i.m. Stephen B. Oates (1936 – 2021)

Among the lessons I learned from Stephen B. Oates: avoid the curséd passive voice (pronounced with a Texas Panhandle twang and an accented “ed”); always put arms and legs on your minor characters; biography is a spring art of bringing the dead back to life; you too can write, you too can publish.

And so we did, his students. Because he showed us how. First day of his biography seminar, Amherst, Massachusetts, winter 1983: box of notes on the seminar table. “Here’s how I do it,” he began. He was a little man, wiry and gray as the miniature schnauzer I later learned he owned.

He talked us through the process (all of it pre-computer of course). Boxes with hundreds of notes, categorized in sections, all of it cross-referenced. A separate box for bibliography. A typed outline. “I print out the day’s outline and turn on music”—spirituals for his biography of Martin Luther King—”and read through the day’s material. I memorize it, then set it down and go upstairs and write. Closest I can get to writing from the imagination.”

He communed with his subjects—channeled Martin Luther King Jr., lived with Lincoln, died with Nat Turner. Little wonder his marriages suffered, or that, for years, he drank (I remember sharing the dregs of a bottle of Gallo with him in my grad-school kitchen at 2 a.m. one morning while we talked biography). He inhabited spook worlds, lived and breathed the lives of others.

He taught us that we could do the same. From him I learned the techniques of creative nonfiction, found a métier, summoned a courage, in my twenties, I can’t easily conjure now. When I eventually went into the classroom myself to teach, Stephen was my model.

Find what drives your students and push them, he’d shown me. Teach them they’ve got something to say, and a way of saying it. Show them how to do it—literally, talk them through the process of research, queries, publication, revision. This stuff’s not precious. A kid from Pampa, Texas—father a mechanic, mother a secretary—can sit at the table with the grown-ups.

After I finished that seminar in 1983, Stephen invited me to join a group he’d formed in Amherst, a small assemblage of former students committed to biography. We met monthly for dinner, read each other’s work, talked shop. We published lives of Elinor Frost, Eva LeGallienne, Mary Emma Woolley, Eleanora Duse, Federico García Lorca). We stayed in touch for the next 40 years. Even when he was battling debilitating back pain, Stephen was the soul behind it all: the quintessential teacher who never really retired from teaching.

He never grew cynical (not even—not especially—when charges of plagiarism splashed him into the deep end of the news stream). He held onto his reverence for the craft even after illness kept him from writing. He believed there was nothing more important, more glorious, than the moment you set the outline aside and go upstairs to your desk and start to write.

June 5, 1985

Two weeks ago, on a weekend trip to Chicago, I read Natasha Tretheway’s Memorial Drive. Couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t been that keen to read it—the story of her mother’s murder in Atlanta when Tretheway was 19. I’ve been interested in Tretheway’s poetry—in her use of form, particularly, and of course in her subject matter. But this book seemed too … topical? Is that the word? I wanted something more nebulous, ruminative, poetic. Not a murder mystery (I don’t read true crime or thrillers.) And then I began reading and was hooked, drawn in by imagery and voice, by the hollow at the heart of this awful story that Tretheway tries to fill but can’t.

Her mother was killed on June 5, 1985. Midway through the book I wondered what I’d been doing that same day, and I realized I was probably in Granada marking Lorca’s birthday at the end of my first year on the Fulbright. Stupefied by the beauty of the poppy fields on the train route south from Madrid, by the blaring symbolism of nearly everything I beheld (those blood red fields seeming to hold Lorca’s death in their folds). In sensory overload after seeing my first (and to date only) Corpus Cristi procession, the ethereal march of the sacrament through Granada’s canopied streets, attended by priests in frilly little-girl gowns. I remember a long, air-conditioned lunch afterward with newly met strangers, Americans, that afternoon.

Tretheway writes a lot about Lorca at the end of her book, leaning on him to examine the idea of duende, which she describes as “a demon that drives an artist, causing trouble or pain and an acute awareness of death.” She doesn’t mention the coincidence that her mother was murdered on what would have been the 87th birthday of the murdered poet. Twinned beings, both intimately in touch with the cruelty of our kind (racism, Fascism, machismo, domestic assault, guns). I’m not sure what to make of this chronological link. There’s something haunting, maybe even beautiful, in the fact that Tretheway herself doesn’t make the link—as if it would be too much, too neat. As if the hole left by her mother’s death—by Lorca’s death—is too big for coincidence. What if, instead, there’s a vast, collective cloud of grief and sacrifice and love hovering in our atmosphere, one big enough for each of us to dip into when we need it? Wafer into intinction cup; a moment’s communion.

i.m. Brian Doyle

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.

The View from My Window

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Last Wednesday afternoon, I was teaching, as I have off and on for some 20 years, James Agee’s hypnotic essay “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” It’s the last time I’m likely to teach it, so it was especially moving to me this time. I’ve got a terrific class of eight smart, quirky, avid first-year students. We got to talking about that haunting opening phrase—so successfully disguised to myself as a child—and what it meant, and I sent the students into breakout rooms to continue the discussion privately among themselves. This left me alone in my office for a few minutes, at my standing desk, looking out the window. Where I saw, unusually for a cold February afternoon, snow on the ground, twilight settling in, a child—a girl, I think—in pink leggings and a helmet and maybe a facemask (I couldn’t quite tell) balancing on a Segway. Spinning, actually, around the little circle of snow-shoveled macadam at the end of the neighboring street.

Successfully disguised to herself as a child, I thought.

And then another child: a boy this time, I think, on roller skates. Also helmeted and, possibly, masked. I couldn’t make out faces, could only guess at their ages and genders. But there they were, spinning in spheres wide and narrow as my students talked invisibly to one another about what Agee’s phrase meant to them in their lives.

Two adults, I thought, disguised as children, tracing circles on a patch of pavement. Not unlike Agee’s fathers with their hoses, and his mothers with their damp hands, and his kids running hell-bent through the neighborhood in 1915 calling out “those names by which they were known.” Spinning or circling in much the same way the adults in Agee’s essay talk as they lie on quilts in the fading light: “of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.”

My students are for the most part 18, and experiencing a first year of college such as few, if any, have ever experienced. Most are living at home; a handful have ventured on campus, where they’re under strict rules. Still, they’re game. They turn up at 4 pm on Zoom with smiles and water bottles and, last week, ice cream. They’re marvelously not children—well into the period when they’re shaping their adult lives. One wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a medical examiner, one wants to be president of the United States. As my students talked in their breakout rooms, I watched those two children on the street outside my window and remembered the strange maturity one feels a child, possessed of an uncanny wisdom about the world—a wisdom mostly disguised to outsiders. I feel something of that disconnect today—a child on the verge of retirement, still trying to make sense of my surroundings and my future. I’ve never quite understood Agee’s essay as clearly as I did last week, watching those two child-adults etching circles on a snowy street. Soon my students came back from their breakouts, and we resumed our conversation. When I looked out the window again the children had vanished.

Reading the News


“Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation / Grant us thy peace.” —T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

The sky’s still here, the sun’s out, the first bulbs are sprouting in the garden. Everything seems OK. But I fear the ghosts—the demons, devils, tribes—inside us. I remember the months I spent in the archives in Spain, principally Madrid and Granada, trawling through newspapers from the early 1930s. In particular, I remember the small articles, the notices so tiny they nearly dissolved among the ads—offhand reports of edicts against Jews in Germany; accounts of random violence in Madrid. None was more than a ripple in a lake, the benign burbling of some creature breathing beneath the surface of things. No storm yet, no kettle-drum rolls, no ominous movie soundtrack. Just incremental history, as slow as a cake rising in the oven, even, sometimes, sweet-smelling.

But still. There I sat, a U.S. government grant recipient paid to study the life of a gay poet murdered by Fascists in 1936. I sat there with my crisp and eerie knowledge of what later unfolded—the gradual and then sudden suppression of rights not only in Spain but across Europe; the bombs; the round-ups; the mass graves. Blessed with a hindsight I wish I had now, I knew where those little articles led. As I read them, I made invisible underlinings, reminding myself—as we’ve been reminded lately by the likes of Masha Gessen—that this is how it happens. The tanks don’t just suddenly appear on the streets: we get there in increments.

So how do we function? Do we merely note the warning signs and hope to survive?

I remember sitting beside the open window of the reading room inside the archive in Granada (a repurposed Renaissance palace, one of the loveliest archives I’ve ever used), reading those terrible newspapers from the summer of 1936—the black headlines, the trucks, the guns, how the city morphed overnight into a battleground. I’d take a break midway through my morning and go across the street for a coffee, and sit there chatting with the bartender, and wonder how this peaceful and pretty city could have turned so abruptly into a killing zone in our own century. The barracks, the truckloads of victims ascending the steep road to the cemetery next to the Alhambra, where the firing squad waited.

And here I sit now, in my own country, sipping coffee, chatting with friends. The sun is out, the streets calm. I read the headlines and turn the page and every so often wonder if 50 years from now a scholar on a government grant will be poring over the articles I’m reading today, asking how did they not know.

How long before we enter the time of cords and scourges and lamentations? Or are we there already and just don’t see it?

Snow, Unpublished

“Publication,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1863, “is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”

… We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Words of commerce—merchant, sell, parcel, price—mark this small poem (# 788). The implication is clear: to publish is to sell out, to enter the marketplace.

I’ve just spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan in what was once a department of “external relations” and for the past several years has been a department of “marketing and communications.” The obsession today is with our “brand,” with selling and promoting that brand, something universities are increasingly wont to do.

I’m glad to be getting out of the selling game, though I’m not in truth getting out. This bit of commercial property, for example: lesliestainton.com. What does that represent, if not myself in the marketplace? My “brand”?

We brand animals. We have branded people whom we regarded as property. So if we “brand” outselves, who owns us?

Dickinson urges that our “thought” belong “to Him who gave it,” not to the marketplace. To publication.

In the age of Facebook and all the rest of it, how quaint, the writer in her garret.

Here sit I in mine, gazing out the window at this week’s latest gloss of snow. Think of it falling, how it quiets the world, blots, sharpens, defines (memo to self: reread The Dead this Christmas). How beautiful the cardinal and woodpecker look against its erasures. How it brightens, makes things new, makes us new. Takes my breath, literally, away.

That’s what Dickinson proposes: don’t turn this stuff into commerce. (Of course we do: we blacken our snow as quickly as we can. We scrape it away, and if not, pay a price here in Ann Arbor, where there’s a law requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within 24 hours of its falling.)

How to use this image to strengthen writing? To remind myself it’s not about publishing—it’s about going out into that snowfall and wallowing in its revelations. The sudden blessing of idea, of language. Old thought wiped clean; that clarifying plunge in temperature. Dwelling in this, rather than shoveling it up the instant it lands and heaving it out into the street.

Requiem in Chalk

In the week since the election, I’ve been turning to words for consolation—as I did when I was 13 and spent the summer away from home for the first time and was deeply homesick (I lost six pounds the first week). I was attending a summer boarding school in Virginia, and in the evening, after supper, we’d sit at desks in the gymnasium to do our homework. Because I was taking classes in typing and drama, I had little to do, so I wrote in my journal instead. It was the first time I’d really kept one.

Bathed in citron light from a score of overhead fluorescents, the cavernous gym took on the quality of dream as I traveled beyond that particular time and place into the territory of language. The aches of my adolescent heart arranged themselves into sentences and then paragraphs, which in the instant of their conception made things clearer, if not always better. Night after night, I pinned my fluttering longings onto the lined pages of my journal like so many moths. There they sat: inert, visible, somehow tamed. Writing was power.

I thought of all this last week as I walked across the Michigan campus some eight hours after Hillary Clinton conceded the election. I hadn’t felt so numb since 9/11. Fogged in thought—in fear—I nearly stepped on the first phrase before I saw it. Chalked onto the pavement, in capital letters: “Stay strong.”

And then: “You belong.”

And then: “This is still home.”

The more I walked, the more I encountered. “Estamos juntos.” “Be kind.” “Love>fear.” At the center of campus, the words were so thick I couldn’t untangle them. I began to cry. A student came over and said, “You look like you need a hug.” He confessed that he was worried about his gay mothers. I said I was worried about so many people on the margins. We talked. Then he headed to his next class, and I walked on. More words, more evidence of a godlike voice among us. Praise the anonymous writer—writers—who got up early that morning, or went straight out into the dark just after the news broke, and with the most primitive of instruments (a stick of chalk straight from elementary school) conjured language to soften the hard day ahead. As I stood there, sobbing, a Muslim student walked up to me and held out her arms. Surrounded by words, we embraced.