Frederick Barthelme and “The 39 Steps”

By  |  March 13, 2018
Illustration by Eleanor Davis Illustration by Eleanor Davis
I’m the daughter of classical musicians. I admired my parents, but I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. For much of my life, I’d felt relegated to being in their audience. When I was in high school in the mid-seventies, my father moved our family from Alberta, Canada, to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He’d accepted a teaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi. My college tuition was free so that’s where I went. I wanted my own voice, my own stage, so I chose English as my major. It was a relief to study something my parents couldn’t dissect, and to move onto campus, away from my father’s ego. 

Frederick Barthelme had arrived the year before to take over the creative writing program and the editorship of the esteemed Mississippi Review. I signed up for his Intro to Fiction Writing class. A Texan, Barthelme was imposing in cowboy boots, jeans, and a navy blazer. His pale green eyes telegraphed amusement and dismay. He said to call him “Rick.” 

It was 1977 and we sat in grammar-school desks with a divot in the right corner that held an ashtray. Like Rick, I drank Tab from the fuchsia can and smoked True menthols. He’d bum one from me; I’d bum one from him. Rick had published a couple of obscure books, but he’d been pigeonholed as the younger brother of Donald Barthelme, the genius postmodernist. 

To ease the terror of having your work picked over by him and your fellow writers, Rick ran workshop like the Grand Guignol. Jokes leavened the sting; his over-the-top performance and rhetoric made the criticism entertaining, bracing. He gave us a set of dictums he adhered to in his own work. Twenty years later, they’re available online as “The 39 Steps,” but back then, these don’ts and dos rolled off his tongue. 

“Step one,” he explained to our class of impressible undergrads, “in the great enterprise of a new and preferable you in the house of fiction: Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys.” 

For my first workshop story, I submitted a roman à clef about the ennui of a virgin named Pandora who worked in a shoe store called Grendel’s, because I was a virgin and I sold shoes at the Cloverleaf mall. And I was reading Beowulf. 

I wrote: Pandora couldn’t remember the last time she had felt the excitement of a sin. It had been easy when she had worn patent leather shoes to church and gone inside the confession box once a week. She pictured a heaven full of naked eunuchs with well-placed cloths and fruit, but where would all the bad taste go to rest? Into a special room for men with ratty toupees, with muzak piped where they drank Cold Duck. 

Barthelme ripped my story apart. He wrote: In short: what isn’t coming across is why she’s so bitchy, catty, small-minded, small-hearted. Yes, it is a rotten world, but these are not the measure of its rottenness, these are the measure of the pettiness of the observer, a not-very-classy broad. Remedy: dry the narrative. Report the visual characteristics of the world around her without the judgment. Go lightly. Show us the world and do not show us her thoughts. Try to toughen her up, and to fit her with a 14 and a half D in the compassion department. 

His comments I took as a critique of the work, but also of me, and of the superior and ungenerous airs I’d picked up from my parents, who believed that their artistry and refined taste in music made them special. In my family, listening to the Allman Brothers came with a price. “You are what you eat,” my father warned. 

I read Rick’s words over and over, humiliated and feeling misunderstood. But he’d also written: There are touching, even brilliant sentences in the work, (marked with a check, to my taste) and the scenario is interesting. I saw in his note a path: license to be a kinder, more empathetic human, to be more than my parents’ daughter. 

 

For years, my father ruled the dinner table with erudition and mordant wit. The family lived in service to his music, maintaining a quiet house while he composed chamber music, orchestral works, song cycles. When I’d go home to eat my mother’s delicious cooking, we’d hear about his day of teaching at USM. 

I was eager to talk about my own day, but the influence of my professors rattled my father when I thought he’d welcome and expect it. My parents had met at the Curtis Institute of Music and they defined themselves by their teachers: my father, a composition student of Gian Carlo Menotti; my mother, a violin student of Toshiya Eto. 

“Tell me about Frederick Barthelme,” my father said. 

“We met him, don’t you remember?” my mother said. “And his wife—” 

“Girlfriend,” I said. 

“—at the faculty mixer.” 

I changed the subject, talked up my British Lit class, taught by a transplant from New York. “A Jew from Brooklyn,” I said. 

“Brooklyn!” my mother said. She’d always dreamed of living in New York. When we moved down South, she’d had to give up playing in a string quartet and recording for the CBC. She missed Canada, the butter tarts, the pastel prairies, and the Rocky Mountain air. I did, too. The decision had been unilateral and my father’s. 

“Barthelme’s brilliant,” I said, knowing this would hurt my father, but I wanted to humble him, push him back, set up some new borders and protect Barthelme. “By far, my favorite professor.” 

My father said, “But it’s his big brother with the career, right?” 

Very soon, Rick began a run of short stories in the New Yorker that upstaged and infuriated my father. So, I kept to myself what I felt for Rick, which was half-crush and half-terror, the void and thrill of a clean slate. 

 

Rick would begin class with his cowboy boots propped up on the small desk, enjoying every inhale of his menthol while he provoked us. “At every turn, ask yourself if you’re being gullible, dopey, pretentious, cloying, adolescent, Neanderthal, routine, dull, smarty-pants, clever, arty, etc. You don’t want to be being these things.” 

I wrote a dozen short, connected pieces about Valentano, the medieval village where my father’s mother, my Nonna, had been born. When I was a toddler, I lived for three years with Nonna while my parents toured and played music. These were Nonna’s childhood stories and I called the work “Parenti,” which, in Italian, means relatives. Rick liked them enough to publish them in the Mississippi Review. My Nonna read them and knew they were a thank-you for taking care of me. My mother bookmarked my story with a pink index card. My father read them with pleasure but thought of family stories I’d missed. “You’re trying to help,” I said, “but this is my work.” 

With Rick’s encouragement, I entered “Parenti” in writing competitions I didn’t win. When I encouraged my father to do the same with his fragile, lyrical music, he said he couldn’t afford to lose. 

 

Junior year of college, I fell in love with a restaurant manager—also named Rick—when I always thought I’d marry a musician, or at least an artist. His ex-girlfriend never quite went away. She’d come to Hattiesburg on weekends and sit at the bar. But I believed I could defeat her. In fiction, characters get stuck, but they don’t stay stuck. The writer’s job is to throw in a wrench or two, make things worse before they get better. In real life, I only made things worse. When restaurant Rick told me during my senior year that he’d taken a job in New Orleans, I offered to give up school and live with him. 

At home at dinner, I told my parents I’d be leaving Hattiesburg. 

I thought my mother would cover me and understand I was following my heart, because didn’t she do this over and over with my father? For twenty years, we’d moved every couple of years for his career, while she, once again, put hers on hold. But that night, rather than support—or warn—me, she said nothing. 

“Out of wedlock?” my father said. “You’re going to do something sexually that you regret.” 

“I’m not a virgin,” I said. “This isn’t Sicily with the bloody bedsheet.” 

“You’re not going,” my father said. “I know what you want and it isn’t this.” 

“Oh, Dad,” I said. “You have no idea.” And the part of me that didn’t want him to be right kept going. 

When I told Barthelme (whom I no longer thought of as “Rick,” to avoid confusion) about the argument, he looked intrigued. “Fathers have this weird thing for their daughters,” he said. 

“What do you mean weird?” I said, defensively. “You don’t even have kids.” I should have asked him what thing he was talking about. 

Barthelme had a better plan: finish the semester, graduate, then try for grad school at Brown or Johns Hopkins. Instead, I asked the other Rick to marry me. He hesitated, then said, “Well, yes.” 

We eloped. At first, being married felt good, like victory over the ex-girlfriend, and like independence from my father, a jailbreak. I wanted to be connected by vows to someone I loved and who I hoped loved me. “Why don’t you take the pressure off about trying to become a writer?” my new husband said. But he didn’t understand: I already was a writer. Well read but with no degree or translatable skill, I did clerical work and wrote short stories I didn’t show him. It was the early eighties, and I read young writers like Susan Minot and Amy Hempel with envy and regret. In a recurring dream, I’d steal around USM’s campus, looking for Barthelme. College Hall had been transformed into a fairy tale, a white marble tower with Barthelme as Rapunzel, but he never leaned out the window to let his hair down so I could climb up. 

My marriage lasted five years. In 1983, while my husband worked suspiciously long hours, I’d drive to Hattiesburg and park in front of College Hall, hoping to bump into Barthelme. His Center for Writers would soon turn out writers with published books: John Holman, Michael Knight, James Whorton Jr., the fearless Victoria Lancelotta, who’d grown up Catholic and Italian like me. I didn’t know how to succeed without Barthelme. I went inside and loitered in the hall, not sure which classroom was his, wondering if he still believed in me, and if he did, could he remind me why? 

A few years after my divorce, I wrote Barthelme and asked if I could visit him. It was 1986. We sat on a wooden deck in the backyard of his apartment and drank Diet Cokes because Tabs had been outlawed. I didn’t smoke anymore, but I bummed a cigarette. Barthelme read work I’d brought while I watched him. He wore pistachio linen espadrilles, and he laughed in places, poking my leg a few times with his toe. 

“Well?” he said. “So?” 

“Are these any good?” I asked. 

“Half-good,” he said. 

“I lost my target,” I said. I’d lost him. I missed workshop. I missed the bittersweet, double-utility of his advice. 

“Maybe come back to school?” he said. 

“I have a job,” I said, “and a life.” I worked in an advertising agency in New Orleans, concocting catchy headlines and calls to action. And I’d begun a new relationship that would become my second marriage. 

“The work’s too polite, too pretty, guarded,” Barthelme said. “What are you hiding? Maybe just tell me the truth?” 

I wrote him a story about a wary thirty-year-old woman who loves a divorced man with a grieving ex-wife and two resistant sons, a story about wanting to make a family with this man. He published it in the Mississippi Review

 

When my son was ten, I told him two secrets I’d kept from him. First up, that I’d been married before. My son said, “Does Dad know?” I said, “That went well.” And then I told him about quitting college with only nine hours left to graduate. “You still have time,” my son said. 

In 2000, I returned to USM, driving one hundred miles each way twice a week. Like a mercy, Barthelme still ran the writing program and edited the Mississippi Review. I thought of him again as Rick. He had just published Double Down, a memoir co-written with his younger brother, Steve, about their gambling troubles in Gulfport after the loss of their parents. Rick’s workshops were the same: rigorous, terrifying, and funny. He kept a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the table in case a student sneezed. He’d traded his navy blazer for pressed Oxford cloth shirts worn untucked over blue jeans. I don’t remember his shoes; we sat in a rectangle of long tables. 

I graduated, got my diploma, and signed on for graduate school. To encourage us to flatten our work and notice what happens out of frame, Rick had us watch films by Harmony Korine and Todd Solondz, and Michael Haneke’s first version of Funny Games. Barthelme insisted that we not avert our eyes or glide over what’s uncomfortable. 

He said, “Parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby. Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands.” 

I wrote a story about parents whose daughter drowned in their pool. They’d moved across the street from each other, and their teenage son sat on his mom’s roof, watching over his parents. 

Rick made a few prized checks with his pen, but his comments on my pages stung. You’re not entertaining us, you’re telling us the story of the dead baby. He knew my material frightened me. In the margin, he wrote: Is author showing off all through this . . . as if we are to be impressed by the felicity with which this knowledge is put out, as if this world has no clumsiness, no threat (everything is controlled, so there can be no real threat). 

Struggling to come up with material, I recycled failed stories written during my first marriage. Rick busted me. In the margin, he wrote: La, la, la. Why are we wasting time with this? Get to the hunt. Too much happy, happy. Having an affair is dangerous and scary. Part of the appeal. 

I wrote a story about a woman married to the local weatherman, who cheats in front of her, but on camera, with the news anchor, certain Rick would like this one. 

He zinged through pages one and two with his pen. “This story starts on page three.” He pushed me in class, goaded me, which infuriated me. “Your work’s too pretty, too polite. It’s like window-shopping in the mall.” 

He lectured the class with what would become Step 21: “If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out.” 

I loved my sentences. These Grand Guignol graduate workshops were drawing my blood. Where was the comic relief? 

And then he told the class what I needed—but didn’t want—to hear. “What we need as a rule is a toning down of the ‘just the right touch’ syndrome, just the perfect color coordination, the perfect cut from one scene to next, the way the shadows work moving one scene to another, etc. Instead, use jump cuts, slam cuts, whatever they are called now. Mismatched pants and jacket. Sloppy, etc.” 

I never thought about giving up writing, but I thought about leaving Rick. Because I fought him and believed him. Because I liked to match. I liked things neat and smooth. And I wanted to knock him down, write out of my head. 

Fuck this; I could be messy, unvarnished, ugly, and clear. I wrote “How It Floods,” a story in the second person that sounded nothing like me, in a vulnerable voice I’d warehoused for forty years. Rick said, “Keep going.” I wrote stories in the present tense, first person, urgent work about overstepping fathers, about mothers who leave behind babies, about old girlfriends who never go away. I didn’t fight Rick’s edits; they made the work stronger. Suddenly, I had enough for a collection called Famous Fathers. Barthelme’s blurb on the back cover felt like sweet relief, a stamp of approval, but also like a signing off. 

My father phoned me after he read my book. “Barthelme encourages betrayal?” 

It saddened me that he’d always imagined this tug-of-war between him and Rick, me in the middle of a contest my father couldn’t win. “Do you really think you will ever make me care less about Rick?” I said. “If I were a stranger, would you say the stories work?” 

“Yes. Because they’re honest,” he said. “And exciting.” And I felt a mix of guilt, pride, and relief. 

A year later, he’d ask me to help him write his memoir. By then, he’d divorced my mother and married his grad student. “Is Mom in it?” I asked. “She can write her own story,” my father said. “I already have the beginning.” His eyes were bright with industry. “I’m two years old and I’m in the kitchen watching my mother make pasta through the diamond netting of my playpen.” 

When I was two, I’d stood in the same playpen in my Nonna’s kitchen and I can still feel the full body-ache of missing my mother and father while they were out on the road. 

I didn’t want to hurt him, but I didn’t want our writing intertwined. He needed a reason to be admired by me, but also to tamp me down, because with my father these instincts conflated. Spending time with him meant yielding. 

When I told my father I couldn’t help him, he looked abandoned. Did he feel discarded? 

 

Rick used to tell us that our stories are portable dramas we carry in our heads while we work them out. He urged us to notice the particulars, like he does in his own work; the exquisiteness of the mundane. When he was writing his ninth novel, Elroy Nights, he’d come to class tired because he’d been driving all night, dictating the book out loud to make the writing of it more difficult. 

Last week, I drove to Hattiesburg to visit my mother in assisted living. I tried dictating what Rick means to me, but my sentences sounded like a eulogy: trite, creepy, guarded, like the ones he’d cross out. I need my fingers, the privacy and space of the page. 

I drove onto campus, past College Hall and the dream tower, where I’d sat in workshop with Rick in the late seventies. When I came back from 2000 to 2003, I went to class in the new Liberal Arts Building. I stopped graduate school before I finished, worn down by the long drives, but I have no regrets. When people ask where I went to college, I say, “USM, where I was a student of Frederick Barthelme.” 

I drove past the mall where I sold shoes, past the restaurant my first husband managed, past the one-level ranch where my parents lived and made their music, and then, on my way out of town, by Barthelme’s apartment where I sought his help in 1986. His Center for Writers and the Mississippi Review were gutted in 2010 by campus politics disguised as fiscal cuts, and he’s long since moved to Florida. Hattiesburg is emptier without him. 

But he left instructions—“The 39 Steps”—that feel something like love, and faith, a buzzing bug in my ear. Step 32: “notice the . . . edges of things—buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene—who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.” 


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Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeneys Quarterly Concern, VQR, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans.