So it goes.
In my teens, I read everything up through Jailbird. His simple writing style, combined with the fact that he was from Indianapolis, made me believe (secretly) that I could become a writer, too. Then in college I decided I had outgrown him and stopped reading his books. Many years later, he came to talk to us at Iowa. He walked into the crowded room, made his way to the table in front, pulled an ashtray from his rumpled coat pocket and clanged it on the table. "You can't smoke in here," he reminded us. "But I can." He told us that the thing writers do is important. He told us we have a responsibility to the people of the world. "Do something worthwhile. Do something that helps us all." He was quiet and intense and earnest. This was not long after September 11.
The world is poorer today. I feel like pouting.
He once wrote down some rules for writing a short story. They are sensible. Here they are:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.