Joyce Hinnefeld


Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Belated Acknowledgment

I suppose it’s inevitable to leave out important people in your book acknowledgments, but lately I’ve been really regretting one particular omission from the acknowledgments in In Hovering Flight. When I wrote those acknowledgments I was pretty caught up in proving myself, I suppose—establishing my credibility as someone who’d really done her homework when it came to writing about birds. Hence the long list of books and articles. I was also caught up in recent conversations I’d had about the book, with local friends, family members, people at Unbridled Books. And so I forgot maybe its most important reader, a very early one: Gene Garber.

Gene was my graduate advisor in the doctoral program at SUNY-Albany in the early 1990s, and he’s been an invaluable mentor to me ever since. He had a real aura in that program—he was much loved by many of the graduate student writers, including some wonderfully outspoken ones (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!). He was about to retire when I started the program, but fortunately I got to take one fiction workshop with him, and he agreed to act as my dissertation advisor. He taught me so many things, and I want to talk about a few of them here.

He taught me how to teach. He ran a terrific workshop. His long written responses to our work (at least one thoughtful, unbelievably astute, single-spaced page in response to anything we wrote) set a high bar for everyone else in the workshop; we all wanted to try, at least, to sound as smart as Gene.

He in no way played the role of the big name at the front of the room whose favor you needed to win in order to get anywhere in the program, or beyond. Instead, he himself was an example for us, of someone who had spent his adult life writing and teaching, and didn’t think he needed lots of accolades for that.

He wrote (and still writes) wild, wonderful fiction. I remember reading his novel The Historian during my first year at Albany and thinking, I’ll never write anything remotely like this. But I wish I was someone who would.

He taught us not to be afraid, or contemptuous, of literary theory. Reading and talking about someone like Roland Barthes or Maurice Merleau-Ponty with Gene was exhilarating. And it made you want to write in a way that was new, different—even maybe scary—for you.

And finally, he has continued, through all these years, to read whatever I’ve sent him, whenever I’ve sent it to him. Often really early in the process. That was the case with In Hovering Flight. He read a draft so long ago, and his encouragement and—as usual—wise editorial advice made all the difference. If Gene told me (as he did back then) that the manuscript I’d sent him was the best thing I’d written yet, I could tell myself through the various disappointments I experienced in the year after I finished a first draft, then I had to persevere.

Gene has done all these things through a long career of writing and teaching, and he’s also managed to be a patient, funny, endearing father, grandfather, and friend to so many. In a picture of him from my wedding, he is smiling in his usual calm, beatific way; seeing that photograph, our friend Bob dubbed him “the Buddha.” And it’s true: I think of him that way. His guidance to his students wasn’t overtly spiritual, but for me, at least, his voice and his example have had an almost spiritual influence. He made me want to keep on writing, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I’m sorry I didn’t say this in a brief note at the end of In Hovering Flight, but maybe it’s better to say it here, and in this much detail. His influence has been about so much more than a single book.

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