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About Me

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Will Tinkham has published six novels: THE CARY GRANT SANATORIUM AND PLAYHOUSE, THE GREAT AMERICAN SCRAPBOOK, THE ADVENTURES OF HANK FENN, BONUS MAN, NO HAPPIER STATE, and ALICE AND HER GRAND BELL. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN. His short fiction has been published on three continents and he long ago attended Bread Loaf on a scholarship. An actor of little renown, his credits do include the Guthrie Theater and Theatre in the Round. @WillTinkhamfictionist on Facebook

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Meeting John Gardner

[Wikipedia: John Champlin Gardner, Jr. (July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982) was an American novelist, essayist, literary critic and university professor. He is perhaps most noted for his novel GRENDEL, a retelling of the Beowulf myth from the monster's point of view.]

It was the spring of 1982 when I received a phone call from the Bread Loaf Writers' Workshop asking if I'd accept a scholarship to attend their conference that fall. The call itself was a shock and came just in time for me to escape a nasty roommate situation. They asked, would I be arriving by car, bus or plane?

"On foot," I replied. "I guess I'll be hitchhiking..." I lived in San Jose, CA. The conference is held in Middlebury, VT. I was in no hurry. I had little money, no place to live and plenty of time. It took two months. (If you hang around this blog long enough, I'll likely tell the hitchhiking story.)

Twenty-five young writers received "working scholarships" that year. The "working" was waiting tables, something I'd never done before. They asked for a volunteer to take the children's table in the corner; they said the few children that had been dragged by parents to the conference always sat at that table. This seemed about my speed. The first night the table was empty and I happily ran food and bussed tables. That night a rather drunken John Gardner was one of the opening night speakers. He addressed the crowd with a succinct: "If you're not writing politically, you're not writing shit!" and stomped out of the hall.

The next day's conversation obviously centered around Gardner's "speech." That night I was in the kitchen, helping out where I could, preparing for the dinner meal, when a fellow waitperson rushed into the kitchen. "Carolyn Forché and her people are at your table!" she screamed. I protested that it said "children only" right on the table. "Tim O'Brien's at your table!" another voice called out. That can't be, I demanded as the kitchen door opened and someone cried: "John Gardner and his entourage are at your table!"

The children's table had become the big shots table (along with jokes about it still being the children's table) but that was the least of my problems: John Gardner was my "reader" for the event and had left a note in my box—along with the stories I had submitted—to meet in a few days and discuss my work.

Arriving early for our meeting, I found a University of Minnesota wrestler named George seated on the very couch I was to meet Mr. Gardner at. "I have a meeting with John Gardner," George said. When Gardner arrived he apologized for the mix-up and asked George to return in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes, I thought. I hitchhike across country for an hour-long meeting with this guy and all the bastard gives me is twenty minutes. He took the stories from me—he'd made no notes on them—and proceeded to give me detailed critiques on each of the three. From memory.

He pointed to one story and said: "I bet you'd get some laughs if you read this one in front of a group." I explained that I had read it the night before at the scholarship winners reading and, yes, it got some laughs. "Sorry I missed it," he said, looking sufficiently contrite. He looked at his watch and I could see that my twenty minutes were up.

But there was no George in sight and, to keep things rolling, I said the first thing that came to mind: "So, what about the 'you're not writing shit' speech?"

"What's been the hot topic all week?" he asked.

"Your speech," I admitted.

"Exactly," he said, and still no George. After a pause, Gardner asked: "Where you from?" I said San Jose, then mentioned the two-month hitchhike. This seemed to impress him more than my writing. "How old are you?" he asked. I said twenty-five. "That's a good time to be published," he said and pointed to one of my stories: "Lop off the last line of this one and I'll publish it in my magazine, MSS." About then George arrived.

I got a ride to Wisconsin from a fellow waiter and a lift from Minneapolis to Wyoming for a friend's wedding. I was back in San Jose by September 15, when the paper ran the story about John Gardner and his motorcycle crashing over a cliff the day before.

1 comment:

  1. Nice one. Would love to hear that hitch-hiking story some day. I'm glad he was good to his word and published your story.