The latest in a series recognizing the best teachers I had
I was stunned and saddened to learn that on October 30 of this year, just a few weeks ago, the great J.R. Salamanca passed away peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 91. I was fortunate enough to study under him at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the mid-1980’s.
He exclusively taught a 400-level creative writing class that to get into, you took a prerequisite writing class AND you had to submit a sample story for his approval. One could take the course up to three times and receive credit for it. I also learned that a fair number of retirees audited his class, paying to attend and participate, but not receiving grades: some of them had been with “Jack,” as they called him, for years.
J.R. Salamanca (source)
Back then, I was callow and overly sure of my abilities: it’s not hyperbole when I tell you that my writings had been blowing away my teachers since the fourth grade. I was convinced that I was on my way to being the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. I showed up in Salamanca’s class wondering what I could possibly learn about writing from this “old man” (he was in his 60’s) with his heavily-lined face and bulbous nose, who smoked at his desk, and who often cocked his head and cupped a liver-spotted hand to his ear to hear when a student commented or asked a question.
It turns out, I learned everything. Everything.
Salamanca ran his classes like this: there was no lecture, per se; no syllabus; no required readings; no quizzes or tests. Sometimes, he might read to us a few passages from a favorite writer of his: he liked Hemingway, of course, but also Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, W. Somerset Maugham, and some I hadn’t heard of. He had a sonorous voice—later, I learned that he had been a theatre actor in Europe. He would explain why he read to us what he did, pointing out how and why the author had used the tone and diction that he or she had.
But usually, he asked that for a student to volunteer to turn in an original short story to him (minimum of one per semester) and all the other students in class. We were to read the story before the next class, where he would critique the story. Out loud. Publicly. Frankly. He would spend most of the class period (an hour and a half) doing the critique; would encourage the other students to make comments; and would then allow the author to “have your day in court,” as he put it, to answer the critics.
The first few of these critiques (of other students) that I sat through were brutal. Salamanca had an extensive vocabulary, and while he delved deeply into it to fully convey his displeasure, he often used “trite” and “effusive” that semester. He didn’t yell, he didn’t insult anyone on a personal level; his critiques were scathing but fair. He’d go through the story from beginning to end, pointing out flaws of thought and execution, occasionally (but not often) praising a tidbit of good writing that he found here or there. I was surprised no one ever cried.
I knew, however, that I was much, much better than the other students in class. I went home and whipped up a 12-page semi-autobiographical piece called “The Bike Ride,” about a callow college student with literary ambitions. I swaggered into class with my copies, handed them out, and the next time we convened, I was sure that Salamanca was going to tell the others, “Now, THAT’S how it’s done.”
The next class rolled around, and Salamanca had a great deal to say, all right. Like with the others, he started his critique at the beginning of my story. But not just the beginning: with the first sentence. He told me what he didn’t like about it. And then he moved onto the second sentence. And what he didn’t like about that. And then the third. And so on.
He had not done that with any of the other stories thus far that semester.
At one point, after he spent several minutes reciting and attempting to deconstruct and analyze a throwaway line I had written (one I shall not repeat here because of its adolescent awfulness), he looked at me over his glasses and said: “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about here, and I don’t think you know, either.” Which, of course, was absolutely true.
By the time class was over, we had only gotten about halfway through the story, and no one else had had a chance to add anything. Nor had I had my “day in court.” Feeling like I had been flogged in the marketplace, I breathed a mental sigh of relief and assumed that he would wrap up by saying something like, “Well, we’ve spent enough time on this: I think I’ve made myself clear on where you’ve gone wrong, Mr. Kilgore.”
To my horror, he said nothing of the sort. Instead, he indicated that we would resume his review of my story at the start of the next class period. Which, again, I had never seen him do before.
As I walked out of class, Milton—one of the retirees who had been in this course several times before—came over and told me, without any hint of sarcasm, “Wow, he must really like you.”
“What? What makes you say THAT?” I asked.
“If he didn’t think you had much talent, he wouldn’t have spent nearly that much time on you,” Milton told me.
I came back for the next class, where he finished going over my story. Out of 12 pages, he liked a sentence or two here and there, and most of one page towards the end. The other students had their say, but there wasn’t much they could add. I had my “day in court,” but there wasn’t much I could defend.
At the end of the semester, I registered for his class again. And after that semester, I took it again. Here are some take-aways:
- Be careful and precise with every word. Before Salamanca, I wrote very quickly, with a great deal of clutter. My sentences were full of garbage words like “very” and “just” and “a little.” I used words without considering their connotations: at one point in “The Bike Ride,” I compared a character to a mouse, and then later on, to a rat. Salamanca objected that mice are cute and adorable; rats are repulsive. To Salamanca, there were no throwaway words and phrases: everything had to mean something, everything had to be correct and fit properly.
- Be mindful of tone. Hand-in-hand with being careful and precise with words was to be careful of the cumulative effect those words had on the reader.
- “Sentiment” instead of “sentimentality.” To Salamanca, “sentiment” is actual, honest, heartfelt emotion—and it is very hard to do. Sentiment can be summoned like a storm: building slowly but powerfully over pages and pages until it reaches maximum intensity. Or it can only take a word or two: some of the most wrenching passages every written are the simplest. “Sentimentality,” on the other hand, is cheap, bogus. It’s the obvious tear-jerking of a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, or the overblown protestations of bad romance novels. Sentiment is real and honest; sentimentality is not.
- Verisimilitude is fundamental. Suspension of disbelief is key to any story, no matter what genre you write in; if the story seems false to the reader for even a moment, you’ve failed as a writer. I once handed in a story told from the perspective of a WWII concentration camp guard. Salamanca dismissed it with, “I don’t believe any of it. Not a word.” Nor should he have: I didn’t know enough about concentration camps, or the military, or even Germans (despite having relatives) to write a believable story.
- There isn’t one way to write well. I might have given you the impression that Salamanca thought there was a formula or particular style to emulate, and that writing that didn’t follow it wasn’t good. But that wasn’t the case. As I alluded to earlier, he admired a vast array of authors, too many for me to remember 25+ years later, and when he felt it appropriate, he would compare or contrast a student’s writing to one or more of those authors. At first, it was a little daunting to have him compare us to great writers, but…
- Salamanca believed in us. I might have also given you the impression that with his critiques, Salamanca was Simon Cowell’s father, but that’s not so. His reviews of our work were often scathing, but they precisely pointed out our flaws and also thickened our skins (which every writer needs, at some point). And he offered those critiques because he saw something in each student, some talent or gift or story, and wanted to help develop that. He always criticized the story, not the person: though he might have loathed every word in a submission, he never EVER told anyone, “You’re terrible and you should never write anything ever again.” Instead, he would encourage them to either re-do the piece or try something new.
Before I studied under Salamanca, I wrote swiftly but carelessly, and I seldom edited or rewrote. Since then, I write much more slowly, putting in more thought to make sure that each word, each sentence, is the best I can make it. I acknowledged Salamanca in Dragontamer’s Daughters, and sent him copy a few months ago, along with my thanks. Through his son, he told me that he was honored that I had remembered him. I always will.
Before I end this post, I would be remiss if I did not mention that J.R. Salamanca was, of course, a gifted author of considerable acclaim. His best known work, Lilith, was made into a motion picture. Other works include The Lost Country, Southern Light, and That Summer’s Trance. Find them if you can (they have been out of print for some time); I know I will be looking for them.