by Jason Kyle Howard
As a graduate student in a low-residency MFA program, I always anticipated and relished feedback from my mentors, and one in particular. During my final semester, I studied with Richard McCann, the acclaimed essayist, poet, and professor whose writing has been described—impeccably—by Michael Cunningham as “almost unbearably beautiful” and by Colm Tóibín as “tender poetry . . . haunted.”
Richard’s teaching could be depicted in similar terms. Kind and insightful, exquisitely articulated, yet also rigorous. He held you accountable, not just with language, structure, theme, and meaning, but with the source material itself. Intention. A writer, he believed, should explore their tender places on the page. Those nerves held the most potential for creation, and he was committed to helping his students locate and access them.
Each letter from Richard offered a master class in the craft of writing, but one in particular stands out to me. I had been asked to contribute an essay to an anthology, and I submitted the draft as part of my packet, eager to know his thoughts. Ever the encourager, he had responded with praise for what I was doing well. The tone, the voice, my lyricism, and his greatest measure: the essay felt necessary. Then he wrote of the opening scene: “This description of the scene needs to be sharper and more specific. Place us there. Don’t let go of us. Maintain our intimacy to what you are developing. . . . I’m pushing you to work with your senses in order to write less ‘about’ and more ‘from’ the moment you’re describing. You’ll find the piece richer for it, I believe.”
I could see what he meant about my description needing to be sharper. But this last bit—writing from something (in this case, an intimate moment in New York’s Union Square) instead of about it—what, exactly, was he getting at? Weren’t these essentially the same thing? Where was the distinction? I ruminated over this for several days, turning his precise, carefully chosen words over and over in my mind.
After graduating from George Washington University, I had cut my writing teeth in journalism. I reported on the plight of Eastern Kentucky coal miners being denied medical benefits for black lung disease, an eminent domain case before the Supreme Court, Black property heirs losing their family land in South Carolina because of discriminatory laws and practices, and assisted adoption cases in Manhattan. In journalism, the writer traditionally strives for objectivity. Description is often rooted in the physical, in the about. The writer’s self is held at a distance from the story and its subjects. First-person point-of-view is largely absent from the page; the emotions of the writer are meant to be kept in check. What I finally landed on with Richard’s feedback was that, at least for creative nonfiction and especially memoir, I had some un-learning to do. I was approaching the scene in journalism mode. It needed emotional description in addition to the physical. I spent the weeks between our packet exchanges turning the passage he had flagged inside out, revising it again and again for my next packet. A few days after submitting it, I was elated to know it had passed muster.
In Mother of Sorrows—his shimmering prose collection that exists in some liminal space between memoir and fiction, exploring his complicated, deep love for his mother—Richard writes of a son, a version of himself, who intuitively forsakes the masculine for the feminine in the story “Crêpe de Chine.” While his father builds birdhouses and his brother listens to Radio Moscow on shortwave radio, the narrator starts to clear the table. But his mother beckons him to sit with her: ‘“Let’s pretend we’re sitting this dance out.’ She told me I was her best friend. She said I had the heart to understand her. She was forty-six. I was nine.”
The mother, smoking, asks her son if he knows the story of a Limoges teapot. Richard writes:
In fact, by then my mother had already told me about almost everything. But I wanted to hear everything again. What else in Carroll Knolls—our sunstruck subdivision of identical brick houses—could possibly have competed with the stories my mother would summon from her china or her incomplete sterling tea service or the violet Louis Sherry candy box where she kept her dried corsages? I wanted to live within the lull of her voice, soft and regretful, as she resuscitated the long-ago nights of her girlhood, those nights she waited for her parents to come home in taxicabs from parties, those nights they still lived in the largest house on Carroll Street, those nights before her parents’ divorce, before her father started his drinking.
She whispered magic words: crêpe de chine, Sherry Netherlands, Havilland, Stork Club, argent repousée. . . .
Night after night she told me her stories.
So many craft elements strike me about this excerpt. The lyricism, the spare concision of his sentences. Taken together, they create such elegant prose. His references to specific objects, which, I have learned, help to carry the weight of emotion. But for me, the descriptive place he is writing from is perhaps best characterized as ache. A longing that is captured in his careful curation of objects and in the melancholy of his mother’s voice, in the narrator’s need for that sound. The whole passage reads like a whisper, a confidence—both rooted, of course, in intimacy. As readers, he places us there, right there in the middle of that feeling, and he doesn’t let us go.
This quality is perhaps the hallmark of Mother of Sorrows, as well as the rest of Richard’s canon: Ghost Letters, his astonishing poetry collection; Things Shaped in Passing: More ‘Poets for Life’ Writing from the Aids Pandemic, an anthology he edited (with Michael Klein); and in his numerous stories and essays that have been widely anthologized, particularly “The Resurrectionist,” which was included in Best American Essays 2000. That essay recounts how a liver transplant he underwent in 1996 changed not just his body but his very sense of himself. Richard was in the final stages of transforming the essay into a full-length memoir of the same title when he died earlier this year, on January 25, from an infection stemming from the transplant.
In the months since his passing I, like many of his students, have been reflecting on my time studying with him. I knew my words were valued and deeply considered; I knew they were safe with him. I knew I was safe with him. As a fellow gay man who shared similar literary sensibilities, he had a way of coaxing me to open up. He showed me that my vulnerabilities and haunts were not only beautiful, they were worthy. My long-held attachment to Anne Boleyn, he said, demanded to be explored. He steered me toward writers who have since become touchstones. Hilton Als, Andrew Holleran, Adam Mars-Jones. We exchanged thoughts on Alan Hollinghurst and James Baldwin. As a fellow Rilke devotee, he highlighted a passage from Letters to a Young Poet that has become the yardstick by which I measure my writing—and any piece of writing I encounter: “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.” In turn, I regularly pass this quote along to my writing students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. It has become a central tenet of my teaching philosophy.
“In my dream, you were alive. You had been dead.” A line from his poem “Nights of 1990” in Ghost Letters. Since his passing I have found myself lingering over these words. Even though we only exchanged the occasional email, I miss him—the very idea of him, knowing he was there in Washington, D.C., the city I most consider to be my hometown. His hometown, another point of connection between us. Knowing he was in the world, writing and thinking, opening his keen mind and good heart on the page, gave me tremendous comfort. The many of us who were affected by his life and words have been hard at work this year, trying to find ways to honor him. For me, that is working to be a generous, rigorous reader for my students.
But there’s something else.
I have realized he is present every time I sit down at my writing desk. I have metabolized his words so deeply into the stomach and heart of my craft that, in some way, when I write, it feels as if I’m still communing with him. My eye and, more importantly, my feeling for description has improved, even in the inevitable mess of the first draft. But after I finish, when I’m ready to tackle revision, I’m called back yet again to his words. Since smaller revisions feel less daunting to me, I undertake multiple ones intended to target specific craft issues. I’ve begun calling one of these the Richard Revision. I interrogate all the passages of description. I read and revise for emotion, for depth of feeling, in the hope that, like his words—like him—my work will be sharp, specific, intimate. From.
Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, The Millions and in other publications and anthologies, and on C-SPAN’s Book TV and NPR. Howard is editor of Appalachian Review, a literary quarterly based at Berea College where he directs the creative writing program, and he serves on the faculty of the Spalding University Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing.