Matthew Thomas studied with Alice McDermott when he was a Writing Seminars student at Johns Hopkins University. When asked about McDermott for our March profile, he sent the following essay about her as an instructor, writer, and mentor. It beautifully amplifies the importance of McDermott’s contributions in the classroom and beyond. Thomas’s debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, will be published by Simon and Schuster in September.
Alice McDermott’s indisputable brilliance as a writer is a matter of historical record. Her brilliance as a human being, however—her magnanimity, decency, and extraordinary humility—deserves its own separate accounting.
When I studied under Alice in the Writing Seminars at the turn of the century, she was only a couple of years removed from the triumphant publication of Charming Billy. Nobody would have begrudged Alice feeling her oats a little, had she been inclined to do so, because few American writers could claim so august a resume as hers. What was remarkable from the beginning of my acquaintance with Alice was how thoroughly humble she was, what a common touch she had, what a model she was for carrying oneself with grace. (It’s a testament to Alice’s humility that I hesitate to go on at length here, because I’m certain it will mortify her to read an account of her remarkable qualities, but in the interest of inspiring readers with the idea that someone like Alice exists in the world, I will continue, and court her ire.) She was generous with her time and enthusiasm, and endlessly supportive of the writers in her charge. She also gave freely of her extraordinary insights into craft. Alice made the insoluble problems of composition seem solvable with enough effort, which was something of a miracle, and a generous gift for a master craftsman to give to an apprentice.
The lessons Alice taught us were extraordinarily useful and specific. She told us she wrote by hand, on legal pads, and some of us, freed from the burden of editing as we wrote, found a new fluency by following her example. I never forgot her lesson in the proper placement of dialogue tags, which she boiled down to the pithy, "After the first natural pause." I could have felt around in the dark for years without seeing that bit of truth on my own as lucidly as she’d put it. A minute of her time cleared away every error in that category forever, and it strikes me now that a good portion of her pedagogical philosophy involves demystifying the writing process in order to allow room for the deeper mystery of creation, namely how a work gets imbued with individuality, personality, soul.
Alice taught us never to populate a story with disembodied heads, brains in a jar. Fiction, she argued, must evoke a world outside the limited confines of an individual character’s consciousness. To Alice, a writer was responsible for giving readers clues about the world a story’s characters inhabit. Verisimilitude didn’t have to be achieved in the first draft, if one wasn’t gifted at instantly rendering the three-dimensional world. It was possible to write a scene and then circle back and layer in details that provided a visceral sense of reality. This is best accomplished, perhaps only accomplished, she taught, by availing oneself of senses other than those two most overused by beginning writers, sight and sound. Only when we write with all the senses are our characters allowed to come fully to life.
A startling amount of the practical writing advice she gave us stays with me to this day. I’ll never forget when she said, “You can’t say of a character, ‘He lifted five rabbits out of a hat, one at a time.’ You can’t see someone pick up five rabbits, one at a time. You see one rabbit, then another, then another.”
It mattered, too, how many times the rabbit came out of the hat. Alice was adamant that details had to be chosen for a reason. Every detail had to be significant for it to remain in a given story. “If you have a story where the character is an aspiring architect,” she once said, “and he builds models of cathedrals at home out of paper, and he has a cat, then the cat must crush the model, or else his being an architect is inessential, does not advance the plot. Don’t pick something at random. He must be an architect for a reason, not just to add a layer of brushstrokes to the character.”
Moments in time rigorously observed mattered to her. She insisted that we avoid resorting to invocations of habitual actions, like “He would often go to the store.” To Alice, it blurred a scene to talk about what “always” happened. What someone did in a specific moment was inevitably far more compelling.
One of the most useful things Alice ever taught us ostensibly flies in the face of one of the central tenets of much creative writing instruction. She took the “show, don’t tell” maxim and turned it on its head. Don’t be afraid of exposition, she urged; exposition is always ready at hand as a tool to be used, and a narrator must be allowed to advance the plot, explicate a situation, develop a character. At the same time, she insisted, exposition can’t be workaday or obligatory. The writer’s paramount task, at all times, is to create a continuous fictive dream. When the work is done right, she suggested, the reader forgets that there’s an author. It’s not that she taught us not to “show” things; there is no writer alive more gifted than Alice at constructing scenes, choosing resonant details, and allowing a dialogic exchange, even a silent room, to come alive based on the people and objects in it. Rather, she gave us permission, even urged us, to lean on exposition to do a good deal of interesting work. What this insistence of hers actually had the effect of doing was enabling us to write more compelling scenes. That was true, in part, because if one holds the note of exposition longer, when one delves into a particular scene it will be a crucial one. One directive I’ll never forget: Withhold dialogue until a character absolutely has to speak. That will make everything he or she says relevant and necessary. Relevance and necessity were the bellweathers for Alice. Invoking the famous last line of Frank O’Connor’s great story, “Guests of the Nation,” she taught that a good short story captures the moment after which nothing will ever be the same. If everything has happened a certain way for a hundred days in a row, she urged, a story is when things change on the hundred and first day.
Alice possesses that rare quality that is the hallmark of any highly evolved person: she acts the same with everyone she meets. She is serious, but never solemn. She radiates peace, and a kind of serenity, but never at the expense of a good chuckle, the way one pictures Buddha laughing generously at human foibles and frailty. The enormous insights into life that she has acquired over a career spent getting to know her characters as intimately as she knows them, and greeting them with as much love as she does, allows Alice to project an air of perpetual calm and ease that one suspects covers an even deeper level of calm and ease beneath it. (For someone who is so personally calm, she writes about violent turmoil with startling facility. Dip into the beginning pages of That Night, where men are crashing heavy metal chains into each other, to see what an extraordinary imagination she has.)
If all of that is not a tall enough order, Alice taught us that every story should be not just one story, but two stories, or more than two if possible. There should always be a parallel story, she urged. With that in mind, I will say that there is the story Alice’s work tells, and then there is the parallel story of the remarkable person Alice is in the world. Having said all I’ve said about Alice as one of those transformative teachers one is lucky to meet even once in a lifetime, a great writer, an American treasure, a gift to readers everywhere, let me say that nearly above all else what I remember about Alice is her wonderful laugh, which suggested that everything was right in the world, or could be with a little mutual effort. She made us want to be better people for her.