by Laura Benedict
I’m a writer married to a writer. And, yes, it’s often just as complicated and crazy and dramatic as it sounds. But let’s get this part out of the way right up front: I was my husband Pinckney’s writing student when we met. Go ahead. Giggle a bit and raise your eyebrows knowingly. It’s okay, I’m used to it. I’m not even embarrassed.
We may have begun as a cliché, but not the worst kind of cliché. Pinckney was no hard-drinking womanizer who lured me into his writing den with the promise of a peek at his latest first draft. I was a grownup, and we both came to the relationship as (mostly) rational adults. No marriage vows were broken and no children were abandoned. Now we are both writers and our marriage of 24 years transcends our jobs. We’re appallingly bourgeois. Some might even say smug. But that’s our privilege because we’ve endured. We’ve become veteran spectators in the game, and when we see the jockeying of the hungry, the ambitious, the desperate-for-attention at conferences and workshops, we laugh a little, wondering how it will all come out. (Hint: it rarely ends well.)
It’s funny how any amount of publishing fame—particularly among aspiring writers–can make a person lose all sense of reason. Chapbook poets, sports writers, essayists, mystery writers with a single published book or even just a contract are all fair game. They have that glimmer of stardust that attracts admirers as surely and easily as Mick Jagger or Channing Tatum looking for a one-night stand.
Did I lose all reason when I met Pinckney? Pretty much. But to be perfectly honest, I had no idea who he was or what publishing experience he had. Back then, the Internet was still a closely-held secret between the military, Bill Gates and Al Gore. To me, Pinckney Benedict was just a picture of a guy holding a book on the front fold of a photocopied brochure (black ink on bright green paper!) for the Appalachian Writers Workshop. When it arrived in the mail I remember thinking, “He looks nice. Wonder who he is.”
Here’s our story:
Laura: Our meeting was damned unlikely. We found each other at Hindman Settlement School at the forks of the Troublesome Creek in Hindman, Kentucky, during the Appalachian Writers Workshop in the summer of 1989.
Pinckney: When I arrIved at Hindman and walked into the refectory at the school where the conference was being held, I looked around appraisingly, as one does at such times. Lots of unremarkable, friendly-looking folks chatting away with one another. And then: this slim blond girl with her back to me. She wore her hair in such a way that you could see the back of her neck. Looking at that neck, which was long and slender and pale as milk, I thought to myself: If I do nothing else this week, I will get to know her.
Laura: The workshop appealed to me for a couple of different reasons—and neither of them was to ferret out a husband. Actually, I’d just gotten rid of a husband, and seriously needed a (cheap) vacation. I’d been writing short stories for a little over a year, having taken a few night classes at my alma mater in St. Louis. The workshop was only $250 or so, and the campus where it was held was within driving distance. Did I mention it was cheap?
Pinckney: I went to the conference because it was a paycheck in a time when my income was very much catch-as-catch-can. Plus, I was a writer from West Virginia and this thing was called the Appalachian Writers Workshop, so it seemed like a natural.
Laura: When I arrived, it was a bit of a culture shock. The only time I’d been to camp—and this was definitely set up like sleepaway camp, with bunks and washing-dishes duty, and a schedule of activities—was a Future Business Leaders of America camp when I was 16. (Don’t ask.)
Pinckney: I like my privacy, a lot, and the one thing I remember haggling about when I agreed to be on the faculty at the workshop was that I was to have a room with its own bath. I was pretty surprised, then, to find out that I’d be sharing the living room of a duplex with Richard Jackson, a children’s book publisher and a very nice guy (who was only there for the first couple of days), and that the nearby toilet and shower would be used by pretty much anybody who cared to wander in. The one saving grace: the window above my cot was occupied by an air conditioning unit. It was stinking hot in the holler, and I spent a lot of my time lying on that cot with the AC blowing deliciously cold air over me.
Laura: We all gathered at a kind of opening reception the first day. I remember seeing Pinckney there, and the staff made a bit of a fuss over him—but I don’t think we actually spoke. Mostly, I was curious about James Still, the elderly writer who lived near Hindman and was a beloved patron saint of the workshop. He was 83, and stood off to the side, observing the room. He scared me with his intensity.
Pinckney: James Still struck me as kind of an old angry drunk guy. I met James Dickey once and he gave off pretty much the same vibe: brilliant writer whose best days were long behind him, and that knowledge (and the fact that everybody had to be aware of it) made him a powder keg. But everybody there seemed to adore him, and I knew how good River of Earth was (truly monumental), so what the hell. Maybe I’ll be there myself before too long. I kept seeing Laura mixed in among all the other folks. She stood out as impossibly beautiful among the ordinaries. The nape of the neck, I understood, had been just the beginning. I tried to sidle my way over to her, but she kept slipping away in the crowd. Another man might have taken this elusiveness for a signal. I took it as a challenge.
Laura: The short story workshop was quite large. I didn’t know anyone and I sat in the classroom, scared to death. Pinckney was a confident teacher, even though he was quite young. (1 year, 9 months younger than I am—let’s get that out of the way, too.) As he lectured, I thought he was brilliant. Oh, and that he was pretty cute. He had gorgeous blue eyes.
Pinckney: I realized that first day of classes that I had something like fifteen class hours to fill and nothing much to fill them with. I was not then a practiced lecturer. And the lovely girl I’d so avidly been pursuing was sitting there in the front row! (I had assumed she’d turn out to be a poet.) I opened my mouth, and apparently words about writing came out. Then some guy in the class, apropos of nothing, decided to light me up about my having been trained at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Iowa was at the center, he seemed to think, of everything that was wrong with American lit. I was not convinced that he was entirely wrong. I remember that that little diversion ate up probably forty-five minutes of class time, and I was grateful. Much easier to be shouted at than to be wise.
Laura: There was a real jerk in the class who pissed everyone off and gave Pinckney a hard time. But it gave us something to talk about besides my sad little story when we met for our conference. Our conference was in a dim little room, and I was absurdly excited to have him talk with me about my work. I was so grateful that he had some nice things to say about it—and it felt very important to me that he should like it.
Pinckney: Laura’s story, as I recall, was about a graceless woman who weighed three hundred pounds or something, and on whom no light of joy or pleasure ever seemed to shine. The story was sharply observed and well written, but the subject matter seemed pretty far afield for this hundred-and-ten-pound stunner, and I said so (though not in that phrasing). No doubt some other stuff as well. Mainly what I recall is that at the end of the conference, we hugged, which is not how my other conferences at Hindman wound up. That moment right there made the whole trip worthwhile. I recall that she felt more muscular in the embrace than she looked, and she smelled awesome.
Laura: Outside of class and conferences, Pinckney was a bit of a mystery. People whispered about him. A few people dared to approach him at meals. But no one knew where he was staying. It just made him more interesting to me.
Pinckney: Just lying under the stream of cold air from that AC unit. Trying to ignore the fact that the week was progressing, which meant that Laura, that beautiful creature, would soon go back to her life, and I would go back to mine, such as it was. As lovesick as I have ever been, and my responsibilities as a faculty member be damned.
Laura: When he asked me if I wanted to go for a drive, I wasn’t surprised. It was pretty evident to me that he wanted to get to know me better. If I had been thinking I was more than just casually interested in him, I figured I had a reasonably good shot. The female student body was made up primarily of very nice women over fifty. [Note: Now that I’m over fifty, they don’t seem—in recollection—nearly as old to me, but just other women who were looking to learn. Ah, the shallowness of youth!] My only real competition was some girl who introduced herself to everyone by saying, “Hi, I’m Nikky from Yale.” I wanted to slap her.
Pinckney: Ah, Nikky from Yale. I think she was an ethnography student or some such. Working on some sort of project about Appalachia, I believe. Felt like she wanted to pin me to a specimen display.
Laura: We went on our drive. Did we ever find somewhere to eat? I can’t remember. We stopped at a park planted with dozens of purple-blooming butterfly bushes. I took many, many pictures with a 35 mm camera borrowed from a guy who really wanted to date me. (We didn’t.) None of the pictures had any people in them, so I have no real proof that Pinckney and I were together.
Pinckney: If she’d wanted to take pictures of capering demons, I’d have cheerfully blundered into Hell after her.
Laura: Pinckney and I went by one of the traditional porch-sitting parties for a little while that night, but we didn’t stay. I did, however, find out where he’d been hanging out. It was in his room. Where there was air conditioning.
Pinckney: Finally, the air conditioning paid off! We made out on that little cot underneath the stream of freezing air. It was glorious. No palace has ever seemed grander. At some point, though, a giant dude named Ollie blundered through to take a shower, and we had to stop. Propriety was preserved. We decided, for the sake of dignity and professionalism, to go no further until after the conference was finished.
Laura: [Note: I was definitely going to leave out that whole “making out” detail!] Pinckney left the conference just before the final student readings because he had to get to Oberlin, Ohio where he’d be teaching that fall. He didn’t see or hear me read, but not long after the wonderful Mike Mullins (director of the program) learned we were dating, he sent Pinckney a video of the reading. I was way too embarrassed to watch it. I was glad Pinckney hadn’t been there. No one needed to see that.
Pinckney: I watched that tape, or at least Laura’s little section of it, until I about wore it out. I bet no reading in the history of the Appalachian Writers Workshop has ever been so thoroughly and carefully scrutinized. And when she called me, a few days after the end of the conference, I gleefully jumped into my car and made the five-hundred-some mile trek to St. Louis in record time.
Laura: After I got back to St. Louis, we kept in touch. Close touch. And seven months later, while attending the wedding of Pinckney’s close friends, Fred Leebron and Kathryn Rhett, we decided that we should be married, too. But that’s a whole other story.
Pinckney Benedict grew up in rural West Virginia. He has published a novel and three collections of short fiction, the most recent of which is Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Benedict serves as a professor in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, NC.