The Truth about Archer City
By Tom Junod
I have always preached that writers should have a personal connection to what they’re writing. I have always insisted that writing, at its best, functions as a record of finding a personal connection to what you’re writing, hiding a personal connection to what you’re writing, exploiting a personal connection to what you’re writing, or rising above a personal connection to what you’re writing. You can’t tell a story unless you know why you’re telling it: That’s something I’ve said, over and over again, to college classes and newspaper enrichment programs, and something I believe that I’ve practiced, over and over again, in my 25 years of writing for magazines. By now, maybe it’s even something of a schtick.
I was sort of amazed, then, by how profound—how profoundly moving and profoundly terrifying—I found the experience of being asked about my personal connection to my writing by George Getschow, in a place that offered nowhere to hide.
George, of course, is the great impresario of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, where I was a speaker this summer with my colleague at Esquire, Chris Jones. I’d had a wonderful experience at Mayborn, talking about writing and listening to other writers talk about writing. Hell, I’d even managed to indulge in some hero worship by having breakfast with Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. But George had asked me continue the business of the conference after the conference was over, and to join the annual pilgrimage he arranges for his nonfiction writing class to Archer City, Texas.
It was a Sunday night. I was tired, having stayed up to three and four in the morning the two previous nights at the Mayborn Conference, and I have to admit that I went up to Archer City more as a way of spending some time by myself than as a way of sharing my thoughts about writing with George’s students. I’d been told what to expect from Archer City, and I went placidly about the task of meeting those expectations: I ate at the Dairy Queen where Larry McMurtry ate, I let a room at the Spur Hotel, I helped George unpack his treasure trove of nonfiction books, I met the only openly lesbian couple in Archer City, and then went backroading on their pickup truck out in ranch country. Along with a pack of writers all younger than I am, I sat in the truck bed, my gaze drawn relentlessly toward heaven by the pinwheeling amazement of stars. When we finally stopped, I recovered my legs by drinking beer, and lost them again by worrying about the rattlesnakes. I remember thinking what a gift the night was — what a gift it was to be in a place where nobody knew me, and where the entire night could go by and I wouldn’t have to say a damned thing.
The words — the realization that the night was about words — started slowly, and took me by surprise. George started asking one of his students to say why she was there, and what she wanted from the class and from writing itself. It was a good question. It was, as far as I was concerned, the only question — and yet I was shocked when George’s student answered in some perfunctory way, and George made it clear that her answer wasn’t good enough…wasn’t true enough. I was shocked when he kept asking her to explain herself, and then asked her to explain herself while standing in the bed of the pickup truck: to explain herself to us.
And that’s when it became clear that this night wasn’t about being alone under the Texas stars, wasn’t about going along for the ride, wasn’t about being a tourist in Archer City. It was about what we owed George. It was about what we owed each other, if not to the very stars themselves. There were no tourists that night in Archer City, because you can’t remain a tourist if you wind up in a place where you have no choice but to tell the truth.
I spoke up pretty early. I took my turn on the back of the pickup truck, and told the truth about being humbled by the writers I’d met at the Mayborn Conference — not just writers like Richard Rhodes and Isabel Wilkerson, but all the writers who wanted something out of writing that I’d forgotten writing could give…who still wanted, oh, well, everything. But my moment of truth in Archer City came not when I was trying to speak it but rather when I was demanding it of a young writer who’d come to Archer City for a personal reckoning and didn’t seem to know it yet. His brother had died in Archer City. His brother had killed himself in a jail cell in Archer City, but the writer, Christian, still spoke of the story he was setting out to write in vague terms. I acted as his George, and kept pushing him to realize that by telling his brother’s story he was also telling his own. What moved me, though — what I was humbled by — was not his ambition for the story, but rather the trust he showed in talking about it. It was what George knew and I didn’t: that you could hone in on the truth with Archer City students because they trusted you to do nothing less, and their trust was what was sacred.
Whenever I describe what happened out there, in Archer City, on a rutted road, by the gate of a ranch, near a strip of blinking red lights used to orient the satellites that spun invisibly between us and the stars, I say it was a combination of an outdoor writing class and an encounter group. But that’s not right. It was a church that sprung up in the middle of nowhere, out of nothing but the desire to say the truth and to say it right — the desire to tell a personal truth that’s also a human one. I still preach that writers should have a personal connection to the stories they tell. And I still try to find the personal connection to the stories that I write. But I have seen what happens when your personal connection to your writing becomes the basis of your personal connection to other writers, and I have heard what it sounds like when you’re asked to tell the truth about your writing in a wide-open space where there’s room for everything but a lie:
It sounds a lot like a prayer.