Thirty years ago, in the spring of 1985, I had the great fortune to find myself in Paul West’s English 412 class: Advanced Fiction Writing. I think it was likely one of the last times he taught undergraduate fiction at Penn State. Sadly, Paul experienced health problems that knocked him out of commission for the latter half of that semester. I’ve never forgotten, however, that although a substitute was found to finish the semester in his stead, Paul continued to read and comment on our work from his sick bed. He prefaced his commentary on one of my stories with the line, “You can write.” I’m not sure he understood how three small words could change the course of a person’s life.
Several years later, I returned to Penn State to do my MFA in Fiction Writing. I’d done so because of those three words. I fondly recall walking into Paul’s seminar on the first day of class, six years down the road from our last encounter. As I took my seat, Paul eyed me, smiled, and said, “You’re back!” I was gobsmacked to have been remembered, but that’s Paul, isn’t it?
I have so much to thank (and curse!) Paul for. Though the demands of life and career have made me a frustrated, part-time fictioneer, I’ve kept at it and have even managed to publish a few things over the years. There have been times I’ve considered giving up, but then I dip into one of Paul’s books and, a few days later, find myself back at my desk. In that sense, Paul’s always been there, a gentle scold looking over my shoulder and urging me on. If today I have the sense I’m finally beginning hitting my stride as a writer, it’s only because Paul raised me up out of my crawl all those years ago.
Today I learned of Paul’s passing in his home in Ithaca, New York. For several years, Paul and his wife Diane Ackerman have bravely fought on in the face of numerous challenges, including a stroke that affected the language center of Paul’s brain. Miraculously, he not only recovered, but resumed his writing and added to his remarkable body of work. Pity for us his pen (and his trusty Smith-Corona) have been stilled, but Paul’s will be a rest well earned.
As a tribute to Paul, I submit this essay which I originally prepared for the Paul West panel as part of the 4th Biennial &Now Festival of Innovative Writing & the Literary Arts.
The Paul West Experience: Liberating the Microcosms
I remember the puckish Derbyshire voluptuary of the word ever enthroned in the seat of honor at our seminar table, how his calm resonant wisdom and heavy-lidded vitality belied the little boy, still there within in him, scanning the Eckington horizon for a murky Luftwaffe formation of Dorniers or Heinkels and, hot on their tails, the RAF DeHavilland Mosquitoes who, inverting their pesky handle, put a resolute 20mm swatting to the Hun. On warm days, he welcomed us in tattered red gym shorts, perhaps a slapdash nod to his brief teenage jock career as the Eck cricketer infamous for bowling deadly beamers. To this he added untucked dress shirt (Oxford of course) and a well-worn pair of brown loafers–no socks. When the weather turned a bit cooler, velour sweat pants replaced the shorts. Looking back, I now wonder if he’d come to us so hastily dressed because only moments removed the writing desk where, he claimed, he liked to work nude. Hair raked over dome in a raucous, kinky tarp, it sparked more than once in the Allen Way Building–that bristling was the energy animating this iconoclast so on the outs with the English Department he made only rare forays onto campus and so sent word to us fictioneers to meet at the Allen Way, his home away from Ithaca home, in the fifth-floor conference room just down the hall from his apartment and adjacent to the laundry. To fortify our efforts, he always donated two bags of Pepperidge Farms cookies, Milanos the constant paired with an ever-changing mate.
Read the entire essay. [PDF]