Hollins Changed My Life
Patrick Smithwick, Hollins M.A. Class of 1975
I loved my year at Hollins. It changed my life. What a glorious time—I wrote every single day, starting in the early morning, arising at 5:30 as I had most of my life while riding horses at the racetrack. I lived in a refurbished garage with the antiquated aluminum sliding garage door still in the ceiling covered by a thin layer of wallboard; it would bang and clang in the slightest breeze. Around 8:30, I’d hop on my ten-speed, Esmerelda, bicycle fast the mile or two to the campus where I got a wonderful deal on breakfasts. In fact, I befriended a cafeteria worker by the name of Poopsy—and he let me have breakfast, most mornings, “on him.” Back up the hill to my garret, I’d write until lunch. Then, classes.
I loved taking all the undergraduate courses. Unlike my fellow graduate students, I dove into the all-Hollins-women classes, and greatly profited. Most favorite: Richard Dillard’s course in American literature, Sister Bridget Puzon’s seminar in British literature, Frank O’Brien’s course in Irish literature. Plus, once or twice a week writer-in-residence Cronin Minton led a lively graduate creative writing class in the evening where we could test out our stories and chapters. I also took an evening course in film with Richard. It was strong on Orson Welles: Citizen Kane, The Third Man. We even had westerns: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. And there was the chicken motif! I followed that up with his highly entertaining course on the horror film. These were incredible eye-opening classes. After the movie, I’d rush back to my garret, pull up to my old Royal manual and write a review as if it were going to be in The New York Times the next morning. This course instilled in me a love and respect for American movies (and for the work of Orson Welles) which I have retained all my life.
As a youth, my upbringing had been on the racetrack. My father A. P. “Paddy” Smithwick was a legendary, charismatic, and much-loved steeplechase jockey. I had followed in that path, having some success, and then at Johns Hopkins had decided to leave horses and to write. On graduation from Hopkins, I went into newspaper work, and became a writer/editor/photographer. This was the best training of my life in how to get the words on paper, and how to make a deadline. I went straight from the hard-driving, hard-drinking, living-on-the-edge lifestyle of the racetrack, to the fast paced, deadline-driven, and adrenalin-rush lifestyle of the newspaper business. Then—to the literary sanctuary of Hollins where in January of 1975 I saw a young woman on the steps outside the cafeteria, Ansley Dickinson. It was love at first sight. We had coffee together; she moved in that night, and we’ve been together ever since—married with three children.
In the late afternoons, before dinner, I ran a five-mile cross-country route around the campus, always going into the paddocks up by the riding department, patting a horse or two, and jumping back out. Or, I picked up a game of tennis with fellow grad student Mike McColl. Also—two afternoons I worked in the writing center for the executive secretaryof the English and Creative Writing Departments—a wonderful woman who was incredibly patient with my lack of collating, Xeroxing, and organizing stacks of papers skills. But I could type—really fast on a manual typewriter—due to my years in the newspaper office, and it wasn’t long before my main job was typing up many an interesting essay, short story, test or exam for professors.
I am extremely grateful for the scholarship, and for the monthly stipend, given me by Hollins, which enabled me to attend. My possessions at the time—the good old days—a Royal manual typewriter I loved, a pair of riding boots I loved, a bicycle I loved, a tennis racket, and too many books to fit on the shelves that kept falling down in my garage-garret onto the mattress on the floor, and my father’s old briefcase stuffed with legal pads awaiting my pen and many short story drafts in progress. I was delighted to have no car and was operating on Thoreauian principles.
I had come to Hollins with a few short stories published in horse magazines, and I had had hundreds of articles published in newspapers. Then, at Hollins, my classmates and I were delighted when a short story – The Old Horseman – about an African-American horseman I’d grown up with and was like an uncle to me, was published in a small literary magazine. We threw quite a party. The next morning I did not arise at 5:30 to write. Furthermore—can you believe this—a year later I had to buy back the rights, and the proofs of the story, when the magazine folded. No problem. I was resilient. That’s a quality needed in a young writer. A middle-aged writer. Any writer. I revised it and happily published it again, this time in a major horse magazine that I knew was not going to fold, and that even paid me. I was working on other short stories. Richard and Cronin urged me to start a novel, and I did. I wrote the main part of the novel at Hollins; it was never published but I learned a great deal writing it, and sections of it reappear as nonfiction in my first memoir Racing My Father.
For the next ten or fifteen years, I had a vast array of jobs: steeplechase jockey, exercise rider galloping horses at East Coast racetracks, back to the newspaper business, once on a daily, another time on a strong weekly, bartender—my biggest failure, with the exception of being turned down for the position as clerk at a motel in Orlando where the longest stay of any visitors was three hours, and there was the time I was attempting to be an afternoon mower of lawns and caretaker of gardens, and I was quickly released from all duties for pulling out flowers instead of weeds, and now that I’m on this topic, lastly, I was fired from a prominent journal for refusing to divulge the names of the many members of Alcoholic Anonymous I had interviewed for an in-depth article on AA). Chesapeake Bay waterman—I had had the best best job as a feature writer on a newspaper, and immediately after Ansley and I were married in 1976, I left the paper, went to work on the Chesapeake Bay as a dredgehand on the Bay’s skipjack fleet, the only working sailing fleet in North America. That was the winter the Bay froze, skipjacks sank, watermen drowned, and we had very little money coming in for three months.
I published pieces about all these adventures in magazines and newspapers. I was also sending short stories to the legendary Rust Hills at Esquire (he was the godfather of a trainer I rode for); Alice Turner at Playboy (she liked my stories but they just didn’t quite make it); and Harold Gottlieb at The New Yorker (he wrote me back notes typed with a manual typewriter on very small New Yorker stationery) and receiving encouraging letters.
In the ’80’s I began doing long investigative pieces, including profiles, and I became the senior writer at a magazine. Walter Lord—the author of A Night to Remember, about the Titanic, and many other books—was reading the pieces. One day he gave me a call—asked if I’d be interested in writing the history of Gilman School, in Baltimore, which I had attended. I answered yes. This led to devoting five years of my life to this history, and to becoming the Director of Publications (and teacher of one English class) at Gilman. Finally, I had a good steady salary. And, simultaneously, I was paid well for writing the book. That book led to another history book on a major hospital, the payment for which freed me from the daily office work at Gilman. Mornings, I began working on my first memoir, Racing My Father. Afternoons, I worked on what became The Art of Healing. I also went back to riding again, picked up some cash galloping racehorses, and this riding for a living gradually developed into returning, at the age of fifty, to being a steeplechase jockey, which became the basis of my second memoir, Flying Change.
The original Racing My Father was still called Doing Light—the name I’d given my novel at Hollins, and which I distinctly remember fellow grad student Garrett Epps saying I should definitely keep. This, Doing Light, got too big! I split it in half. First part, Racing My Father was published in 2006, was a finalist for the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. The second half—revised, edited and fully developed—came out in 2012. It is named after Hollins graduate and writer Henry Taylor’s poem: “Flying Changes.” That’s Henry Taylor, winner of the Pulitzer. I had fun communicating with him about the book, and I used his poem as the epigraph of a chapter. My book was called Flying Change and it won the Dr. Tony Ryan in 2013. So, now I’m on a roll. What to do next.
I had a terrible year in 2014 when my best friend Tom Voss suddenly died, and two other great friends suddenly died. I gave the eulogy at each of their funerals. Soon, I was writing a big memoir on my intense life-long friendship with Tom Voss, and the other two men. This came out in August of 2019, and I’m very pleased with its positive reception from critics and readers.
Hollins gave me that breather: If you are on a good horse in a race, and you’re getting ready to ask him to make his move; you’re three-eighths of a mile from the wire—you give him a breather for a few strides; you let him expand his chest, catch his breath, and then you and he reach down deep and go all out for the finish as if your life depends on it. Hollins gave me this moment. It was a wonderfully romantic time unlike any I’ve ever had—after I fell in love with Ansley and she moved in the next day before we even knew each other. My classmates and I were going to parties with Annie Dillard there—she loved to dance, she was amazingly modest, and she thrived on interesting conversations. I was in the cafeteria one morning when she entered, threw up her hands and announced, “I just won the Pulitizer Prize.” These were heady times; I’d read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over the summer and it stoked my interest in the memoir.
Every day when you walked through the quadrangle, through the columns and into Bradley Hall, you passed Richard’s office on the left. He’d be in there talking to a grad or undergraduate; he’d look up, smile, wave at you, make a witty remark, go back to his work. We were on his team. His office: it was like no other: opened books on tables, papers to read strewn over his desk, all sort of odd artifacts, including anything to do with chickens, on the shelves. He might step out, ask how it was going. His class would be coming up—one of the favorites of all students, his jampacked class on American literature, and you’d think, how can he just get up and go directly into that class that was so big it had to be held in an auditorium? You’d walk up to the auditorium. Forty, fifty of us there? Everyone excitedly talking, waiting, the suspense building: a minute late, he’s three minutes late, we’re settling down, four minutes late, and then like the phantom of the opera—a positive, upbeat, laughing, phantom of the opera—into the room he’d stride, up to the podium, and you’d be in the best class on Huckleberry Finn taught since Twain first had it published. Richard was a dynamo; he was the engine of the English and Creative Writing Departments and his energy knew no bounds. Who is writing his biography?
Back to the breather: love, romance, literature, writing. It opened me up. I had been mainly focused on writing in one certain style. Through Richard and Sister Bridget and Frank O’Brien and Cronin Minton and my fellow graduate students I was inspired to appreciate an entire multitude of styles, and to experiment in using them. Literature was a passion for our mentors, our professors, and ourselves. Trying to create it—to write the good stuff, books and poems and short stories that would last—this was a worthy profession, and this is what Hollins inspired me to do.
I drew directly from many works of literature in the writing of Racing Time. While writing the early drafts, I was chair of the English Department at a middle school, and I was also teaching medieval history. I believe teaching to be the most important of professions, and I’ve loved it. I had extremely lively classes. I inhaled my student’s energy. We were reading great works, especially poems, and these, plus the works I’d taught before to older and even adult students, all found their way into Racing Time, the most important connections and allusions being made to the works of Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Frost, Camus, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, Melville, Emily Dickinson. Faulkner’s novels dealing with his Yoknapatawpha County saga have inspired my trilogy, as well as the trilogies of Peter Matthiessen, Cormac McCarthy and Siegfried Sassoon, and The Alexandria Quartet by Durrell.
I have been very pleased by critics and readers pointing out, “Unambiguously the primary topic of this book – and this from a confidently heterosexual man – is not horses but rather male love. . . . His book arrives just as western culture is preoccupying itself with the quest to redefine masculinities, in all their plurality. Racing Time is about male bonding – between friend and friend, between family members, between colours, between classes, between father and son, mentor and pupil. It goes beyond naming these bonds: it enters into the heart of them. To be fair, Smithwick also explores the love of man and wife, man and mother, man and daughter. He is full of love. “
Yet, when writing this book, I didn’t set out to write about “male love” in any sort of abstract way although I did realize that this topic of male friendship is not addressed in our culture or literature today. I set out to write very specifically, intensely, emotionally, truthfully—trying to dig to the very heart of it—about my lifelong friendship and love for one man, Tom Voss, and I wanted to make our relationship come alive on the page, as well as my relationship with Dickie Small, and Speedy Kiniel, and then: I had to hit the big topic, that major one as Hemingway often noted—death. Their deaths, my grief, how I deal with their deaths. And now that the book is written, I do hope it inspires readers to appreciate their friends, to develop their friendships, to dig deep and make the most of their time with friends, and I especially hope it inspires men to deepen their relationships with one another.
Racing Time was difficult to write. It was very emotional to write. Much of it comes from journals I was keeping while going through this torturous time. The core of it evolved from the three eulogies, from an biographical article published in a magazine, from an article I’d intended years earlier to publish as a New Yorker first person piece, and from 100 pages of letters I wrote to Tom Voss, after he’d died, because I had to write them; I had no idea how I would ever use them, but I was driven, I was on fire to get these thoughts down, to communicate to him through these letters. I’d thought of writing an “epistolary” memoir. I’d wanted to use full gamut of different literary forms. I did write and include a few poems. Wanting to get these experiences, the details, down while they were hot, I’d kept a “Racing Journal” while working with Speedy Kiniel, and then I kept a journal after he lost his sight and I was caring for him. This material made its way into Racing Time.
I arose at 5:00 in the mornings before going to work, and wrote. I was driven to make a book out of all this and to dedicate it to Tom. Love has been the driving force in my writing. Racing My Father is about my love for my father and upbringing. Flying Change is about my love of my children and race-riding. Racing Time is about my love of three great friends and colleagues, and two favorite horses—all of whom die in the book. And that was the biggest challenge: how to write this book which is much about the very tough subject of death so that people will read it. I’m extremely pleased that the final product has worked out; people are reading and enjoying and being inspired by it.
Finally, to come back to Hollins, and to Ansley, where it all began. This is from the acknowledgement section of Racing Time:
“My wife Ansley maintained a high degree of patience with me not telling her, as the book was under construction, what I was feverishly working on seven days a week for five years. I didn’t hand her a manuscript until I had it as polished as I could get it, at which time she provided indispensable comments. (As a writer, there is absolutely nothing more nerve wracking than lying in bed, reading Moby Dick, and beside you, your wife is propped up, noisily flipping the pages of your manuscript, occasionally emitting a guffaw, at other times a noncommittal “hmmmm,” and then, she’s quiet, too quiet, and you look over, not knowing what page she’s on, and she’s crying.)
More importantly, Ansley supported me every day, since the dark, bone-chilling afternoon of January 22, 2014 when I returned from a frenzied hike through snow-covered fields and began “holing up” in my refurbished milking parlor in the barn at all hours of the day, all days of the week, sometimes staggering out with watery eyes, in another world—far off with Tom, Dickie and Speedy, and with Warfield and Saitensohn—unable to communicate with live, earth-striding humans and horses, dodging my dearest friends and closest colleagues, writing the main body of Racing Time, which poured out after I tapped a vein and penned the first two words—“the acorn” I tell my students—which sprouted, developed and grew, with a great deal of pruning and weeding by those thanked above, into this book:
1 May 2020