Last Saturday, the Scottish novelist, William McIlvanney, passed away.
22 years ago, at Aberdeen University, he was the first, and the only, creative writing teacher I ever had.
For six weeks in the spring of 1993, 15 of us would gather in a room, for two hours, twice a week, on the Monday and Thursday, and you’d never know what to expect in that room next.
I don’t think we were really conscious of him teaching us, he sort of let us get on with things, didn’t tell us, above all, what to think. He did tell us that we should consider our group a “subversive unit within the English department”.
One day he told us that every one of us had something inside us, in our past, something terrible that had happened, which perhaps we had never told anyone about, or ever written about.
When he checked with us that we did indeed have something like this, only one guy in the room put up his hand to say no, he had nothing of that kind in his past, or his self.
Then Mr McIlvanney (who insisted we call him Willie, or Wullie) asked us to write something about this thing hidden within us, and to hand it in the following week.
I knew the moment he said this in the room that I would be writing about my brother, who had drowned when he was eight, and about what happened to myself, and my family, after my brother’s death.
A fortnight later, I found myself sitting alone in a room with Mr McIlvanney.
Between us on the table were the sheets of paper on which I had written, in poem form, about my brother.
“Did this really happen?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He held his temples between his fingers and looked down at the pages of paper, for several seconds. Finally, he breathed in, and sighed out air.
“You’ll write about this again,” he said.
His voice was so low it really was uncannily like being spoken to by a lion.
He was right. Six years later, the subject matter of that poem formed the heart of what became my first novel.
On another day, he asked us all to write a short story.
I had been writing for four years but I only wrote poems. I didn’t know how to write a short story. I had been president of the university’s creative writing society for two years but I had never written a short story. I didn’t know how to do it. I really didn’t want to even try to do it. I thought something important inside me might subtly change if I did try to do it.
But now I had to do it. He’d told us to do it. And I found I greatly enjoyed it. After writing that story, I never wrote another poem, but wrote only short stories for the next six years, until I started to write novels.
Isn’t that almost an incalculable level of influence for one human being to have on the future activities and behaviour of another human being?
He could see I was very thin and that my clothes were falling apart a bit. He took me into a café and told me to order anything at all that I wanted to eat, that it was on him, not to worry.
He could see I was very tense, so as he talked to me he put his hand on my shoulder and kept it there a long time.
He could tell I lacked confidence, so he told me that it was impossible to ever know, at the time, what seeds were perhaps being planted that might later flourish. He mentioned as an example of this the Glaswegian working-class novelist, Jeff Torrington, whose novel, Swing Hammer Swing, had taken 30 years to write, with Torrington being 57 before the novel was published and became Whitbread Book of the Year in 1992.
I asked him if he was working on anything new, and he told me that he was working on four things, at home, and that he didn’t yet know which of these would “take him away with it” and become the next book…and that seemed strange to me, that it would not be him deciding which thing would become the next book, but some deeper internal part of himself that, of its own volition almost, would be making the decision…something mysterious, beyond talking about or answering about…
The conversations with him ended, the classes ended, the course ended.
Or I had thought it had ended, back then, 22 years ago, until last Saturday, when I heard the news that Mr McIlvanney had passed away, and I then began to remember everything he had ever said to me, every seed that had really been planted, and now I am not sure that I have not been following the course of that deep influence ever since.