I was unprepared. I lived in Thermopolis, Wyoming, a town of 3,000 people, making six dollars an hour at a home for emotionally disturbed boys. One day my dear friend Kevin Canty called me and said, “Come to Montana. Let’s get you into grad school.” So I moved back to Missoula and worked as a security guard, wrote stories and applied, and for the first time in my life found myself in the luxurious position of having choices. I got calls from professors all over the country inviting me into their programs. All of these choices gave me insomnia and an anxiety so great I drove to the ER one night claiming heart attack. That’s when the doctors introduced me to the wonders of sleeping pills, whereby I soon discovered the joys—where once there was anxiety was now, turned by pill, a hard stony sleep. One morning, at a strange early hour, I got a phone call from a man named Barry Hannah. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know his work; I didn’t know anyone’s work. I never read anything new, just spent my hours reading over and over my first loves, Babel, Chekov, Hugo, Hull, Milosz, and Hrabal.
“Hello,” I said dreamy and vulnerable. Trying to imagine what part of the world was a 662 number.
“This is Barry Hannah from the University of Mississippi.”
I tried to wake, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wake up. I didn’t know what to do, so I told the truth. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I have all these people calling me and I’m under the influence of a sleeping pill. I can’t decide where to go. I’ve already said yes to two places, because I don’t want to say no. I don’t want them to change their minds.”
“Well,” he said. “You can’t tell everybody yes. Somebody’s got hear the no.” I liked his calm voice. The accent, smooth and caramel, smoked from the inside out.
“I guess it doesn’t matter where I go,” I said after a pause. “It’ll all come out in the end depending on what I write.”
“Well, Baby, that’s exactly my point.”
People warned me about Barry Hannah, warned me away from too much masculine tutelage, that I may be better off with women writers, but I had already decided that I would go anywhere, be with anybody who called me Baby. So I went to University of Mississippi for one reason, and for one reason only, because a stranger called Barry Hannah called me Baby over the phone.
In Mississippi, the first story I gave to Hannah was a complicated love story between two men, one old and one underage, one from England and one from Turkey, fighting and having sex in an African hotel room. Not a particular African country, just some place on the continent because I didn’t know the first thing about Africa. Hannah started the workshop by saying, “This is a fucking waste of my time. I don’t want to read this. Nobody does. I want to see Anna Baker in a story.” Anna Baker? I thought. Who’s that? And though I was crushed to the core of my being, later that week I went to the bar with Barry and others, and sat on Barry’s lap in a photo booth as we made faces into the camera like old friends at a county fair.
The following year, Barry was gone to Texas. By the time he came back I was suffering hard, but I couldn’t tell anybody, because word around the MFA department was that “suffering for art was cliché.” I’d heard two perfectly slick writing professors say these words over and over again:“You don’t have to suffer to write.” And it was true they cranked out their fine works, got to the gym, ate well, had babies, never drank too much, and never said the wrong things. It was starting to look like learning to write was all about potlucks and pleasantries. But no matter how hard I wished to be breezy and charming, writing was hard for me and caused much pain. I was rarely in the mood for small talk and didn’t understand teaching at all—standing in front of a poetry or fiction workshop acting like I was the expert, while the night before I’d resorted to praying: God, great universe… give me words, teach me about people, what the hell is going on here? I spent much time writing stories to please the slick, thus learned very little in graduate school, except, that I would never be able to please anybody by trying too much.
At the start of my third year, I finally broke down. I called Barry, like I did often, and told him I was going for a month to clean up and get my mind right. Not too far, just down a county road to a facility called Mississippi Mental Health.
“Have you already made the plans?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m actually going in a few hours. Somebody is coming to pick me up.”
“Well next time,” he said, “You come to my house instead. I have all the medications. I’ll detox you myself. Next time, you spend the month at my house.”
“Gosh, I wish I’d called you sooner. Would have saved me nine-hundred bucks.”
“Next time,” he said. “Call me first.”
During that month surrounded by gangsters and crack whores from Memphis, good old boys from the hill country, and ragged people who I fantasized would one day be my readers, I received many beautiful letters from Barry Hannah—as I write this essay, I can’t quote those letters; I have them stored with everything I hold dear in my father’s barn. Barry’s letters are settled among love letters between my relatives I never met during the dust bowl. Those relatives from Broken Bow, Nebraska saying things like, “What do they expect us to do? Live on love and wind?” I live three states away from those letters—but I do remember Barry’s were chatty and full of hope and good cheer and always ended, Love Barry. From the types I’d been trying to please for the last two years, I heard not a word.
When I got out and back into the workshops I wasn’t writing well. In Barry’s class, it was an embarrassment, stories about Napa Valley cowboys, stories about divorce, thoughI was unfamiliar with marriage, engagement, or any type of long term commitments—when I went to Barry’s office for help, he’d just lay my stories down and say, “We’re not going to worry about this right now.” I was always glad, because he was a great storyteller, and all I wanted to do was talk history anyway. And that’s what we did. The horrors of WWII, the Poles and the Turks—story time. First Barry. Then Anna. “It’s a hell of a lot of things people have lived through,” he’d say. I know. I know, I’d say. Both of us shaking our heads, trying to get our minds around this chain of events called human history.
That was about it, talks about history until spring. Then in spring, Barry kept asking me to apply to Sewanee writer’s conference. “Did you do it yet?” he’d ask in the hallway. No. A few days later, “You need to send in that application, you’re already a week late.” Okay. The following week, “Anna I sent a letter recommending you for the Tennessee Williams Fellowship. They’ve got it, but not your application.” Finally, I sent it in, and got the fellowship. Both of us were going to be Sewanee. It occurred to me he’d chosen me out of all the other students, and I was so grateful and surprised.
I told anybody who would listen that this was the best time I had ever had, and I wasn’t lying. All was perfect except for the few bumps, like when my stories were workshopped. One story was a very complicated love story between a Romanian whore, Pinka, and poet from the big city who was visiting Pinka’s village for the summer. Pinka and the poet engaged in sadomasochistic sex acts, went to sheep milking festivals and danced in public at village dances where the village people warned the poet that Pinka had diseases of the vagina. The poet told the villagers to shove it up their asses, then took Pinka home and tied her to the bed. He teased her with food, which was mean because she was obese, and he only untied her if she had to piss, and even then he made her pee near the pigpen.
I knew people were schmoozing everywhere at Sewanee and meeting agents, but I couldn’t do it, because I knew my work wasn’t good enough yet. I had no interest in pushing myself through the door before my time. But I did love that story and had a secret fantasy that someone would run after me, call me a genius, and offer to publish it in The New Yorker.
Needless to say, the workshop leader said that people were too smart these days to be dazzled by villages in Transylvania. Of course they were, I thought. How could I not know that? Then I was holding back the tears; I knew enough that crying was a major no-no, but it was tough. When I walked out of the workshop, Barry was waiting for me outside the door, and he said, “What are you going to do, get over it, or die?”
“I guess I get over it,” I said.
“I think so,” he said. He was my friend. I’d done everything wrong in the past three years, and still, he was my friend, and that made all the difference. He believed that one of these days I was going to develop the balls to put in the hard hours without guarantee of like or love. He read all my work including the fifty pages of unrevised dribble I’d written on a two day spree—stories about suicides in Berlin, people jumping from windows, landing and cracking like plates, woman sleeping with village idiots, not knowing they were idiots, then finding out too late, after the damage was done. Long paragraphs about accordions. Long paragraphs about lesbian nuns in the middle ages meeting under the cities to have sex. All of it Barry called a waste of his time and painful for the eyes. But that didn’t mean he stopped reading.
All over the place I saw Barry at Sewanee, walking his dog, smoking a cigarette, eating a meal, sitting at a lecture. It was a comfort Barry was in the world. When we got back to Oxford, he was around there too, sitting on the porch of Square Books, whizzing by on his motorcycle, walking past the fountain on campus. And all that time, those few years I knew him, he was dying. Then recovering, then dying again, then Barry saw Jesus in his hospital room, and shared with his students the compassion and visions. It is humbling to think that all of us around at that time were taking his last hours with our little stories…and that he gave without a word, never resentful. He was giving everything away, including his things, a pair of binoculars, some signed books, and for me a painted egg given to him by Joy Williams.
But now, it is now, and Barry Hannah is gone. Just gone. And his death has brought much sorrow. Since then, I’ve taken the path Barry took by quitting the stupid boozing. And like Barry I have my own students. And like Barry I try to approach this world with a sense of wonder and conduct myself with a spirit of generosity, throwing my hours around asking for nothing in return. A Slave to my gut. Slave to the uncensored mind. I love the edges and the flaws more than the slick and well-trained. Barry always said that it was flaws that made good writing. “It’s your flaws that are going to save you.” Then he quoted Keith Richards, saying something like, “If I’d been a better guitar player, I wouldn’t have been so good.”
This fall I was in Oxford. I went to visit Barry, fresh in the ground. Strangely there was a bench placed right on top of him. I felt like the narrator in the poem, “An Elegy for Jane,” without a right to love him so much, not wife or colleague or daughter, not a pal or fellow gun shooter. He never took me to the dog races, never invited me home for a football game, but it was there--as I sat near the young weeping tree planted near his grave--that lucky feeling to know somebody like him, real love for what molds in the ground and cannot love you back. Our stories about the dark ages, of sinking so low having to be held behind lock and key— a woman called Anna Baker and a man called Barry Hannah. Barry who spoke to my future, saying, “Me first. You come later. Now go find somebody young, tell her the stories about love among strangers. Ask for nothing. Give everything. Write your books. Die loved.”
Anna Baker lives in St. Helena, CA. She was a John Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in various literary journals such as Crazyhorse and Pleiades. Last year she was an instructor at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, New Mexico. Currently, she is working on a cattle ranch and still writing.