Tuesday, February 4, 2020

NINA STUFF: A Great Writer

Esteemed Reader, I'm deeply saddened. A mentor has passed away. The world is far poorer for it.

If you knew Jim Powell or if you read him, you already know this. More likely, since this blog is read by an audience far outside of Indiana and focuses on a type of fiction Jim Powell didn't write, you didn't know him.

But let me tell you about him because I have a point I think is universal and will be worth your attention. I may be just a little more somber on this occasion than my usual joke-y posts with superhero talk (Jim Powell was quite adamant that Batman was not great literature despite my many attempts to convince him otherwise).

I wasn't close enough to Jim Powell to deliver a full eulogy. I don't imagine I'd be his first, second, or even fortieth choice for that honor. And that's not what this is. I had a very specific relationship with him as evidenced by the fact that he asked me to call him Jim, and I'm still not entirely comfortable not adding the Powell.

Our relationship was often adversarialmostly my doing. Not only did Jim Powell not feel Batman qualified as literature, he was scandalized (and annoyed) that I considered Stephen King to be our greatest living writer. Obviously, a man who failed to appreciate the genius of my unassailable literary opinion could NOT be a great writer.

I alone could be trusted to render this verdict because I wasbrace yourself, Esteemed Readera great writer... or I was going to be.

And yet, this man, who was not a great writer, was tremendously passionate for literature. Clearly, he thought he knew something about great writing even though he was wrong. And that struck me as curious.

I should explain. I was 19. And an a**h***

I grew up in a small Indiana town where most everyone had also been wrong and I'd just that year made my first-ever real friend who didn't live in that town. Caesar was also on his way to being a great writer and he also knew everything in a way only very young men can be assured they do. We sat together in Jim Powell's writing workshopmy firstand rendered our superior verdicts on the stories of lesser writers. And we interrupted Jim Powell on a regular basis with our writing wisdom and were, generally speaking, obnoxious.

Despite that, Jim Powell mostly chose to be amused by us. I know this because he hung around with us after class to tell us to talk about writing. Oh, he yelled at me a few times and though I took it personal then, I've taught some workshops since. In retrospect, I admire his restraint. I wouldn't have wanted young me in my workshop.

"You've got some talent, Kent," he said to me once, and that perked me upmaybe Jim Powell's opinions weren't all wrong. "But your taste is terrible and your attitude is worse. If you don't get serious, your writing isn't going anywhere and neither are you."

That's not an exact quote21 years have passed since thenbut it's pretty close and that was the gist of it. He wasn't wrong. He also kicked me out of his office on multiple occasionsI definitely don't remember exactly why, but I have no doubt the cause could be traced back to my being insufferable. However, he always let me come back and I can't remember a time he didn't make time for me.

But let's not get all misty-eyed yet.

First, I need to tell you about a thing I wrote. I don't have any copies of the story now, thank God, and I can't remember exactly how terrible it wasmost of what I wrote then was terrible. But it was stuffed with shock content because I lacked the tools and the confidence to attempt to move my readers by any other means. This was shortly after I'd completed screenplays for Horror House, Horror House 2: The College Years, and Horror House 3: In Space. So, ya know, that's where my head was at (older, wiser me still thinks that terrible pun is amusing).

Caesar assured me my shocking story was brilliant. He was the first to speak up during the workshop and compliment me on my bravery for having written an edgy piece that said the important things that needed saying by someone important. He was a good friend and I'm sorry I haven't seen him more in the intervening years. We were wrong a lot, but we were wrong together, and we had a good time doing it.

Tragically, I can't confer with Jim Powell about exactly what he said, but I remember the gist of it. One doesn't forget one's first epic take down. He did not agree with Caesar.

"The problem with your story," he said, or something to this effect, "is that it doesn't mean anything. The language is sloppy throughout and unconsidered. This story was intended to shock and it doesn't. You meant to disrupt my workshop, but you haven't, so this story hasn't accomplished anything. You can do better, Kent, so do better."

"You know, Jim actually makes a lot of good points," Caesar admitted. Thanks, buddy. Heavy sigh.

I'd love to tell you I wrote an even better story and triumphantly returned to the workshop. I didn't. Not then. What I did was decide that 1. Jim Powell hated me, probably because he was jealous of my genius. 2. I had no business listening to Jim Powell anyway because he was not a great writer like I was destined to be.

After that semester, I decided college wasn't for me because I didn't have the objectivity needed to realize I wasn't yet right for college. I took a series of terrible jobs, mostly waiting tables, and got my first apartment and promptly missed enough rent payments to nearly get evicted. But I read a lot of books and I kept writing.

A couple years later, after becoming a travel agentanybody remember thoseI went back to college part time and then full time. An English department is only so big and I majored in creative writing and literature because I had my eyes on the big money:) I had Jim Powell for several classes, most of them with Caesar. And the two of us were still obnoxious, but less so, probably because I was (mostly) paying for school myself then, which was an attitude adjuster.

The two of us were also on the staff of the school's literary magazine, which was led by Jim Powell. There was a girl on that staff who I won't name, but I thought she was, ahem, super hot. And she thought Jim Powell was the most brilliant man she'd ever met. It's amazing how an attractive person's perspective changes things for a young man:)

I wanted her to find me brilliant, so I started paying a lot more attention to Jim Powell. And you know what? He was kind of brilliantnot about Batman or Stephen King, maybe, but about a great many other things. The super-hot girl found a boyfriend who wasn't me and then another, but the damage was done. I recognized Jim Powell was far more brilliant than I'd given him credit for. When I stopped talking over him, I learned quite a bit about writing and publishing.

When you treat a person with respect, they treat you the same way. I don't remember everything that transpiredit all seems simultaneously so long ago and like it just happened. But one day, I remember looking around to realize that Caesar and I were the seniors and Jim Powell was relying on us to help keep the magazine going. Who'd have seen that coming?

Jim Powell invited everyone to a party at his house and it's a favorite memory of mine. The super-hot girl was there. So was an even more super-hot girl who later became Mrs. Kent. We stayed late, far later than I ever expected. It turns out Jim Powell was an excellent party host for a guy who preferred poetry to horror stories.

Many, many libations were had and we talked long into the night and he told Caesar and I that he was proud of us. He told Mrs. Kent, who was then my let's-just-see-where-this-goes girlfriend, that I was a good guy. As he told her mostly nice things about mehe didn't leave out the times I'd caused him stressit finally occurred to me that Jim Powell liked me and had for some time.

A semester after that, the future Mrs. Kent and I graduated. I got a job as a stockbroker, because it paid the bills and I wanted to stay in Indiana to see how things worked out with this girlfriend of mine. I'd see Jim Powell at different events and a few times at the Blockbuster video because all of this takes place a long, long time ago, I guess. But he was always happy to see me and we always had a nice chat.

Life went on. I saw college friends less and less, and then Mrs. Kent and I had a baby and I lost touch with a lot of people for a while. Children are time vampires, but cute ones. Writing also requires a lot of time alone, not to mention this blog turned podcast, which is also a time vampire, but a fun one.

Jim Powell disappeared with so many others into that category of people I used to know and Blockbuster disappeared as well. I worked with a lot of other writers and other mentors. One day, Barbara Shoup invited me to teach at the Indiana Writers Center and she kept inviting me, so I kept doing it.

I'm writing this portion of the post sitting in the Indiana Writers Center before the arrival of my newest fiction workshop. The format of the class is a modified version of Jim Powell's workshop, and that's appropriate enough. He founded the Writers Center the year I was born.

I didn't know this until October 25, 2018. I know the date because I learned it on the podcast. You can hear and/or watch me learn it. You can also hear about the Indiana Writers Center and all the good it does in the world:

You heard Barb Shoup explaining about all the outreach programs the Indiana Writers Center does for the community. How many lives has that organization improved (including mine)? You heard her talking about the then upcoming 40th anniversary party for the IWC, featuring Jim Powell and his book, Only Witness.

Mrs. Kent and I went to that party. We got a sitter and took showers. And Jim Powell was thrilled to see us, still together. And we were thrilled to see him. He told me how excited he was that I was teaching at the IWC and he got to meet a few of my students, who were happy to see me. I didn't get to talk to him for long, however. He was the star of the show and surrounded by most of the Indiana writing community.

I saw former professors, some famous authors, and lots of people I didn't know, but who were very excited to see Jim Powell. And I was excited for him. It's inspiring to see a man so celebrated by the community he nurtured. 

Mrs. Kent and I got some food and had a married-people-desperately-happy-to-be-out-of-the-house-and child-free-for-a-few-fleeting-hours date. I received my new copy of Only Witness and later read, really read what Jim Powell had written. And this, by the way, is the only quote of his in this post that I know is verbatim:

 To Rob - engaged and challenging student who has made good! I am touched by your work for the Writers Center and your interest in my work. I hope you enjoy these stories. Jim 3/8/19

By virtue of this blog, I have a lot of signed books by a lot of great writers I admire. But that signed copy of Only Witness is my favorite and it sits in a place of honor. No, you can't borrow that one. Get your own.

Jim Powell and I connected on social media after that night, so I know he was amused by the podcast and this website. I also knew he had some health issues, but I figured when they were behind him, we'd probably see each other at the IWC or other events and get to talk again, even if I had to get him on the podcast to do it.

But it wasn't to be.

What makes a great writer? Great writing helps, of course. Observe this opening from Jim Powell's story, "Little Jungle": The bottle broke against the boulder and gasoline spread flames onto the dry grass, then slow-burned toward the brush and trees at the clearing's edge, more fire than Matt had expected.

What else makes a great writer? Do they have to be the world's bestselling novelist, like Stephen King? Do they have to be a household name in the country they live in? The state? Do they have to be painted larger-than-life on the side of a building like Kurt Vonnegut?

There are other, less-obvious memorials to great writers all around us, if you know where to look. That night at the IWC 40th anniversary party, I saw a very different sort of memorial built in the minds of all the writers and lovers of literature Jim Powell touched over a lifetime. 

God knows how many minds hold another portion of that memorial I couldn't see. God knows how large a footprint one man left in his wake, a footprint so great I can't even see the shape or the size of it because I'm a part of it.

Goodbye, Jim. It was an honor to have known so great a writer.

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