Stanford Today Edition: July/August, 1996 Section: Features: Nancy Packer WWW: Nancy Packer's Lesson Plan

Why Being Brilliant Isn't Enough

By Michael Cunningham

"Brilliant is not enough," says Nancy Packer, author, professor emeritus of English and former director of the Stanford creative writing program. "You've got to have something else. You've got to have a moral center out of which the art radiates."

We are sitting in the living room of her home on the edge of the Stanford campus, and as she speaks I anticipate the moment, later that evening, when I will repeat her words to my two best friends. My friends and I met over 20 years ago in Packer's legendary course on the development of the short story, and ever since then, sometimes out of nowhere, one of us will straighten up, go steely-eyed and deliver a Packer-ism. It might be, "Chekhov said the writer must never show his fingers and toes in a story." It might be, "There are four things you need to know about Flannery O'Connor.

She was a Southerner, she was a Catholic, she was a cripple, and she raised peacocks."

Over the years we have developed a pretty fair imitation of Packer's voice, but now, seated in her living room, I am reminded of how pale our version is compared to the original, an Alabama accent solid and steady as an axe cutting into heartwood.

"I'm not saying that elegance of language doesn't matter," she continues. "It's just that for me, the central thing is the moral vision, the humanity of the writer as expressed through the characters."

Packer is a wry, sharp-faced woman with a penetrating expression that runs toward the skeptical, as if whoever stands before her has just offered what might very well be an assumed name and a fictitious history. She is looking for the story inside the story. She is precise as a diamond cutter, and about that sentimental.

As I listen to her, I resolve to tighten up on my vowel sounds when doing Packer. The word "writer" coming off Packer's tongue sounds more like "ratter" than it does like "rider." Later on, when I'm holding my friend's 2-month-old son, I'll do my best to reproduce it for him. "Brilliant is not enough," I'll say into his broad, blinking face. "You've got to have a moral center out of which the art radiates."

I expect to repeat these words to him periodically as he grows up.

Packer's course on the short story was the definitive experience in my education and a turning point in my life. I entered it as an agonized, confused junior journalism major; I left 10 weeks later as an agonized, confused aspiring fiction writer.

Decades later, at 43, I've published three novels and am at work on my fourth. While my friends and I have incorporated some of Packer's best lines into our private language, I've wondered over the years at the singularity of her effect on me. I was, after all, one of about 80 students in the lecture hall, and my entire personal contact with Packer consisted of an evening spent at her home with 10 or so other students (she invited us over in small groups) and a conversation in her office, where I went to demand further explanation about a paper of mine she'd found to be less than perfect. She'd sighed, said she'd hoped her extensive written comments would obviate the need for conversations like these, and then talked for 20 minutes about the strengths and weaknesses of what I'd written. She spoke with urgent concern, as if a student's paper on Katherine Mansfield was a matter of grave import.

Now Packer and I are together again in her living room, which seems more or less unchanged since the night I arrived here in 1974, nervous, arrogant, talking too much. The house is spare and modern, a series of flat-roofed pavilions arranged around patios and atriums. Packer and her late husband, Herbert, lived here during the 60s and early 70s, and although it's obviously a direct expression of her taste it doesn't feel right to me. Packer's regal manner has always led me to expect a house filled with clutter, lamplit even at noon, generously stocked with large, matronly chairs from which great works can be comfortably contemplated. This Bauhaus-style house contains no scent of mystery. The sun streaming in through all that glass must scour it away.

I switch on my tape recorder and embark, with a certain familiar nervousness, on the interview. I want to ask something so large and awkward I can't seem to get it phrased. I'd like to know the source of Packer's wisdom and how she managed to get under my skin as thoroughly as she did. I settle instead for asking if she knows what makes a great teacher.

"It's confidence, I suppose," she says. "Confidence is at the root of any success, don't you think? My own teaching experience has been checkered. At first, I was so bad at it."

Packer holds a master's degree in theology from the University of Chicago. She says that her initial teaching job, at Birmingham-Southern College, almost cured her of the teaching impulse.

"I was always just one class ahead," she says. "One of the things I had to teach was the history of the Christian church, a century a lecture. I didn't know anything; I was not very well educated. It was painful."

It isn't hard to imagine Packer as a clever, stern young woman trying to fake her way through her classes -- and going under. Fakery is not in Packer's nature. She is one of those people doomed to reside squarely and unequivocally in the realm of the literal truth, where the weather is unforgiving and the light is always harsh. I suspect that lies, even kindly ones, are about as tenable to her as a thin spray of gravel would be under her bedsheets.

Packer muddled through her teaching responsibilities and kept on writing fiction, as she'd been doing since childhood.

"I entered a contest when I was thirteen," she says. "A newspaper contest. I wrote a story about a man who was cruel to his wife and gets lost in the desert. All I remember about it now is the last line, which was, 'And he buried his head in the blistering sand.'

"Then the next time was when I was seventeen or eighteen, and I decided that I would write true confessions in order to make money. I wrote from the point of view of Olga, who was married to John, who was a Marine overseas. She worked in a defense plant, and she was having an affair with Basil. At one point, on about page thirteen or fourteen, I wrote from Olga's point of view, 'I did not know then what I was going to do. I do not know now. And I don't give a damn.' End of story."

Packer persevered, and published a story in Harper's magazine in 1953, when she was 28. At that time a few magazines -- Harper's, along with the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly -- had the power to bestow legitimacy if not outright stardom on writers of short stories. Early acknowledgment by the literary pantheon so intimidated Packer that she didn't manage to finish another story for more than five years.

"I'd have three pages and couldn't think of what to do next," she says. "It was a confidence matter, I'm sure. I would stop writing for the day, and the next day I'd start again on page one."

While battling her writer's block, Packer briefly considered a career in politics. Her father, George Huddleston, had been a congressman, and at 29 she almost ran for the Ninth District seat he'd vacated nearly 20 years earlier. She was gearing up for a campaign, knowing that a young liberal woman in Alabama in the '50s would have been lucky to get any votes at all. Still, she wanted to try, but when her older brother George announced his own intention to run in the Ninth District, she stepped aside rather than risk suffering public defeat at the hands of her brother. He was elected.

"It's my other life," she says wistfully. "The path not taken was politics."

Soon after, she married Herbert Packer, a dynamic young lawyer living temporarily in Birmingham, and when he took a teaching job at Stanford Law School she went with him. They had two children, George and Ann, both of whom have grown up to be fiction writers. "I was happy in my marriage, I was happy out here, and I started writing again," Packer says.

She took a creative writing class with Richard Scowcroft and Wallace Stegner, co-founders of Stanford's program in creative writing, and the next year was accepted as a Stegner fellow. During her fellowship year she found herself pressed, unexpectedly, back into teaching.

"Philip Roth was supposed to teach here, and I guess he'd made enough money on a book he'd just published that he called Wally [Stegner] and said he couldn't come," she says. "So Wally asked me to take the class, and I did. And the first quarter was just a total and complete disaster. I was absolutely incompetent as a teacher. I didn't know anything, I didn't understand anything. I felt so shy and reticent that I'd have quit if I hadn't told Wally I'd do it for a year. Then the next quarter I just lost my fear. I got easy and confident. I became a pretty good teacher."

Packer has clearly been authoritative since childhood. Once her fear fell away, she was entirely in command. She became a good and rigorous teacher.

"I've always considered myself a hard critic," she acknowledges. "I've always assumed that any student really wanted to hear how to make whatever work was before him or her better. One's role is to try to guide the student into thinking for himself or herself about how to improve. And you can't do that by sitting there saying, You're just wonderful.' You've got to be critical, negative. You've got to say, 'You could do this better, you could do that better.'"

Packer's tough-as-nails style was highly unfashionable when she started teaching at Stanford in the '60s. She was, after all, taking a hard line with students, at a time when some students were capable of firebombing the president's office after he proved unresponsive to their demands. Packer is about as easily intimidated as a mongoose, though, and early on she staged a showdown.

"It was a big creative writing class," she says. "I'd let too many people in, and the first week I met them, I really felt a lot of hostility, a lot of indifference to what I had to say. I remember saying to my husband, 'I'm going to tell them that anybody who doesn't like me better get out of the class.' He said, 'No, don't do that, just wear through and it'll be OK. Don't make a scene about it.'

"But I was stubborn. I went back into the class and I said, 'I am the only nonvariable in this room. Everybody else can leave, but I'm obligated to stay. I hate this class, I hate coming in here. I think you're all just sitting there criticizing me, criticizing each other, and it's very unpleasant. I just want to tell you, I'm going to turn my back, and those of you who don't think you can learn in this class, who don't want to sit up and take notice, get out.'

"I turned my back. Nobody left. And it was one of the best classes I ever had. It was a terrific class. I said, 'Okay, we're going to be human beings, we're not just going to be teacher and students.' "

Packer was scrappy enough to come through that embattled era intact. Her husband wasn't so fortunate.

Herbert Packer, professor of law and vice provost for academic planning and programs at Stanford, was, by all accounts, a brilliant legal scholar. He lionized Adlai Stevenson, and described himself as a "nineteenth-century liberal." In 1955, he joined the Stanford Law School faculty under the protest of several trustees, led by Herbert Hoover, who argued that Packer was soft on communism. Less than a decade and a half later, when he took on the job of vice provost, he found himself labeled a fascist by student activists.

Herbert Packer opposed students' demands for a larger voice in campus administration, and favored harsh punishments for demonstrators who damaged university property. He argued fiercely against what he called the students' "penchant for the apocalyptic," and insisted that "procedure is at the heart of all liberty." He tangled ferociously with David Harris, Alan Dershowitz and others. After President Richard Lyman's office was bombed, police studded the Packer house with floodlights, and installed a hotline that could bring armed officers quickly to their quiet suburban street.

In 1969, Herbert Packer suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and incapable of speaking in complete sentences. Three years later, despondent over his enfeebled state, he checked into a hotel in San Francisco and committed suicide.

Nancy Packer, who abhors sentimentality, speaks affectionately but sparingly about her husband. "He was thoughtful," she says.

"He was just a very smart guy, more deep and broad than fast. He was tough at the university, very gentle at home. He educated me a lot. He knew more about literature than I did, which was irritating."

Almost 25 years later, Nancy Packer's phone is still listed under the name Herbert Packer.

Survival is a mysterious process. Perhaps Packer's commitment to teaching and writing helped her recover from a devastating and irredeemable loss. Her lecture courses, Development of the Short Story and Introduction to the Novel, became locally famous. While teaching she managed to produce and publish two story collections, Small Moments and The Women Who Walk and Other Stories, and a memoir, In My Father's House: Tales of an Unconformable Man. Now, as a full-time writer, she has completed a novel. As the manuscript makes the rounds of publishers, she is taking a break of sorts and writing a mystery.

"I don't even read mysteries," she says. "I don't like mysteries. I thought I would just give it a try, and I've enjoyed it a lot. It doesn't mean anything, that's why I can do it. What I am doesn't rest on doing it well."

If Packer wants to blow off steam with a less-than-serious project, it's because she ordinarily demands so much from herself and everyone else who writes. She says, "I once had a creative writing student who was a good surface writer, and I kept giving him C's. He was an A student; he was just furious with me. He came in and said, 'What can I do?' And I said, 'What you can do is go home tonight and write an honest story about your most humiliating experience. Because until you recognize that writing hurts . . .' He dropped the class. He couldn't face that. If you don't lose a little of yourself, you haven't got it."

That's right, I think, though I don't say anything. It's an essential part of what I learned from her. She taught me that writing is as important as neurosurgery, and no less exacting.

"I think I'm a better writer as a result of teaching," she says. "I can gain more distance from my writing after it's down on the page. Frank O'Connor always said that the energies you use for writing go into teaching, therefore he for one would not teach very often. It deprived him of his drive to write. I don't have a tremendous drive to write. I do write, but I don't have this all-consuming drive that some writers have. If I hadn't been teaching I certainly would have written a lot more. I don't think I would have written any better, though."

I suspect it's Packer's integrity as a writer -- her bottomless respect for the brute work of putting words on paper -- that made her such a brilliant lecturer on the subject of fiction. Although she would never agree to a term like "brilliant" being applied to herself, she essentially agrees with me about what's most important in teaching literature.

Of the courses on the short story and the novel, she says, "Those are courses scholars don't particularly want to teach. They're too general. They don't require much scholarship. Creative writing people really care about the effect of a story as well as how it's made. Rather than fitting it into any theory or history, it's what it does to the reader, and how it achieves that.

"Allen Tate says the thing that's most important about literature is the thing the literary people don't pay any attention to. He says they think about the big ideas that are created by a great work like Madame Bovary, the big ideas about romanticism and so on and so forth, but that's not what people read. What people read are little scenes, and that's where the genius is. It's making those little scenes. The literary people are not particularly interested in those little scenes. They're interested in great ideas."

Packer was the person who taught me about epiphanies in fiction, so it's appropriate that I experience an epiphany of sorts right here in her living room. As she tells me that genius resides in the making of little scenes, I glance around the room, which struck me in 1974 and strikes me today as surprisingly trim and conventional for a mind and spirit like Nancy Packer's. At this moment, however, it seems suddenly, unexpectedly perfect that she lives here, reading insatiably and laboring to produce polished gems of stories as fat suburban squirrels cavort fearlessly outside the sliding glass doors.

One of Packer's gifts, perhaps her essential gift, is her ability to bring a certain gravity -- an intimation of the vast world -- to any setting or situation. If she lives here, then this house and, by extension, every other place on earth is intricately invested with the capacity for revelation. When she taught, one of her virtues was her habit of illuminating the commonplace. She carried on the fiction-writer's obdurate romance with the physical world, and while she venerated great authors she never let us forget that To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises were created with more or less the same paper and ink currently available in any stationery store.

Both her children and at least one of her undergraduate students became novelists, in part because she taught us that the stuff of literature is everywhere and that anyone who's alive has a perfect right to give up his or her life trying to put it all down on paper. Not every writer is grateful for the challenge. Writing, after all, grinds your ego to powder. It reminds you constantly of all you can't do. The ghosts of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hawthorne and countless others torture you -- and in my case they do so in part because Nancy Packer taught me finally and forever that they, like me, had the whole world in front of them and no tools except their fallible human brains and a few supplies bought at the corner store. Still, this is the life I would choose for myself, if I could choose again. This work is what I want to squander myself on. I owe much of that to her.

On the following day, I arrive back at Packer's house shortly before a photographer and his assistant. While they scout the yard for locations, she and I sit in the living room, talking about books. She venerates Chekhov, loves Hemingway. Among the living, she particularly admires William Trevor and Alice Munro. She likes a few of John Updike's novels but finds his style "too decorative, too Oriental." (I think immediately about my own style, and promise silently to trim a few adjectives when I get home.) She talks about the pervasive aura of menace in the work of Raymond Carver.

Periodically, she glances through the sliding glass doors at the photographers and growls, "What's taking them so long?"

"They're looking for locations," I say.

"Can't they just point the camera at us and shoot?"

"It's a portrait. They want to get it right."

She nods, skeptically. Her daughter, Ann, who is living here with her husband and two young children while the family searches for a home, leaves her 7-month-old boy briefly with Packer while running an errand.

As the baby crawls around at her feet, Packer tells me that she, Ann, and George edit one another's work. They are unstinting almost to the point of injury. The Packer family ethos demands that level of seriousness.

"To tell you the honest-to-goodness truth, I'm a lot better about their criticism than they are about mine," she says. "Of course, they're not my mother. They've been quite wonderfully helpful. They can say things that are difficult, and I don't get too mad anymore.

"George, my son, sent me a piece of a novel he's working on. I asked, 'What is it you want me to say about it? How serious do you want the criticism to be?' He said, 'What do I want you to say about it? I want you to say it's wonderful. What do you think?' So I said, 'It's wonderful, but . . .' "

She glances again, with deeper impatience, out at the patio, where the photographers have spent almost 20 minutes trying the wooden patio furniture in various combinations.

"I'm going to go ask them how much longer this is going to take," she says, standing up with the brisk determination of a woman who will take just so much and no more.

At her urging, the two men agree that they're ready to shoot. As they photograph us in different poses, Packer is cooperative but wary. She'll stand where they ask her to, sit where they ask her to, but she won't sit upright while I lounge on a chaise at her side (I won't either). She won't blow bubbles with her granddaughter's bubble blower. She won't stand facing me with our right palms touching in some vaguely Star Trek-ish gesture of greeting.

She will stand at the bottom of a set of garden steps while I stand at the top, though we agree that this hovers on the edge of allowable indignities. As we wait for the photographer to focus, Packer bends over and picks up two small stones from the bed of stones at her feet. She tosses one up to me. She's got a good arm.

"Hold that," she says. "It helps to be holding something."

I do hold the stone, and she's right. It helps. It provides a certain focus. I'm not just standing here feeling foolish, waiting to have my picture taken. I'm standing here holding this stone. Packer holds hers, too. I wonder how many other tricks she knows for staying calm when you're not calm, and for maintaining a sense of dignity in a world that wants to strip it away. I wonder how many tricks she knows for living with a fierce sense of place, with rigorous moral convictions, in a world that has produced, within the last half-century, One Hundred Years of Solitude, infomercials, Gravity's Rainbow, child porn on the Internet, Song of Solomon and armor-piercing bullets. While the photographer snaps away, I watch Packer as I did as an undergraduate, hoping for clues about how to write more fully and deeply, how to live more honorably.

After the photographer is finished, Packer turns to look at me. "Be sure to put that stone back exactly where it came from," she says.

If I could, I would. ST

Michael Cunningham is a novelist living in New York. His most recent book is Flesh and Blood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).

From the Pen of Nancy Packer

THE SHORT STORY: AN INTRODUCTION, by Wilfred Stone, Nancy Packer and Robert Hoopes, McGraw-Hill, 1973, 1983

SMALL MOMENTS, University of Illinois Press, 1976

WRITING WORTH READING: A PRACTICAL GUIDE, (with John Timpane), St. Martin's Press, 1986, 2nd ed., 1989

IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE: TALES OF AN UNCONFORMABLE MAN, J. Daniel, 1988 and Stanford Alumni Association, 1988 (published by arrangement with John Daniel, publisher, Santa Barbara, Calif.)

THE WOMEN WHO WALK AND OTHER STORIES, Louisiana State University Press, 1989

JEALOUS-HEARTED ME, J. Daniel, (forthcoming
in January).

The Women Who Walk

SHE SAT ON THE DARK BANK and breathed in the cool night air. The moon shimmered in the puddles on the lake bottom.

And in the moonlight, sitting on the damp bank of the swampy lake, she began to cry. Her crying was a moan that returned to her as the sound of soft thunder... Her chest swelled with sobs. They seemed to be exploding in her ribs, bursting from her armpits, ripping through her ears and eye sockets.

She stood up. The streets were empty. She clutched her bathrobe tighter against the suddenly chilly night, and she began to walk quickly, recklessly, in the direction of the moon. As she walked, she felt the power of her thrusting stride, the rising flood of her energy, the release of her torment.