First Contact with a Grand Master

jimgunn.jpg I first knocked on Professor James E. Gunn’s office door in Wescoe Hall when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. I think I was twenty.

Professor Gunn’s door was open. He was at his desk, typing on a Selectric. I had heard its rat-a-tat sound all the way down the corridor. So I hesitated before knocking, because the man was obviously working. But these were his office hours, so . . . I knocked.

He stopped typing and invited me to sit in the chair beside his desk. Then he extracted a manuscript from a pile on the far side of the desktop – the manuscript of a story I had submitted in hopes of being admitted to his advanced fiction writing class – and he proceeded to go through it line by line, paragraph by paragraph, explaining everything that was wrong with it.

As it turned out, there was a lot wrong with it.

I sat there in despair. How could I have submitted something so wretched? How was it that I hadn’t even realized how wretched it was until now? Because now I could see that yup, it really truly was wretched.

Not that Professor Gunn was using words like “wretched.” No, he was patiently explaining where I had failed to clarify my protagonist’s conflict, where I had failed to show rather than tell, where I had failed to respect my reader’s expectations and intelligence. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Every missed opportunity. Every moment where the story should have made a sharp turn, but had blundered into a wall.

I remember thinking that I wished he were using words like “wretched.” I wished he were raising his voice in indignation that I had wasted his time.

After all, James Gunn wasn’t just any university instructor. He was a major science fiction author whose work I had read and admired. He had been publishing great stories and novels for thirty years. He was somebody who knew what he was talking about. For crying out loud, this was the man who had written The Listeners, a novel of scientific determination that’s one of the finest first contact stories ever told. And here I had shown him an utter mess and called it a story.

So all I could think was: Enough, already! Don’t be NICE to me about this! Throw my sorry ass OUT! Let me crawl off under a rock or something! Jeez!

And then, when he had gone through the entire story with me, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, and I saw for the first time everything that was wrong with it . . . Professor Gunn said something like, “I’ll see you in class.”

Here, my usually infallible memory fuzzes. The truth is that I don’t remember just what Professor Gunn said to me when the dissection of my story was complete.

But I do remember the gist of it: He would see me in class.

As I left his office, I looked down at my manuscript and at the notes written on it. Yeah, okay, I could see that, yeah . . . Yeah, I wouldn’t do that again . . . or that . . .

Yeah. The next one would be better.

But I was still astonished that Professor Gunn had admitted me to his class.

And then I realized that the class had already begun.

Behind me, from the open office door, the rat-a-tat sound of the Selectric began anew.

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Yesterday (Wednesday, November 22), Chris McKitterick, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, emailed to tell me some important news: Science Fiction Writers of America President Robin W. Bailey has announced that James Gunn will be named the next Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master of Science Fiction at the 2007 Nebula Awards Banquet.

Professor Gunn is a distinguished author, teacher, and scholar whose contributions to science fiction cannot be overstated. He is also the founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Read more about him here.

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P.S. Those of you who know me will recall that I dropped out of the Science Fiction Writers of America about ten years ago for what I felt (and still feel) were good reasons.

I am now considering rejoining.  (Assuming they’ll have me.)

6 thoughts on “First Contact with a Grand Master

  1. If Robin hadn’t accomplished a single other thing in his multiple terms as president of SFWA (and he’s done a lot) this would be enough.

    This is a fine, fine thing.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story, Brad. I had a very similar experience when I first met Jim.

    Here was one of my heroes, a Great Man, who spent serious effort going through several pieces of crap in order to teach me how to write a proper story – and his genius in story-telling and critical analysis shone like a light in dark places, revealing all.

    I took it as he meant it, as you describe you did, and tried again with something else; and again Jim found missed opportunities and things to improve. And so on. Every time I hear him critique someone’s story, I learn something new. He is truly a genius, and if I can grow up to be half of the scholar-author-teacher that James Gunn is, I’ll be most pleased.

    Best,
    Chris

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