When Ed McClanahan showed up on TNB back in 2010 I was blown away. Showing up, without warning, on my turf? Amazing. Mostly I’ve turned up on his turf. We’ll set aside the question of whose turf TNB is, but you know what I mean.
So here’s a little illustrated essay about how Ed and I converged. “Oh,” you say, “I didn’t know you had a string of books and were a Living Treasure of Kentucky and knew famous people,” and I say, “I don’t. This is about how we look.”
In 1956, Ed looked like this:
And I looked like this.
There’s some serious convergence coming. But it’s going to take a few years.
In 1962 I looked like this.
And in 1965 Ed looked like this:
…but the Ed described in this TNB piece probably looked a lot more like the 1963 me.
I don’t think he had a feather headband, but he had more magic substances available than I did.
So in 1963 I signed up for Creative Writing and Ed was the instructor. Probably we all called him “Professor,” because it was the old days and we were polite even to young instructors. On the first day of class a student asked about grading and Ed said, “I’ll read your stories and have a mystical experience and your grade will come to me.” Or something like that.
Little did I know he meant it. It was a life-changing experience for me (the course, not the grading procedure) and although I didn’t set myself on a fiction writing path until many years later, I never forgot Ed or that course.
A friend of mine never did either. He emailed me a couple of months ago after reading something of mine on TNB and said, “Do you remember taking “Creative Writing” from that really weird prof at Stanford? We made up the most outrageous horrible drivel imaginable, and it was the only course where I got an A+.”
Hey, if Ed’s mystical experience offered up an A+, it couldn’t have been drivel. I think I got an A myself, but I can’t remember. I do remember going over to the famous Perry Lane to hand in a story, and I do remember running into Ken Kesey at San Gregorio beach. I was too shy to say anything.
I don’t think Ed introduced me to a crunchy bowl of Heavenly Blues, but he might have. I don’t know who else it could have been.
In those days it wasn’t common for undergraduates to hang out with their instructors, but that didn’t matter to Ed and me and then, a few months later, to Ed and me and Ruth, whom I’d met in my next (and last) creative writing course. We were seniors so it was OK.
The summer spent with Ruth in the Portola Valley we went over to see Ed and his then-wife Kit often. I had acquired a wolf cub, perhaps the most foolish of all the foolish things I did in those days, and it was famous in the McClanahan household for having nipped Ed’s daughter. It really was a nip, but since we were all fiction writers or would-be fiction writers the nip was escalated to a “bite” and probably over the years into a frightening encounter with a bad-tempered carnivore from which she was lucky to have escaped with her limbs intact. Probably it’s been passed along to grandchildren by now.
Ruth (playing with the wolf) was always going to get a little fiction coaching from Ed, but she never did. I found a letter she wrote me before I dropped out of her life.
I went off East and Ed and Ruth stayed West. I came back in 1965 to find Ed looking as I’ve shown you above. Next stop, 1972. I was launched on my career as an anthropologist. Ed was in Kentucky and I was in Papua New Guinea, and I didn’t know where Ruth was.
Here’s a letter that made its way to me in the village. Kit was usually the letter-writer.
“The child whose foot your wolf bit (ah memories!) is now in 4th grade. Ed published an article on the Grateful Dead in Feb ’72 Playboy, which won an award for the best piece of non fiction by a new contributor. A dubious honor, even in the aftermath of women’s lib. But we have been poor. Ky is a very primitive state. Come visit us here. We do want a copy of Gardening for Money. Ed has several books in the making . . . still writes the novel.”
I didn’t start looking for Ed again until 1995, a few years after I started writing again. But before that, we’d better have a look at what we looked like in 1983.
That was before Google, and Ed didn’t have have his own website. I knew that Wendell Berry had dedicated a poem to Ed, and I managed to get his address. I couldn’t be certain that Ed would remember me, so so of course I tossed in the bit about the wolf. He couldn’t have forgotten his daughter’s near-death experience.
Berry’s handwriting might not be legible. “Dear Ed – If you wish to be found, here is a fellow applying for the job.”
And thus to seminal year 2004, when not only did I find Ruth but went to see Ed in Kentucky.
Convergence. Surprise! We both got old. He kept his hair, but I’d say we look a lot more alike than we did in 1956. My friend Ed’s written many more books than I have — and you’re missing out if you don’t read them. I’m going to send him my novel manuscript, and the old guy’s mystical experience had better be a good one. I’m expecting him to deliver an agent and publisher instead of an A.