Monday, August 13, 2018

My First Time: Tony Ardizzone

My First True Writing Teacher

“I’m not here to be your friend,” he said as he stood before us, fifteen or so nervous undergrads sitting around a long wooden table in a windowless seminar room on the second floor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s creaky English Building. The faint smell of chlorine hung in the air. We could hear the occasional soft thuds of volleyballs and the muted whistles of referees. At the time, Illinois’ English department was housed in an old building that did double duty as a women’s gymnasium. Picture a doughnut with the women’s gym in the center, the English department’s offices and classrooms flanking the gymnasium’s sides. The odor of chlorine was strongest in the classrooms on the first floor, where the swimming pool lay, hidden like the motifs and symbols in the poems and stories and novels we were studying. Sometimes the doors to the volleyball court up on the second floor were left open and we English majors saw a splash of color, a sea of variously colored Danskins, countless young women leaping about in their leotards, spiking the ball, blocking it back down over their opponents’ heads. “I’m not here to be your friend,” the new professor told us. “I’m here to break your bones.”

We’ll get to why he was new in a moment. For now, let’s put his opening words into context. Though we immediately thought what he had to say was harsh, hindsight invites me to consider that he began in this way to make us focus on our class, on the task at hand, rather than sit glumly in our chairs dwelling on the tragedy.

The tragedy. Our course’s assigned teacher, the distinguished writer and editor J. Kerker Quinn, died of a heart attack halfway through our previous class session. Word was he was reading one of our manuscripts and in the middle of a sentence slumped to the table. I wasn’t there to witness it. I was taking a course in Shakespeare’s tragedies and had fallen behind in my readings, and since I knew that Professor Quinn was putting off discussing one of the two manuscripts I gave him on the class’s first day I decided that morning to take one of my three allowed cuts. Later, early evening, in the kitchen of the fraternity house where I worked as a waiter for my meals, I overheard the pots-and-pans man tell the dishwasher that he’d heard some professor dropped dead in class. Where? the dishwasher asked. I think it was English, the pots-and-pans man said. You know, in one of those classrooms up on the second floor where you have to know which staircase to take unless you want to be blocked by the women’s gym.

I was taking Quinn’s class because my previous creative writing teacher, a rough-and-tumble teaching assistant whose comments about our work made one writer rush from the room in tears, recommended him to me. The TA had a hard time figuring me out. He said my writing lay somewhere on the cusp between fiction and poetry. His class had us write both genres, and he was a good sheepdog, driving the poets to one side of the pasture, the fiction writers to another. Since I was good at neither he left me in the center, sort of lost. When my fiction was discussed I was told it was overly poetic–one of the harshest insults a prose writer can ever receive. When my poetry was discussed I was told it was ruined by too much narrative. Once again, ouch! Take a class with Kerker Quinn, my TA advised. If anyone can straighten you out, he can.

J. Kerker Quinn
On the first day of the semester I gave Quinn two short stories I’d written over the summer. I believe I did my best to not make them overly poetic. But then again, I really liked words. That was part of the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I liked the way words looked on the page. I liked the way words felt in the mouth. I liked the way they sounded. And once a word or sound earned its way onto my pages, I liked allowing it to live there. I was like the friendly soul living at the end of the block who seldom turned away a stray cat. After the first few weeks of the semester passed and my work hadn’t been discussed, I stayed after class one day and asked Quinn when he was going to get to me. He told me he was saving my stuff for later. I took this as a good sign since the stories he was reading to us seemed to me to be growing increasingly stronger. At least, at the time that was my hope.

This was back before writing workshops made physical copies of student’s work. Back then the workshop director sat at the head of the table and read the student story aloud, commenting along the way, more or less like the director’s critical commentary on a special edition of a DVD. So we learned by listening. Before Quinn began reading us our stories, he lent us copies of the literary magazine he edited, Accent, and had us read and talk about some of the stories he’d published. We learned why out of the hundreds if not thousands of short stories sent to him he’d selected these.

Back then I knew only a handful of facts about J. Kerker Quinn, and it was only after his unfortunate death that I learned more about his life. Quinn was the founder and editor of the distinguished literary magazine Accent (1940-1960), which published and helped to launch the writing careers of, among many others, Richard Wright, E. E. Cummings, Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, William H. Gass, and Langston Hughes. He was the first editor to publish Flannery O’Connor, then a student at Iowa. Other writers he supported during the early and middle days of their careers included Nelson Algren, Eric Bentley, Walter Van Tillburg Clark, Malcom Cowley, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, J. F. Powers, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty. What I learned from Quinn during the time that he talked about our stories was that all too often our work resembled essays and it was not uncommon that the real story we had to tell actually began on page five. I also learned that the first page of a story was its most important page. If the first page wasn’t good, the editor wasn’t likely to read the second.

Before the new professor walked into the room you could hear our pencils idly scratching on our yellow legal pads as we sat around the seminar table, waiting. None of us talked. I never learned whose manuscript Quinn had been reading when he died, and I never asked. I often thought that if it had been mine I would have considered never writing again. Of course I was sad that he’d died but at the same time I was also selfish enough to feel disappointed that he’d never told me what he thought of my work. Of course I wanted his praise. I wanted this great editor, who recognized before anyone else the genius of Flannery O’Connor, to confirm that I was a fiction writer. Or, if he felt it was in my better interests, to kick me to the curb, send me to the opposite side of the English building and the vast, deliberately lined, then-confessional alien planet of poetry.

The professor who took over for Quinn was Daniel Curley, a tall man, rugged, with a ragged crew cut, flannel shirt, brown belt and corduroy pants. Decades later, with the help of his good friend and former writing student Roger Ebert, the distinguished film critic, Curley founded and edited a literary magazine titled Ascent, a clear nod to Quinn’s Accent. And years after that, Ebert, who confessed to having taken every course Curley offered and looked upon him as a father figure, co-wrote a lovely memoir with his former teacher, The Perfect London Walk. After introducing himself, Curley said a few words about Quinn’s passing, but only a few words, as I remember–this wasn’t the memorial service–and then he delivered the stunner, how he was there to break our bones.

Daniel Curley
Being a working-class kid from Chicago, what today we’d call a first-generation college student, Curley was speaking in a language I could understand. He spoke with what sounded to my ear like a slight British accent, though later I learned that he’d been born and raised in a town not too far south of Boston. Despite his flannel shirt and crew cut, he seemed to me to be quite a formal man. He took his seat at the head of the seminar table, then added, “Not all of them, mind you. Not all of your bones. Just the ones that have grown crooked. Just the ones that over the years have set themselves wrong.”

He then described how doctors moved through the Middle West in the early 1800s, traveling from town to town, treating the farm boys and farm girls who’d fallen from trees and broken an arm, who’d been kicked by a mule or cow and fractured a leg, who dislocated a shoulder, and so on, and as a result ended up funny, twisted, since the body has a way of healing itself regardless and broken bones, no matter how they’re set, harden back solid into bone. As a result the lands these doctors tended were full of people with gnarled and twisted limbs. In order for the doctors to make their patients’ arms and legs straight, the crooked bones they found would have to be broken. This would be true of our writing, Curley told us. Whether we realized it or not we each had taken on habits, bad habits, quirks. We came to rely on language that was easy and inexact. We embraced stereotypes. Clichés. We’d watched too many TV shows, read too few books. It was his task to break us of these habits, habits that didn’t do service to our purpose, which was to write strong, engaging fiction.

I don’t know whatever happened to the two stories I’d given to Professor Quinn – more than likely both were really lousy–but I immediately headed for one of the back tables in the Illini Student Union cafeteria, which at the time served as my writing room, and wrote a story for Dan Curley. At the time I was in a Nelson Algren phase and as a result I wrote a story about a wino in a neighborhood just south of where I lived, Uptown on Chicago’s North Side, a neighborhood known for its bars and pool halls and flashing neon lights, a neighborhood inhabited by hookers and hustlers and winos. In my story my central character, an unnamed wino, lay passed out in an alley when another wino spots him and then kneels down at my wino’s side and looks for a few moments at his face, then pulls off my wino’s boots, which my wino had been quite proud of, then stands up and walks away.

When Curley read my story aloud to the class and came to this climatic scene he paused for a moment, staring out into the air, and then said, “I can’t quite see that.”

He read the passage aloud again, this time more slowly, then pushed back his chair and stood and had us move about the room so that we could see him as he knelt near an empty space near the door. The unconscious man is lying here, he said, gesturing to the empty space before him. He had one of the other students read the section again. Curley played the part of the second wino. So here I am kneeling over the other man, he said, and now I’m looking at his face. What comes next? He steals the wino’s boots, the student said. Curley reached out an arm, miming the action. How? Curley said. I can’t quite reach them. Still kneeling, Curley swung his left arm down and then scooped it up. I can lift one of the man’s legs, he said, but I can’t reach his boots. He turned back to face the class. And even if I could touch one of his boots, he said, how could I pull it off? Standing now, he walked to where the first wino’s feet might lay and mimed lifting a leg and pulling off a boot–one hand at the toe, the other grasping the heel. Then Curley sat back down at the table and read my story’s final few paragraphs, though by that time I wasn’t listening. My ears rang with his words, his judgment. “I can’t quite see that.”

I learned more than I can explain that afternoon up on the second floor of the University of Illinois’ old English Building, as the sound of volleyballs thumped gently in the air. I learned that truly good creative writing teachers don’t so much teach how to write as they teach how not to. I learned that the best lessons a teacher can give a young writer are specific to the writer’s work. I learned that as a young writer I was too much in my head, not enough in my body. I came to understand that I was writing more from idea or concept than from my five senses. I learned that as a writer I had to see. Later I would generalize the lesson and add hear, smell, taste, touch. Perhaps I came closer to being a fiction writer that day as I sit here remembering–as my mind’s eye still sees–Dan Curley miming the actions necessary to realistically steal another man’s boots.

Tony Ardizzone is the author of seven books of fiction, most recently The Arab’s Ox: Stories of Morocco, an updated edition of his previously published collection, Larabi’s Ox. His novels include The Whale Chaser, In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, Heart of the Order, and In the Name of the Father. His work has received the Milkweed Editions National Fiction Prize, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, the Pushcart Prize, and two NEA fellowships, among other honors. A native of Chicago, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Click here to visit his website.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


  1. beautiful essay and tribute... love everything about this piece... love the pivotal roles of mentors... love the grace and gratitude that informs everything here, especially the lavishing of attention and affection without sentimentality, but then also the proof-in-the-pudding feel of using the skills learned to celebrate and honor those who gave those skills... love the history of ascent/accent...

    (Roger Ebert, another of Curley's successful students, wrote: "When I enrolled as an Illinois freshman, the challenge of autumn was like a jolt to my being. This was the big time. At 8 a.m. of my first day, I walked into a class taught by Daniel Curley, which I am essentially still taking. He handed out mimeo'd copies of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which is now so beloved by me and was then, as far as I could tell, hardly even written in English. And poems by e. e. cummings that seemed written on a broken typewriter. I believed I had entered at last into the realm of Great Writers, where Thomas Wolfe had told me I belonged.
    "It was late on a crisp autumn evening, after walking a girl home, reciting "anyone lived in a pretty how town, with up so many floating bells down," that I made love for the first time. And then walking home, always in the air, the knowledge that someone, somewhere, was burning autumn leaves."

  2. “I can’t quite see that”: quintessential Dan Curley. I went to U of I in the 80s, as a business major with vague liberal arts sympathies, and took the only creative writing class of my life from him. I can absolutely hear him saying that exact phrase, though I’d like to think it was more in reference to other students’ work than my own. He was tough, but always fair. Though I’m a banker now, I’m also a published fiction writer, and a lot of that is because of Dan Curley. While I write, I often hear his voice, engaged and encouraging, but also asking if that last sentence was really what I wanted to say. I will always remember him, and am lucky to have known him.