Teaching with Conviction

Harold (Hal) Grutzmacher, for whom the Pulse’s literary contest is named after, held a lifelong love of the written word. He shared this love with both his students, such as Alex Kuo, and his patrons at Passtimes Books, the bookstore he and his wife Marge opened in Door County in 1978.

In the first meeting of his first writing class at a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, Hal Grutzmacher said creative writing classes should be abolished and outlawed. Maybe he didn’t say that exactly – maybe it was the pal of S.I. Hayakawa, Kay Boyle, who said it exactly a couple of decades later in San Francisco – I’m not sure, since that happened a near half-century ago when I was just a distracted senior in that classroom that day. But as I came to know Hal, he would have said it, or words of similar meaning.

To stir the juices and get us off our comfort zones, to get us to listen and pay attention and remember everything, to know something before we die, something essential if we were to be writers, he said. We were lucky, I know now. Stop by, he said, first house on the left in Knoxville.

Not having access to a car, I stopped by his office instead. One conversation led to another and another and another. This was before the expression mentor or role model existed, hyphenated or not. He would have challenged the concept of mentoring:  over-easy, callow, and prone to trivia and patronage. As writers and editors, we fight over words, he said, just in case I didn’t get it right. That I remember, when the two of us walked down to the student union building named the Gizmo in the basement of the theater-arts complex one spring day just when the redbuds were beginning to blossom on campus.

Before I met Hal, those early spring pink blossoms were cersis canadensis to me, a botany-mathematics double major. But unfortunately instead of shooting me (c.f. Dorothy Parker), he told me about graduate creative writing programs, and so did Wallace Stegner whom Hal had brought to the college as the Phi Beta Kappa resident-speaker. In 1960 there were three programs in the country offering a terminal M.F.A. degree in creative writing – now there are more than one hundred and fifty. Go for it, he said. But, he cautioned, if you end up in an English department because of a restricted choice, it will make your life forever miserable as a person and as a writer.

On the last Sunday morning before I left town, I stopped by his house, the first one on the left in Knoxville. He had just picked up the Sunday papers in his bathrobe and was walking the long driveway back to the house. We had coffee in the sun on the lawn, joked about that Wallace Stevens’ poem, and he cautioned me again about the perils of an academic career. Almost in the same sentence. He was exactly like that.

Later I found out Hal left the English department a couple of years later for an administrative position with more contact with students in a similar Wisconsin college, and later academia altogether.

Sherman Alexie claimed in several published early interviews, I taught him everything he knew about writing and the life of a writer. What he really meant was, Hal Grutzmacher taught him everything he knew, word by word, with conviction.

Alex Kuo, a professor of English at Washington State University, has won multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants and was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Changchun University in China. His published works include poetry, fiction, and essays. His collection of short stories, entitled Lipstick and Other Stories, won the 2001 American Book Award.

Kuo’s student, Sherman Alexie, is a poet, novelist, and filmmaker who has won numerous awards and fellowships including the 2007 National Book Award for his young adult novel, entitled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.