I can’t really say Clay taught me to write. I can say Clay taught me to listen. He taught me to listen for details. The way someone spoke. How they moved. And then, of course, the most important thing — what did I think it meant. And for that, I still had to listen. I had to listen to me.
Clay listened to me. I came to writing late. Not late as in late. But late enough that I’d clocked a few years already in a career that I knew was not where I wanted to go. Even my parents didn’t really believe I had this writing bug in me. But Clay never acted as if I may or may not make it. He just accepted that this was what I was going to do. What I, as far as he was concerned, was already doing.
And so even in a classroom he would growl. “SIT DOWN.” He barked after one particularly bad reading I gave of a story that meant nothing. Even after reading three sentences I knew it meant nothing. It rambled. It veered. It careened. Until finally Clay had enough sense to make it stop. “What’s the headline?” I didn’t have one. Silence. A room full of students I am sure grateful they weren’t, at that moment, me. “Don’t write until you know the headline,” he finally said. He’s was right. Still right. When I don’t have a headline, I know I don’t have a direction, a meaning. A point of view.
Many stories are on the Internet, in magazines, in newspapers, books about Clay. Wonderful stories of a magical man. The one I keep remembering is when I was interviewing for a job, about to graduate from school. I was in an office at Cal with an editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer. She seemed interested in my clips. They, honestly, weren’t bad. I had spent a summer at the St. Petersburg Times, and worked some magic of my own. Not a star. But I was serviceable. Then, suddenly, a door slammed open.
Clay’s head pushed through. “COME SEE ME AFTER THIS. I’VE FOUND YOU AN AGENT.” The door shut. Had he actually just walked into my interview? Was that Clay? I remembered to breathe. The editor smiled. She handed me back my clips. “Call us when you’ve made some decisions. It sounds like you have many options.”
There wasn’t, of course, an agent. There was the daughter of a friend, who ended up in journalism instead. I also didn’t end up in Philly. But none of that mattered. What did mattered? What, of course, it meant. It meant I had a mentor. And a teacher. And an editor. And a friend.
There was no one like you Clay. And I am so much the better for it all.