ARCHER CITY, TEXAS – Can a struggling town produce a thriving tradition of writers, poets, playwrights, photographers and artists? I spent the last decade directing a writers’ workshop here in Larry McMurtry’s homeplace trying to address that question. I still don’t have the answer, only the sense that something profound happened here, something that puts a lump in my throat just thinking about it, something that pulls me to my word processor to set down in black and white what actually unfolded here in this strange and quirky place that will, before long, reside only in my memory.
The Archer City Writers Workshop was the antithesis of the toney colonies of writers, poets and other artists who flock to Yaddo, MacDowell, Bread Loaf and other lovely places around the country offering a galaxy of literary stars, mountain vistas, a high-brow swirl of cultural activities and afternoon wine and cheese socials between workshop sessions.
The Archer City Writers Workshop convened in the Spur Hotel, a creaky, 87-year-old building decorated with well-worn cowhides, deer antlers and American Indian artwork. During the summer, the hotel was often empty except for one permanent guest: the ghost – according to the proprietor – of a man murdered in the place years earlier.
The Spur overlooks a town square marked by shuttered shops, empty streets and the stone shell of a gutted movie theater that showed its last picture show 67 years ago. A single blinking stoplight stands at the crossroads of Center and Main watching the march as Archer City’s youth head out toward Wichita Falls, Dallas, Houston, Austin and other Texas cities in search of fun, food, excitement and romance.
Coming the other way were caravans of aspiring writers from the Mayborn, pouring into this forlorn town on the wind-scoured hinterlands of West Texas, hoping to follow in McMurtry’s footsteps. In a matter of days, however, they soon discovered that they had much more in common with Archer City’s struggles than they did with Larry McMurtry’s success.
The first day I arrived here in July 2005, I sensed that this struggling town might just be the ideal place to replenish the bankrupt spirits of the 19 students who followed me here from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine. I also sensed that the students would need other mentors – accomplished writers and teachers – who shared my vision for the Archer City Writers Workshop.
One of the writers I had in mind was Bill Marvel, a literary journalist and author who spoke to one of my writing classes at the university with such keen insight, clarity and fervor that he set the students on fire for writing. I sensed he was a kindred spirit. But I wanted to make sure. So I went to see him, an encounter that I like to remember as a mountaintop experience.
Try imagining me trekking up the side of a gigantic, snow-covered mountain in Tibet. Finally, after 12-hours of climbing, I reach the summit. And there’s Bill Marvel, sitting cross-legged on a bed of pine needles, reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry’s memoir about ranching, reading, book collecting and storytelling.
I say, “Bill, I climbed up to your mountain perch to ask you one question: ‘What do you need to teach writing?’”
Bill began stroking his long white beard, and gazed for a few moments across his mountain expanse. Then Bill turned his eyes toward me, and began speaking with words that I felt should be carved on a stone tablet and hung above the entrance to Booked Up, Larry’s iconic book store in Archer City:
___First of all you need writers: one or more writers to teach and one or more writers to learn. At any given moment, the two groups may interchange, the teachers becoming learners and the learners becoming teachers. Or more likely, all may be teaching and learning at the same time.
___It goes almost without saying that both groups must be eager to learn, even a little bit desperate. A writer who is not hungry to learn more about his or her craft is – as a character in one of Mr. McMurtry’s novels might put it – not worth a boot full of warm spit.
___Which gets us to Larry McMurtry and Archer City.
___You also need a place to teach, and here you have to be picky. A classroom is not a place, or at least a place to teach writing. People say, ‘You can’t teach writing.’ What they really mean is, ‘You can’t teach writing in rows of desks or around a table.’ Classrooms are for teaching facts and knowledge. Writing is a craft, a skill. These are things that can only be practiced in studios, workshops. Like painters learn painting or musicians learn playing, working around others who are working at the same craft. Where there are exemplars around to imitate, at first, eventually to master.
___So, a place with writers and with books.
___There is one other thing writers need to practice their craft: The World. Or an interesting corner of it. Painting and music are partly or wholly abstract arts. A room with good light and a little bit of visual stimulation or good acoustics and a decent sound system will do. But the writer needs subjects, interesting people with their problems and possibilities, who interact with one another in a setting that itself presents them with problems and possibilities.
___A setting like Archer City with a variety of people — an aging writer at the end of his career, a strange woman with a seeming gift of prophecy, an eccentric or two the town has learned to tolerate (or not), working people, people not working — a setting with many problems and few possibilities is best. With a rich past, a vivid present, and an uncertain future.
___And in this setting, writers need each other, to bounce back ideas, to give and get feedback, even to compete with. They need every now and then the shock of encountering something that is so damn good – How did she build up that profile, layer by layer? How did he wrap that entire essay around the flashing of a street light? – that they wish they had written it, think they could never do it as well. Then set out to do it themselves.
___In such a setting, everybody becomes a learner and a teacher of writing, even the non-writers. Because they–we–learn lessons not just about writing, but about ourselves and the world. Which is our subject after all.___
A group of craggy-faced ranchers and roughnecks milling about the sidewalk in front of the Wildcat Café in Archer City stared at the caravan of cars snaking its way toward “The Mansion” – the mysterious residence of a reclusive writer who has spent a good portion of his life penning unflattering novels about them and their town.
“We usually come across as illiterates, drunks and philanderers,” groused one rancher in bib overalls and T-shirt. His sidekicks on the sidewalk nodded in agreement.
As the caravan pulled up alongside The Mansion, Larry, wearing a stained and rumpled shirt bearing the logo of his favorite beverage, Dr Pepper, stepped outside to greet the passengers – a group of Mayborn graduate students and a few nationally acclaimed writers from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference who were curious about what the week-long workshop in Archer City was all about.
The workshop had formed its own mythology, its own legend, that young writers were transformed into real storytellers through the alchemy of romping through the same sagebrush that gave rise to Larry’s greatest novels, walking down aisle after aisle of the books he had herded from around the country into Booked Up (that’s what Larry’s doing on the cover of this edition of Ten Spurs) and meeting the writer himself.
Meeting Larry, I piously intoned before setting out for The Mansion, would be the literary equivalent of meeting the Pope. “Take it all in,” I would say. “You’re going to speak to one of the greatest writers of our age.”
After taking the students on a tour of The Mansion, walled with 32,000 books bearing the imprint of the family cattle brand, an upside down stirrup, Larry would invite us to sit down in his study, a few feet away from the writing nook that contains nothing more than a rickety wooden chair , a scuffed-up desk and a well-worn Hermes typewriter. That was Larry’s cue for me to weigh in, with the same question I would ask year after year. “Larry, what does it take to become a writer?”
Larry would adjust his heavy-rimmed eyeglasses and hold forth with what became a perpetual iteration of the subject. “Writing is about having the will to get out of bed and do it,” he would say. “I get up early and write five pages before anything else happens.”
The old storyteller would then proceed to break down his writing process – a process that has produced a literary progeny unparalleled in the annals of Texas literature: twenty-nine novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than thirty screenplays.
The first draft is “descendants,” Larry would say, just getting the characters and scenes down on paper. The second draft is a “cutting draft” – cutting out repetition and mistakes. The third draft is the “style draft” to make the prose sing. Everyone would dutifully jot down Larry’s words in their notebooks and journals as if they were transcribing a sacred text.
Larry would encourage the students to make literature the central focus of their life, just as he has. Anyone who wants to be a writer, he would say, has to be a reader. To encourage reading, he would leave his book ranch unlocked and lit up at all times so that students could roam his literary world day and night. Many did. Larry also encouraged students to roam his scraggly ranch, a place that inspired Horseman, Pass By; The Last Picture Show; Lonesome Dove and other Texas classics.
Before we exchanged farewells, I’d find a way to ask the same question I had been asking Larry over and over again since the day I first saw him wearing a T-shirt in Booked Up emblazoned in bold letters: MINOR REGIONAL WRITER. I remained puzzled by Larry’s sense of provincialism. “Larry, I have to say that this question keeps coming up because, like me, most people just don’t understand. You’ve produced works of literature about the West that rival anything else out there. Why do you call yourself a ‘minor regional writer’”?
“Understand that in the silver light of history almost all writers are minor,” he’d say, varying little from what he said each year when I brought up the question. “A generation just passing might produce five writers that are not minor, might not produce but two or three. I think when you boil down the Mailer-Roth-Bellow generation, there’s not much, really, that I wouldn’t call minor…Literature moves on from one generation to another generation because of the work of minor writers. People like Dickens and Thackeray that looked like major writers when they were writing, they don’t look so major. They’re not beyond reach. Literature is fed by minor talents. Mine is, certainly.”
___Tom Junod, staff writer/Esquire magazine, shares his Archer City experience: It was a Sunday night. I was tired, having stayed up to three and four in the morning the two previous nights at the Mayborn Conference, and I have to admit that I went up to Archer City more as a way of spending some time by myself than as a way of sharing my thoughts about writing with George’s students. I’d been told what to expect from Archer City, and I went placidly about the task of meeting those expectations: I ate at the Dairy Queen where Larry McMurtry ate, I let a room at the Spur Hotel, I helped George unpack his treasure trove of nonfiction books, I met the only openly lesbian couple in Archer City, and then went backroading on their pickup truck out in ranch country. Along with a pack of writers all younger than I am, I sat in the truck bed, my gaze drawn relentlessly toward heaven by the pinwheeling amazement of stars. When we finally stopped, I recovered my legs by drinking beer, and lost them again by worrying about the rattlesnakes. I remember thinking what a gift the night was — what a gift it was to be in a place where nobody knew me, and where the entire night could go by and I wouldn’t have to say a damned thing.
___The words — the realization that the night was about words — started slowly, and took me by surprise. George started asking one of his students to say why she was there, and what she wanted from the class and from writing itself. It was a good question. It was, as far as I was concerned, the only question — and yet I was shocked when George’s student answered in some perfunctory way, and George made it clear that her answer wasn’t good enough…wasn’t true enough. I was shocked when he kept asking her to explain herself, and then asked her to explain herself while standing in the bed of the pickup truck: to explain herself to us.
___And that’s when it became clear that this night wasn’t about being alone under the Texas stars, wasn’t about going along for the ride, wasn’t about being a tourist in Archer City. It was about what we owed George. It was about what we owed each other, if not to the very stars themselves. There were no tourists that night in Archer City, because you can’t remain a tourist if you wind up in a place where you have no choice but to tell the truth.
___I spoke up pretty early. I took my turn on the back of the pickup truck, and told the truth about being humbled by the writers I’d met at the Mayborn Conference — not just writers like Richard Rhodes and Isabel Wilkerson, but all the writers who wanted something out of writing that I’d forgotten writing could give…who still wanted, oh, well, everything. But my moment of truth in Archer City came not when I was trying to speak it but rather when I was demanding it of a young writer who’d come to Archer City for a personal reckoning and didn’t seem to know it yet. His cousin, someone as close to him as a blood brother, had died in Archer City. He had killed himself in a jail cell in Archer City, but the writer, Christian McPhate, still spoke of the story he was setting out to write in vague terms. I acted as his George, and kept pushing him to realize that by telling his cousin’s story he was also telling his own. What moved me, though — what I was humbled by — was not his ambition for the story, but rather the trust he showed in talking about it. It was what George knew and I didn’t: that you could hone in on the truth with Archer City students because they trusted you to do nothing less, and their trust was what was sacred.
___Whenever I describe what happened out there, in Archer City, on a rutted road, by the gate of a ranch, near a strip of blinking red lights used to orient the satellites that spun invisibly between us and the stars, I say it was a combination of an outdoor writing class and an encounter group. But that’s not right. It was a church that sprung up in the middle of nowhere, out of nothing but the desire to say the truth and to say it right — the desire to tell a personal truth that’s also a human one. I still preach that writers should have a personal connection to the stories they tell. And I still try to find the personal connection to the stories that I write. But I have seen what happens when your personal connection to your writing becomes the basis of your personal connection to other writers, and I have heard what it sounds like when you’re asked to tell the truth about your writing in a wide-open space where there’s room for everything but a lie. It sounds a lot like a prayer.___
Exactly what happened to young writers who stood on the back of that pickup truck each summer may be the subject of a university research project someday. But I don’t have to wait for the results. I know what happened. Young writers, facing a very uncertain future, had the guts to stand up on the back of a pickup truck surrounded by their fellow students to confess their brokenness, their self-doubts, their dying hopes, their fading dreams, about becoming the writer they wanted to be.
“When we get on the back of the truck, it’s the first time we’re honest with ourselves,” admits Christian McPhate, now a narrative writer at the Denton Record-Chronicle. “We all put up barriers. But until I stood on the back of the truck and was called out by Tom Junod, I didn’t realize the barriers I put up were preventing me from connecting with people emotionally. My life as a storyteller changed from that day forward.”
On the back of that pickup truck every writer had to confront what they’d never confronted before in any classroom: the reality that their future is no more certain than the future of Archer City. Standing on the back of the pickup truck, there was no place to hide who they really are. They’re no different than the bedraggled, broken, lonely characters they’d met at the American Legion, the Wildcat Café, the oilfield supply houses, the ranches, the cattle auctions or Jackie Lane’s backyard barbecues.
Yet I’d bet that many of the young writers who came to Archer City left with at least a glimmer of hope that they might be able to carve out a place in the literary firmament as a writer. As hard as it was, they could see for themselves that their lot was a lot easier than it was for many of the cowboys, working sunrise to sunset, scraping by on day labor wages that left them just enough to fill their pickups and buy a few cases of Bud.
Before it leaves us, then, before the Archer City Writers Workshop shutters its doors like the last picture show did 67 years ago, let us toast this place where a great writer and a great story were conceived, where a literary legacy was created and endures, where a new generation of writers came to create their own stories, stories that might feed and support their literary ambitions.
Stories like “The Broken Brotherhood,” Paul Knight’s elegiac tale published in Spurs of Inspiration about the American Legion, a place filled with the characters of Larry McMurtry’s broken West. “The Legion is the place where I was truly born as a writer,” says Knight, now an assistant editor at Texas Monthly. “It’s the place where I learned to find the truth about story.”
I stood up on the tailgate of my truck last summer, silhouetted by stars, to announce that the Archer City Writers Workshop, at least for me, was coming to an end. The news wasn’t well received. An author and speaker at the Mayborn Conference, Kim Cross, was sitting on the roof of the pickup, next to the grandson of the town’s horse whisperer, listening. She swallowed her sobs, hoping that in the darkness no one would notice. Kolten did. “Are you crying?” he whispered to her, alarmed, through the dark.
“I was,” said Kim. “I was crying because this could not end. Because for me, it had only begun.”
After four or five other toasts, Kim finally dried up enough to take her turn on the tailgate. She remembers her confession: For the previous decade of her writing life, she had felt like Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear. When she talked about writing, her tribe looked at her funny.
“I feel like I finally found ‘my people,’” Kim told the gaggle of writers hovering below her. As she uttered those words, the biggest shooting star she had ever seen streaked across the horizon. It flashed so bright, for so long, that she vividly recalls the sentences that came tumbling out of her mouth — Look at that star! Do you see it? It’s still going! — before it finally burned itself out.
Recently, Kim asked me a question: “Does the Archer City Writers Workshop have to die? Maybe it merely needs to evolve. It is too rare and precious a thing to abandon. Can we reimagine it? Could we honor the tradition without attempting to replicate the magic that only you can bring? What if we try, and fail? Would that tarnish the memory?”
Sarah Junek, another writer who has made the annual trek to Archer City almost every year for the last decade, echoed Kim’s sentiments. “The backroad truck experience is an image that will stay with me for a lifetime, like that shooting star, burning forever in my memory. I think we need those images to fuel us as writers because it’s so easy to lose hope. Our hearts are so often perilously on the brink of breaking. We have to bring the emotion to the world if we are to have any impact and so we feel it all the more deeply. The images I’ve collected over the years in Archer City are what propel me forward, hold me together, patch me up. I need that space to look up at the wide Texas sky and breathe in the silence, begin again.”
Erik Calonius can’t imagine a world without the Archer City Writers Workshop. “You got cold beer and cigars, beef jerky, jukeboxes, the Dairy Queen, horse whisperers, a rusty old museum full of animal skulls. Now that’s heaven.” And that’s why the Charleston, South Carolina, author and writing coach returns to this struggling town year after year to mentor the Mayborn’s young writers.
“Unless they take a bulldozer and scrape Archer City off the face of the earth, or unplug the stars from the Texas skies, the Archer City experience will continue,” he assured me in a recent letter. “We may have to jury rig it for a year or two, but I think it will be just as good as ever.”
I can only hope all of my fellow writers are right.