Better Luck Next Time

BetterLuckCITDA friend recently asked how organized I had to be to write this blog. While I do develop an editorial slate, I’m comfortable having posts fall out of order depending on, well, serendipity.

You see, serendipity is nearly a religion for lazy piddlers like me. It often leads to delightful discoveries.

Like the one I made last week.

On Wednesday I got a bee in my bonnet about selling some books I no longer read. Of course that involved sorting and flipping through them just to make sure I wasn’t leaving stray dollar bills, bookmarks, or odd papers stuffed between pages.

In a paperback titled Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels, somewhere between H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), I found a real treasure, one that made me gasp—a missing letter from our old family friend, the late Mr. Tom Harrison of Olney, Maryland.

Tom Harrison was an elderly British expat who lived next door to us in Maryland, and who I befriended when I was 10 or so. He loved reading and books. When he discovered I did too, and wished to be a writer, he sent me encouraging letters after our family had moved to Minnesota.

He was the erudite grandfather I never had.

The letter was dated Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1979—all the more astonishing since that’s the time period I’m currently covering in this blog. That, my friends, is the hallmark of serendipity: it’s like the Universe is giving you a nudge just when you seem to need it most.

He begins by apologizing for not writing sooner, but it’s likely I was buried in my own new-to-University-life angst and hadn’t thought of him for quite a while, at least since receiving his congratulatory letter after I graduated high school. Seems he understood that. “I can appreciate fully,” he wrote, “the uncertainties and apprehensions which are assailing you about your future career. … Don’t think about it, but immerse yourself in your studies and determine to be on top.”

The letter brims with word etymologies and musings on Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian languages, and their influences on English. He knew I was already a curious kid, but he liked to prod me: “Never, NEVER in your reading skip a word which you don’t understand. Look it up.”

He mentioned being curious about my family’s pedigree, using Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin as an example. “It is possible,” he wondered, “that you had an ancestor who lived in a spot which had some poor pine trees and the neighbor called him ‘Jacques or Jean of the poor pines’—mau pine. One bad pine would be mal pin of course. The plural gives the mau.”

In our correspondence we shared favorite authors. He read Galsworthy, Browning, Wells, and Stevenson. “You like Steinbeck,” he wrote. “O.K. So do I.” His latest find was John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, which he highly recommended.

Then the hammer came down—just like that.

You see, after completing The Crowded Room in 1979, I was off on new writing projects: a short story about trolling the Hopkins main drag for love, tentatively titled “The Heart-Shaped Night”—and some really, really awful poetry. Apparently proud of what I’d written, I’d sent him some, one of which must’ve been a rehash of a longer poem I’d begun in high school, “The Golden Ring.” It reeked of vagueness and sentimentality.

Mr. Harrison knew he had to approach his criticism with a deft surgeon’s touch. “I hope that so far,” he wrote, “I have been encouraging. From now I’m going to slap you down.”

He had many questions. “It has rhythm, it has rhyme…” But it lacked sense and meaning. “I have no doubt that you had a clear idea of what you wanted to say, but you failed to convey it to your reader and if the reader had been your publisher, what chance would you have had?”

No recollection of how I took that—probably by realizing I wasn’t cut out for poetry; I wrote very little afterward.

But as a young writer I was hugely influenced by Mr. Harrison. I needed to hear what he had to say, exactly when he said it.

“It seems to me,” he concluded, “that you have sacrificed sense to rhyme and rhythm, and that won’t do. Better luck next time.

“I’m sorry to have to say that, Michael, for I really wish you well.”

Thank you, Mr. H., truly. Thank you for everything.

~ by completelyinthedark on December 20, 2013.

4 Responses to “Better Luck Next Time”

  1. I have passed an award on to you. I realize you may not wish to publicly accept awards, but please accept my sincere appreciation for your blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Completely in the Dark and commented:

    All-new post in the edit hopper and up by next Friday. Happy Thanksgiving friends!


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