The Congenitally Wonder-Addled Brian Doyle

June 5, 2017 § 6 Comments


By Susan RoweSusan Bruns Rowe

The first time I met Brian Doyle I was at a writers’ conference pretending to be a writer. I chose his workshop because he had a kind smile, a well-groomed beard. Describe your first kiss! he shouted from the top of the class. He walked the aisles. He urged us to add details—saliva, braces, that awkward matter of the tongue. I sat paralyzed, eeked out three vomitable sentences. Time’s up, he said with glee. Then he asked us to share our work. Out loud. I kept my eyes glued to my paper, covering it like a grade-school spelling test. “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t shared yet,” he said standing inches away. Blood thrummed in my ears. My pulse was a fast staccato. Hands shot up. Not mine. There was no way.

The next time he gave a reading in my hometown. I sat with twenty other people in the basement of a musty Civilian Conservation Corps cabin reserved for “smaller” literary events. He took us on a quest for the perfect Pinot in a picturesque vineyard. You could see the sun in his eyes, how he savored each word in his mouth like wine. I was a college magazine editor by then, too, and he spent a morning with me, spouting ideas, advice, experience, while I scribbled. Six months later I sent him the issue to which I had given laborious birth. “Better,” he said. “Now concentrate on the writing . . . make it literary, make it leap off the page, make it tell a story on which a thousand others can stand.”

Every one of his emails was its own literary delight. He thought verbs should be “funky colorful unusual engines. Twist a noun into a verb.” Nouning he called it. He made no apologies for his self-described Herculean sentences (“I say happily go and read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Gibbon and Plutarch and see how the masters play with the pacing of a long passage.”) But his real art was to write from the heart. During my editor days, he ended every email by conferring blessings on my babies. I decided to send him a short piece I’d written about my youngest child. “Oh my gawd,” he emailed back. “That’s superb. That is honest with a capital H and O. Seems to me the pieces that are most tumultuously honest about the way joy and pain are identical twins are the pieces that come closest to catching the truth of the mysterious awful gift of it all, you know?”

I gave up editing to write. Things went downhill. I worked for six months on an essay I thought would be perfect for his magazine. I spent six days on the cover letter. He emailed back within an hour of receiving it. “Thanks,” he said. ” I don’t think it’s quite for us.” A year later, I sent him another piece, which he also rejected—this time with a hand-written note. I was making progress. About this time, I couldn’t open a magazine without Brian Doyle staring back at me. I borrowed a friend’s copies of The Christian Century. There was Brian Doyle. I ordered a single copy of Orion. There he was. He appeared in every other issue of The Sun. I used his proems, essays, and books in my writing classes, apologizing to students for yet one more example of writing from Brian Doyle. All of us longed to craft a single melodic sentence like Doyle did.

Last spring I interviewed him for an article about writers who approach writing like play. I’d had Brian in mind when I pitched it because he was always experimenting with form and language. He once wrote that the essay “is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement . . .” I asked him if he brought those qualities to his writing. “Hmm—I do think it’s true,” he said, “and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age 7 and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite—I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed free piercing entertaining ways, and things go from there, sometimes utterly to the dogs.”

When the article came out, I’d heard about Brian’s illness. I sent him an email. I didn’t hear back. I wrote him a card telling him he was my writer hero, that he inspired me to write beyond my ability, that something happened in that workshop two decades ago that made me want to be a writer for real. I choked up, made mistakes, had to cross out words. “You can’t send him a card with cross-outs,” my husband chided. So I rewrote it. Without cross-outs. And it was much shorter. I left out all the stuff about heroes. I didn’t want to sound like a stalker or like maybe there wouldn’t be more rejection notes or articles in which I plumbed his writing genius. I’m not sure Brian remembered me from the hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers he helped over the years, but I don’t care about that. I wish, though, I’d sent him that card with the cross-outs and the mushy stuff about writer heroes. I wish I had.
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Susan Bruns Rowe teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at The Cabin and The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Boise, Idaho, and recently joined the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Penny,  and The American Oxonian. She has an MFA in creative writing from Boise State University.

** For more on the salt and swing and song of Brian Doyle, see his seven dusty lewd brave vibrant Brevity essays and our recent Podcast episode.

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