“You’re One Hell of a Storyteller”

In loving memory of Tim McLaurin*

Tim McLaurin–an eccentric ex-Marine, ex-Peace Corps volunteer, former snake-handling carnival freak novelist–died in 2002.

I cried when I heard the news. It was the first time I lost a mentor. I cried over that loss but I cried harder because I never told him about the day he gave me hope as a writer. This is the story of how he changed my life and convinced me to keep clacking away. Thank you Tim.

In the fall of 1993, as a 17-year-old Senior at WG Enloe High School in Raleigh, NC, I received permission to take a writing class at North Carolina State University.

The excitement I felt was a lovely precursor to the sheer terror I encountered the first day of class. Here was a room full of adults… and I mean “real adults”, people in their twenties and so who were in their thirties… if not OLDER!!

Then there was me, a 17-year-old with the zits and the palpable discomfort of adolescence to prove it.

The teacher… Tim McLaurin. Tim brought a couple of snakes to class once–a king snake and a rattlesnake–and I remember one classmate conceding his intense phobia of snakes was getting the better of him so he jumped out of the (second story) window and took the rest of the afternoon off (i.e. he was fine). This seemed excessive as he was sitting nearer to the door than the window. Writers!

One of Tim’s old carnie tricks was to extract venom from the rattler with a wine glass. If you ever get a chance to see this, take it. A snake with its fangs hanging over the fragile lip of a wineglass, a slow dribble of liquid pooling in the base. Tim’s deft hand holding the snake tight, his thumb pressed firmly into the back of the snake’s head. Tim completed the spectacle by opening a can of Schiltz Malt Liquor, pouring it over the venom, and drinking it all down.

I was way out of my comfort zone.

The class was structured such that each student wrote and shared two stories. Each week we read two stories, each from a different student, and gave feedback. My first story was not memorable. I say this with utmost sincerity because I cannot recall it… and if the author can’t remember then the chances of anyone else remembering are slim to none. My second story was about a knight traveling to the northern wasteland to kill a barbarian king. You see, the king “had his way” with a maiden during a raid many years back and her son, the knight, was now riding to kill his father.

During the feedback, one of the students asked, “Is this from Dungeons & Dragons? It sounds like it’s from Dragonlance.”

I cleared my throat and muttered, “It is.”

A few students chuckled. I felt like jumping out that very same window.

Tim, who always went last, said:

“Sure, there are some stylistic and mechanical issues here. Sure, the content may seem juvenile to some of you. But let me tell you this Steven: you’re one hell of a storyteller and no one can teach you that.”

I nodded slightly and continued staring my notebook. I slowly picked up my pen and started writing “YES! YES! YES! YES!” in the margin.

I still get a shiver when I remember that day and I carry Tim’s validation with me always. Tim, I never got to say this while you were alive but here it is:

Thank you. Thank you so, so much. There are days when those words are the ones keeping me at the keyboard.

I promise to pay you back by giving that unconquerable sense of worth and value to people in my life.

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