Tuesday, October 23, 2007

of mentors and assassins

image via Yahoo! Movies

An old friend recently reminded me via email of something I've been wanting to blog about for many moons - ever since I first heard that Brad Pitt and some other A-listers were heading into production on a little movie project based on Ron Hansen's book The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

When I was in my second year as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz (yeah, life was tough) my loyalties began to feel split between the Theater Arts department and the English department. At the urging of my then-boyfriend's roommate - an eccentric writer and artist - I went with him during pre-registration week to check out a creative writing class offered by a RLPA! (Real Life Published Author!). Who, incidentally, I'd never heard of.

That writer was Ron Hansen, and after being told that this would be an incredibly difficult - if not impossible - class to get into, my boyfriend's roommate promptly pointed at me and declared to Mr. Hansen, "If you let us into this class, she will take her shirt off for you."

I got in. Boyfriend's roommate did not. (Score one point for being a wallflower.) But it's not what you think, honest. For one thing, I have long been president of my local chapter of the IBTC , and for another, Ron was never one of THOSE professors. From that first course (Intro. to Creative Writing, I think it was) until I graduated with a BA in English, I took as many of Ron's fiction, literature and screenplay-writing classes as I could. He was an excellent teacher - not only knowledgeable about the world of writing and publishing, but always humble and willing to share his knowledge freely with goofball undergraduates who thought being a real writer meant donning a black beret and sitting at Cafe Pergolesi until midnight with a notebook, a pen, and an artistically pained expression on one's face.

Uh, not that anyone around here fit that description - no sirree. But I digress.

Through Ron I got to meet Ron Carlson, who cracked me up, both in his pages and in person. He was also supposed to introduce me to his old friend, the literary rock star John Irving, but it never happened. It was also through Ron that I became acquainted with Wallace Stegner's son, Page, who was teaching at UCSC as well. Page taught this amazing class called (if I remember correctly) Literature of the American West. It was a full-credit course, and part of the (grueling, painful, torturous) course work was a ten day rafting trip down the San Juan River in southern Utah. Ron and his then-wife Julie were on that trip, and I remember thinking (at one point when things among all of us undergrads at one of the riverbank camps had descended into something more closely resembling Lord of the Flies than a college course) that those literary, professional adults were being awfully patient with us kids. I fell hard for the Southwest during that trip.

When it was time for me to leave my cushy undergraduate nest behind and apply to graduate schools Ron wrote a glowing letter of recommendation which did - and still does - mean a lot. We wrote back and forth a few times after I moved to Flagstaff, but then life happened and we lost touch. I continued to read each of his books as they came out over the years (Mariette in Ecstasy remains one of my all-time favorites for its gorgeous, palpable writing). So, even though it's been about fifteen years since I last spoke to him I can't help but feel awfully proud of my old mentor for accomplishing things that I continue to dream of accomplishing someday. I'm also grateful to my eccentric artist friend for convincing me to check out that creative writing class all those years ago.


  1. I learn a lot from your writing and from your links. I had my suspicions about IBTC but couldn't resist temptation of course. My ears are red. Keep up the good work.

  2. Woot! I made Ken blush. My work's done here, people.


  3. Even more reason to see that movie!!