A Mimosa in the Driveway Allen Learst Guest Column

view_column A Mimosa in the Driveway

by Allen Learst

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

I first met Gordon Weaver in 1990 when I decided to attend the PhD Program in Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. I’d recently finished an MA at Northern Michigan University, quit the Fish and Wildlife Services after ten years, and listened closely to my mentor and friend, Ron Johnson, who suggested I attend OSU to work with Weaver.

Ron had just finished a book on Anton Chekov for Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction, of which Gordon was the General Editor. I was forty years old, insecure, worried about leaving my friends and my job. Ron reminded me that no matter what I decided to do, time would pass. He was right.

Who was this Gordon Weaver? I’d never heard of him. If you believe in kismet, as I do, then this may appeal to you. Ron didn’t have any of Weaver’s work on hand, but thought it worth my while to look for something he had written. One day in February — it was snowing — I parked my car in front of my favorite tavern, Ten O’Clock Charles, and walked three blocks down a slippery slope to Snowbound Books, an appropriate name since Marquette, Michigan gets 150 to 200 inches of snow each winter. I had a mission, didn’t expect to fulfill it, when I spotted a copy of Count a Lonely Cadence, published in 1968 by Henry Regency Company. The novel would become the film Cadence in 1989 — starring Martin and Charlie Sheen and Laurence Fishburne — a year before I walked into Dr. Weaver’s office and said, “I’m Al Learst. You’re my adviser.”

Weaver looked up from whatever papers he shuffled. “You’re a grown up, right?”

I said, “Right.”

“Then you know what to do.”

I had been dismissed. A Vietnam vet, I knew the drill; I spun on my heels and promptly left, though I didn’t salute. Later, I’d learn Gordon served in Germany as a translator, and our military experiences eventually became a catalyst for our friendship.

As far back as junior high, I wanted to write. Like many students, my preconceived notions of the writer’s life were romanticized. And my first meeting with Gordon did nothing to dispel the myths. This guy, I thought, has written some good stuff. I suppose Count a Lonely Cadence hit home because Gordon’s first person narrator, Fairchild Franklin Bean, suffers from the inanity of military life, the downward spiral of the Self as it’s challenged by authority, often misguided and unintelligent or uninformed authority, often confrontational simply because rank allows it to be so.

I’d heard rumors about Gordon. He was especially hard on students, it was said; his speech was as gruff as a drill sergeant’s; he was intimidating, belligerent, and he wouldn’t hold your hand. He often told students to be constructive in their criticism, and to leave their egos at the door, which many of them did not, and consequently many of them did not stay in the program.

In one workshop, a student (I’ll call him Jerry) critiqued a peer’s story, and thinking he’d done a thorough job of it, began to elaborate one detail inconsistent with a kind of rifle used in the story. “This story is flawed,” Jerry said. “It’s not believable because this particular rifle doesn’t work this way.”

Shifting in his chair, Gordon asked if it really mattered if a small detail like the one mentioned was important to a story with an otherwise strong voice and good premise. Wasn’t the inconsistent detail a matter of editing rather than creating the artifice of a consistent and authentic voice?

Feeling as if he’d been put on the spot, Jerry responded. “Well,” he said, “I was a captain in the U.S. Army and I know the detail is wrong.”

Gordon, who always seemed to have the last word, said, “I was a corporal, Jerry, and look who’s in charge now.”

Who is this Gordon Weaver? He is a teacher who cares about art; he is a teacher who believes writing can be taught, if you’re still willing to learn; he is a teacher who writes, and what he’s learned about writing he wants to share with you. I’ve come to respect writers whose work may not be anthologized, writers, who, for whatever reason, fly under the radar of popularity, writers whose work exceeds most aspiring writers’ abilities, writers who teach craft and impact a great number of people, so many they’ve lost count, and writers whose business is that of writing and teaching-a-writer’s writer. Gordon is one of them.

I took three workshops from Gordon, and in retrospect I appreciate his methodology, his pedagogy better than I did before. I’ve taught creative writing for ten years, and it’s often difficult to accept what appears to be a fact: Not everyone cares about writing as you do, not every student will love what he/she reads as you do; however, there will be one or two each semester who take writing seriously, who believe in some kernel of a device or experience you want to share. Of course, there will be students who will be successful, students on whom, in fact, you did make an impression and will never know about. This is a chance all writing teachers take — it’s a commitment.

I have a theory, or perhaps a question. What if we take the word “creative” out of course titles, and instead of naming them Introduction to Creative Writing or Advanced Creative Writing, we call them Explorations of Craft or Learning to Write from the Masters. It’s all semantics, I know, but my point is I wasn’t taught creativity, I wasn’t taught to perpetuate myths about writers, I was taught to practice my craft. In our culture, it seems, the word creative is often synonymous with anything goes. Where does this come from? I haven’t the slightest idea, but I can tell you this: Gordon Weaver published four novels, ten story collections and a book of poetry, which I have read and continue to read because I’m still learning from him.

We need more teachers like Gordon, teachers who value the art of writing rather than encouraging students to explore their psyches. Rather than building self-esteem and pandering to egos, we need teachers to give us a no nonsense approach to the craft of writing. I’ve met a few of them, serious teachers who take control of workshops and by analogy, anecdote, and experience, rather than abstractions or self absorptions, convey the tricks of their trade, as if constructive building blocks, each one a rhetorical strategy necessary to complete interesting and complex parts of a whole — a story or a novel, a poem.

Gordon is one of these instructors. For him, it is the artifice of fiction that’s important, a realistic and plausible world created by the author’s second self — a convincing narrative persona. In the Performing Self, Richard Poirier suggests that everything is a performance, and the artist’s task is to perform well. And so, we are invited to participate, to be entertained, enlightened, to share in the human experience.

As an associate editor for Cimarron Review at OSU, I spent many afternoons with Gordon, Editor and Director of Writing, who’d come in everyday for two hours to answer questions I had about the press, discuss a story considered for publication, and smoke a cigarette with me on the front porch of Morrill Hall. During this time, we had many discussions about writing fiction and teaching. Still mesmerized by his long career as writer and teacher, I’d pick his brain for impressions he had about the previous workshop, not because I took some vengeful glee over the fact he’d put one of my fellow students in his or her place, but because I hadn’t the same impression. One day Gordon said — we were on the porch, it was Oklahoma hot — “Learst. Some people can’t be taught.” I could hear the frustration in Gordon’s voice, and I could tell he was troubled or at least mystified.

One student (I’ll call this one James) wrote: There is a mimosa at the end of my drive, as the narrator watches a young girl back her car out of his driveway and leave his home. A harmless enough detail, I thought. Weren’t we supposed to use details? Concrete images with sensory details? James had the uncanny ability to present the same premise for each story he wrote — almost always a first person narrative, an older man around forty, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old female attracted to the forty-year-old man, and a cat.

But Gordon didn’t point this out to James. Instead, he asked, “What’s that mimosa doing at the end of your character’s driveway.”

James, an intelligent thirty-six-year-old graduate student, responded, “We actually had a mimosa tree at the end of our driveway.”

Before the words finished tumbling out of James’s mouth, Gordon said, “I don’t give a damn what you had at the end of your driveway.”

The class was silent.

“That’s not the point,” he continued. “The point is that you’re creating an artificial world here. If you don’t know why there’s a mimosa at the end of the narrator’s driveway, then how is your reader supposed to react? Where is the emotion in that image? What is the effect?”

James was silent, pondering I imagined, why he’d put that detail in. Later, James and I drove to the Kettle outside of town on Highway 57 for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It was raining, big drops of Oklahoma mud rain I’d never seen in Michigan. “You survive that?” I said.

“Weaver loved that story,” James said.

I wanted to ask James if we’d read the same story, if we’d been in the same workshop, but instead I said, “At least get rid of the cat.” It was my lame attempt to help James understand Gordon’s advice, but I knew then we weren’t on the same page, and I guessed James would never become a writer. And sometimes honesty gets in the way of friendship, but I took what Gordon said to heart, and as a writer it seems I’ve had to relearn this simple advice each time I sit down to write, but it’s served me well.

Perhaps I’m perpetuating the myth. Look what I’ve done. I’ve described a man, a writer, Gordon Weaver, and given him some unflattering and romanticized characteristics. If this were creative nonfiction, I might tell you about drinking vodka and eating barbecued ribs at Gordon’s house. I might include intellectual conversations we had if I wanted to create a persona for myself. More likely, though, I’d add a scene in which Gordon and I pull up in his Saturn to a giant smoker/grill trailer parked in the Safeway Supermarket lot. We’d get out of the car and there’d be rich, black smoke billowing from the grill’s stack. The smell of cooked pork swirls in the air. A tall woman with red-black hair tied in a bun turns to face us, a low-cut blouse, a cross resting in cleavage I’d surely exaggerate. Perhaps there’d be a glint of late afternoon light from her crucifix, deepening in the shadow between her breasts. And what would this be without dialogue? “Jesus H,” Gordon would say, when we got back into the car. “Did you see that?” I’d light a cigarette and say, “Holy smokes. I can’t believe it.” There’d be laughing because Gordon has a sense of humor. Then we’d turn into his drive, a mimosa growing in his front yard — its perfumed flowers mingling with the odor of barbecue.

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Allen Learst lives and writes in Minnesota. He has published in WATER~STONE REVIEW, ALASKA QUARTERLY, LITERARY REVIEW, ASCENT, and CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW.