I have heard it said that some art needs a host. What is meant by this is that some things cannot be sustained through wild popularity. Either because they are too difficult or too subtle or too mature, they are not taken in easily by the novice. Instead, they rely upon a small tribe of people who cherish that musician or that painter or that writer and look for opportunities to pass on the knowledge.
“Here. Read this.”
I only vaguely remember the first time I read William Maxwell. It was in a fiction writing class in college. A couple of three-page stories given as examples of modern fairy tales (the assignment, obviously, was then to write a fairy tale of our own).
I didn’t really find him until years later. I had lobbied for and gotten the creative writing classes at the school where I teach and I was digging through old boxes looking for something I could use. Oh, right. The fairy tale lesson. That’s a good one.
I read over the stories again. I was shocked. Especially by the one called “All the Days and Nights.” But there were no identifying marks on them. No author’s name. Eventually, I realized that All the Days and Nights was not just the title of a story, it was the title of the book. I googled. I found it and checked it out from the library. It sat on my nightstand for a while but eventually I opened it and started reading.
I couldn’t stop talking about it. Cate can tell you that. I read aloud from it constantly. I started pushing Cate to read it before I’d even finished. It was as though someone had given me the instruction manual I’d always wanted.
I had been struggling with my own style for years. It was borrowed, in large part, from the deadpan dryness of Sherwood Anderson. And though that fit, though Winesburg, Ohio was and is still a yearly read, it was also a hundred years old. And Anderson had this way of pulling out of the story and speaking to the reader that I couldn’t naturally do. It was a close fit, but not a perfect fit.
In William Maxwell’s stories, I found the template I’d needed. There was nothing spectacular in his writing. His plots were nearly always centered around the mundane of every day.
For me, this was enormously encouraging. I was not William Maxwell but shared the same tendency to shy away from the overly-dramatic and, when tackling the dramatic, to deliver it with as even a keel as I could manage. Certainly, I was bit more raw, but the core felt the same.
And so I kept reading. I found three books (The Folded Leaf, Time Will Darken It, and So Long, See You Tomorrow) as close to perfect as anything I’d ever read and three more that were still beautiful despite blemishes here and there.
William Maxwell is hardly mentioned without the phrase “a writer’s writer” following quick behind. And, indeed, you need only mention his name to send some well-known authors into rapture. He is in the background of a great many things we read without us ever really knowing it. But to call him a writer’s writer, though accurate, is a bit unfair.
There is nothing flashy in his writing, but it is overloaded with the things all writers strive for. Honesty. True depictions of real people. Moments of clever invention. None of it screams out at you from the text, but to finish a book or story by Maxwell is to feel a peculiar kind of satisfaction. You feel as though something important has happened. You feel you have learned something. You may not be sure what. You may never figure it out. But it sits quietly within you all the same.