have no regrets about the hours spent at 185 Nassau St. It’s a place that still evokes nostalgia — for those cozy rooms, my fellow students, and for the oasis those three-hour gatherings offered, the break from the treadmill of other academic pursuits. All credit for that is due the wonderful writers — and teachers — we were privileged to meet and learn from, on those long Monday afternoons. 

Tom Nagorski ’84 is executive vice president of the Asia Society and author of Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack.