Remembering Jack Matthews as a Writing Teacher: Share Your Memories

It’s confirmed. Personville Press will be publishing  A Worker’s Writebook” as an ebook in February 2011. This book is Jack Matthews idiosyncratic thoughts about the art of creating stories. He wrote it in the 1990s and distributed photocopies of it to his writing students. Here’s an excerpt from the soon-to-be-published ebook on the art of giving names to characters.

All writing teachers have mixed feelings about trying to teach writing. Some creative writing teachers are better writers than teachers. Some are genuinely inspiring teachers. Some are just entertaining (even though not much teaching or learning is taking place). Some are exotic (or psychotic); take your pick.

I know that over the years former  students of Mr. Matthews will stumble upon this page. Therefore, I ask you to share any  favorite memories from your classes with him. My preference is that your use your real name. However, if you wish to leave a comment anonymously or pseudonymously, please do so.  Don’t be shy. I realize that while  this thread starts out, comments will come very slowly. But over the next few years,  this thread will increase in size.

Finally, if you would prefer not to share your memory in public, I would still appreciate hearing from you. Feel free to drop me a line (idiotprogrammer at gmail.com). I’m writing a book about Jack Matthews as a writer and would welcome hearing any  insights into his life as a writer and teacher.  (Anything you write to me  will be held in confidence unless you specify otherwise).

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6 Responses to Remembering Jack Matthews as a Writing Teacher: Share Your Memories

  1. Christine Lieb Brundage says:

    Jack Matthews was my favorite professor at OU, and my advisor for an internship at the OU Press. He was always very encouraging and SO damn witty. The fact that he reminded me of Groucho Marx didn’t hurt. I asked Jack to provide a recommendation for graduate school in 1980 and, although I never attended, I still have his recommendation and treasure the comments he made.

    As a novice book collector, I’d love to hear more about his acquisitions.

  2. Leslie Willoughby says:

    I was so lucky to have Jack Matthews as a professor on many different occasions while I was attending O.U, and I am even luckier to be able to call him a friend today! His wit, genius, and genuine concern for his students gave me such inspiration! He got me so interested in the nuances of words! He told my class a story one time about how he felt he was maybe too close to his students. He was walking down the hallway in Ellis hall with two other professors and a student they all knew was coming down the hall towards them. From the student’s mouth comes, “Good morning Professor Smith, Good morning Professor Jones, Hiya Jack!” He was always like that, you just trusted him so much that you knew there was nothing you couldn’t ask him. I was blessed to visit Jack and his wonderful wife, Barb last fall with my 18 year old twin boys. They thought he was amazing! In fact, If I’m not mistaken, they were trying to convince Jack that after dinner he should take them out to the college bars and introduce them to some of his female students!!! He is my inspiration, my hero, and absolutely the reason I am a lit professor today! Love you Jack!!!

  3. Ah, Uncle Jack…

    Well, let me preface this statement by saying that when I came to OU, back in 89, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go into the Creative Writing program, and I wanted to be a writer. In truth, I already was a writer, but it takes some polishing and a good kick in the behind before you can really put a capital W in front of the riter, if you know what I mean.

    Uncle Jack was the kick.

    After a few go-arounds with the obnoxious reality that it’d be hard to get into any creative writing fiction classes, since graduating seniors with ABD business degrees invariably muscled into that they thought would be an easy class in their last term, booting us underclassmen to the curb, I eventually tried applying in person. One instructor sniffed that she didn’t accept genre writing (said as though we were discussing a noxious skin malady) so I tried Uncle Jack. And he hemmed and hawed and told me that I still had plenty of time to take the course, but let me in, anyway, once I showed I wasn’t just trying to get a gimmie. I wanted this like Christmas, and maybe it showed.

    So he made a show of begrudgingly letting me in the following quarter. It was like being given the key to a hot rod filled with booze, bombs, and hookers. At least, the entrance to the kingdom was mine!

    But there was a price to be paid, and he took it from me.

    Uncle Jack is one of those walking contradictions that shudder-stomp their way across campus, leaving questions and statements in their wake in equal measure. He did not suffer nonsense, but yet joyously spread it about. His playful attitude masked stern countenance that could cut steel, but yet still inspire. In retrospect I think he let the ABDs slide into C position, but those of us who wanted more got a real poking when we tried to rest on those laurels.

    I will never forget the time he informed me, in a meeting in his office, that my counters to his claims about the rough work I’d turned in were “bullshit” (said as only he can say it)

    “Jim, you’re not trying to learn anything. You’re trying to see what you can get away with.” He said, and he was right. I knew I had to smarten up my act and get serious. I may not have complied right then and there, but the turning of the watch to the correct time started from that point on.

    The best advice Uncle Jack ever gave me was that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. The other good bit was that stereotypes are what they are because they’re true, but sometimes they’re a little too true, and should be tweaked with in order to become both less and yet more believable.

    Would he like my current work? Probably not. He would say it’s too cartoony for his liking. And maybe it is.

    But Uncle Jack gave me the push off the cliff of my Sophomore complacency, forcing me to craft wings on the way down. If I soar a little higher today it’s because of that afternoon in his office, and those sessions around the table in Ellis hall.

    Thanks, Unc. “We’ll meet again.”

  4. Donald Proctor says:

    Jack was my college English instructor in 1965. He spoke of the short story and I knew then that I wanted to write short stories. I have often thought about him and wonder about his health. Thanks Jack for introducing me to Sartoris back then. I shall continue to think about your impact upon me.

  5. Jan Strnad says:

    Here is my remembrance, which I posted on my OneLastTime.org blog.

    Jack Matthews (1925 – 2013)

    George Bernard Shaw observed that “Youth is wasted on the young.” So much is wrapped up in that simple statement, so many interpretations and interpolations are possible, that it becomes one of those sentiments that take root in your mind and wait silently until it springs up at unexpected times, in unanticipated circumstances, and for a moment your brain catches fire and you think, “Ah, yes, Mr. Shaw, how right you are!”

    It’s the revelation that occurs to me when I think back to the early 1970s and my days at Wichita State University studying creative writing under Jack Matthews. It’s hard to believe that I was once so callow that I would take such a rare, precious and unbelievably fortuitous opportunity as just another class, another fifty-or-so minutes in a day crowded with lectures and tedium.

    The truth is, I was burned out on school. It wasn’t just the times or the drugs that I never was much into, it was my own malaise. I was dissatisfied and had no understanding why or with what, never suspecting that it might be myself. But I knew that I wanted to write and that I seemed to have some talent for the craft. In fact, it was the only thing I ever felt destined to do.

    So there I was, at WSU, in the presence of a real writer who, for whatever reason, had ended up as Writer in Residence for this particular school year at a minor State college in the middle of nowhere. How had he ended up here? Had he sinned greatly? Was he in the witness protection program? Maybe his entire persona was a fiction.

    No matter. He seemed to have this whole “writing thing” figured out. He offered us a list of themes for possible stories.( My favorite was “the trickster tricked.”) He required that we keep daily journals. (“Whatever for?” I wondered. “My life isn’t worth writing about.” And now, looking back, I wish I still had that journal, I wish I’d developed the habit of keeping it. A lesson wasted on the young. I wish I’d written more about Jack Matthews back then.

    I look back and remember a man with a perpetual sparkle in his eyes. I remember his moustache. I remember running into him at an off-campus, secondhand bookstore. He seemed in his element there, cigar in hand, more than he did in the classroom.

    I remember when we had to write something spontaneously in class, and how I wrote a post-apocalyptic scene where two young boys are sent on an errand to find cats for dinner and how they stumbled on a box of kittens (which, in my mind, would eventually escape) and walked back to their compound “whistling their theme song.” The class loved it. Jack said, “Pretty wiggly, pretty wiggly,” smiling through his moustache.

    The story became the comic book tale “Kittens for Christian” that was published in an underground comic, and the title became the name of a heavy metal band, and I’m sure that if I were able to somehow shove that comic book under Jack’s nose, his response would be the same: “Pretty wiggly, pretty wiggly.”

    In class, we students worked and worked for hours, days, weeks on our short stories. We read them in class and, yes, most of them were pretty awful. One day Jack read a story he’d written the night before. It was a “trickster tricked” story. It was delicious, word-perfect, humorous and poignant. He read it to the class and we sat there in awe.
    Someone asked Jack how long it took him to write this story.

    “About three hours,” he said.

    The effect on the class was as if he’d said, “Oh, I waved a magic wand and it appeared.” Three hours. I still can’t imagine writing a short story in three hours.

    I began to appreciate the opportunity that had dropped in my lap. Did I fully appreciate it? No, of course not. I was barely twenty. If there is any creature more natively stupid than a human twenty-year-old, I’m not sure what it would be.
    In the years and—jeez, has it really been that long?—decades that have followed that year of study of under Jack Matthews, I’ve gained an appreciation for that time that escaped me while it was happening. I wish I could go back in time, give myself a good, hard slap and say, “Wise up, kid—pay attention! You’ve got gold here and you don’t even know it!”

    Jack would not have approved of the direction my writing life has taken.

    Jack wrote for the “little magazines,” the literary magazines that paid in copies. I didn’t see any point in that. I wanted to write for a living, which meant I needed to be paid for my work. It didn’t make any sense to me for a person to write for free. I began to understand how a fine writer could become a nomadic Writer in Residence. I was learning the monetary value of the literary word, and it wasn’t much. It was around this time that I learned that the average writer’s income from writing was around $5000 a year, not enough to live on even in the 1970s.

    So I stepped off the literary path and onto the commercial track.

    For a time, I made a living writing comic books. Then I moved to Los Angeles and wrote cartoons for television. Only when that industry ran out on me, disappeared into the wilds of Canada, did I turn my attention back to my first love, the written word. I’ve written three novels so far. I think that Jack might have liked one of them.
    The others? Well, they’re wiggly, I’ll admit it.

    I probably think more often about Jack Matthews these days than I did when he was my teacher. I like to think that he’d approve of the direction my work has taken at long last. More thoughtful. Mainstream. Almost literary. (“Almost.”)

    To me, Jack is still very much alive, in my memory, my brain, my work, my heart. He’ll always be here, one of my most valued treasures.

  6. Robert Nagle says:

    Here’s an anecdote from Michael Wilson from flashwriting.com who also is a noted author of flash fiction which he related to me by email:

    When I attended Ohio University, I took fiction writing with Jack Matthews and, although I was a terrible writer at that time, I learned a lot from his class and still use a few of his tricks today when trying to define an interesting character. ..One of the things I remember best was him giving a young woman an A for writing a story about a young woman trying to kill her boisterous, happy-go-lucky creative writing professor (who looked and acted just like Jack…) The story was a disturbing to me at the time, and everyone in the class waited for his reaction while holding our breath… and he laughed uproariously, and said “I’ve never had a student try to kill me before. Brilliant! A+ work!”

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