My wife and I are in the habit now, when one of us says something not particularly insightful, of responding with, Okaaay. I got this from Frank, who said it often in the writing class I took with him a few years ago. Class would often start with him asking us about a reading he had assigned. Well, what did we think? If one of us said something not particularly insightful, he would respond with, Okaaay.
Somehow this never came across as critical. Instead, it felt like an encouragement to think deeper. Like he knew with all confidence that we could think deeper and have something insightful to say. What else? Tell me more. I think this might be the essence of the gift that Frank gave me and so many others. He believed in us. He was genuinely interested in us. He wanted to help us succeed.
I met Frank on a group bike ride years ago, up Wickersham Dome and back. Later I took a writing workshop with him and a semester-long class at the university. Outside of class, Frank became the most generous, committed, and helpful writing mentor I’ve ever had.
Maybe I lucked out because Frank and I were interested in many of the same things – the outdoors and sports, working with one’s hands, the process of learning – but I suspect it was more than this. After meeting with Frank, I usually came away thinking not only that I might be able to write a decent essay, but that what I had to say, what I thought, was interesting. His was the kind of support that can give you confidence not just in something you’ve written but in how you’ve chosen to live your life. What a gift. After talking with him, I always felt talented, interesting, smart, capable, whether I am those things or not.
There’s one Frank moment I think of often. I was not even in a class at the time, but Frank had been helping me with an essay I had written about building a cabin, and he had edits for me. He offered to bring them to me at work, which at the time was a union job renovating a bank building. The generosity of bringing them to me, the urgency, were themselves poignant and confidence-building. But I like to think, too, that he wanted to see the commercial construction site, to see what it was like to be a carpenter today, and the sharing of that curiosity was maybe the biggest gift, a validation of the career I had chosen and the reasons for choosing it. Someone I respected deeply who saw like me and believed in me and thought what I was doing was interesting.
In my experience, writing instructors are quick to encourage you to cut, cut, cut, and often that’s good advice. More often, Frank encouraged you to explore this idea a little more, flesh that out. What do you really think? This is interesting. Tell us more. You have something to say here.
There is a way in which writing allows sharing in intimate ways. And by intimate, I would include both one’s fragile thinking, or ideas that to hold might make one vulnerable, and the private facts of one’s life that might do the same. In this way, Frank came to know rather a lot about me, to know me in ways that even some of my closest friends don’t. We shared many interests, and appreciations, and had both spent time thinking about similar things. In our conversations about things I had written, he never tried to convince me of his thinking. Rather, he encouraged me to understand and articulate my own.
There are times that Frank is still teaching me. (At the service for Frank this winter in Fairbanks, I learned I am not the only one.) A few months after Frank died, I read a book called The Stranger in the Woods, about a hermit in Maine, and at the end, the author shared information about his subject that made me cringe. It was hard to believe the hermit would have wanted or agreed to it. In the class I took with Frank, I had written a process essay about this kind of ethical question, and one of Frank’s comments was the question, What obligation does the writer have to the reader? Frank’s reminder came to me as I was going into the sauna one evening. It’s one best explored at length, without a clear answer. Which is pretty much how Frank explored questions himself, and how I have come to also.
If the work of writing can be boiled down to obligations to subjects and obligations to readers, this misses a huge part of Frank’s writing life. Obligation is not the right word, but the commitment that Frank made to other writers was exceptional, and a meaningful part of his work. There is a long list of people who, in the classroom and out, he has guided, encouraged, and inspired. Whose writing he has read thoughtfully. Whose ideas he has taken seriously.
Frank’s teaching and mentoring was of the kind the best teachers and mentors give. To help you write the way you want to. And to give you the motivation to do it well because you respect them so much and want them to think highly of you. You want to live up to the potential they see in you.
Frank’s faith in my abilities almost always exceeded my own. Last summer he offered to hire me to fell a few old trees close to their house. I went to see them, and thought for a minute, sure, I could make some spikes and a flipline and climb those trees with a chainsaw to safely drop the tops. I suppose I wanted to live up to the Frank’s sense of me. (In the end, I recommended they hire a professional.)
I wish I could say that I had given something back to Frank half as valuable as the encouragement, advice, and friendship that he gave me. It is motivation now to be humble and kind, more connected, to have something to give and give it. Frank was a model as a person and not only a writer.
I have many opportunities to think of Frank and conversations we had. Skiing, reading, appreciating some old wooden thing. I’m still working my way through the books he recommended over the years. One of them is The Hand, which page after page teaches you something new and fascinating about the most obvious thing. That’s a Frank gift, too – the reminder that the world is pretty darn interesting when you look close and think.