Making Vern Smile

By Jon Franklin

copyright 1997 by Jon Franklin

A shorter version of this story originally ran in Readers Digest



To understand why G. Vern Blasdell was an editorial deity you must first consider how difficult it is for a young writer to connect with the world of publishing.  InEnid,Oklahoma, I could find examples of doctors, lawyers, electricians, grocers, carpenters, cabinet makers and morticians, but writers?  Writers were mythical creatures.  No one actually knew one personally — or could imagine how, if one existed, he made a living.

So my ambition was poisoned by a certain dreaminess. Parents and teachers tried to be encouraging, but there was something false about it.  If you’re smart enough to be a writer you’re smart enough to know when you’re being patronized.  They figured I was going through a phase of some sort, and would outgrow it.  The steady flow of rejection slips fromNew Yorkdidn’t add to my confidence either.  I was plagued by doubts. It was all so woolly and intangible. Did I have a gift, or a delusion?  At the library I plumbed the biographies of great writers of the past.  How had they done it? The answer was almost always that they found an editor.  You knew you were serious when a serious editor took you seriously.

And so began what I now know is an odyssey common to young writers like myself, who search the world in the sometimes forlorn hope that somewhere, out there in the big and bewildering world, an editor is waiting for them. Some years passed.  I became a Navy journalist, knocked around the Far East, always looking.  Then I received orders to All Hands magazine, inWashington,D.C.  And there, at long last, I met Vern.

The offices of All Hands were on the main floor of the Navy Annex, where a wall of windows looked out over the Pentagon, thePotomac River and the marble city that in those days was the center of the political and military universe. Vern sat at a desk with his back to this view, his eyes focused on a sheaf of copy books.

I knew he was the one the instant I saw him.  I don’t know why.  The mane of white hair had something to do with it, I suppose, as did the fact that in a necktie, clip-on world he wore the kind of bow tie that you had to knot yourself.  But everything about him exuded urbanity and intellectual savvy. I could tell he was a great editor just by the way he slouched in his wooden swivel chair, staring silently at a piece of copy from beneath heavy-lidded eyes — no doubt comparing the manuscript before him with his vast prior knowledge of both people and literature.  He was an editorial deity; that was the beginning and the end of it, and if just seeing him wasn’t proof enough I’d have known it by the deference accorded him by his other writers. Here, finally, was the man under whom I could serve my apprenticeship.  My commitment was instant and total. I’d have died for him.

There were some things I learned up front.  You didn’t talk about art in front of a serious editor, for example.  To Vern, writing was a craft. It was about knowing exactly what you had to say and being sharp about it, and to the point.  It was about production, not talk, and certainly not excuses. Every morning he expected you to put a short piece in his “in” box — the “8:30 piece,” he called it. If it wasn’t there he stood up and jabbed his finger in the direction of the box and said, “Well, Jon, where is it?”  And then you stammered your excuse while everyone else on the desk tried to look busy and pretended not to notice.

Vern had the most motile face I have ever seen, before or since.  He seemed to be able to control every muscle individually, and whatever expression he chose was accentuated by huge ears, heavy jowls and big, fleshy, purple lips. When the occasion required he could produce a scowl that combined outrage, anger, disgust and disappointment and still include a certain tinge of sadness for the inherent weakness of the human creature.  There was no defense against that scowl; it made you wish you had a tail to put between your legs so you could slink away and hide under some desk.  I would have hated a lesser man for that, but it made me respect Vern all the more. He had the right.  He was that good.  I was fortunate to be in his tutelage.

Among the things he taught me was to always ask the pushy question, to always inquire what was beyond the curtain, to always seek the root truth of whatever it was I was thinking about.  So it may seem odd that not a one of his writers apparently ever asked about Vern himself, or peered into his background, or questioned by what experience or authority he had acquired his godlike status.  It simply never occurred to us. He was what he was, a self-evident truth sitting there behind the “in” basket, keeper of the standards of literature.  Now, thirty years later, as I strain to remember exactly what it was that so awed me, the image that comes to my mind is deceptively simple. I see him reaching for the dictionary.

Like most young writers I had lounged in the illusion that only the ignorant actually had to look things up. Dictionaries were for dire emergencies.  But Vern kept a Webster’s Seventh Collegiate on his desk and a big, library-sized Webster’s on a pedestal nearby, and he consulted them constantly.

I of course got skewered the first time I handed him a piece.  I don’t remember what the story was about, or what the offending word was, but I remember the heavy red pencil with which he circled it.  And I remember to this day not only what he said to me but the precise way that he articulated the individual words, as if each was an arrow being shot at my ego.

“Jon,” he said, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, please do me the courtesy of looking it up.”  It was what I would later come to identify as level two outrage, filtered through an ever-suffering but fatherly patience.  The left center lobe of his lower lip quivered.

Vern’s method was to make me acutely aware of my ignorance, then to forgive me for it in such a way as to not allow me to forgive yourself.  He was especially critical of sloth.  If I wasn’t certain of a word I was expected to look it up — and maybe, come to think of it, I’d better look it up even if I was certain.  Otherwise he might call me over, hand me the dictionary, and let me look it up in front of him while he stared at me.

Vern’s stare was a formidable weapon.  Early in our relationship I remember sitting at my typewriter, slowly becoming aware that I was being stared at.  I looked up and, sure enough, Vern was studying me as if I were a slightly offensive inanimate object — a badly painted chair, perhaps, or a dandelion on an otherwise immaculate lawn.  He gave the impression that he had been staring for some time, but that his curiosity was boundless.  He continued to stare, saying nothing. I fidgeted.  A minute passed, then two.

“Jon,” he finally asked in a soft voice full of what sounded like sincere curiosity, “why, if you don’t know what ‘taffrail’ means, why do you insist on using it?”

To Vern the English language represented a kind of cultural and historical geography, and words were precision navigational instruments.  The writer approached them with caution and humility or, otherwise, was a fool.  One broke rules only if one knew them, and usually not then.  He once told me that to write a sentence with a mismatched noun and verb was the literary equivalent of going onstage with my fly open.  In this way, first in fear and then in fascination, I discovered, as if for the first time, my mother tongue.

It was true, as Vern said, that All Hands magazine was propaganda.  He never minced words about things like that.  But, he’d add, it was the best-written propaganda on earth.  Young writers like myself went on and added the next thought:  If we could satisfy Vern, then we could take what he had taught us to some more honorable venue, and there earn our reputations.

Satisfying Vern, however, was no trivial task.  That was in the early and mid Sixties, as the Vietnam War was beginning, and our relentlessly upbeat stories about Navy life were so absurd that they had to live by sheer force of the language itself. I remember, for example, struggling mightily to do a piece about Christmas inSaigon.  The story had to be trite enough to be cleared by the captain who censored our stuff, convincing enough to be read by a sailor on an aircraft carrier in theSouth China Sea, and bright, tight and urbane enough to meet Vern’s approval.  It was not unusual to spend an entire day writing a single paragraph, only to then throw that paragraph away.

Through these years Vern was the central presence in my life.  As I stared, straining, at my typewriter, he was the one I was trying to find words to please.  Meanwhile I wondered and worried about whatever I’d most recently deposited in his basket.  The hope was it’d make him smile and maybe produce his highest compliment, which was that a piece was “readable.”  The fear was that I had done something stupid.  So I was always watching him out of the corner of my eye, always acutely aware of exactly where he was and what he was doing.

Watching Vern made for a traumatic existence, for his manner was as expressive as his face, and his baseline affect was boredom.  He oozed boredom.  In fact, if he was a father figure to his writers it was also quite clear that on another level he despised his lot in life — that he would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, than to be cursed with the necessity of reading the stuff we put in his basket. This was accentuated by the fact that he had narcolepsy, and would occasionally and without warning fall asleep in the midst of some editorial chore.

When I had slaved over a piece, and had hopes for it, the suspense could be unbearable.  When I put the piece in his box Vern might acknowledge the fact with a wiggle of his eyebrows, but he usually wouldn’t look up from the book he was reading.  Often as not it was some thick volume on ancientGreece, or a footnoted history of amphibious assaults. Later, when he thought I wasn’t watching, he’d look up and stare balefully at the “in” box.

When Vern was trying to avoid reading something he’d often spin his chair around, take his reading glasses off, and stare out across the Pentagon and the capital city.  Then, slowly, he’d turn the chair back around and focus, once more, on the “in” box.  He’d maybe reach his hand out, pick up the piece, and glare at it for a while — not read it, just glare at it. I would watch surreptitiously, holding my breath. But then, like as not, Vern would breathe an audible sigh of hopelessness, toss the piece back in the box, spin the chair around, and study the Pentagon some more.

The narcolepsy accentuated his style.  After fencing for a few minutes or hours with the piece I’d put in his box, he might pick it up and, slumping his body into a dejected but resolute pose, actually begin to read it. He’d look at the first page for maybe three minutes, flip to page two . . . and then, as suddenly as if he’d been shot, his chin would fall down on his chest and he would be sound asleep.

He kept a hard, wooden Navy-issue chair by his desk and when he was finally ready to discuss a piece he’d catch my eye and motion toward at the chair.  I can still remember the unspeakable terror that seized me when that moment came. Vern’s wooden chair was the hardest piece of furniture I have ever sat on.  Then again, maybe that was just the nature of the truths I learned there.

At times I despaired of ever pleasing the man, yet at other times I thought that somehow I might . . . and when I failed, my respect for him was such that the problem was not his but mine. I hated him, as he made me hate myself for my inadequacy, and yet I loved him for the gentleness I could tell was underneath. When I succeeded, the obvious sincerity of his wide grin left no doubt that my aspirations had somehow become mutual.

Yet success was always short-lived, and followed immediately by the need to write something else.  The press, and the audience, were insatiable, and Vern, coach and master, was also judge and executioner.  If I did well he beamed at me and said, loudly enough for all to hear, “Hey, Jon . . . that’s readable.” Otherwise, he’d catch my eye and point to the hard wooden chair.

In the cauldron of my apprenticeship Vern coaxed and scolded, cheered and criticized.  I spent weeks, then months, then years staring at the copy paper in my Underwood.  At some point, I don’t know exactly when, I realized that a piece of writing was more than just words.  It was a performance.  The writer used the words to present ideas that drew the reader in, then introduced rhythms, then theme.  Piano in the foreground, violins behind.  On the basis of words alone a piece of writing might be, say, about refueling at sea . . . and who cared about that?  But the information was just the surface of the thing. Underneath was a psychological symphony, at least if I did it right — a mind-trap that caught the reader by surprise and spun him forward into a world of enlightenment and joy that made him glad he had read.  As this realization came to me, my relationship with Vern became still more complex. When a symphony failed, the failure was not something that could be explained in mere words.

But Vern was uncanny.  I’d sit there, on the hard chair, as he’d read the piece through again.  He’d already read it eighteen times, of course — I knew, because I’d counted.  But he read it again, and as he did I watched his face.  The tension was extreme; sometimes I bit my lip so hard it bled.  He was my audience and that incredible face of his reflected back to me the psychological impact (or lack thereof) of every word, every line.

And then, when he was done, he’d maybe just sit there, flipping through the pages.  Or he’d turn around and stare out the window.  Or he’d go to sleep for a few moments, then wake with a start, and flip through a few more pages.  But always, in the end, he’d do something profound and definitive.  Once, I remember, he spread a problematic manuscript across the desk, scrutinized it, fished a carpenter’s pencil out of his desk drawer and used it to circle a single word.

“Why,” he asked, handing me the page, “did you choose to use that word?”

I stared at the word in shock.  He was right.  It was the wrong word.  And, in its wrongness, it somehow captured the fundamental problem of the piece, a flaw in how I’d looked at it, magnified by the way I’d presented it to the reader.

“Oh,” I said, gathered up my papers, and went back to my desk to start over.

All these years later I don’t remember what the word was, or even what the piece was about, but I remember that when I went back to my typewriter I understood, in full, exactly what I had done wrong and exactly what I had to do now.  He was that good.

I spent five years of my life in the service of Vern — I don’t know quite how else to put it, because he was definitely master and I was definitely slave.  He gave me an ulcer and a profession, and when I was subsequently hired by The Evening Sun inBaltimore the city editor was so impressed with my wordsmithing that he immediately put me on rewrite.  Meanwhile, I began working on books.

But I missed Vern, and kept in touch.  He retired and built a house in theWest Virginiacountryside and I spent weekends helping, just as an excuse to be around him.  And, of course, I took him my writing problems.  Late at night, around the fire, I quizzed him about transitions, foreshadowing, points of insight, structure, the role of personality in shaping events.   Mostly I talked and he listened, but when it was over I usually had the answer I sought.

As the years passed I became a better writer, which is as it should be, but my dependency on Vern didn’t decrease; the questions I brought to him just got more complex.  Sometimes it helped, just being able to articulate them.  Vern would sit there and listen.  In hindsight his ability to help had been decreasing, but I was grateful enough for his presence.

I will never forget the moment it ended.  We were sitting at his kitchen table inWest Virginia.  I had been talking, I think, about the relationship of character to circumstance.  He looked at me for a long time — the stare, from the old days.  And then he spoke, using that very slow, measured manner he favored when saying something important that he wanted to make sure I grasped.

“Jon,” he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t known what you were talking about for years.  I don’t have the faintest notion.”

My face must have been as easy to read as a page of copy.

“This charade has gone far enough,” he said.  “I’m not who you think I am.”

He said he hadn’t known much about writing when he applied for his job at the magazine.  He’d been renovating old houses, tending parking lots, and applying for every government position that came open.  Somehow he got hired by a magazine. He didn’t know why; it was government, and government worked in strange ways.  He needed the money, and took the job.

“Then there I was,” he said, “bossing a bunch of writers who knew a lot more than I did. Young, bright-eyed kids like you.  Me, I had to look up every word, figure out every sentence, read things fifty times.  If they had known, they’d have eaten me alive. What was I supposed to do? So I did the only thing I could.  I created a persona that couldn’t be challenged.

“And then you came along and wanted me to teach you to write.  Me!  So I helped you as much as I could, but mostly the corundum I held you against was yourself.”

Well, I sat there and listened to him but he might as well have been speaking in tongues.  I figured he was really trying to tell me something else.  He was trying to cut the umbilical cord, I figured.  He apparently thought it was time I stood on my own.

We never talked about writing after that, and I missed it. And since I didn’t believe his reason, I resented what I considered his withdrawal.  But when he died a few years later, and I was asked to sort through his files, I found irrefutable proof of his honesty.  It came in the form of manuscripts he’d written — or, more precisely, had attempted to write.  They were amateurish beyond description, so amateurish as to break a writer’s heart.  They left no doubt that he had been telling the truth.

Now if you think that’s the end of the story, so did I. For a while, anyway.  I grieved for the Vern who had died, and for the Vern who never was.  But time passed, and the human mind has resources beyond mere logic.  Knowing is one thing, and believing quite another.  Though we know for a fact that the world is round we live on it as though it were flat, and if we know from Einstein that time is relative we also understand from other sources that we will not pass this way again.

Vern taught me the things I needed to know.  He taught me that the world was a much more complicated, intricate and surprising place than I had ever dreamed, and that if I kept my eyes open and my mind receptive I would never run out of material.  He taught me that the English language was a precision instrument, sharpened by history and usage, and that while I might fail it, it would never fail me.  And most of all he taught me that there was no magic in any of this, just human labor, honesty, courage, and faith: I could do it.  If he did not himself fully understand those things, the fact was irrelevant.

I burned the manuscripts, of course — in my mind, that’s what he would have preferred — and the illusion he created sustains me still.  Occasionally, some twenty years later, I notice in passing that I am speaking to a student in Vern’s cadence, using the same slow, crisp, measured words with which he once instructed me. When I sit down to write I can still feel the heat of his eyes on me.  If I don’t know a word, I dare not proceed without looking it up. Words, sentences, paragraphs; character, complication, point of insight. Maybe he didn’t know how to do it, but I do, and if I do it wrong I’ll get the scowl.  If I do it all perfectly, and it comes together in the end, it’ll make him smile.

That, finally, is what makes writing real, makes it serious.  Making Vern smile — Vern, or the audience.  In my mind, the two are indistinguishable.  He was the greatest editor I ever met, and it was a pity he didn’t know it.




Thanks in no small part to Vern’s tutelage, Jon Franklinwent on to a career with The Baltimore Sun and then as a writing teacher.  He has won two Pulitzer Prizes and written five books, four of which are available on *bylines*.  He is presently director of the Creative Writing Program at theUniversity ofOregon.