Brian Doyle

If, in your rare buoyant or less rare unassured moments you fancy yourself a fine writer, you regard other fine writers, especially the ones you know, with a complex gumbo of admiration, envy, respect, jealousy, mystery, yearning, studiousness, fondness, and recognition.

Brian Doyle, who died Saturday from what brain cancer does to the body, would have written the latter part of that sentence more like “with a complex dark astringent wild gumbo of admiration and envy and respect and jealousy and a deep mystery and a human yearning and studiousness and fondness and recognition” because more than anything else he was exuberant with words, a wild and reverent and irreverent and exalted word-drunk scribbler who could deeply move me one moment and piss me off the next. Writers who can do that are the real thing. They write like they mean it. They knock a wobble into our stride, an essential forced veer from the witless path we are on, the one that leads to our fearful and semi-blind and smug and sketchy “grasp” of life.

I knew Brian for more than 20 years. Our friendship most often consisted of brisk emails, his invariably signed “bd.” I paid close attention to his unique university magazine, Portland, and he paid attention to mine. We’d bitch about things, share a discrete derisory chuckle about some new folly of our academic milieu or publishing niche, and on those rarest occasions when we found ourselves in the same city, have lunch. He had an assurance about his judgement that lived on the fringes of arrogance. William Blake was the English language’s greatest visionary poet and that’s all there is to it, Van Morrison had no equal as a singer and songwriter, Robert Louis Stevenson and Plutarch were without peer, the serial comma was essential. He once argued strenuously with the Dalai Lama about which was the greatest sport, basketball or soccer. He never made Van Morrison listenable for me, but to several classrooms of undergraduates I taught his roisterous exemplary essay on Van the Man, published by The American Scholar, one of Brian’s regular launchpads. I thought that sometimes he worked too hard casting himself as another in the ancient line of voluble Irish bards, and I may have been the only person in the room who cringed when he induced a rapt audience at the CASE Editors Forum to sing “Amazing Grace.” Can’t say why, I just did. Then I’d read something new from his pen and think goddam that boy can write, and understand all over again that he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent. Now and then I got a note from him praising something I’d written and I’d think, Well, there’s something.

I think he was a serious Catholic and reverent about many things, but he could be gleefully irreverent and obscene. As I’ve said, he wasn’t much for commas, especially not commas impeding the cascade of adjectives he might fling into a single sentence, and I remember him telling me about going over an edit of one of his essays. The copyeditor, following her stylebook or Strunk & White or whatever her source for grammatical edicts, had doggedly injected commas into Brian’s prose. No no no. He began marking them for excision one by one—stet, stet, stet—countermanding the editor, who perhaps had edited with her brain and memory for rules instead of her ear. After a dozen individual annotations, a dozen stipulations that he did not want a comma there or there or there, he lost his patience and scrawled on the manuscript “STET FUCKING STET!!!” He cackled with joy when he told me this story.

In a 2007 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Brian wrote this:

…At age 50 I conclude that I was born and made for stories; I am a storyman. I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken. Without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die. We are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.

…I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.

I now have, above my work desk, a small slip of paper taped to the cabinet. It reads “RBD/DIN.” Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now. The “do it now” part refers to those creative projects I want to do but keep putting off; I often have trouble starting, trouble with that first step. Brian did not appear to have that problem, editing his magazine, raising three kids, being a good husband, and writing eight or nine books. I doubt Brian expected to be dead at 60. Were I to die tomorrow at age 63, I’d have a much shorter list of accomplishments because, in part, I always think I’ll have time. I don’t feel that way now.

So those of you with creative projects with some vague deadline in the future? Things you want to accomplish for your magazine? Things you want to do with your life? Tomorrow, or today, in the next hour, take a first step. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Just take a step. then take another one tomorrow. Remember Brian Doyle. Do it now.

11 comments

  1. Chris Lazzarino, Kansas Alumni

    Oh, no. This news … knocked the breath out of me.

    Thanks for the tribute to a truly fine writer. Reading Brian’s work was one of the ways I knew I’d stumbled fortuitously when I found our niche in the journalism world. He will be sorely missed.

  2. Denise Horton

    “…he was one of those rarest of scribblers who make writers want to write something new on the chance that they too might create something so resonant and true and emotionally potent.”

    This is the statement that captures Brian Doyle for me. Rather than his writing sending the subtle message: “Hey, dumbass. Why would you ever deign to attempt to write like me? You’re efforts are worthless compared with my greatness!” Instead, when I read Brian’s work I thought, “I have stories to tell. I can tell them in my own way. It’s OK for me to do the best I can and be my own writer.”

    I don’t know how that message came through when I read the stories and essays that appeared in Brian’s magazine or his rants on CUE about the importance of our work, but it’s what stays with me. I never had the opportunity to meet Brian or even hear him speak, but I will miss him.

  3. Catherine Grace

    Thanks, Dale. As another Irishman once wrote,

    Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
    and say my glory was I had such friends.

  4. Jeffrey Lott

    Amen. I called Tom Griffin yesterday, just to talk about Brian. He said he had been humming “Amazing Grace” all day. In the Christian sense, grace is the free and unmerited blessing upon us, bestowed by God. I don’t know whether Brian’s presence in our lives was an act of God (I’m skeptical about God, you know), but it was certainly a free and unmerited favor.
    The last thing I read by Brian was a short piece in the Santa Clara University magazine called “Like the Dew That Blesses the Grass.” It’s an elegy about the Catholic mass, about sacrament and ritual and connection and blessing: One sentence (er, paragraph):

    “Every single time I drink the Mass I am given a new gift, if I have eyes with which to see: the sweet old shoes propped under pews when the kneelers clank down; the shaking hand finding a dollar bill for the basket, an enormous gift from one who has nearly naught; the man in the wheelchair in the corner who sings quietly with the most beautiful velvety baritone I have ever heard; the woman bent so far forward by illness that the priest crouches and bends to look her in the eye as he offers her the host, attentive and kindly soul that he is; the young woman who always comes alone, but in recent weeks wears an engagement ring; the father and son chosen to carry the gifts to the altar, as alike in visage as twins, but one twice as tall as the other; the sheer spilling motley bumbled silly holy humanity of it all, ancient and ever new, theater and ritual, meal and story, some of the Words of the Lord written long before Jesus was born of the teenage girl Miryam, in Judea, in the time of Gaius Octavius, later Augustus Caesar.”

    Life is a series of unbidden encounters, opportunities, beginnings, and ends. Some bring unkindness, malevolence; others bring tenderness, good will, and the blessings of grace. Knowing Brian and reading his work … you know what I mean: Embrace the grace in your life.

  5. Liz Massey

    Hearing Brian Doyle and Jacqui Banasyznski at the CUE conference in 2005 were two of the highlights of my time as a university magazine editor. Brian was earnest without being overbearing or cynical. RIP to an amazing writer and editor.

  6. Dale Keiger

    From Leslie Stainton at the University of Michigan, who couldn’t post this for some reason:

    His opinions may have been more than “assured,” but Brian was also one of the least egotistical writers I’ve ever met—and god knows he had more reason to be egotistical than most. When I mentioned in an interview on this site that he was one of the writers I’d most like to publish in my magazine, Brian promptly got in touch (we didn’t know each other) to thank me for the compliment. We met up last summer at a writers’ conference in Jackson Hole, and I asked if he’d consider writing something for the magazine. He agreed. I told him I could pay $1 word. His reply: “Made me laugh. I am not a buck a word guy—I am a story guy, and whatever you have to pay is plenty.” Alas, the article was not to be. Thank you, Dale, for this spot-on, loving tribute to a once-in-a-lifetime voice and presence. We are richer for him and poorer without …

    Leslie

  7. Renée

    Though shorter than Brian would have wanted, I’d venture to say that his life was exactly the life he aspired to. I imagine too that he knew and cherished that good fortune.

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