[ In November of 2012, I delivered this speech at a tribute to the writer Donald Heiney, whose pen name was MacDonald Harris. He was my professor and mentor during and after my years in the MFA Program in Writing. The event was hosted by the University of California, Irvine, and organized by the ever-generous and resourceful Michelle Latiolais. ]
MacDonald Harris/Don Heiney
When I first met Don Heiney, I was a child. I didn’t think that at the time. I doubt that many 23-year-olds ever do. By moving from Utah to Irvine to attend the MFA program, I believed that I was venturing out into adulthood, not entering another stage of my adolescence. But looking back, I see how green I was, how unprepared to dive into the fast-moving waters of a graduate workshop. Even at the time, as I sat in my teaching orientation meeting, Writing 39C I believe it was, I could not quite believe that the University of California was going to let me teach a class, to students two or three years younger than I was. What were they thinking? And then I went to the opening MFA party at Don and Ann Heiney’s lovely home in Newport Beach, and all my fellow students stood around in the yard chatting about their summers spent roaming through Europe and such, and I felt classless and clueless, untraveled and resentful. Up to that point, I had seen most of Arizona and New Mexico with my parents in our camper. Worthwhile, but not exactly the Grand Tour.
I arrived at UC Irvine feeling confident about my writing, my fiction, but little else. I was a pretty inexperienced gay boy from Midvale Utah, almost painfully shy, uncomfortable in my body, bright enough maybe but socially maladroit. And here I was plunged into a writing program that was white hot—this was just after Michael Chabon had published Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I remember at my first fall fiction workshop, a second year student, Marti Leimbach of Dying Young fame, pushed her 40 page mimeographed essay in defense of minimalism into each of our hands—she seemed very adamant about defending minimalism for some reason although I was woefully unschooled as to why it needed defending—then Don started us off.
Then as now, my impression of Don was of a man who had cultivated himself and his life to an impressive level of sophistication. I recall him dressed often in blue vaguely nautical jackets, in summer weight suits, not worn out but worn in, at ease. Not a dandy but a man of leisure, someone reading Le Monde, folded in quarters at an outside table, springtime in Paris, or summer in St. Tropez. His manner, however, was not precisely at ease; he could be very intense. His opinions in workshop were very detailed, very particular. He was always very assured about his ideas, which left the impression that you might very well choose to ignore his suggestions but you would be making a mistake.
Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated. To my child/adult self, Don seemed like a writer in the most archetypal, hyperreal sense, accomplished and successful, at the height of his life and powers. The complete range of possible profiles for a writer seemed to stretch between Don with his aesthetic, intellectual mien, and his co-conductor of the Writing Program, Oakley Hall, with his laconic Man of the West style. If you added to that mix the poet Robert Peters, who became the third member of my MFA thesis committee, with his alarming outsider artist status, you would have the complete collection of 20th Century Writer Types. The Boys’ Division anyway.
At the risk of underlining my candyass status back in the day, I must say that in the beginning I found these men a bit menacing. What I didn’t reckon with was Don’s generosity. Don took me to lunch that first semester—across the bridge from campus to Twoheys. I’m sure he took all his grad students to lunch at some point, but that one-on-one attention felt like a spotlight that I both dreaded and revelled in. He invited small groups of us to dinner at his house. He held parties. He took an interest. He was ready to read whatever I wrote inside and outside the workshop. He opened a door into a community. And sure, it’s all just socializing, networking, his teaching duties, the academic swirl. But what his involvement said to me was that he took me seriously as an artist. I sometimes disagreed with his suggestions for my writing, but that didn’t matter much then, and it matters even less now. It was never about the contents but the vessel.
I have no colorful anecdotes to demonstrate how Don was important to me. Later, he introduced me to his agent and continued to read my work even after I graduated. But that was not really what I valued then and certainly not now. It was that Don treated me as a writer, which allowed me to think of myself that way.
I have hung on to one piece of Don’s writing advice, one of his general sayings: Make It Strange. I heard him say it more than once, and I find myself saying it to my own writing workshops at least once a semester. I doubt that I mean the same thing that Don did when I tell students, Make It Strange, but it seems essential advice. The business of daily life is odd beyond all understanding, and if you write something bland and predictable about it, that reflects on you the writer, not on the weird wonder of the world.
In that spirit, I will now make it strange for you.
The last time I saw Don, I didn’t see Don at all. I was still living in Orange County, in Corona del Mar, when I learned that Don had died, and that day when I came home there was a huge moth perched with its wings spread on the frame of the door next to the knob. It was no tiny pantry moth but a brown and white-spotted creature the size of my hand. We would need to be in a novel, where characters always seem to have the proper names for plants and insects instantly at hand, for me to tell you what kind of moth it was, but we are not in a novel. I had a powerful impression, with the sort of clear conviction that is usually available only in dreams, that this moth was in some sense Don. I didn’t divine the moth as a symbol or a metaphor. I had no sense that the moth had come with a message from beyond. It simply was. I felt then, and still feel now, that Don simply was as well. I mourned his loss, but I didn’t exactly feel that he was gone. In his extraordinary books, and in the many writers and readers he reached, he still was and is. A couple years ago, randomly on the internet, I came across an interview with Phillip Pullman, the great children’s fantasy author of The Golden Compass, who said that McDonald Harris was one of his favorite writers. Reading that, it came to me again as a jolt that Don still is. He is missed, but he is not gone.