a brief appreciation of William Gass: Prague, years ago

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Years ago, as I have sometimes written, I set off to Prague with my family for a writer's workshop.  It was my second experience among writers; my first had taken place the year before in Spoleto.  This is how it was, then—me sneaking my literary education into a family vacation.

Jayne Anne Phillips led my workshop, and when Jayne Anne announced the names of two writers selected for an individual consultation with William Gass, I found myself among them. 

I was working on a novel that took place in El Salvador.  I had brought twenty pages with me.  This was duly submitted to Mr. Gass in advance of my consultation, and as I climbed the many stairs to our meeting room, my heart was (as they say) in my throat.  I did not know the language of literature then.  I hardly knew what I was doing.  The stairs were narrow.  The room, in memory, was empty but for him—such a head of white hair—and a spill of yellow sun.  I sat across from him—I must have sat, though I can't recall a second chair—and waited for word.

I waited.  And I waited for word.

It seemed that an hour passed before Mr. Gass spoke.  When he did, he said (and about this I'm certain):  "There is a typo on the top of page 13."

I nodded, duly.  Waited for more.

"Otherwise," he finally said, "this is very good."

And that was it.  That was the consultation.  That was all I had and everything I had as I continued to work on that book.

Later that night, Mr. Gass would read at a bar in the center of Prague—a long passage about a candy shop.  My son, seven or so at the time, was sitting on my lap in well-behaved silence.  When the story stopped, and before the applause could begin, my son announced to the jam-packed room:  "That was waaaaaaaaaay too long."  Mr. Gass looked our way through the dark and slightly smiled.  My son, the young critic.

My Salvador novel was never published, by the way.  After 15 years of work I stripped away the fiction and wrote the Salvador memoir that became Still Love in Strange Places (W.W. Norton).  Sometimes very good is simply not good enough.

I write all of this today in honor of Mr. Gass, whose new book, Life Sentences, about language and style, is so intelligently reviewed by Adam Kirsch in the New York Times Book Review.  Mr. Gass cares about sentences, and so, frankly, do I, as I indicate in my own Chicago Tribune Review today of American Dervish.

Call it a bad habit, this caring about sentences. But it's not one easily shrugged away.


Lilian Nattel said...

I enjoyed reading this so much. It reminded me of the first time that I had a story of mine read by a writer in residence. It reminded me of writing processes, and the distances between conception and completion. It was lovely.

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