Writers in the sky: Grandpa, Clawson, lit one author’s fire

Sitting in my office just north of Seattle Wednesday morning, I read the news of Roger Clawson’s passing back in my hometown. Though our orbits intersected briefly, I didn’t know the man. Still, I found all manner of emotions dripping into my coffee. Lament, gratitude, nostalgia.

Camille

Camille Griep

When I was growing up, the Billings Gazette’s delivery way out on the east end of Lockwood was what my grandparents seemingly woke up for. I didn’t understand much when I started living with them as a kid, but I understood that the absence of a newspaper made everyone owly, impossible. I shudder at the difficulties the delivery folks went through back then—10 inches of snow covering the un-sanded hills of the ’70s-era subdivisions—but it mostly arrived and did so mostly unscathed.

On the days Clawson’s column came out, my grandfather would be just about finished reading him by the time I got upstairs for breakfast. I learned to wait if Roger’s mug shot atop his column still stared back at me. Sometimes, there was laughing, sometimes cussing, sometimes worse: an hour-long explanation of things I neither knew nor cared about. “I don’t always agree with him, but that that man’s a helluva writer,” my grandfather would say, shoving his already undrinkably hot coffee into the microwave.

Clawson was important in our house, despite my full-body eye-rolls. Although he was quoted like a familiar friend—”Clawson says so-and-so’s an idiot”—in our house he was more of a celebrity. The only difference between Clawson and Dear Abby, for all my childish understanding of the newsroom, was that no one seemed to write him any letters, or if they did, he was far too busy to deign to respond.

In a family of readers, it’s hard not to catch the writing bug, at the very least to get someone’s attention. And I caught it hard in junior high. So it was in February of 1990 that my grandfather asked across a wall of cereal boxes, “Are you serious about this writing thing?”

I was serious about everything at 13—a case of premature seriousness. I was serious about school and boys and friends and clothes and people-pleasing and horses and ballet class and piano. And writing. “Would you like to take a writing class with Roger Clawson?” he continued. “I guess,” I said, also serious about my nonchalance—meanwhile, my insides jumped like water across a skillet.

Because I was 13, I hadn’t realized that my grandfather’s own enrollment in the Adult Education class meant something. He loved to read, loved to think, but it wasn’t until I was much, much older that I realized that a carpenter with some of the more atrocious spelling I’d yet run across might not have the self-confidence to walk into a writing class with a writer he so admired. I ingested his self-deprecation as a running humorous commentary instead of a genuine urge to learn.

The dedication he’d applied didn’t fully percolate in my own mind until after he died and I unearthed the scads of drafts he’d done for class assignments. Trapped between the yellowing pages sat a purple piece of notebook paper: a letter from me to my friend Beth that I had dashed off in the few minutes before class, stained by the thermos of coffee we packed to stay awake for the three late hours. (Yes, I started my own coffee habit at 12.)

Beth always sounded seriously cool in her letters, having moved to the probably seriously cool state of Pennsylvania where she hid seriously cool music under her bed and had trysts with seriously cool boyfriends. I had nothing seriously cool in my life, but I did know how to act like nothing mattered, which seemed to be the only cool thing left to do.

“Dear Beth,” the humiliating letter reads. “So like I sign up for this writing class with my Grandpa (with Roger Clawson).” (Note the namedropping —as if that bought me some serious street cred in Pennsylvania). “Well, so it’s like so boring, everyone is at least 20 years older than I am. And this writing technique is exactly the opposite of what I learn in school.”

My grandfather probably laughed his ass off when he read the letter, which I never finished because it got tangled up with his drafts. I hope so, at any rate. I’d like to think he knew me better than I knew myself. I’d like to think he knew I was 13 and how hard I was trying in the class and how much I wanted to impress Roger Clawson and everyone else and how every time I was thrown a kernel of acknowledgement I sat preening.

I felt so adult with all the old people—people whose ages then I have now surpassed by several years. For his part, Clawson told my grandfather to quit worrying about the spelling, that it was the content that mattered. I was appalled, he was elated, and we were both set free.

Clawson’s unorthodox technique stuck. I examined people, places and things differently. I was judicious with my word choices. It served me well; I had a leg up on my peers when I got to high school. Maybe beyond, though I still had a lot to learn and still do.

I can only imagine what he thought of the entitled, know-it-all pre-teen in his class of adult writers. I try to imagine what I’d feel like as a teacher—on any given day a child writing sans life experience can be a joy or a joke—and chances are I was no different. He treated me with respect, like anyone else in the class. For the first time, I wasn’t special. I wasn’t supposed to do things the usual way: The usual way used far too many “likes” and adverbs. The usual way was cliché. The usual way was boring.

He often asked us to write about Montana. To write about our history. I didn’t have stories to tell about Montana, but my grandfather was spoiled for choice. He’d lived in Billings for what I thought to be forever. It was one of many adult advantages I seized on as unfair, even as he reminded me I was the superior speller. For one class, my grandfather settled on writing about the city’s growing population and how it had been a continual worry since “Willard Fraser was Mayor … and had the previous day’s high temperature stamped on all the city’s outgoing mail.” He wrote about hunting and fishing and old friendships. He wrote about politics and religion. I probably wrote about makeup and horses and nothing. But I kept writing. By all accounts so did my grandfather.

It’s been three Octobers since we lost him, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of transcribing his musings. It’s clear that much of what he did after dinner at our house when he disappeared to his office was write. All the Rudyard Kipling, the Robert Frost, the Billy Collins, the Roger Clawson—it all rubbed off. Though it was a secret pursuit. One I wish in hindsight I’d understood better.

Our class together was short in the grand scheme of things. Six weeks, maybe two months. Afterwards, Roger Clawson wouldn’t have known us from anyone, and yet I began reading his columns as faithfully as my grandfather. I moved away for college, and clipped Clawson columns would periodically plop out of a typed envelope with no explanation included or needed. As time drew on, Clawson moved on to other platforms, places. I lost track of him and found him again, here and there.

This fall I finished my second novel. And amid all the excitement, I found myself despondent that I couldn’t share the news with my grandfather. I wished I could tell him that we did it. That it hadn’t all been in vain. That we’d beat the ennui of 13 and the self-destruction of 21 and all the odds against publishing these days. That the class had been a seed of his belief and now we had a whole tree.

A few weeks ago, I decided to have our last name tattooed on the inside of my wrist in my grandfather’s handwriting, but I needed a template. Digging through his papers, I landed on the first draft of his Clawson class assignment from Feb. 12, 1990, choosing his sloppy, handwritten byline for my ink. He’d hate the tattoo itself, but I’d like to think he’d understand why I needed it. I’d like to think that instead of noticing, he’s having cup after scalding cup of coffee at the writer’s table in the sky. Clawson sits at the end of the table just as in class, the two of them talking all the politics my grandfather was too shy to try to discuss on the icy sidewalk after class.

I’m proud to say I carry some small part of our lives’ intersection with me now, and will until the time comes for me to join the writers in the sky. Godspeed Mr. Clawson. Thanks for showing me how not to do things. Thanks for your part in helping make the writers so many of us are today.

Camille Griep lives and writes north of Seattle, Wash. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been featured in a number of online and print venues. She is the editor of “Easy Street” and serves as a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. She is also the author of the epistolary fairy tale, “Letters to Zell,” and her second novel, “New Charity Blues,” will be released next spring. Her website is www.camillegriep.com.

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