Where it starts
When Wire to Wire is published in June 2011, it will be part of a journey that started when I met the writer Jack Cady. Jack had one word that he said was the secret to making it as writer. In my case, it turned out to be true.
Jack was known for his novel, The Jonah Watch, at the time. Earlier, he’d published a story in Twigs, an obscure literary journal, that was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories. Joyce Carol Oates had chosen his collection of short stories, The Burning, for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and called him an important new voice. He’d also been a truck driver, an auctioneer, and a landscaper. He was tall, weathered, lion-like, and a force of nature when he talked about fiction. I met him at an extension class through the University of Washington in the 1980s.
A lot of what Jack told me is unforgettable. I still have my notebooks from that class, but I don’t really need them, because when Jack said something he thought was important, you tended to remember it. When I picture that class, here’s the image: A small classroom in Parrington Hall, a bunch of us at wooden desks, a cinderblock wall with a blackboard in front of us. On the top left corner of the wall was a No Smoking placard. On the top right corner, an identical placard. And for three hours, from 7 to 10 that night, Jack paced, talked, and smoked nonstop, like the auctioneer he had been, like the preacher he could have been, as he told us the truth about fiction.
I knew nothing at the time. I had never written a word of fiction. Clearly, this was a new religion, and I was hooked. A lot of people have helped me during this long trip, out of pure generosity. I’ll blog about them, for sure. But Jack started it.
Fiction is hard, Jack said, but I can always tell the difference between people who are going to make it and those who aren’t. People who are going to make it have one thing the others don’t. Tenacity.
I sat there thinking, in that case, I’m in.
Looking back, I realize he might have said any number of things. Not long after that class, I heard Richard Ford tell a group of us at Squaw Valley that there was no dishonor in deciding not to write. You make an honest try at fiction, and if after a while it’s not working, you put your burden down and do something else with your life.
Ford’s advice was and is realistic, honest, and very, very decent. You put your burden down. I wonder, sometimes, how my life might have been different if I’d heard Ford speak before I heard Cady. But I didn’t. Jack said all you have to do is not quit. So I didn’t.
I knew about tenacity, by the way, from the Tests of Manhood that D. C. Jesse Burkhardt (who would later become Iron Legs Burk) and I invented as teenagers in the town of Frankfort, Michigan (later to become Wolverine in W2W). More on that later.
This June, when the book finally comes out, a couple of decades after that night in Parrington Hall, one person I won’t be able to share it with is Jack Cady. He passed away in 2004.
So Jack, thanks. In some ways, this is all for you.
A song about the long haul and not giving up, from my blip.fm page: "Someday," by Cracker.