author reynolds price

Reynolds Price, 1989/Photo by Curt Richter

Reynolds Price was a protean man of letters: novels, plays, memoirs, essays, criticism, poetry. Just as important, he was a teacher for more than forty years.  And he was the one who gave me, when I was 20, the tools I would need to make my way as a writer.  He died on Thursday after a long and rich life. (NYTimes obit.)

Last weekend I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, this year devoted to food. Before leaving I phoned Reynolds because I hadn’t spoken to him in two years and a recent letter and emails had gone unanswered (which was not like him—he was an ebullient correspondent). Reynolds answered on the first ring—”Maddog, old pal,” he said; he was indeed ill yet remained his jovial self, eager to hear about the seminar.  I asked if he were writing—yes, at work on another memoir, he said.  The conversation was brief.  Donna and I left the next day and at the end of the seminar, we met the official photographer, charged with taking each participant’s photograph on a big 8-x-10 view camera, big sheets of real film.  His name was Curt Richter and it came up that he had done a book of portraits of southern writers.  “Did you photograph Reynolds Price?” I asked.  “I did,” he said, and upon arriving at a makeshift studio on Fleming St (he’s based in Finland, works all over), he showed us the book, and the photograph of Reynolds.

I photographed him and Donna with my iPhone holding up the picture in the book.  Curt is mimicking his portrait of William Styron, Donna, the dour Reynolds. I intended to email the snapshot to Reynolds. Alas, too late. Reynolds would have delighted in the obscure connection.

RP was a non-churchgoing believer in a Christian god, but whatever The Source of all things happens to be, I always felt he had a direct line into it.

As a way to honor him here—because I know many of the people who come here, are writers and many are aspiring to be—I’d like to offer what he taught me, in as concise a way as possible.

He began the one class I had with him, Writing Longer Narrative Fiction, by asking us what is the shortest possible story.  Is “The king died” a story?  No.  Here though, is a story: “The king died, and the queen died of grief.”

There are shorter stories, but this underscored what defined story: something causes something else, and all three parts need to be interesting. To someone who doesn’t know you, the writer.

When writing, he said, ask yourself, “Will this be of interest to someone who doesn’t know me?” Be outward looking, rather than inward looking. No one cares what you see in the mirror except you.

“Don’t bore me,” he warned us in ominous baritone.  Boring someone was only a rung or two above child abuse, he said.

He taught me that story was fundamental to our humanity: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens—second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter,” he wrote in the essay “A Single Meaning,” collected in his book A Common Room, which, for any young writers out there, includes the excellent “Letter to a Young Writer.”

Above all, he taught me this:  That all imaginative writing, non-fiction and fiction alike, is generated, in some measure, unconsciously.  And that you can train your unconscious to help you with the very heavy lifting of writing.  “The unconscious is like children and dogs,” he said, quoting one his colleagues. “It loves routine and hates surprises.” Therefore: write at the same time of day, every day, for about the same amount of time and produce about the same amount of words.  Actual word count didn’t matter, 350 or 2000, that was a question of the writer’s metabolism.  Time of day didn’t matter, only that it was the same time, whenever you could reliably give yourself at least two undistracted hours.

I’m here to say that it works—for me it took ten years till I figured it out. There are countless writers out there who benefited from his words on craft, starting with the precocious Anne Tyler, in his first class ever.

Dear Reynolds, I am lucky beyond words for all you gave me and will be forever in your debt. I hope you’re doing a jig up there and catching up with Eudora.

A few of my personal favorite books by Reynolds:

A Long and Happy Life

A Generous Man

The Tongues of Angels

Kate Vaiden

The Collected Poems

Learning a Craft: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1957-1997

A wonderful novel for young readers, A Perfect Friend

His extraordinary memoir of surviving cancer, A Whole New Life

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26 Wonderful responses to “Reynolds Price, 1933 – 2011:
An Appreciation and Advice To Writers”

  • Lisse

    Thank you for sharing that portrait and bit of advice. How fortunate you were to have such a mentor and correspondent.

  • Lisa

    A wonderful tribute to your mentor and friend. I appreciate your passing along his wisdom and the booklist of your favorites.

  • Jeanne

    Oh, what a lovely tribute! I was so sad when I heard that he had died yesterday. I admired him immensely and there is defintely a void in the world now that he is gone. Thank you for passing on some advice from him–so very wise, indeed.

  • Three-Cookies

    Thank you for sharing this. Its a sad loss. I am glad to hear that you got the chance to speak with him last weekend. I have a friend/mentor who is 80+ and I haven’t called him for almost a year, maybe more. I must make a point of calling regularly.

  • Martin

    A nice, and very unboring, piece.I’ve admired him as an essayist, thanks for making him a teacher.

  • Wilma de Soto

    A fitting tribute to a complex genius who touched many lives by sharing his knowledge. My condolences to you.

  • Peter Stevenson

    Beautiful piece of writing Michael. Reynolds adored you, was so proud of you, and I know he’d be (and maybe is!) charmed.

  • James L. Fogarty

    He was a wonderful teacher and helped develop you. Mr. Ruhlman, I am happy that you serve as a guide to all into the culinary arts profession.

    Would you ever consider talking on a Wednesday to our culinary students at Suffolk County Community College. I would host your family for an overnight in the Hamptons.

    Thanks for all you do to enhance culinary education.

    Respectfully,
    James L. Fogarty
    (631)219-5253
    (My resume and and our school history can be provided to any contact point)

  • Rhonda

    I agree with the “unconscious”.

    I would have loved to cook for him and talk about life.

    I disagree with some of his “rules” which would have made for great dinner party conversation.

    What a wonderful life. What a wonderful and full journey.

    How lucky you are that he touched your heart. How lucky he was that you touched his heart.

    Well Done.

  • Rhonda

    One more thing…

    Donna is the photographer in your house but this is exceptional. I can’t get over it. You captured soul — on your I phone!

    Very Annie Leibovitz.

  • John F. Williams

    “Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
    The fingers of no heir will ever hold.”

    —Alfred Edward Housman

  • Tinky

    I’ve had a lot of writing advice–but most of it tends to be mechanical. This has soul, as your mentor obviously did. You have my sympathy.

  • Michael Franco

    My condolences on the loss of your dear friend, Michael. It is an unexpected gift to be touched by a writer. A gift that lasts a lifetime.

    As writers go, Reynolds and Styron are two of my favorites. I reread them often and will miss them both. It’s comforting to see them immortalized in neighboring photographs in Richter’s book.

    Thank you for this tender tribute.

  • Michelle

    Years ago I purchased “A Portrait Of Southern Writers” and it has remained a favorite, in constant rotation from night stand, to coffee table, to bookshelf, never residing at the bottom of the shelf for long. (That photograph of Eudora Welty alone was worth the price of the book.) And, I am sorry to hear about Reynolds Price. I hesitate when it comes to praising artists such as these, for my meager words would pale in comparison to their great work. I offer a simple condolence that doesn’t seem to do them justice. Thanks for sharing the lessons that you learned. This was a sad but interesting post.

  • Cissa

    I think :The King died, and the queen died of grief” is actually from a book on writing written by U. K. Le Guin, a number of years ago.

  • Carolyn Jung

    Lovely tribute to a special and inspirational man.
    It’s so true about what you say about the subconscious or unconscious playing such a huge role in good writing. I can’t tell you how many journalists I know — myself, included — who have sat at a computer, stuck on the lede for a story, only for it to magically pop into our head when we took a walk, got in the car to drive somewhere or just lay down to go to sleep for the night. It’s when you stop torturing yourself to think of it that the best prose starts to emerge almost effortlessly.

  • Karen Porter

    I am so sorry to hear about Reynolds. Thank you for your lovely tribute. My brother helped him for a while (I believe it was two years) during the period that Kate Vaiden was published. My fond memory is of receiving an autographed first edition from Reynolds. I will cherish it all the more now.

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