From this month’s Harper’s Magazine I learn that Barry Hannah, Mississippi writer, died in March. The editors chose to print the speech he gave at Bennington College a few years ago. They call it an elegy and have given it the title “Why I Write.”
Writing, he says, is “the war we can’t win, we can’t lose, we can’t quit.” Actually, to win the war is probably to lose the impetus for writing . Writing fills the shadowy empty spaces. If everything is sunny, populated, and well understood, why write?
One sentence from “Why I Write” makes me think of the main character in my novel The Absent Woman: “Forever afterward,” Hannah says, “I would crave abandoned rooms in lost places, me with my pencil and paper.” The absent woman in my book is a stranger in town. She has paper and pencil and a story to tell. Barry Hannah would understand.
One summer a few years ago Hannah was teaching at a writers’ conference. I attended one of his classes. A student’s work was being reamed, absolutely decimated, by Barry’s bad-tempered co-teacher (nameless). What did Barry do at the end of the savage critique? Calmly, with good humor, took over the class and skillfully taught the student and the rest of us without diminishing the co-teacher.
Coming out of the cafeteria that evening, I saw him walking to his car. “Barry,” I said, “you performed a good deed in the classroom this morning. All of us who write appreciated your warmth and reasonableness.”
The compliment pleased him. “My mother would thank you,” he said.
In the Bennington speech he talks about the kindness of his parents. I think it is telling that, in thanking me, he immediately thought of his mother.