In loving memory of Tim McLaurin*

Snake Got Your Tongue?

I sometimes worry that I spend too much time emailing with my friends when I “should be” doing “real” writing. Yet, just as it was in the lost days of letter correspondence, it is in the process of writing a loved one that I mine deeper into myself and find stories to share with a wider audience. Sharing, after all, is my purpose in this grand exercise called life.

*Tim died in 2002 and I cried when I heard the news. It was the first time I lost someone whom I considered a mentor though I never told him in person that he mentored me. This is the story of how that happened.

In the fall of 1993, I received permission to take a writing class at North Carolina State University. I’d taken ever available writing class at WG Enloe High School (um… go Eagles!) so, while many of my fellow seniors were taking physics and calculus and such at NC State, I got the green light to go and write. 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 thirties! Grad students! Adults in the continuing ed program! Then there was me, a 17-year-old with the zits to prove it.

The teacher was an eccentric ex-Marine, ex-Peace Corps volunteer, former snake-handling carnival freak novelist name 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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