Claude Clayton Smith

WHEN I WAS A KID, my parents had an ancient Remington typewriter—you had to depress the keys about two inches to make a mark on the page—and I enjoyed sitting down and banging out whatever came to mind. In junior high, assigned to write a short story, I cranked out a potboiler, “The Death of a Cousin,” and had fun doing so. In high school, when an English teacher read to us from The Catcher in the Rye, the voice of Holden Caulfield blew me away, and I immediately began writing a novel that sounded suspiciously like The Catcher in the Rye. In college, when a literature professor allowed us to write a short story in lieu of a critical paper, I jumped at the option, creating a naïve first-person narrator to tell about my grandfather, who was a drunkard. The writing proved cathartic—I cried when I finished—having brought order to personal experience. When our literary magazine published that story, I knew my future would involve writing.

During my first year as a high school teacher, I published a poem in the English Journal. Shortly thereafter, when I gave the best-man speech at my friend’s wedding, somebody came up and said, “You ought to be a writer. Why don’t you go to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa?” I didn’t even know that such a place existed, but I applied, submitting several published poems along with pages of a novel, and was accepted in fiction. Of course, like everyone else out there in Iowa City, I fully intended to write the Great American Novel. I was twenty-six years old, but it was another fourteen years before I published a novel. In the intervening years, I was sustained by encouraging rejection slips from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Playboy, etc., plus my own determination and discipline. I continued writing because of this incremental encouragement.

In Iowa I became terrified of the blank page. This was in the era before word processors, when snapping a sheet of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch paper into the typewriter was for me an act of faith and courage. To lessen the fear, I used five-by-eight notecards, typing double-spaced on the unlined side. I figured if I could write but a single rigorous paragraph, I might one day write a full page. I remember carrying a stack of more than three hundred of those five-by-eight notecards into the office of William Price Fox, who was teaching a fiction workshop at the time. Bill sat behind his desk, staring at the precarious tower before him. When I transferred a portion of that stack to the worksheet for class, I separated the individual cards by asterisks. After class, one enthusiastic student asked: “Do you intend to publish it this way?” I can’t remember what I said, but I do know that forty years later (twenty-six years after my novel saw print) that manuscript saw print, too.

I write because I have to.