THE FINAL lecture at last August's Bread Loaf Writers' Conference had concluded, and now John Gardner leaned against the podium and chatted comfortably with me while he tugged at a Bloody Mary. "Want a Bloody Mary?" he asked me after a long first sip.
I declined. What I wanted was help, advice, maybe even encouragement on the novel I've been wrestling with for four years. Gardner, who had been a whirlwind of unpredictability all week at Bread Loaf, had offered to stay after his lecture and speak individually with anyone who wanted to talk. I was the only taker.
I looked carefully at him--beach-boy hair, dark glasses, motorcycle grime under his fingernails, the ever-present pipe or cigarette, one hand free for the moment's thirst quencher--but the thing that stood out even then was his attitude. All week the pugnacious attitude tenuously covering a strain of sympathy reminded me of someone, and now I know who--Baretta, the character played by Robert Blake in the now-defunct TV series. Somewhere, John, you're cussing me out for that comparison, but it's true. People looked at you and they expected a jolly little elf; what they got was a tough-guy cop, always on patrol.
Gardner's self-ordained beat was writing, and he tenaciously patrolled those involved in it--staking us out, bugging us, cuffing us and occasionally reforming us. Few escaped the long arm of Gardner's Law. And so at Bread Loaf, in what turned out to be the final lectures of a life cut short by a motorcycle wreck on Sept. 14, 1982, Gardner roughed up the writers as a cop would a burglar. For Gardner did, indeed, perceive many of us as thieves looking to take something from literature without offering fair payment in return.
Earlier that week his comments to the group of 200 or so writers struck like a night stick. His first lecture, scheduled for 60 minutes, lasted just 16. He chastised us for wanting to be, in his words, "great writers," and he accused us of forgetting what was really important: "If you aren't writing politically, you aren't writing at all . . . You cannot be a great writer unless you feel greatly." He menacingly jabbed his short fingers at us. Habitually he sucked in air between a corner of his mouth and his teeth, his lips stretching quickly into what looked like a sneer. Gardner said he had no lesson for us, nothing we wanted to hear anyway, no news about "the market," nothing to tell us about "point of view," he scoffed.
"Someplace along the line we forget that what we are doing is saving the human race," Gardner said emotionally. "All we think about is becoming 'great writers'--8 million people died while we were thinking about how to become 'great writers' . . . Publishers don't like it that writers are turning political. It's low class in this country to be political . . . It's not elegant to be serious, so we can't handle it."
And he also said something that sounded ominous then and is haunting now: "I'm not really interested in writing anymore. . ."
He finished that first lecture curtly, and as he stepped outside a Boston accent from the audience sliced through the silence: "You cheated us!" a man said to Gardner.
Gardner faced him. They were about five feet apart. People, including myself, stood between them. The man with the accent stood on a chair. "It's easy for you to say, Mr. Gardner, because you are a great writer," the man shouted. "But you have an obligation to us and you're laughing at us. Books can't change things. And don't think about punching me; I'm bigger than you."
"You lie!" said Gardner, red-faced. "You're standing on a chair anyway. But you lie about books too." Here Gardner's tone softened; he was Baretta giving advice he hoped would make a kid go straight. "They can change things. Go and write. I'm not laughin' at ya," he said symphathetically. "Write the biggest novel you can write. You have to believe your work can make a difference. Go and write. I'm not laughin' at ya."
Having heard Gardner's "lecture" and the ensuing exchange, Carolyn Forche', the brilliant young poet who teaches at the University of Virginia, said about Gardner, "I'm worried about him . . . What he had to say was disturbing in many ways." She shared a view held by many at the conference.
All week long, Gardner's message came through like a cop's whistle cutting the middle of a quiet night: "Write the biggest thoughts you can write . . . whenever you write a novel, try to write a great novel."
So I approached him cautiously after his final lecture, declined the Bloody Mary, and asked him first about the man from Massachusetts. "He was angry," Gardner said. Then flashing a vintage Baretta wise-guy grin, he added, "But I'd rather have people angry at me than ignoring me."
We talked about my work, and Gardner, the investigator, turned affable, eager and thoughtful. He interrogated me, picking and prying, forcing me to analyze my work and make clear choices and commitments. At the end of a half hour or so, he had drained the Bloody Mary, and he offered this last bit of advice: "You know where you want it to go--no one else does. When you're convinced--really convinced--your way is right, write it honestly and write it big. The hell with everything else."
Obviously, Gardner wasn't "laughin' " at us. Would Baretta laugh at a bunch of punks whom he felt needed straightening out?