Friday, June 10, 2011


E.Ethelbert Miller asks, "John Gardner had a tremendous influence on your life. But who have you been 'Gardner' to?  What successful writer has been influenced by your teaching and claims you as their key mentor?"

This question is almost too easy to answer.

A few nights ago, on June 7, I had the great pleasure of attending the showing of a new, very funny film entitled "Old Goats." It was created by a talented, young film-maker named Taylor Guterson, the son of writer David Guterson, who was my former student in the late 1970s and '80s, and sometimes kindly refers to me as his mentor. His son's film was presented as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. The Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill where it played was packed. The story, a character study of sorts about three, comic old men who live on Bainbridge Island (which is home for the Guterson family), was a hilarious and compassionate crowd-pleaser. And it certainly pleased me to see my erstwhile writing student's son following in the steps of his successful father, author of the record-breaking best-selling novel Snow Falling on Cedars; and more recent novels such as The Other, Our Lady of the Forest, and East of the Mountains; Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, a work of non-fiction; and the short story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind. (And, I should add, one of his other sons recently founded a brewery in Portland, Oregon.)

Among the hundreds (if not thousands) of students I worked with at the University of Washington and elsewhere between 1976 and 2009, David Guterson was the most hard-working, talented, and dedicated to his craft night and day. We have the same literary agent, Georges Borchardt, who once said jokingly to me, "Gardner begat Johnson who begat Guterson." This was funny, but not entirely true insofar as every writer at the end of the day (or after years of long hours working alone) is the only one responsible for creating his or her own distinctive, literary vision. At best, a mentor can only give different forms of support and encouragement until the younger writer finds his or her enthusiastic readers. (And make no mistake, when a writer "shows up" with a commercially and critically successful book, that person didn't start writing yesterday; he or she has most likely been laboring for at least a decade in workshops and on their own.) But, yes, if memory serves, writer Stanley Elkin introduced Gardner to the literary agency of Georges and Anne Borchardt, often called the "Cadillac" of literary agencies because---well, because it is classy, and Georges has been knighted and honored often by the French government for his contributions to literature. Gardner did the same for me as Elkin did for him, and I introduced the agency to Guterson.

It feels a little odd for me to write about David Guterson  because I've known him for so long, and seen the arc of his career, from UW student to brand-name literary writer. From his earliest college years, he was serious, mature, and skillfully met head-on the challenge of any writing assignment. Even back then, he was a practicing grown-up. I attribute his being the ideal student to, in part, his total devotion to not only his craft but also to his family, which is first and foremost among his priorities. As the title of his non-fiction book indicates, he and his wife Robin home-schooled their children, i.e., they took the business of educating their young so seriously (David for some time taught high school) that they were willing to invest their time and energy every day in the task of integrating learning with the love a child experiences in the home. 

We both have a long-standing interest in Buddhism and, I guess, a special affection for our daughters. He once said, memorably, "Having a daughter is like falling in love for a second time." I think he's fallen in love again because he and his lovely wife adopted a few years ago a beautiful girl from Ethiopia.

Every teacher who feels indebted to the men and women who taught and helped him hopes one day to have a student who establishes himself (or herself) in the discipline they share, and maintains daily the highest professional and personal standards. Such a student liberates his teachers, I believe, for his success says that what the teacher tried to offer in and outside the classroom, however large or small that may be, was not in vain. 
Indeed, after Snow Falling on Cedars was published, I think I said to David that I was finally free---in terms of a teacher's obligation to transmit what he has received to a member of the next generation--and so I really didn't need to teach any more. In other words, one of my favorite students was on his way. And since then he has built---and continues to build---his own many-roomed mansion of creative gifts for the enjoyment and edification of others.

These days he is publishing poetry, and in October his new novel Ed King will be published by Knopf. This is, as a reviewer once said of another book, "shoes-in-the-dirt," realistic fiction in the grand tradition of, say, a Sinclair Lewis: a meticulously researched, suspenseful story that puts contemporary flesh on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. I was so engaged when I started the galley, that I read the first 143 pages in a single sitting, for it is also a powerful comment on the way we live today. If I were you, I would pre-order a copy right now.

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