Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Losing a Friend

My good friend Jack died the weekend before last. The news came as a complete shock. He died in his sleep, quietly. I knew him for 19 years. We met when I was a graduate student. In those years, he taught me how to be a writer, how to work as a freelancer, how to deal with editors, how to keep going when things go wrong. He introduced me to my husband, and attended our wedding. He asked about Larry every time that I saw him. He worried about Larry, but then he worried about almost everyone. I found out recently that he liked to brag a bit to his other friends about having introduced us. He was right to do so. 

Jack was a sportswriter for years and he described the world almost entirely in sports metaphors, so that an altercation with an editor became, "I stood him up at the blue line," or "I backed him up to his own goal." Once, he met one of my relatives, one who was nervously backing up to the door while she talked and said later, "She takes quite a lead off first base." After he turned 50, he began to refer to himself as "being on the back nine" of life. He sometimes referred to himself as the Wiley Veteran when dealing with students who tried to whine their way out of a deadline. And yet he had very few altercations with editors and very few run-ins with students. That's because he was always thinking and planning. I got many emails from him detailing his plan B in case an editor was going to turn down a manuscript or if a student was going to make another lame excuse about missing class and the deadline. His ability to anticipate the worst and plan for it (while obsessing over it) was legendary among his friends.

He used many of those same sports metaphors in his classes. He believed in the lessons of the sports world as guides to behavior off the field. He liked to say that playing sports doesn't build character, it reveals character. You don't get to make excuses or ask for rules changes on the field because you stayed up late or forgot to practice, or are having a bad day. Players learn to deal with bad luck, bad bounces, and their own failings. He told students that showing up every day, on time, matters. Making a deadline matters. Following directions matters. He docked them, docked their grades if they violated these rules, and they loved him. For undergraduates in their first or second class in writing, lessons that teach character are crucial, at least as important as learning how to avoid the dangling modifier. In fact, these lessons might me more important because no one else is teaching how to think, how to plan, how to show up every day with a good attitude, how to deal with bad luck and keep going. Few professors have the energy to reward those things. Those students who had the character or developed character along with their ability to write, those students he helped. He opened his rolodex to them and found them great jobs and great opportunities. And he invited them to be his friends. He had friends of every age, and that is an incredible fact on its own.

I didn't just learn how to write from Jack. He gave me lots of advice about life. I watched how he behaved in his marriage in order to learn how to be happily married. Many times he wrote to me about how he planned to spend a day. Jack was always up early, sometimes at 4 a.m. and he would go in to work by 6, and be home by noon. He always taught in the mornings so that he would have the afternoon off. He would make a huge ritual about shopping for groceries for dinner. He loved to cook and he loved to have the right music playing while he cooked. He would detail for me the things he bought, or was planning to buy and the rotation of music that he would play while making dinner. His dinners with his wife, Barbara, had that sense of ceremony. He was very French, in this way. (He would say French Canadian, but that's another story). But I saw from him that time spent cooking and listening to music, or doing anything that gives you joy, is not wasted time. These pleasures are important.

He also wrote every day. He would frequently send emails, the subject line of which contained the word count of whatever book he was working on. (Of course there was that one season in which every email contained his ranking in Fantasy Hockey.) I got lots of emails that detailed his struggles to write a novel at the age of 62. Had he ever written a piece of fiction before? Nope. But his solution was to sit down and write a story at 500 words a day until it was done. It was done in 6 months. Six months later he had an agent, and a few months after that he had a book deal. Hey, not everybody does it that way, but it can be done that way.

After that he talked about writing a screenplay. "I read a couple of them. It doesn't look too hard," he wrote to me one day. And then he noodled around on another novel. I admire that. I want to do that myself. Always thinking, planning, showing up early every day with a good attitude, and dealing with whatever bounces you get, good and bad. And finding a little rest and time for a pleasurable hobby in the afternoon.

There are worse philosophies to use as a guide in the writing life. I miss Jack. I'll probably miss him every day from now on.

1 comment:

Grace T said...

I'm behind on my blog reading and just saw this today. He sounds like a great man. I wish I had had some one like him in my life. You were so fortunate. Great piece--it makes me want to be a better teacher.