Lots of people on Florida’s eastern coast were tanned, but my new friend was a more elusive shade of brown. Joe Grezaffi was pure Sicilian. His immigrant grandparents, on both sides, had landed in New Orleans; he’d grown up the son of a butcher in a tiny Mississippi Delta town called Shaw. At nineteen I spent every spare moment at Joe’s little farm west of Melbourne, where I helped with chores while attending community college and selling clothes at Belk-Lindsey.
Joe’s day job was teaching social studies; his passions were orchids and poultry. Quacking ducks and honking geese circled Joe’s shadehouses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped in coops beneath every tree and flanking every structure. To afford his farm on a schoolteacher’s salary, Joe had moonlighted in earlier years at Belk-Lindsey, where our paths had briefly crossed. Now the orchids bankrolled everything—corsages were still popular in that summer of 1974, and China was decades away from taking over the potted-plant market. In a local subdivision, Joe owned an ordinary low-slung Florida house, where his wife and three sons waited each night for him to arrive for his warmed-over dinner. He was the hardest-working person I’d ever known, excepting my father, whose office work I’d never witnessed and, anyway, who didn’t count.
You reached Joe’s down a dirt lane overhung with gnarled oak branches draped in Spanish moss and grapevines. Duck Valley, Joe called his farm. Doomed to be surrounded by condos, it was still hidden back then, an enclave seemingly exempt from time. Though only a couple of acres, with the surrounding landscape forested or in weedy pastures, Duck Valley felt like a forgotten oasis. Twin thirty-foot crepe myrtles flanked the entrance to the farmyard, a broad unpaved oval with an island of towering pines in its center that made it a relaxed circular drive; at the sandy loop’s edges, the outbuildings and a farmhouse lay half-buried in rampant vegetation: snaky orange and grapefruit trees; a sprawling fig; gaudy red and yellow crotons; a poinsettia that had achieved the size of a one-car garage. The little white house dated from the 1920s, ancient for central Florida, and its cypress clapboards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. Duck Valley had been a commercial dairy in Florida’s olden days. In the palmetto-and-pine woods nearby, a sunken concrete tank, long-abandoned and half full of inky water, marked where homesteaders once immersed their cattle to kill ticks.
One Saturday, Joe butchered two ducks, and we plucked them in the breezeway. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” wafted from the house. Denver was uncool, but I was secretly a fan and had given Joe the tape.
Gopher pulled up in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, pacing in its bed. Gopher had recently resupplied Joe with hogs—wild razorbacks with long black snouts and sharp white tusks; they overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked, rooting up its pastures. Skipper would sink his teeth in their noses and hold them until Gopher could tie their legs and throw them, screaming, into his truck’s bed. Joe fed the pigs garbage and corn before he slaughtered them. If a chicken flew over a low board fence into their sty, the pigs ate it quick as it landed.
“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He was a stocky man of about thirty-five, with pale blue eyes, buzz-cut blond hair, and muscular, sunburned arms. He wore a sleeveless yellow sweatshirt that day and a white cap emblazoned with the Rebel battle flag. I wasn’t sure he’d addressed his question to me, since he always ignored me, but I saw Joe wasn’t going to divert his attention from his duck’s feathers for the likes of the idly intrusive Gopher. When other people stopped by to hang out, Joe was cordial, so there seemed something other than busyness in his attitude toward Gopher. In my mind’s eye, I see that preoccupation with his chore was a ruse—Joe radiated distaste.
“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”
“Yeah, but I hate it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”
You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I just wanted Gopher to leave. Other than his periodic hog deliveries, he came around to moon over Joe’s gamefowl, my own favorites among Joe’s poultry. The gamecocks sported long purplish tail-feathers and flashy hackles of claret or lemon-orange, and halted their strutting only to throw back their heads and crow defiantly; the game hens, as nimble as pheasants, were colored like partridges, their feathers an intricate pattern in brown, buff, and chestnut, a wash of salmon at their breasts. These were descendants of Old English fighting chickens, since kept for ornament, and Joe’s friend in Texas had just shipped him some new males to improve Joe’s flock.
After Gopher had stared into each pen holding a gamecock, he left, and Joe lost his frown. He groaned companionably as he took my duck in hand and began to pick the tiny immature feathers my clumsy fingers had missed.
“Boy,” he said in his mellow Mississippi drawl, “look at all the ugly black pinfeathers you left on your duck!”
“He’s your duck now, Joe!”
I eased against the frayed nylon webbing of my lawn chair, extended my legs, crossed my ankles, and grinned.
The dreamy chiaroscuro of Duck Valley clashed with the sun-blasted rest of my life. I commuted to my classes from an expanse of tract houses in Satellite Beach, which sat athwart a barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean. I drove a Triumph convertible, bought after my early high school years spent bagging groceries at the Winn Dixie; crossing a long bridge to the mainland, I listened to the Rolling Stones croon “Angie” from my eight-track tape deck or Jim Croce belt out “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Near campus, a few miles from Joe’s, my speeding car felt momentarily airborne as it soared off a railroad embankment. Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, consisted of one gray concrete cube for classrooms and offices, two faded plywood shacks for selling books and food, a nascent athletics pavilion, and a picnic table under some remnant pines.
Fourteen years before, my father, unable to make a living raising cattle, had sold our Georgia farm and started a job at Kennedy Space Center. Suddenly at age five I found myself growing up in Satellite Beach, a Space Coast boomtown only recently scraped from palmetto thickets. At Surfside Elementary the next year, I stared out the window, daydreaming about our old homestead’s shady grove of pecan trees and its sleek red cattle, its red barn and tin-roofed house. I still hankered to be a real southerner— whatever that was—instead of just another inhabitant of a rootless suburban beach town. I thought my feeling of exile was unique. In my speech class, I’d felt both chagrined and thrilled when my teacher pointed out my pronunciations: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘jist’ and ‘git.’ ” Maybe I sound southern, I’d hoped, chalking it up to Georgia’s influence. Probably my slangy speech came from unconsciously imitating my mother’s southwestern twang.
Later in that class, we had to give a talk about a classmate, and a girl with blonde hair and brown eyes interviewed me.
“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.
“Business,” I said.
“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”
“That’s what my family does now,” I guessed, suddenly puzzled myself.
I changed my plan. Thank goodness for the clarifying effects of higher education. Looking back, I see that boy as passionate, stubborn, anxious, and adrift.
My freshman English teacher had jotted on one of my gauzy essays about our lost land, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I feared he knew the writer only in his latest role, as a talk-show freak.
One day soon after Gopher’s visit, I drove to Joe’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the padlocked gate across the entrance. Usually I went out just before Joe got there, and gave his birds fresh water. I walked around and looked; it was late fall or early winter, the dry season, still hot. Duck Valley was languorous at midday, but being alone there felt spooky. Joe’s homing pigeons bobbed across the ridge of the farmhouse’s rusty tin roof, cooing mournfully in the sun. The chickens stayed unusually still and quiet. Ducks and geese dozed in the shade of the farmyard’s dark eighty-foot pines, evergreen exotics from Australia whose heavy gray branches sawed overhead in the breeze.
When I returned later that afternoon to tend the poultry, I found the chain on the gate cut. The pens that had held gamecocks stood empty.
“Gopher,” Joe said when he arrived. “That son of a bitch.”
“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it’d be Gopher. He’s going to fight your roosters and get them killed.”
“He’s already sold them.”
Going home to the beach across the dark river bridge, my ears still ringing with the sound of crowing roosters, I thought Was Gopher watching me, waiting for me to leave? What would’ve happened if I’d driven in and surprised him? I imagined the sting of a blade at my windpipe, the pressure of a pistol’s muzzle against my neck.
Melodramatic, maybe, but I was a melodramatic kid—I thought of myself as romantic but there was scant difference—and I came by such leaps honestly. Even before I started reading The Miami Herald, which Dad left strewn each morning beside his breakfast setting, Mom shared its juiciest stories—grisly tales sifted from across Florida and the lower south. She told me about a kid who built a flimsy bridge of cardboard, sticks, and scrap boards over a swamp, fell through it, and got eaten by a giant alligator; about two vengeful men, just released from prison, who abducted a judge and his wife, tied them up and lashed concrete blocks to their necks before throwing them, crying and begging, into the sea. Melodrama lurked just a hair’s breadth from order.
That’s the thing about my south, it was lovely but shadowed—haunted by fierce animals, by riptides, gales, and lightning strikes out of the blue, by evil men. Beneath placid surfaces, pointless menace. At least ten years old before I stopped spotting “Whites Only” signs nailed up at water fountains and restrooms along backroads in Georgia, I was primed to put a hammer, at the very least, in Gopher’s hand. Thinking about him, even now, I feel my mind pulled, irrationally but irresistibly, toward a crime scene, toward the coffin-like relic in Joe’s woods.
Upon my transfer to the University of Florida, three hours north in Gainesville, my father told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” He’d succeeded without a college degree, true, after Cornell University expelled him for landing an airplane on its lawn. And I’d already gotten the same bleak impression about real writers myself, from reading everything by and about my hero Ernest Hemingway. Not knowing how to answer Dad, and surprised he’d guessed my plan, I just walked away.
As a boy, when I’d read one of my sentimental poems to him, he’d silently listen and say nothing afterward. So awkward—when of course I craved his applause. In one poem, written when I was about twelve, I depicted wild ducks swimming among water lilies in “tumid sloughs of bald cypress swamps” and extolled them, in their command of air, water, and earth, as “jovial masters of mysterious good fortune”; in another, about farming, I pined for “moonlit nights and heavenly sights of cattle knee-deep in clover.” In the first instance, Dad may have wondered how much mastery ducks truly possessed—he’d shot them out of the sky himself; in the second, as a former rancher, he surely winced at the bloat risk to steers from such lush legumes. I now know my naked emotions made him uncomfortable. And, as a man of action, he probably didn’t feel competent to judge poetry. He’d had a fine boarding-school education in Michigan, though, and probably suspected my childish verse was bad. Rather than praise ignorantly or falsely, he kept his counsel. Maybe that was a blessing, because Dad never softened his rare pronouncements for his children. “You’re an extremist,” he told me after I took up jogging in a friend’s worn-out wrestling shoes and briefly crippled myself. He was concerned, I realize—and I was an extremist, like him in that way—but objective judgment doesn’t feel much like love to a kid. While I kept sharing my writing with him, I protected myself by never expressing my hope to become famous for airing my emotions in words. I didn’t trust him with my dreams.
I majored in journalism at UF, my compromise—you couldn’t just bullshit, as in English papers, and journalism led to a job, of going out and getting stories—but mostly, I still wrote poetry. One day, during my class on William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, I scribbled lovesick verses I labeled “Lament,” a sing-song poem inspired by a girl back in Satellite Beach, which read in part: “I saw a white dove winging by/She made me think of you/Just a city pigeon, really/So call my memory rue.”
Meanwhile, my journalism professor, Dr. Rob, a distracted-looking fellow who’d been a foreign correspondent, tried to teach me newspapering’s inverted-pyramid writing structure and Associated Press style. He ordered us to compose right there in our classroom, under the west bleachers of the football stadium. Our room roared as nifty IBM Selectrics struck at our crisp typing paper like snakes. Having studied Hemingway’s spare prose on my own, I was a whiz at slamming Dr. Rob’s stray facts into declarative sentences of decreasing importance. I preferred not to use AP style, however, thus reducing A papers to Bs. I can still see Dr. Rob’s grimace as he returned mine. “Consult your AP stylebook!” he commanded as he dropped a blunt forefinger on the unopened reference book atop my desk. I viewed AP’s rules as arbitrary, certainly beneath art. Mostly I was insecure—what if I tried for an A and still got a B?
Assigned by Dr. Rob to write a feature story, I digressed into a lyrical description of an obscure campus building:
The small building was battened behind tall shrubs.
Of course, “battened” got circled—how well I remember pleading with my professor that it was, indeed, the word I wanted. But “batten” commonly means to thrive, feed glutinously, or fatten. So my remonstrance only produced in kindly Dr. Rob a furrowed brow and a slow shaking of his graying head. From sailing with Dad, I actually knew battens as slats of wood that stiffen sails. Somewhere in my fevered twenty-year-old brain, I must’ve recalled another nautical usage, to fasten tightly—as in “Batten down the hatches, matey!”—which challenged my supposed readers with a huge metaphorical leap involving shrubbery. My imprecision suggests how the wooly self and its damp associations might have clasped hands with sober craft. If I’d bothered to open a dictionary or thesaurus, to look up “batten” and read its actual meanings, to probe my notion, I might have tried this odd metaphor on Dr. Rob:
The small building seemed fastened in place by tall shrubs.
Or an even grander rhapsody:
Marooned in a campus backwater, the low building was encircled by overgrown shrubs that lapped at its eaves.
Overblown, yes, though better than hoping to awe readers with a confounding usage error. Anyway, the lowly structure was where my interview subject only worked and possessed scant relevance. The whole debacle was probably stoked by an impulse to conjure Duck Valley.
During nights that first fall away, I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman named Silas Tidewater. While hunting raccoons one black night, he pokes out an eye on a dead branch, stumbles into an abandoned cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day, a pregnant unwed girl—whom I based on Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s bearing the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link to Silas Tidewater. Amid “sun-heated grass rippling” and “rusty children’s swing sets glazed with dew,” my plot relied on vague implication. But some cosmic equation was, apparently, at least to me, being revealed. The poem ended, “Big changes coming.”
Next I tried to write a short story about Joe. How he was a throwback to vanishing southern virtues, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How all summer the balmy evening air at Duck Valley carried a honeyed infusion of citrus blossoms. How the lavish sunsets out there stranded bruised-blue clouds in a sky swirling with neon yellow, orange, red. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.
I missed Joe. The relevance of yearning for my latest father-figure, however, was lost in the murk of my general angst. I might have applied here one of my favorite Hemingway principles: the need to build a pedestal is more significant than whom you place atop it. Joe had taken time for me. Shortly after I first started helping him, we’d gotten talking one night and were still in the farmyard at 11 o’clock, leaning against his car, when Dad pulled in with one of my brothers, looking for me. Meeting Joe had been a dream come true—he had animals: dogs, poultry, pigs; he had a farm—but Duck Valley had begun to seem unreal, like one of my boyhood fantasies of reclaiming our Georgia farm.
In my story, Joe crooned his love for his land and fowl as he carried a feed bucket, attended by his sensitive apprentice, who carried an unnamed burden. Somehow I worked in gone-to-hell gardens full of collards and beans. Though the story oozed setting, nothing happened in it.
But so much beauty, so much loss—how to express it, what to do with it?
“Oh that magic feeling,” the Beatles sang from my stereo. “No where to go.”
During my long first summer in Gainesville—Mom insisted her children attend classes year-round—I wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his silent father. Again, there was no plot to speak of, mostly atmospherics. At the end, the wake from the Yankee father’s sleek white fiberglass boat swamps a smaller craft piloted by a snowy-haired old man. He’s a native, his righteous status signaled by his boat: small, chunky, green, humbly shaped from wood.
As always, Hemingway was my model. How exhilarating it had been at eighteen to see that a writer could possess a shaping aesthetic, especially his astringent “iceberg theory,” which elided backstory and sometimes submerged even causal events. He loved to expound upon that particular maxim, and his short stories were indeed miracles of implication. And oh, such lyrical descriptions! He made me admire white boulders in a rushing river and despair over a soaked cat in the rain; see snow powder a fox’s fur and wind turn a sparrow’s feathers. I also saw how he set nature’s timeless, indifferent beauty against sudden human violence—maybe another influence on my feelings about Gopher.
At the time, Georgia-born novelist Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I submitted my story in a class taught by one of his graduate students, a burly fellow whose entire head was shaved, a rare and intimidating look in the 1970s. But it was Crews who epitomized the Hemingway-esque writing guru: more wounded and more macho than thou. I never even thought of taking a class from Harry Crews himself. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students half to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. In photographs, Crews—with a scowling mouth and a bird-of-prey stare—resembled an axe-murderer from lover’s lane. In later years, on his upper right arm he tattooed a skull and alarming words by a more button-downed writer, E. E. Cummings: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”
Everyone nattered about a famous short story Crews had published, “The Unattached Smile.” The one about a kid who has sex with his sister? It wasn’t only true, it was autobiographical. (Actually he didn’t even have a sister, only an older brother.) Harry Crews was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because fortunately he’d been born into abject poverty. With a violent alcoholic stepfather. Among sharecroppers so ignorant they ate dirt. Imagine his luck! We didn’t know that the wild man had first hedged his bets by earning a master’s in English education. Or how, amidst his drinking and brawling, Crews had made himself into an artist; his diligent effort included painstakingly outlining Graham Greene’s novels. I doubt I’d read the interview in which Crews expressed contempt for timid student writers. But that was my problem, right there, my fear. I didn’t think I could withstand his scrutiny—Crews would’ve smelled a sterile Florida beach town on me. He was authentic; I wasn’t.
For what little it was worth, I had more southern cred than I was aware of. I hadn’t yet noticed the influence of my mother, a great southern cook who’d grown up in the Little Dixie region of southeastern Oklahoma. Or the imprint made by my earliest days in Georgia and return visits there. Unknown to me, I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, albeit in an effete British sportscar; scorned scotch and favored bourbon, Wild Turkey, the 101-proof batch; hunted and fished; read southern writers; and kept a rifle and a shotgun under my bed.
And then there was the reality that my scorned hometown, situated between the deep blue sea and a broad teeming river, while it wasn’t in Georgia, happened to be an earthly paradise.
Starting my senior year, I was unhappy with my major of journalism, but it was too late to switch to English, with Mom after me to graduate on time, if not early, so Dad could retire.
One day I went to see Dr. Rob about something that was troubling me. “How,” I asked him, “do you get people to feel the way you do?”
He stared at me for a moment, shook his weary head, and looked down at the papers piled on his desk. I can’t blame him. For one thing, I’d resisted his best efforts. For another, what a question! Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching. He might have shown me how Hemingway compressed elemental, unspoken emotion into each apt word, into each headlong or halting sentence rhythm. Hemingway, like my father, was the son of a man who’d killed himself—he was hurt into noticing. His stoppered, insistent feelings fueled his witness of the telling details and specific actions that could move others.
Finally I turned my short story about Joe at Duck Valley into what was labeled New Journalism then, what’s called creative nonfiction now. I’d always sensed Dad’s jealousy of Joe, but was proud of the piece and showed him the graded copy from my journalism feature-writing class. He cocked his head, reading the teacher’s red ink, including this tart comment beside “Requiem for a Southerner,” its stately title: “Derivative. Plays on established work. Recast.” Dad nodded, handing it back. “He’s tough,” he said approvingly. In a national contest for student journalists, my essay—obstinately not retitled—placed seventh. It opened with a first sentence I was proud of, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:
The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.
But I left out Gopher.
No serpent in the garden. No envisioned death. Not even the hint of actual danger that, briefly, had jolted me. Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living. And I elevated and feared my ambition. I didn’t know Harry Crews had written several novels and piles of stories before he turned desperately one night to what personally resonated.
Dad, who understood effort, caught me after graduation, just before I left home for my first job, at a newspaper in Georgia. “I think you can be big in this business,” he said. “But learn the craft.” Great advice, I knew even then. While he mistrusted the emotions that fed literature—or at least my attempts at it—he had the second part right. Run your emotionalism across the craftsman’s workbench, he seemed to say, and make for those feelings a sturdy container.
After three and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida, I won the chance to study anything I fancied in graduate seminars at Ohio State. During that watershed fellowship year, spent devouring literature, philosophy, history, religion, I met my future wife. I followed Kathy to Indiana and took another newspaper job; we married, and stayed in the north. Dad retired, bought five acres near Duck Valley, and ran a successful nursery until shortly before his death. I helped raise two children, lost touch with Joe, forgot Gopher, quit following Harry Crews.
In the newsroom, obedient after all to AP style, I grew as a craftsman steadily and in sudden leaps. For my first three years, in the south, I hadn’t been able to write a compelling news feature and then I could, having learned to focus on the story’s core meaning. By the late 1980s, awards crowded my dresser for covering fires and murders, for writing investigative series and lengthy profiles. I chafed against newspapering’s objective style, an author-denying fiction that in its highest expression—I had to admit—fostered inquisitive rigor. I wasn’t immune, either, from the peculiar bitterness that afflicted many newspaper reporters. This resentment stemmed, I believe, from the clash between writing’s intrinsic values—thoughtfulness, sensitivity, comely expression—and editors’ insatiable need for minimally acceptable copy in the impersonal style. Making one’s point took skill, with evidence amassed to support a perception that couldn’t be admitted was the writer’s. Paradoxically, if reporters mastered the format, their work was considered well-written or powerful because readers could sense subjective, ordering intelligences at work. Sometimes with delicate topics or controversial issues, though, the objective style’s implicit denial that a lone human was defining reality could enrage readers.
When I attended conferences of Indiana journalists, I lamented workshop leaders’ fixation on what I saw as craft basics fit for college freshmen. I theorized that this was to keep everyone from talking about important matters—such as, reporters were writers, even if they had to disguise it. But “writer” implies more agency than “reporter,” and might’ve raised troubling questions regarding autonomy. These continuing education venues made my profession seem stunted and stunting. A middle-aged feature writer at my newspaper shocked me by complaining that editors had not provided him with a dictionary. Invest in your own? Buy more than one? His passivity didn’t fit my definition of a professional writer, which he was, at least literally, and his attitude seemed in part inculcated by newspapering’s lowliest conventions. I wonder now if I was a bit jealous of him, a features writer. My insecurities and ambition had pointed me toward facts and figures, toward “issue” stories that editors needed and valued as front-page news. Offsetting my fears of becoming a hack, I earned a social-science stamp of approval by making fodder for thinking citizens and decision-makers, by helping the adult world go ’round. And I knew it was possible for reporters, a few of them anyway over the decades, to become writers as columnists.
After my experiences at two of Florida’s flashy, aggressive newspapers, however, I looked doubtfully at my mild Midwestern brethren, and probably they at me. “Florida is a great newspaper state,” we used to crow there, meaning it overflowed with dramatic stories. One day I wrote a front-page account of a man whose boat sank in the Gulf Stream and who claimed he fought off a shark as he treaded water, punching it in the nose as it snapped its jaws in his face. Later that same week, I wrote a “roundup” of animal incidents that all happened on the same day: a rabid fox wandering into a neighborhood; a pit bulldog mauling someone; an alligator biting a boy’s arm as he snorkeled in his neighborhood’s drainage pond.
Then there were the lurid crimes. “Florida is like a sink trap for the lower south,” an older reporter explained. “People at the end of their rope can just make here before their car gives out, and so can people who are chasing the wrong dreams.” Here’s the murder I covered that gave me nightmares: a wife, assisted by two women who worked with her in her husband’s optometry lab, laboriously beat to death their husband/employer—it wasn’t easy!—using apothecary jars, a bottle-capper, and a cast-iron skillet—the poison hadn’t worked!—because they wanted an all-female staff. The man’s 13-year-old stepdaughter, Eden, helped finish him off.
Despite such journalistic manna, I’d gotten another chip on my shoulder at that very paper, my hometown rag. Distressed by editors I considered sleazy—more interested in a sensational headline than in allowing me another day to investigate—I had studied journalism ethics. (When I mentioned this topic to Dad, he said he hadn’t known such a topic existed. Zing!) My reading convinced me that despite how difficult editors or conventions made it, I was responsible for my soul. In other words, I should embrace writing’s larger ethos, which demanded that writers, like everyone else, become ever more human. The default position in that newsroom, in contrast, was What would a journalist do? This was micro-ethics, my reading taught me, a narrowly utilitarian view that, I felt, abetted a gotcha-and-gone stance toward “sources,” any innocents who wandered into the media’s maw. I pictured my editors directing coverage of mass rioting and, in the interests of fully informing readers, publishing plans for making a Molotov cocktail. Journalists are a feedback loop, of course, but I couldn’t see how they were exempt—as professionals, as writers, as humans—from allegiance to their society’s wider humane values. There is a discipline called journalism ethics, I learned, and I went down a rabbit hole looking for answers there, but it did clarify my thinking.
The objective style, as always, didn’t care how I was bearing up as one of its agents. Early in my years at my second and final Indiana newspaper, I poured my heart into an essay arguing that a writer, despite all constraints, breathes beneath even the driest hard news story. Since any written account must make a point, the writer-journalist’s perceptions, an amalgam of intellect and intuition, are its inherent heart. The writer’s intent, though seemingly rejected and always obscured by the objective style, was paramount. Reporters gave voice to an institution charged with a public trust, I allowed, but they mustn’t evade personal responsibility for what they wrote. I quoted something I’d read by Hemingway that had rung in my head since my teens: “If you stay in newspapers long enough, you’ll only see words.”
Along with his gift for damning others and presuming their resulting shame, Hemingway had a point, I feared, and that’s what ultimately I explored in my critique. (I’ve never located those exact words by Hemingway, though I’ve found similar warnings he issued.) I took his meaning to be that newspaper reporters, mired in a format that steadily attacked their personhood, could get stuck at the superficial surface of presentation. Estranged from their own sensibility, they beat the sense out of words. While I hoped I’d learned to surmount this—and felt, as good journalists do, quietly heroic in my service role—the notion that daily journalism was harming me as a writer dogged me.
I mailed “Traces of the Writer at Work: Overcoming the Enshrinement of Craft in Journalism” to a favorite professor back at Ohio State; an English major himself, he’d gone into newspapers, won a Pulitzer for writing editorials, and finally fled into academe to teach literary journalism. His crisp response was that my small-town Hoosier daily was obviously torturing me and to get myself to a bigger newspaper that valued good writing and could afford the time it took. Kathy and I had put down roots, though—my days of rapid relocation were over.
Easing deeper into my thirties, preoccupied with work and family, I never thought about that day at Joe’s. But I wished that I’d taken a writing class from Harry Crews, despite his bluster and my timidity, and had put that story, real or imagined, before him. That likely would have been a disaster, I know. What the fantasy probably meant is that I needed to write—in fiction or nonfiction—about one alternative fate. If nothing else, that might’ve shown me that what a person thinks he sees fully in a flash isn’t ever complete but takes forever, in comparison, to create. Your vision surely emerges from your deepest self, but what channels it into art is slogging craft.
Harlan parks under the pines in Joe’s farmyard and walks toward Gopher’s truck, backed up to the breezeway between the house and the barn. Gopher and someone else are moving at the tailgate. Roosters cackle crazily from pens under the trees behind the house. Are they loading chickens? Did Joe sell him chickens?
Gopher strides along his truck and halts facing him. Harlan stops short, unable to speak as he grasps what’s happening and sees Gopher’s narrowed eyes decide. Gopher pulls a black revolver from a back pocket and holds it casually, pointed at his belly. Small caliber, rust pitted, a tool kept as handy as pliers. Gopher’s companion drifts up, a man with stringy dark hair, wiping his palms on his jeans. “Hold this on him,” Gopher says, handing him the pistol. Harlan sees embarrassment for him in the helper’s sad brown eyes that look into his. Gopher opens his truck’s door, grabs a short thin rope, and springs forward before Harlan can raise a foot. Two hard hands grip his shoulders. Gopher’s snarling, it’s the rope in his teeth, as he wrenches Harlan around to face his car far across the farmyard. A loop closes on Harlan’s left wrist; quick wraps cinch the other. A final biting tug and Gopher spins him again and shoves him past the truck.
“Piggin’ string comes in handy,” he says as he takes the gun. “Finish loading.”
Harlan stumbles into the cool breezeway and almost collides with unfamiliar wooden citrus crates stacked beside Joe’s feed barrels. Gopher’s fist, full of his shirt, jerks him into the sun.
“Just gonna leave you tied in the woods, kid.”
“Move!” A knuckled blow between his shoulder blades. He pitches forward, hot tears glazing his vision. He gasps. Obeys.
Past wire pens, newly empty, they shuffle at arm’s length apart into a dry ditch through crackling oak leaves and up into the dry woods. They lurch as one, over brown pine needles, across bare white sand, around thickets of grayish palmettos. Gopher pushes and steers him, the rope’s tail jumping against his thighs. Vision narrows, edged in a dark blur; nostrils swell with pine resin’s tang.
Through low branches ahead, light splashes on a yawning black mouth in the forest floor. The old cow dip. A hard kick behind his right knee and Gopher’s fist in his back send him down, kneeling at the vault’s lip. His eyes follow its warty concrete sides into water as dark as used motor oil. His mouth falls open when the gun barrel jabs into his neck.
Real soul-shaking gratitude takes the taste of blood, I think, for most of us. I once imagined I’d cheated death, but I never quite felt it, not for long anyway. By not writing about my experience, about my almost-close call or even about what did happen, I didn’t extract or create its meaning.
Craft and self finally come together for me in this way: had I kept trying to write an artistically realized narrative, maybe I’d have become someone sooner who could get down such an essay or story. My old conundrum—How do you get people to feel the way you do?—flared sometimes in my role as a crusading journalist; it simmered when I shifted careers into book publishing as I turned 40. I wonder only now, writing this, if that question—and my subsequent obsession with the relationship between the self and its expression through craft, between effusions from the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” as W. B. Yeats put it, and graceful form—arose in my first efforts to win my father’s attention and move him.
Upon turning fifty, having lived much of the life I might have lost (the good woman I’d never have met, her love, our children, our work, our homes, a farm), I entered a low-residency MFA program in creative writing. I studied literary craft in new depth: scenic presentation, the writer’s reflective persona, dramatic structure. Though I still loved Hemingway’s stories, I questioned the usefulness for most fiction of his never-explain principle, and found repellent his egotism in nonfiction; I reconsidered his pedestal theory, because of course the person placed there is also important. I nodded as Virginia Woolf elbowed him from his dusty throne in my heart.
Locating Harry Crews’s memoir of his Georgia boyhood, published the year after my graduation from UF, I experienced a story as magical and horrifying as any fairytale. That masterpiece ends with his exile: Crews lost his unlettered people when he served in the Marines and thereby joined the foreign wider world; I understood how lonely he must have been, an outsider likewise in the university. I wrote about the sadness I’d felt as a boy when we left our cattle ranch and how that loss spurred the acquisition of my own land. I wove throughout my memoir my complicated father—his wounds, his gifts, his legacy.
I had earned my bread with words for decades, and had told many others’ stories, but had never told my own or written a book-length narrative. I’d drive into town to teach freshman composition and then return to my desk in an upstairs corner of our Ohio farmhouse, marveling at how much I was learning. No longer a young man, I found myself a young writer still.
I’m learning the craft, Dad, I’d think as I worked.
Photographs courtesy of the author: Joe Grezaffi, ca. 1974. The author, holding one of Joe’s chickens. The author’s senior journalism class in the spring of 1977, at The Gainesville Sun, where the author sits center-front at the typewriter between the two computers.
RICHARD GILBERT is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, about the decade he and his family farmed in Appalachian Ohio. An adventure story of loss, dreams, place, and fatherhood, Shepherd was a 2015 Ohioana Book Award in Nonfiction Finalist. An essay adapted from it, “A Dry Year,” was nominated by Chautauqua for a Pushcart Prize. His recent essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named a “Best of 2016” by Longreads; Proximity published his essay “Don’t Call Me Dick” in 2015. Other work has appeared in Orion and Utne Reader. Gilbert has taught at Ohio University and Otterbein University. Previously, he worked in book publishing for Indiana University Press and Ohio University Press. In earlier years, he was a journalist, honored for feature writing and public service. ☆ Judge Ted Conover selected “That Day at Joe’s” as first runner-up of Proximity‘s 2017 Narrative Journalism Prize.