The Observer was trolling Facebook the other day when we ran across a photo someone had posted of an old teacher of ours: the writer Frank Conroy, who served as the director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop up in Iowa City from 1987 to 2005 before dying of the perpetual sneak thief cancer. In the photo, he's sitting in some sunny place, smoking a cigarette. Though there's a guy in the background of the photo wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Frank is cocooned in brown wool. That says a lot about him.
Frank was born in New York City, but was raised mostly in the sticks of Florida. You wouldn't have known it by looking at or speaking to him. As a kid from Arkansas come to the Great Frozen North to study how to lie beautifully at the feet of the masters way back in 1997, The Observer would have sworn that Frank had been torn whole from some 1960s novel about constipated New England WASPs.
In class, Frank could be brutal. He saw the process of discussing fiction as a destructive act and he went about it Godzilla-on-Tokyo style, always with a slight grin on his face and a mad twinkle in his eye, as if he couldn't believe something as preposterous as the story you'd sweated blood into had been visited on mankind by a kind and loving Creator.
He was, in a phrase, a tough son of a bitch.
We say that with all the respect and love we can muster, and with no disrespect to his mother, whoever she was.
We've known guys like Frank all our life: hard but fair, simple but not simplistic. They weren't all as smart or accomplished as he was, but they all shared the idea that if you were going to do something — really do something — there was no excuse besides ignorance or laziness for doing it halfway.
If you're forced to hang around a guy like for that long enough — by circumstance, by employment or by military service, say — there is, as someone we can't quite remember pointed out, a pattern: First you hate him, then you respect him, then you love him. Once, with the cold Iowa dark lying against the windows of the classroom, Frank held up a story of ours before the class — held it with two fingers, like a lace napkin containing dog feces — and declared that it was AS IF the person who wrote it was a writer, the same way it is as if guys who sneak into hospitals, dress up in scrubs and deliver babies are doctors. He then proceeded to take a crowbar and tear down our house, popping nails and our careful joints, turning things over so we could see the rot inside, underneath the paint. That was definitely in the "hate" phase, in case you're wondering.
It was only later, skulking in our apartment with a bottle and cursing his name, of course, that we realized he was right. He didn't tell us what we wanted to hear. He didn't tell us how to fix that particular story. Instead, he told us what we needed to know to be just a little bit better the next time we sat down to write. That's the mark of a true teacher.
The Observer can't stand doling out morals (they're almost never true, and where they are, you probably don't want to hear them) but in this case, we'll try one on for size: Give that tough son of a bitch in your life a shot. You might just learn something.