The Writers Workshop

7/20/84

The Peabody Hotel is a miracle in the face of time’s ravages. At 11 AM every day a flock of ducks is brought down the elevator from the roof. A red carpet is rolled out from the elevator to a marble fountain in the lobby, recorded music is played, and the damned ducks parade into the lobby like royalty. A hundred adults and children line the path and circle the fountain, snapping pictures and laughing.

I sat at the marble bar drinking a light beer. I only saw Barry Hannah when the duck watchers began to clear out. He sat at a table reading manuscripts. At 11 AM, he was on his third gin and tonic. I went over and sat down with him. He had read one of my stories and had asked me to meet him there to get his responses to it.

Hannah was not the first serious professional writer I had met, but this was the first time I had ever had the chance to sit down and talk just one-on-one with a genuine pro, a guy who had worked in Hollywood and had novels in the bookstore. I confess to being a bit in awe of him.

He started out with his Big Time Hollywood Fiction Writer attitude, tore my story apart (and it needed it), but then said if I cut it down to twelve pages he would call the editor of ESQUIRE and try to get it published for me. He had been drinking heavily all week, and I was having trouble taking him seriously. I liked him, but the scene reminded me of another beloved alcoholic teacher full of outlandish promises. I had learned not to get excited about promises made under the influence of a gallon of gin.

His ideas on my story were good. He focused on fine points of the manuscript. I was surprised. I expected him to hate the idea and style. He invited me up to his room. His girlfriend was to meet us there. We had a long talk on writing – how writing from the gut was essential and that style was more important than content. We talked about Oxford, Mississippi, and he invited me to come down and visit him on his farm. 

Margaret, his girlfriend, finally arrived. She was a dark haired beauty around forty. She was very cordial to me, but it was obvious that she was worried about Barry. She ordered vegetable beef soup for the three of us. Hannah passed out during lunch and we put him in bed. Margaret and I made strained conversation for a few more minutes. Barry came to. He wanted to take a load of B 12 and go swimming. I thanked them for the soup and left.

I never revised the story and it was never published in ESQUIRE or anywhere else. I think I threw the manuscript away. I never talked with Hannah again.

I had a professor in grad school who said, “If they’re thinking about what you said thirty years from now, even if they think it was bullshit, you’ve done your job.” Barry Hannah passed that test with me. I still think at times about that awkward drunken morning in Memphis. It changed my creative direction. I really liked Barry. He was fun, but I didn’t want to be him. We had talked about playing from the gut, from instinct, and my instinct told me that I didn’t have the right disposition to be that kind of writer. I suppose I’m a bit prudish to be a good novelist, (“If mom reads this, she’s going to kill me.”). I had a wife and two little boys at home who liked to eat, so my creative life took some different paths. Hanna did me a favor. He provided guidance at a visceral level just by being his charming, out of control self.

Barry Hannah, circa 1984

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