I’m teaching a Brian Doyle essay this week, “The Anchoviad.” The second of two Doyle essays this term. Two weeks ago it was “Joyas Volardores,” Brian’s majestic exploration of the human heart by way of hummingbirds, whales, worms and bacteria. My students were rightly captivated—struck—by the abrupt swerve at the end of the essay, from insects and mollusks to startling considerations of human attachment. One student, a quiet Vietnamese-American from western Michigan, where she works in her mom’s nail salon, said she’d made herself read the last paragraph again, out loud, it was so breath-catching.
I told them a little about Brian—how he’d edited a university rag (Portland Magazine), as I too once had, and how welcome his comments had always been on the various listservs to which we editors subscribed. Always quirky, a fountain of sentences just this side of nonsense, yet always with some jagged truth to jolt you out of the office humdrum. Quips on editing, on faculty egos (“the only time we type Doctor is if you can remove kidneys, teeth, or neuroses professionally”), on the miracle of being able to make a living by making magazines. He was right.
For years I’d wanted to hire him to write for the public health magazine I edited, and in 2016 I nearly did. We crossed paths at a writers conference in Wyoming and talked about his writing a piece on water—Flint’s had just been poisoned, and I wanted to devote a whole issue to the topic. “Personally I think water is (a) the holiest of substances and (b) the great story of the 21st century,” he said in a follow-up email.
I told him I could pay a dollar a word, “if you’re a $1 a word kind of guy.” To which he responded:
i am not a buck a word guy – i am a story guy, and whatever you have to pay is plenty. I was thinking recently that I have been paid in wood, feathers, wine, beer, berries, a deer antler, jam, fish, and, for a while with a bird magazine, a dollar per essay. I once was paid in wine by the number of words by an Australian newspaper, but that was a mistake, and i found myself throwing in adjectives willy nilly hahahaha
I told him I was bracing for adjectives.
Sinuous serpentine riverine supple pliable rippled rippling burbling, he wrote back.
Not long after that exchange, Brian was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery. He died on Memorial Day 2017, not yet 60.
I shared our email exchange with my students after we read “Joyas Volardores.” Be that generous yourselves, I told them. What I meant was, if, in something as ephemeral as an email exchange, you have the option of being a mensch or being a schmuck, be a mensch.
In “The Anchoviad,” Doyle says of his then–three-year-old son Liam, whose habit it was to fall asleep every night with a can of anchovies in his hand: “He is a startling, one-time-only, boneheaded miracle with a sensory complex in his head and heart that I can only guess at and dimly try to savor in the few brilliant moments I have been given to swim with him.” Another frank reminder to cherish those we’ve been given to swim with.
Recognize the holy. Don’t take water for granted. Be generous. Be more generous.