River Teeth Print Journal

Editor’s Notes 24.2

Spring 2023

By Joe Mackall

Deep into his first memoir, What I Think I Did, the late Larry Woiwode writes several sentences that define him as a writer, revealing his material, his process, his calling. “I write more daily pages than ever, all background, prelude to my brother’s visit, and then a phrase sends a scene wobbling up in focus: my grandmother, my mother’s mother, at a sink in her farmhouse.” Woiwode’s material, in nonfiction as well as fiction, burns with familial love and its endless complexities, the land we love on, and the people bearing our blood who have gone to glory or not. His sense of purpose while working and loving on his North Dakota farm cannot be separated easily by who Woiwode was as a writer. He continues, “Then she [his grandmother] appears in sunlit brilliance and the scene runs through, an exchange with a grandson at her side, and I know I have a story. I will write about her the way I’ve always felt I should, as if my life depends on it.”

Larry Woiwode appears to have written always as if his life depended on it. I’ve felt that way as a writer, but if I’m being honest, I must confess to failure more often than not. What really gets to me is what Woiwode (pronounced WHYwoody) writes next: “just get down clear the slant of light on a woman who influenced me more than any writer. And if I can’t admit that and record her with as much accuracy as I can summon, then her life and a host of others connected to it will be lost, gone without a trace, as a last lesson is wiped from a blackboard with a wet cloth.” One can certainly pick up on a writer’s ego, believing that people from our past vanish if we don’t preserve them on the page. What I hear from Woiwode, though, is his fervent belief that if one of us is lost, we are all lost; if one is saved, we’re all saved, spiritually or otherwise.

For whatever reason, I didn’t read Larry Woiwode until after college, and then I sank into perhaps his best-known work, the lyrical, dense, unforgettably lovely novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, a family saga about four farm generations of North Dakotans. After that I read all his work and settled in waiting for more. He wrote poetry (and was the poet laureate of North Dakota since the beginning of time), short stories, essays off and on the Bible. His work is steeped in his fecund faith in things seen and unseen. Here’s Woiwode sitting in church: “I’m able to see out a rear window to the ascending plain in its conjunction with the sky, blue against green or gold or white, depending on the season, and my inner considerations seem less important than this picture of heaven over earth—a narrow demarcation of the narrow interim in which we carry out our present-day acts.” I ended up having a brief (in the old-fashioned letter-writing kind of way) correspondence with Larry after reading his 2008 memoir, A Step From Death. I loved the book and wrote him so. He responded the way one hopes a beloved writer would, with kindness mainly, and the gracious acknowledgement that we were all in this together. Larry Woiwode died last spring. Although I wish I could fill these notes with endless examples of Woiwode’s lyricism, John Gardner captured the essence of why I return to Woiwode’s work: “plain, grown-up talk about love and death.”

Not a day goes by lately that I don’t read Woiwode, and each day I’m immersed in love and death and the sheer connectivity of our lives. And I think of two friends, Matt Tullis and Philip Gerard, whom we lost last fall. Matt died after complications from surgery. He was 46. He had already beaten back death by the time he sat in my writing class at 20 years old. His wide and open face welcomed all who saw it. Matt was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 15, endured two years of treatment, and lived in remission. He worked as a dogged journalist for years before returning to school and eventually teaching college, first at the birthplace of River Teeth, Ashland University (where he wanted his hands all over River Teeth), and then at Fairfield University in Connecticut where he directed the digital journalism program and co-directed the sports media program. If ever a job needed done, Matt was the guy; it’s what got him going. He would not let up once he was on the scent of a good story. The man believed in the saving power of story. He had a sentence from the opening of Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Lives of the Dead,” tattooed on the inside of an arm: “Stories can save us.” After years in remission, Matt began running and remembering, and then they were all with him—the faces within memories of the people he knew while hospitalized, the caregivers, fellow patients, the ones who didn’t survive. These memories and these people became Matt’s 2017 memoir, Running with Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer.

When Matt came seeking advice about where to get his MFA in creative nonfiction, I told him to head immediately to Philip Gerard’s program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I knew Philip would take to, and take care of, Matt. They shared a love of research and reporting. Philip was a great teacher and a prolific and successful writer of fiction and nonfiction. Matt proved to be as dogged and eager and as teachable as ever. When Philip died at 67 not two months after Matt, I grew dizzy with the ties that bound us all. When Dan Lehman and I started River Teeth in 1999, we wrote first to Philip, asking if he’d honor us by joining our editorial board. Although he’d never heard of us or AU, he did. Years later I joined Goucher College’s low-res MFA in nonfiction faculty where Philip was a legend. Soon I met his wife, Jill. We became fast friends, but that’s not saying nearly enough. I adored them both. You couldn’t help it.

I met Matt in 1997 and Philip two years later. Thankfully, because of River Teeth, Philip brought his nephew, Jason Dutton, into my life. Having learned of Ashland University’s creative writing major for undergraduates through River Teeth, Philip encouraged Jason, a whip-smart kid with burgeoning writing talent, to check out our creative writing program. Philip wanted a good home for Jason. He trusted us with this boy. Not only is Jason Dutton smart and talented, he also has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk on his own. For years Jason went through AU’s undergraduate and graduate writing programs, writing essays about how much he loved watching old movies where dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire moved “with absolute ease and effortless grace.” Jason improved every class of mine he ever took. A day or so after Philip died, Jason learned of serious interest in his own novel and texted me about it, as if, Jason said, “Philip was passing on the torch.” Jason’s novel is “a love story between a math teacher with cerebral palsy and a professional dancer.” Philip would have loved it.

These were extraordinary people. Matt beat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and then he married Alyssa, his high school sweetheart, and then they had two children, Emery and Lily. Philip could do anything. He had a deep fascination with history and wrote about it truly in the historical novel Cape Fear Rising about the 1898 fatal race uprising in Wilmington where white citizens of note murdered Black citizens and banished others. The novel is credited with igniting discussion among the citizens of Wilmington about a dark day in its past. “He was willing to call out, by name, unpunished murderers,” his colleague the writer Clyde Edgerton said of Philip. “It was inspiring.” Philip and Matt inspired; it’s what they did. Matt gave hope. He proved the impossible possible. Matt was not only an inspiration; he existed as proof fucking positive that children and young adults could beat leukemia. Matt reached out, as I knew he would, when a pediatric oncologist diagnosed my youngest granddaughter with Matt’s kind of leukemia four years ago, when she was ten months old. We just celebrated her fifth birthday.

I find myself left with a decision to make. Can I learn to live consciously and openly aware of the endless ways we’re bound one to another, and then act accordingly? Or do I turn away? How can I turn away knowing what I know about life from Matt and Philip—having been blessed to know them in our “narrow demarcation of the narrow interim”? I know I have not done them justice here, but how could I? Because of them I must desire daily to live alert to our state of connectivity and community.

“Most of life seems to me a religious experience,” Woiwode once told a reporter. “I mean, I guess it either is or it isn’t, and for me it is.” I write in honor of Larry Woiwode.

We’d like to dedicate this issue, and every other issue we ever publish, to Matt Tullis and Philip Gerard.

Thanks for reading.

—JM

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