Kathleen Tarr: Writing from the Heart Forward

This is the third post in a series from our
September featured guest author.

When I was a teaching assistant at the University of
Pittsburgh my assigned “office” on the sixth floor of the Cathedral of Learning
was a dark, drab cubicle with a metal desk, a shabby lamp, and a few push pins.  It was close to Bruce Dobler’s office, making
it easy for me to drop by unannounced which I did all the time.

Bruce had been teaching at Pitt for 25 years on the
nonfiction faculty, but he got his start studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, though he was humble about it.  A free-spirited, silver-haired hipster in his late
sixties with a passion for swing dancing, he had also tried his luck as a stand-up
comic. By the time we met, all three of his novels were sadly out of print,
including the novel set in Alaska,
The Last Rush North (1976), which I’d
never heard about, and which he described as a miserable failure. (In the early
70s, Bruce was in Alaska
working public relations for the Alyeska Pipeline Company, something I
discovered after I began grad school.) 

His spacious office was crammed with stacks of books, dusty magazines,
old copies of student papers, empty soda cans and jazz CD cases, notes and
pages from his 600 page novel on the Crusades—a project he labored on and
revised for over nine years—and bits and pieces from his unfinished memoir, Vacant Lot.

My first nonfiction readings class was with Bruce, and I
remember how he extolled John Edgar Wideman, Barry Lopez, John Hersey, Truman
Capote. He compiled a compendium of his top-recommended creative nonfiction
books and posted it on the Internet, a list that became widely referenced. We talked
about the books and writing we loved,
not how to get careers going. For many years he was married to the poet, Patricia
Dobler, and they graciously invited MFA students into their home to converse
about poetry, essays, and short stories in an inspiring literary salon.

Bruce championed my work. He read and commented on my MFA
manuscript in-progress though he wasn’t on my committee. He encouraged me when
I didn’t deserve such praise; and he propped me up whenever I sank into the
abyss of self-doubt and confusion. He believed in my writing long before I
could ever call myself a writer.

Anne Caston (Judah’s
; Flying In With the Wounded)
tells stories about meeting fellow poet Lucille
at St. Mary’s College when Clifton came to speak in 1988 as a special
guest. Soon afterward, as fate would have it, they became back-door neighbors
in an apartment complex near campus. Lucille couldn’t drive and Anne would
chauffeur her to and from the college each afternoon. They discovered that each
loved hymns and oratory of the old sermons as “lapsed Baptists.” Lucille
introduced Anne to the works of Mary Oliver and Marge Piercy, and Anne
persuaded her to read Mark Doty and Marie Howe.

A special camaraderie began between the two poets that
sometimes gets lost in the fierce competition of academia, where pride and jealousies
can get in the way. Lucille Clifton was Anne’s first good reader, one of Anne’s
two early readers of her poems (her husband was the other). Caston still treasures
how Lucille seemed to read from the heart
and honored her own literary voice and vision.

I received a copy of The
Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships
(now in two
volumes), edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, as a gift from my
poet-friend, Olga. The collection features short essays from the New York Review of Books about
“transforming personal and intellectual relationships” among writers and other
creative types. Some of the notables: McMurtry and Kesey; Brodsky and Akhmatova;
Hardwick and McCarthy; Wolcott and Lowell; Kerouac and Ginsberg; Kunitz and

In the age of hype and tweets—and if we don’t happen to be
in an MFA program or hanging out at writers’ residencies—more often than not,
we’re relegated to the quickest forms of communication (i.e., sending minimal
emails, “liking” one another on Facebook, leaving an occasional blog comment).
Everyone, everywhere, is in a hurry, which is why the story about what happened
between two writers, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith, is so remarkable.

Andrews and Griffith met in an MFA workshop. Upon finishing
their degrees and resuming their busy lives in other parts of the country—returning
to the “real world” as we like to say—they sought to maintain more than a
superficial connection. Through writing, they wanted to explore their inner
struggles, new motherhood, the surprises and joys of ordinary life, the
emotional territory of faith. They were thinking in terms of how to keep their
mutual intellectual and literary interests alive. Devising a self-imposed
writing structure also appealed to them for the continued writing practice it
would provide.

To that end, they vowed to write each other real letters—the kind with stamps and
envelopes—during one Lenten season, but they moved beyond that timeframe. Letter-writing
became their spiritual home. As they wrote intimately about life and
literature, and the devastating losses they faced, the process and experience
would transform them. 

Their story of how their “friendship was
formed, tested, and ultimately strengthened” has turned into book forthcoming
from Loyola Press—Love & Salt.

Love & Salt portrays
friendship as women have always known it—as something serious, sacred, and
redemptive—and tells the story of a spiritual friendship between two women,
based on their shared exploration of God.”

Though we didn’t write old-fashioned letters to one another,
Bruce and I stayed connected after I finished grad school. His fascination with
and the spiritual life of the Middle Ages continued.  Mainly, we shared long-distance phone calls
and lengthy email epistles—writer to writer. I preserved some of his emails and
taped them down on the pages of my journal, something I’ve gotten in the habit
of doing when emails are obviously “keepers.”  

I shared Bruce’s elation when he received the contract and
small advance from a British publisher to do a creative writing textbook. He
trusted me enough as a reader to send me some draft chapters. In turn, he patiently
listened to me moan about my latest depressing rejection, reminding me: “Nothing
worth having ever came without a fight and struggle.”

Bruce dreamed he would make it onto a bigger stage in the writing
and publishing world by the time he turned seventy, but it wasn’t meant to be. He
died in August 2010 in El Paso,
two years after retiring
from academia, and I lost one of my closest literary comrades. His “cool-man”
demeanor, the care and compassion he had for his students, and his friendship will
never be forgotten. I can still hear Bruce’s voice as he recited E.M. Forster’s
words, part of the literary wisdom he drummed into my head: 
Only connect the
passion and prose and both will be exulted…

Kathleen Tarr is a long-time Alaskan and was
the first program coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA Program from
2007-2011. Her work has appeared in
Creative Nonfiction, Alaska
Airlines Magazine, Cirque, 49 Writers, TriQuarterly,
and is forthcoming in
The Sewanee Review. She is a founding member of 49
Writers and has taught creative writing at UAA and the University of

4 thoughts on “Kathleen Tarr: Writing from the Heart Forward”

  1. Kathy, that's a great story about a student-teacher/mentor relationship that evolved into an enduring friendship. Thanks for sharing your personal story and referencing others in your posting. Close, lasting literary friendships are uncommon in my experience.

  2. What a beautiful post, thanks for sharing. I feel so lucky to have writing friends, although it's not quite the mentorship you experienced. I love the quote at the end too.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    You've reminded me that I really owe some writer friends some old-fashioned letters. Thanks for this great, inspirational post, Kathy.

  4. What a wonderful tribute to Bruce, who encouraged so many young writers. Thank you, Kathy, for the tender glimpse back in time.
    Jeanne Marie

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