When I was was nineteen, Pinckney Benedict handed me a copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ story “The Fine White Mist or Winter.” “She grew up near where you’re from,” he said. “She wrote this when she was just your age.” Back then I was so skiddish that I couldn’t look him in the face. Instead I watched his five pale fingers tap the office desk between us. I carried the story back to my dorm room and held it as I looked out my window at the Blue Ridge mountain shelf, a smoky landscape that never brittled with cold.
In workshop, Pinckey spoke slowly; his voice was higher pitched than I expected and he peered at each student with patient, piercing eyes. He had an acrobat heart, scaling the scaffolding of each story until he found its tender, terrifying core. Look, he would say, pointing a pale finger: here is the story.
After workshop I’d walk through swirling fallen leaves and think about snow. He was looking at the snow, the crazy whirling flakes, writes Joyce Carol Oates in the story Pinckney gave me. They looked like a constant shuffling and reshuffling of the same flakes, the same specks, gleaming back like little white eyes in the glare of the headlights…. At night I drove my old Toyota up winding mountain roads stalking the end of Virginia Autumn; back home snow was already falling.
A blond girl named Molly Atwell was up for critique in workshop. In her story, a teenage girl and her widowed father struggle to sustain a faltering farm. There was a lot of dialogue and domestic details including an extended description of a teapot her mother left behind. In a section rendered entirely in italics, the girl sleepwalks into the cow pasture and presses herself against the flank of a dairy cow. The cow groans; the night sky heaves.
Pinckney didn’t say anything nearly thirty minutes. He sat still while we debated whether the pasture scene was supposed to be a dream. “I don’t get it,” one girl said. “It’s like an acid trip.” After a while we all fell silent.
Pinckney folded his hands across the paper. “Get rid of everything but the section in italics,” he said. “It’s not a dream sequence: it’s real.” He covered his brow with his open palm. “If you are going to be a writer,” he said, “you must trust the words to show you how beautiful and devastating the world actually is.”
After class, I walked up the hill to the very edge of campus and looked at the line of mountains separating me from home. I couldn’t begin to imagine what lay beyond them, couldn’t discern the slopes and low places between the person I was in that moment and the person I would become.
Along the mountain ridge, slanting italic snowflakes began to fall.