A Green Journey
Dr. Patrick Hicks
I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I always knew that I wanted to surround myself with words and, hopefully, one day make a career of stringing them together. So when I came to Saint John's University in 1988, I planned to study creative writing under Jon Hassler. I hadn't read any of his books, but I knew that he was famous and that he could nudge me towards the future that existed in my imagination. I planned on taking a course from him during my Sophomore year, but getting into Jon's class was hard. Very hard.
In fact, I had to wait four long years until-hosanna!-I managed to squeeze my way into English 313. On that first day of "Creative Writing" we waited in the Quad and talked about the stories that we were going to write. Snow fell through the trees and the Abbey Bells bonged softly in the distance. We had our notebooks open, our pens were ready, and we waited.
When Jon finally appeared, a friend of mine leaned into my ear and whispered, "Is he walking on air?"
"Yeah," I said. "I think so."
He sat on the desk, opened a thin book, and began to call out our names. The semester had begun.
Over the next few months Jon taught me about word choice and how to compress language. He cracked open my generosity towards characters, especially the ones that were nasty or brutish. He told me that I needed to love all my characters because, if I didn't, the reader never would.
He also taught me that I should never write about green grass. "You don't need to tell the reader that the grass is green," he would say. "It's always green, so tell the reader if it's brown or burnt. Those details matter." Equally, there was no need to mention that the sky was blue or that snow was white or that blood was red.
Jon showed me how to write authentic dialogue and how to ring the proper pitch out of language. He said that my characters needed to express their feelings so well that adverbs weren't necessary in taglines.
All of these lessons, I hasten to add, are still with me today whenever I sit down to write a story. Every single one of them.
About halfway through the semester, Jon asked me to stop by his office. I told my friends that I was off to see "the guru" (as we were beginning to call him) and I knocked on his door.
He gave me a copy of A Green Journey (1985) and asked me to sit down. Apparently his agent had arranged for him to read this novel as a "book on tape" and he wanted me to coach him on the Irish accent. Jon knew that my mother was from Northern Ireland and that I could mimic my Irish relatives so faithfully that I sounded like a native.
It was an honor to teach Jon, and I was grateful for the opportunity to pay him back in some way. A good teacher understands that they can learn from their students and-as I helped him stretch out his vowels and get the floating rhythm of the Irish accent correct-he offered to me an example of what a professional writer should be: someone who is unafraid to ask for help, and someone who puts the narrative above their own ego.
The title of Jon's fourth novel could easily apply to my own experiences at CSB/SJU. I had my own "green journey" into writing because I was a novice, a newbie, a greenhorn, even though I secretly believed that I was a much better than I really was. Using that phrase "a green journey" might be a forced metaphor, but it is also somehow true. Here's another truth: I was very lucky to study under Jon Hassler, and also under J.F. Powers, because I learned much from these two writers who called Saint John's home at the same time that I did.
I graduated in 1992 but Jon continued to advise me for many years. He taught me about the business of writing and helped me to negotiate contracts. He explained the difference between First Serial Rights and North American Rights, galley proofs and tear sheets, agented work versus freelance work.
And then I moved to England in 1997 to begin work on my doctorate.
I sometimes got Christmas letters from Jon (or rather, from Agatha McGee) and she always asked about my writing. I meant to write back, but I never did. Until, that is, I was hired by Augustana College in 2002 to teach Creative Writing and Irish Literature. Jon was the first writer I wanted to bring on campus so I wrote a letter asking when he might be available. My motivation was partly for my students but also, if I'm being honest about it, I wanted my old mentor to see that I had done well with my education.
He couldn't make it to Augustana for a reading because his health had weakened him, but he wrote a lovely letter of praise which I still have in my office. It's tucked into a signed first edition of Staggerford and, when I found out that he passed away on Thursday, 20 March 2008, I took this novel off my shelf and read some of it to my own Creative Writing class. They laughed at the jokes and wanted to know more about this character called Miles Pruitt. A few of them wanted to know if we had the novel in our bookstore.
I never really thanked Jon for his quiet wisdom, and that is my loss. More than anything, I'd like him to know that at least one of his students took his lessons on writing and ran with them, and is still running with them. And you know what? I think Jon would like the stories I'm publishing now. I think he would recognize that I'm not green anymore.
So if can hear me Jon, I just want to say one last thing:
Thank you. You made a difference.