‘Spoiling Paper’: Barthelme Memories

By Padgett Powell

Padgett Powell (left) learned the finer points of ‘Spoiling Paper’ from Donald Barthelme, one of the founders of the UH creative writing program

Editor’s Note: Post-modernist writer Donald Barthelme studied journalism at UH before achieving international acclaim for experimental works like “Snow White” and “Come Back, Dr. Caligari.” In 1979, he returned to UH as a faculty member and co-founder of the Creative Writing Program. Padgett Powell, his student, became a successful novelist – his first work “Edisto” was nominated for the American Book Award – who now teaches at the University of Florida. In an unorthodox tribute, Powell recalls Barthelme’s influence on him …and countless other writers.

My time at the University of Houston had a couple of remarkable moments. One was teaching Doug Drabek remedial English, which he technically did not need, and at his invitation going to the stadium and watching him fan The University of Texas, at the time I believe (ranked) #1, and later seeing Doug pitch in the big leagues and telling everyone, “I taught that boy on the mound the simple sentence,” which was a lie.

Another moment – after languishing in the writing program for a year and being told my writing was “ jimcrack and corn” by a teacher who did not deign to shake hands – was meeting Donald Barthelme, who shook hands, and who wrote in the margins of that same writing “erstaz Faulkner,” then crossed the comment out on the grounds he “ didn’t know if [I] could take it.” I told him he still did not know if I could take it, that he was never to withhold a comment from me, what was the big deal, it was supposed to be ersatz Faulkner, and that I was not here to be coddled and be told I was a writer and write a thesis, that I came here to meet women, and if I had to write something it would not be a thesis but a book. “By all means,” he said, chuckling – and that if we ever had to do this manuscript thing again it would not be in this barren office it would be in a bar, and Don Barthelme closed the manuscript and we adjourned, if not then, soon, to a bar. We got along.

Here are six things I learned from Donald Barthelme, the hiring of whom by UH ranks in my mind with Princeton’s hiring of Einstein:

  1. DB: Okay, we have wacky mode. What must wacky mode do?
    We: [Silent, clueless, sitting on our hands]
    DB: Break their hearts. Class dismissed.

The obligation to supply emotion is not lessened in the experimental mode, it is heightened if it is different.

  1. MB (Marion Barthelme, Donald’s wife): Don, there was a strange boy at the door today, somehow menacing—
    DB: Was there a linoleum knife in his pocket?
  2. MB: Don, the neighbor’s dog nipped Katherine today.
    DB: Does she warrant it not rabid?
  3. DB: I spoiled a lot of paper before anyone got interested. Student: How much?
    DB: [having moved on, taking a sip of vodka tonic] What?
    Student: [breathless] How much paper did you spoil?
    DB: Boxcar. [Sip] Two boxcar.
  4. At the typewriter overlooking the street, with circular water stains from wine-glass stem on the wood of the desk, Don Barthelme wrote of seeing early joggers running toward “rude, red health.”

Observation (regarding lessons two to five):
The main strategy is to say something new using two syllables or two words not heard in a while, perhaps never heard together, perhaps not heard before.

  1. DB: Give them a clean, perfect manuscript.

A good editor will stop reading if you show her a usage error or a typo.

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