I HAVE SPENT THE LAST 39 YEARS of my life writing because of Daniel Keyes. He died on June 15 in Florida where he had been living in retirement.
When I was 21 years old, I'd already been writing for money for two years, publishing unbylined paragraphs in The New York Times as a stringer and collecting a modest salary from The Post, Ohio University's daily student newspaper. I enrolled in Keyes' creative writing workshop as a senior in college who did not lack for confidence. I had been editor of the paper as a junior, and though I'd made a real mess of that job, I was held in some regard for my writing, especially by myself. I entered Keyes' classroom in the full bloom of arrogance. Keyes was the biggest writer I'd ever met, the author of Flowers for Algernon, but I figured he didn't have all that much to teach me. I might pick up a few professional tips and I'd earn three more credits toward graduation. How hard could it be?
It took Keyes about a week to make clear that in his opinion not only could I not write, I could barely read. His gift as a teacher, one of them, was that he could deliver this judgment without so discouraging me or so pissing me off that I dropped the class. Instead, I took the jolting news that I was just another self-impressed punk with a lot of bad prose habits and thought Okay, what do you know that I don't?
First he made me see all that I was doing wrong, then he started to teach me how to read, then he started to demonstrate what made a good sentence good and a bad sentence bad, and then, in a matter of weeks, he lit me up. Seventy days after I first sat down at a seminar table with him, I knew I wanted to be a writer. A writer like him. I have not looked back.
I took another seminar from him the next quarter. I will never forget the night he let everyone else in the workshop comment on the draft of a story I'd written, then said, "This is publishable." I walked the mile back to my apartment in a daze.
Almost 40 years later, I don't write like him, but I work to write the kind of sentences he taught me to write—precise, concrete, unambiguous, sentences that say what I mean them to say. I read the way he taught me—slowly, with a judiciously critical eye for all the choices the author made on the way to declaring each sentence finished. When I taught classes of undergraduate scribblers at Johns Hopkins, I taught the way he taught. It is no coincidence that the first course I ever devised for the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars was "Reading as a Writer."
After more than 20 years working in academia, I cast a jaundiced eye on ranking systems that purport to designate where a student might obtain the best college education. A meaningful education, a real education, hinges not on the professional esteem of the faculty or the student-to-teacher ratio or the rigor demanded or the selectivity of admissions, but on the luck of encountering one or two teachers who somehow light a path for you and give you exactly the guidance you need and knock you down so you can stand back up as an adult, or at least a sort of proto-adult. If you find that teacher, you get an education. If you don't, you just get an expensive hall pass into the job market.
I owe Daniel Keyes much more than this remembrance, but it's all I can offer. I once came across an address for what I took to be his son, and sent him a note telling him how much his father had meant to me. (I say "took to be" because recently I received a gracious note from Leslie Keyes who informed me that she had no brother. Her father had two daughters, no son. So now I'm not at all sure who received that note from me. Leslie also amiably noted that her father would have chided me for not verifying the facts, and she's right.) I hoped he'd pass it to my mentor, but I never heard back, so I don't know what happened, if anything. I doubt Keyes remembered me, but I like to think he smiled.