A Harry Education

Recently, one of my former journalism professors posted something about a new biography on the late Harry Crews. Like magic, my mind cued up my experiences with the author.

While studying journalism at the University of Florida during the mid-late 1990s, I figured I should take a creative writing class for one of my electives. Looking in the course catalog, I found one and proceeded to sign up. Turned out I needed a writing sample to turn in to be considered, so on the last day, I happened to have a copy of a short story I had done. Turned it in, went home.

Blood Bone and Marrow BookI received my class schedule a few days later (I think; memory’s foggy about that) and saw that I was enrolled. Thought nothing of it. Figured everyone would’ve gotten in.

Until I discovered that only a small number of students were admitted. And it was being taught by THE Harry Crews, although I was still a bit fuzzy about how big this guy was.

Turns out my grandfather was a fan of Crews’ work, owning quite a few of his novels. Right under my nose! He wanted me to have Crews autograph one of he books, but I felt too weird to ask, only to have another student thrust a book in front of him to sign. He gladly did it, but class was starting by this point, so I failed in my mission.

I wonder if I was the only one in the class who wasn’t aware of Crews’ backstory. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise; I just wanted to learn more about writing fiction, not revel in Crews’ past shenanigans.

The syllabus said the stories we’d be writing about wouldn’t include “talking cats.” So: literary fiction. Thank God I turned in a high-schooler-in-turmoil story and not my usual science fiction fare.

We had to turn in two stories that semester, so I went with more adventures from the high school universe.

I wish I could remember some piece of advice Crews imparted to the class. Half the time, it seemed like he was too sick to teach. I do remember the workshop setting. We all printed out our stories, then handed out copies to everyone to critique the following week. That was a strange feeling to hear people tear apart your work. The kicker for me was when just about everyone said that teenagers going to the mall just to hang out wasn’t “real enough.”

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I still have Crews’ graded copies of my stories. The first story had just three handwritten words from Crews: “Reads well. Credible.”

The second story was filled with red and black ink marks, starting at the top with: “Problem: There is nothing of significance that can happen in a mall.” Throughout the tale, Crews could not fathom high schoolers hanging out at the mall when they could be sneaking away to have sex. I’m sure that might be true in some instances, but that wasn’t how I saw it for the characters at the time.

Looking back at his remarks all these years later, I could see his points. I probably should’ve tightened up certain passages or jettisoned them all together. But back then, I was mortified and angry. I could hear that guy from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

(Actually, I was so ticked off by what they said about the story, I rewrote it to make it a bit more “realistic,” changed the narrator from the main character to a third person limited, etc.)

At some point he had told the class this would be his final semester teaching. My journalism brain immediately said, “Hey! You could do a story on him for your reporting class! Maybe even get it published!” So I asked him if I could interview him. He seemed hesitant but agreed to it.

We met in his office in Turlington Hall, which, if memory serves, didn’t have much of anything in it. Just his briefcase. With the help of my friend, Najah, I came up with a few questions to ask.

I was a bit nervous interviewing him. Even though his body wasn’t running at one hundred percent, he still looked like he could kick my ass.

The interview lasted about 30 minutes, although he tried to cut off the interview about five minutes sooner. Luckily I convinced him to keep going.

I wrote the story, edited it heavily with the help of my friend, Sheri, then gave it to my teacher’s assistant for my Reporting class.

I earned the highest grade out of all the stories I had written, and it was the last one of the semester. I did good.

When I tried to get the Independent Florida Alligator, the campus newspaper, to publish it, they refused. I tried to explain to the editor that he was a Pretty Big Deal and it was his last semester teaching, it didn’t matter. So it never saw the light of day.

In 2010, I went back to UF to participate in a Storytellers’ Summit. The keynote speaker was bestselling author Michael Connelly. During his talk, he mentioned taking Crews’ class back in the ’70s, but he didn’t take away any big revelations from the class, either. At least I wasn’t alone. But maybe I did internalize some fiction advice he gave during the class, letting it seep into my brain.

Two years later, I felt an appropriate punch to the gut when I read that Crews had passed away. I wished I had read a few more of his books (I’ve only read one of Crews’ novels, Scar Lover), wished I had given him that book to sign for my grandfather.

While one is impossible now, another I can rectify easily.

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