Avram Davidson And Closure

By John Gilstrap

I’ve alluded many times here and during public presentations that my one and only creative writing teacher (in 1977) did more to harm my future writing career than he did to help it along. That experience hardened my thoughts on such classes and drove me to the world of the self-taught writer. The punch line in this section of my presentation is that the cranky old guy died before I had a chance to show him my first published novel.

I never mentioned the instructor’s name in public because I thought it would be unfair to him and his family. After all, he was quite well-respected among science fiction writers (and short story writers in general), and I’m confident that my experience was unique.

So, imagine my surprise when I received this email out of the blue:

Hi John,

My Name is [his name].  Avram Davidson was my Godfather.  Long story but I would love to schedule a call.  I understand you had him as a professor at William & Mary?

The URL for his email appeared to be from a law firm. My first thought: Oh, crap. Schedule a call? Could there possibly be an upside to that? So I wrote back:

It’s rare that I get startled by an email. I guess the world truly is small. Nearly half a century has passed since I last saw your godfather, though he was indeed my instructor when he was writer-in-residence at W&M. May I ask what you’d like to talk about?

His response:

Thanks for getting back to me. The short of it is I inherited Avram’s literary estate recently and I am getting my arms around it.  I started a podcast and I have been interviewing authors who knew Avram.  I really wanted to interview a student of Avram’s to see what he was like as a professor. I found a picture of [fellow student at the time] and that he was a student.  I am sad to say he passed away a few months ago.  His wife mentioned that you were a student so I wanted to see if we could connect.

I’ll be honest with you here. I didn’t realize how raw a wound this was until I started weighing the pros and cons of even responding further. What would be the point, right? Then again, forty-plus years is a long enough time to get over things, and on balance, I’ve done okay in this writing world. I think the godson’s efforts to keep Avram’s memory alive and vivid is truly a noble mission, and there is no doubt that I interacted with Avram in a way that I would want to know if I were the godson. I won’t share the entirety of my response, but here are the pertinent parts:

Here’s my dilemma: Avram hated my work. He told me, in fact, that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again. Given the work in evidence at the time, I suppose he had a point. I assure you that I harbor no ill will for him lo these many years later, but he really hurt my feelings at the time. In fact, my final discussion with Avram derailed my projected writing career for well over a decade.

That last sentence is as unfair as it is factual. Avram delivered the truth as he saw it. The fact that I absorbed it as a gut punch was on me, not on him. I know that he meant no harm. Now that I’m 23 books and four screenplays into a 25-year career, it’s entirely possible that my success (whatever that means) is tied directly to his giving me, well, something to prove.

So, I’ve shown you my hand. I’d be happy to participate in your podcast, but you need to know that it would not be an elegy to your godfather. Nor would it be a hit piece. I was a 20-year-old dreamer from a troubled background with a love of confrontation. I wanted to write commercial thrillers in the vein of Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsythe at a time when Rod Mcuan and Richard Bach were all the rage. Avram loved edgy, experimental writing, and I was exactly not that.

Whether we do this thing or not, here’s what I want your takeaway to be: Avram made an impact on his students. He made a difference. A week rarely goes by when I don’t think back to those sessions in his tiny, underlit apartment, sipping sherry while noshing on cheese and crackers. And Herman, the dog. He was a sweetheart.

In crafting that response, I discovered something: Whether I like it or not, Avram Davidson truly did give me something to prove. In thinking back on that class experience as a whole, I realized that I made some long-lasting friendships. Of all the classes I took over my four years at William and Mary, his is without doubt the one I remember most vividly.

Is this what closure is–a concept that I’ve never much believed in?

I’ve since spoken at length with the godson on the phone, and our conversation was delightful. I learned that Avram Davidson was a doting godfather and a very nice man–when he wasn’t cranky, as he was occasionally wont to be. He was, you know, human. I cannot wait now for the opportunity to reminisce in the podcast.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is closure.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

23 thoughts on “Avram Davidson And Closure

  1. John, this might be my favorite post of yours. Avram Davidson was (and still is) a respected author of science fiction. He also wrote crime fiction, but he made his nut, if you will, with his speculative and fantasy work.

    You present a heck of a story here, serving up a heavy dose of why persistence matters as well as (indirectly and unintentionally) revealing yourself to be the class act you are. It would have been easy to tell Davidson’s grandson “no.” You didn’t and we are all the richer for it, even as you indicate that time, distance, and your own considerable success have lessened but not eliminated the sting.

    Thank you for a great post. Here’s a postscript. The late Harlan Ellison, who garnered multiple awards as an author of speculative fiction, had an experience similar to though not identical to yours with his creative writing professor while a student at The Ohio State University. It is said that Ellison was expelled for striking the man after receiving a particularly vicious critique of his work. Ellison thereafter made it a point to send his former instructor a copy of every single story that he published.

    Have a great week, John!

  2. Great post, John. Thanks for sharing your experience, and reminding us of the perseverance and determination we will need if we are to be successful in our writing. I particularly can identify with the “something to prove” you referred to. I embarrassed myself so many times in athletics (in high school) that it drove me to excel in academics. And, yes, writing this post and reflecting on how Avram affected your writing career, is closure. Good luck with the podcast.

  3. John, terrific story that illustrates how time and age put harsh experiences into perspective. What was then a trauma eventually became a driver to improve and succeed, even though that effect wasn’t evident until years later.

    Early on in my career, I scored a ms. evaluation at a writing conference with a respected editor. He lacerated my excerpt with cruel (but accurate) criticism. Devastated, I slunk back to my hotel room and called a screenwriter friend for consolation. Turns out his work had also been slashed by that same editor. However, my friend’s short stories had been published in The Atlantic.

    Three valuable lessons came from that experience:

    1. Taste really is subjective.
    2. Praise doesn’t force a writer to examine their flaws but merciless criticism does.
    3. Improvement and persistence are the paths to success.

    • Agreed, Debbie! Taste is exceedingly subjective! I remind myself of that every time I get a rejection response.

  4. He told me, in fact, that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again.

    All due respect to the departed, but that is an abominable thing for a teacher to say to a student. No wonder you were “derailed” for 10 years.

    Our experiences overlap in that regard, only I was told in college you cannot learn how to write fiction. You either have it, or you don’t, and I didn’t. It took me over 10 years to get over what I call “The Big Lie.” And 25 years later I still enjoy proving it false.

  5. Golly. How fascinating. I had a very similar experience back in those same old days. My instructor, never famous as far as I remember, taught us community college kids as a champion of ‘literary fiction, and an admirer of Mcuan, Bach and Bly.’ Trying to steer us toward that lofty goal. Unfortunately, I wanted to be a ‘hack’ writer giving homage to all the pulp writers that entertained me in their page turners. He hated my work and said so. However, my pieces were the favorites among my classmates. I published 2 stories, traditionally, during that term. The only writer among all of his classes to do so that semester. It hurt when he let those go without comment, or even acknowledgement.

    Well, I’m still not famous, exactly. But I do write and my stuff is in magazines and up on amazon. And I’ll keep going as I hope all writers that read your post will.

    Excellent article, John. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for this meaningful post, John. Kudos to the godson who wants to pay tribute to Davidson, and to you for the way you responded. I hope the podcast reaches beyond the writing community since your message about persistence bears on all aspects of life. I hope you’ll let us know when the podcast airs.

    I guess we all have those sores that just don’t seem to heal even after many years, but I’ve heard it said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy will die. I’m so glad you got to closure on this thing and thank you for telling us about it.

  7. John –
    As an emergency physician my daily use of the word “closure” referenced treating lacerations and other wounds that people suffered (i.e. surgical repair = closure).
    The professor telling you “that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again” inflicted a senseless and cruel wound. Besides being irrefutably wrong in his assessment, he violated his role of educator in shameful fashion.
    We all make mistakes. I hope he didn’t make more than one like this in his role as teacher. Some might suggest he ‘did you a favor’ in giving you something to prove. I believe that is nonsense. He wounded you. You overcame the injury and healed yourself (achieved closure).
    Suffering the injury he delivered yet being forgiving and kind is noble stuff. I’ve followed your comments here on TKZ since the beginning – your response is no surprise.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the words of support, Tom, but I feel a need to push back a little. The 1970s were a different time. At 20 years old, I was already older than many of the names that would ultimately be inscribed on the Vietnam veterans’ memorial wall in Washington. I think that Avram called it as he saw it, albeit from a position that he arguably was not qualified to hold. He was not a teacher, but rather a writer who took on a 1-year teaching gig. I never thought he meant any harm by his words.

      I’m the one who *chose* to internalize his comments. I could have just as easily ignored them, as I ultimately did. In that intervening time, I evolved into a different professional career that I loved, and without that pivot, I never would have gone a blind date with the lovely Joy Bevis who has been the even lovelier Joy Gilstrap for nigh on to 37 years.

      A lot of good can come from bad. Ultimately, we all control our own tiller. If we cede that control to others, we’re at least half-responsible for the outcome.

      • Nowadays a 20-year old kid would post a viral video of the author saying that to him during a workshop and poor Avram would inevitably be canceled by his publisher etc. You’re right, times have changed.

        I flunked out of high school my senior year (late 90s) and was told I’d never amount to anything. To prove them wrong, as you did, I went on the graduate college cum laude and earn a law degree. Sometimes kids need that negative emotional push.

  8. Thanks, John, for reminding me that what I write and how I write it will not please everyone.

    Being an author is like walking a fine line between creating and selling. I’d like to be just a step over that line, on the creation side. Both are important, but if I don’t like what I write, why should anyone else?

    I respect what you said about that teacher, and I don’t know how he treated other students, but he treated you with crass cruelty. Teachers walk a fine line between praise and criticism. He definitely stepped way over that line with you.

    I had a similar experience in the 8th grade (wrote about it in one of my blogs); not about writing…about sewing. My home ec (do they even have that class any more?) teacher ridiculed me in front of the class over a dress-making project. Said, “Class, this is how NOT to make a dress,” then proceeded to rip every seam apart (figuratively). I never sat at a sewing machine again.

    The best part, in retrospect, about the entire experience was that my Mom and I worked together on that project. It’s one of the best memories I have of her.

    Take that, Mrs. I-Can’t-Even-Remember-Your-Name! 🙂

  9. As a writing teacher, I am appalled by the damage done by some and pray I never inadvertantly did that myself. And college writing teachers tend to be the worst of them for genre writers. (Don’t waste your money on a college writing degree if you want to write genre. Even if they don’t destroy your desire to write, you will spend years getting rid of their influence is your writing style.)

  10. Thanks for sharing this, John. Coming out of science fiction fandom and SF writing workshops, I’d heard stories about Avram Davidson. A very talented but troubled writer, but one who also represented, in my mind at least, some of the POV at the literary end of the science fiction writing spectrum, which was a disdain for the perceived shortcomings of “commercial” (meaning story focused) fiction. Fortunately, these days, I see little of that from my fellow spec-fic writers who work at that literary end of the spectrum.

    Your account reminds me of a story Lawrence Block once shared in his WD column about an aspiring violinist who visits one of his musical heroes after a triumphal performance by the master. The aspirant asks the master if he thinks that the aspirant has what it takes to become a great violinist. The master considers him for a long moment, then says, “No, you don’t.” The young man leaves, crushed and goes into business. He makes his fortune there, and years later, meets the master again. He asks the master, “How did you know that I didn’t have what it took?” The master replied, “Because you asked the question. If you had what it took, you wouldn’t have asked for my approval, you would have continued no matter what.”

    Clearly you continued no matter what.

    • Dale, you’re exactly right. Avram was of the “literary” school, and he won pretty much every major award that could be won, from the Nebula to the Edgar. He never found commercial success, however.

  11. I’m nominating this post for a Killzey (an award I just invented for best post on this blog).

    We’re all human and I cringe at stuff I did in the past, I boil in anger at stuff others did to me, and still more times I realize I was either in the wrong or it just doesn’t matter as much as I thought it did at the time. Great story

  12. Professors can be harsh. And often wrong. Are you the writer you are today because his biting comments pushed you? We would need a time machine to test that.

    I am a graduate of University City High School, class of 1980. We have many distinguished alums after 100 years of operation. One of my favorite stories is of John Williams, c/o 1929. He was not a good student. He failed English once or twice. After he graduated he attended the local university where he was promptly thrown out of the theater department. He moved south and wrote a series of stories and plays. Tennessee Williams turned out OK.

    To go with that story is a scholar athlete from the class of 1992. A bright young man, good with rhymes, Cornell Haynes. While it does not fit his “street” persona, Nelly was a solid B student back in the day.

  13. I had a couple of teachers that also believed in the virtue of negative feedback. One was a music teacher that would whack the back of my fingers with a metal pointer if I hit a sour note on the piano keyboard. The benefit to me was that I developed very fast reflexes with my hands which came in handy when boxing. Hated piano though and quit.

    The other was a high school teacher who gave me a “C” grade at midterm even though my scores were twice as high as the next highest ranked student in the class. When questioned about the reason for the low grade, she replied that she wanted to give me something to strive for. This knocked me out of the running for valedictorian. She was right though, it gave me something to strive for.

    Our classroom doubled as the off-stage dressing room. Being on the same level as the raised stage, it had a half staircase up from the common hallway. This teacher had a habit of entering the classroom at the start and to get everyone’s attention, she would pull out the central drawer and slam it shut, making a loud noise. Her desk was placed right at the edge of the stairway. I moved her desk a little closer to the edge. The next time she slammed the desk drawer, you guessed it, the desk went over the edge. It fell into the stairway, slid down the stairs, gained enough speed to break the door latch and swing it wide to crash into the hallway wall. The desk continued across the hallway floor into metal lockers with a loud crash that sounded like a bomb went off.

    I was a great fan of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer’s mischief. So I found this all quite entertaining. After several more unfortunate incidents of this sort, she resigned and future classes of students were spared her misguided teaching methods. Her replacement was a more enlightened soul and the incidents ceased.

    Moral of the story, be careful what you wish for.

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