I’d faked my way through three years of graduate school before I’d met the writer, Lee K. Abbott, at the New York State Writer’s Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York in the summer of 2007. I’d received a scholarship to attend, and had been looking for reasons not to go, considering that, at the time, I hadn’t written anything I felt very good about, and I was eager to get as far away from clusters of hopeful writers as possible.
I bought a copy of his collected short stories, and read through them in a few days, disbelieving that I had never heard of this guy, who already had a collected works. He wrote like Sam Shepard with an eye towards sports, politics, and love at its core. His story titles were ominous— Dreams of Distant Lives, Love is a Crooked Thing, The View of Me From Mars—sentences gorgeous—“Her name was only a word given to an object that wasn’t here anymore. It was a word that stood for an absence, like darkness itself, that had made way for the waking life.”—and when I’d finished the collection, I believed I’d just lucked out on getting to spend two weeks with a genius.
Or maybe what I was expecting wasn’t what I ended up getting, but what I got was more than I ever expected.
The first time I met him, I was on my way to breakfast and he was sitting on a bench along the paved walkway toward the cafeteria, legs crossed, smoking a Marlboro 100 and reading, then candidate, Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. I recognized him from his author photo and the pamphlet they’d given us the night before at a welcoming ceremony. I wanted to talk to him, to tell him how much I loved his collection, ask him if he’d had a chance to look over the story I had to send in to have workshopped. Instead, I gave an awkward head nod, received with a look of someone who has just realized his pocket of quiet is about to evaporate, and asked, “How is it?”
“A great lesson in epistolary prose,” he said, uncrossed his legs, and stamped out his smoke.
He often spoke like that during my two weeks there, in awareness of his own purpose and enjoyment of that pursuit.
I probably said something like, “I’ll have to check it out,” and that was the extant of our first interaction. Not disappointing, but not revolutionary, either.
Lee ran the short story workshop that was part of the institute that summer, where we read other people’s work and gave our feedback, and it was generally cordial and mundane for the first two classes. But, at some point, during the third class, at a lull in between stories, Lee stood up—shorts, Hawaiian shirt, 6’6’’ with a colonel’s haircut, and wrote five words on the board:
“This is all you need in a story,” he said, and he could’ve dropped the chalk and walked out of the room after that. It was like Larry Bird hitting a corner three and leaving the Garden before it dropped. I felt as though someone had handed me a key with a note that read—“The doors don’t yet exist”—like what it must feel like for a guitarist when the fret board becomes intuitive. This was the portal to my creative life. Maybe not a key, but a hammer, one of those big ax/hammer combos you see in hotel hallways. My brain was on fire.
Each night, after dinner, a pair of writers would read from their work, and on the night before last, Allan Gurganus read a story called, “At the Office,” and he read it so well that the room felt warmer as it went on, the listeners closer, each page break a moment to breathe. I was floored. I went outside to get some air, and Lee was already out there, having a smoke. He could see I was floored. He bucked my arm. He was excited.
“See,” he said. “That’s the power of a great story.”
At some point during our last workshop, when there wasn’t much left to talk about and too much time left to call it a day, Lee asked us, “Have any of you ever read a story that you’d chew your own arm off to write?”
Everyone rifled through the stories we’d read and loved, but, later, thinking about the exact wording of the question, I realized that he wasn’t asking us so much about which stories we’d read and loved, but if we were willing to masticate our own bodies to get write them. It was a yes or no question. No, I hadn’t written a story like that, yet.
I spent my last night, walking along the outskirts of the Skidmore campus, eventually overlooking some mountains and the dusk and all that beautiful shit there in Upstate New York. I was terrified. I had to pay this guy back now. This Lee K. Abbott guy. He’d taken time in his life to give me what I needed to write that story, if only I had the guts to start gnawing away.
I doubt he knew or cared how much these brief interactions changed my life. I wrote him a few times and acknowledged his gift in my first book. But artists like that give what they take in, for the sake of the work to come. They’re big picture people. None bigger than the writer, Lee K. Abbott, who we lost this past April.