In Memoriam: Lee K. Abbott

May 9, 2019
lee k abbott

A magnetic storyteller on and off the page, Lee K. Abbott was an inimitable teacher and writer. His voice shines in his story collections: Dreams of Distant Lives, Strangers in Paradise, Love is the Crooked Thing, The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, Living After Midnight, Wet Places at Noon and All Things, All at Once: New and Selected Stories. It is this voice and legend that will forever live on with his many colleagues and students.

“I still have Lee's old TV cabinet in my living room. For years, I've had a reminder on my phone to pray for him each day. Even now, when I sit down to write, I hear his very first critique of my work. There are impressions of him in so many places of my life.”

—Ashley Caveda, MFA’2012

 

“When I was accepted at Ohio State, I had other choices. After I flew out to Columbus to talk with Lee K., there were no other choices. I left that meeting absolutely convinced that at Ohio State, I would study with teachers who cared about teaching, that I would study with Lee, and that his program chose its students with care. That decision changed my life.”

Mary L. Tabor, MFA’1999

 

Abbott passed away from cancer on April 29, 2019 at the age of 71. He was married to Pam Abbott until her death several years ago, raising two sons, Noel and Kelly, with her here in Ohio. Pam was a bookseller of children’s books and an expert quilter. Together they became grandparents. Two years ago, Abbott remarried Natalie Walston of Ohio, who currently resides in their home in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Professional Life

Born October 17, 1947 in the Panama Canal Zone, Lee was raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This corner of the United States would go on to host multitudes of Abbott’s stories and serve as his summer roost throughout the rest of his life. “My notion is we’re put on earth to write about something. And I was put on earth to write about six hundred miles of Southwest desert…” Abbott said in an interview with Story in Literary Fiction in 2011.

In 1989, Abbott was hired as a professor of English at The Ohio State University. During his tenure, he served two terms as director of the creative writing program and served as the English department’s Promotion & Tenure Committee chair for many years. He was also instrumental in numerous faculty hires.

“Lee was a warm and generous colleague and someone who brought some cowboy cool to a department that had none of it.”

—Jared Gardner, Professor and Director of Popular Culture Studies, Department of English

 

By his retirement in 2012, Abbott had received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award in 2004 and was promoted to Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor in 2007. During his time at Ohio State, he collaborated with David Citino, Michelle Herman and Kathy Fagan to co-found the MFA Program in Creative Writing. The the time of its creation, the MFA program was exemplary with its a terminal degree program that emphasized full financial support for students over three years, the opportunity to gain mentored teaching experience and abundant face-to-face time with practitioners of the craft. Abbott was invaluable in establishing this celebrated and tight-knit community of writers.

His many short stories and reviews, as well as articles on American literature, have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Southern Review, Epoch, Boulevard and The North American Review. Abbott’s fiction has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories and The Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards. He has twice won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and was awarded a Major Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council in 1991.


Tributes

Upon news of his passing, the writing world erupted with tributes to Abbott. These took the form of countless social media posts, emails and phone calls to Ohio State leadership and even an official proclamation by Michael Brennan, mayor of University Heights, the neighborhood in Cleveland where Abbott lived for some time. Abbott’s students, colleagues and community members remember him as a figure of mythological importance and impact.

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Lee Martin | College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Department of English

In 2001, I was fortunate enough to get an offer to join the MFA faculty at The Ohio State University. During the two-week period when we were negotiating terms, I got an email from my soon-to-be colleague, Lee K. Abbott. "Amigo," he said. "You coming or what?" So I came, and for more years than I can now remember, I was privileged to be Lee's colleague before his retirement. At one point, when I was directing the program, I had the need, due to faculty attrition and a hiring freeze, for someone to teach a creative nonfiction workshop. I asked Lee if he would do it. He expressed some hesitancy, having never taught in that genre, but I persisted, and he eventually agreed.

He was that sort of colleague, someone you could always count on. He was that sort of teacher as well, someone students could count on to tell them the truth, to treat them fairly, to instill in them the love of moving words about on the page, to encourage and to challenge them to set the bar higher, to make them better than they thought they could be. I'll never forget his customary way of closing an email: "Thrive." Indeed, that's what he allowed his students to do, to thrive because of his selfless dedication to the craft and his demand that everyone who wanted to call him or herself a writer engage in that same devotion. Storytelling was a sacred act, and no one knew how to tell one better than Lee. He knew how every word counted, and he had little patience for the ones that didn't. I'll always remember sitting near Lee in faculty meetings as the debate before a vote went on and on until he, weary of unnecessary language, said, "Call the question." And I was glad for his direct way of moving things along, as if we were all in the middle of a story, and we had things to do and places to go and people to see.

When he prepared to leave this world, he decided to "call the question," once again teaching by example. Over all the years of writing stories, he always knew how to gracefully enter and how to exit. May we always be blessed with his words, his wisdom, his kindness and his generosity. I'll close with the final words from one of his stories: "The End of Grief" from his collection, Strangers in Paradise. It's the story of a son and his father's guilt-ridden obsession with gathering details of the Bataan Death March on which his brother died. At the end of the story, the father is letting go of his burden:

He was moving now, putting on the leather jacket Deborah had given him for his sixtieth birthday, so I asked him, "What about this?"
I pointed to the books, the charts, the records, the maps — the millions of words and thousands of pictures he knew by heart. I wanted him to sweep them away, I suppose, set the whole mess aflame.
"What about it?" he said. "Just leave it."
I had my hand on a folder, one of thousands that were covered with his notes, and a thought, swift as love, came to me. So this is the end of grief, I thought. Of all his burdens, grief had gone first.
"We'll burn it tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure," he said. "Turn out the light, will you?"

 

Juliet Williams | MFA’2000

I'm having difficulty compiling my reactions into a few sentences that would be significantly different than what anyone else has said. Jason Manganaro summed it up best, I think: "Our tribe has lost its leader." Or as Mark Steinwachs said a few years ago when Lee told us he was being treated for prostate cancer, "The idea of writing fiction without Lee is like staring into the abyss.”

 

Ann Glaviano | MFA’2013

Lee K. Abbott, writer and teacher, mentor and hero, left this physical plane on Monday evening, which is weird. I will continue to think of him as semi-retired and emerging every so often to teach workshops in far-away states. It's not so far removed from the truth — you can see from all the tributes that what he offered to his students remains very much alive to us — not as a memory but as an active, ongoing practice in our own work as writers and teachers. It is a real pleasure to read the accounts of other writers who admired him and studied with him.

Silas Hansen reminded me of how he folded his copy of our stories lengthwise before he handed it back. Why is that such a striking memory? I don't know, but I saved every draft of mine he ever marked up. The folded-up copy from workshop — that one was gold.

He was the director of the Ohio State MFA program my first two years, and he was the one who called to tell me I'd been accepted to Ohio State. He seemed to delight in my delight. On the phone he seemed kind, patient and easily amused. He was the same in person, when I met him at the open house.

But I was aware of his reputation or persona or whatever — a badass hardass cowboy, bourbon swagger etc. My first year in the MFA program, he taught the spring fiction workshop. As we awaited Lee's entrance on the first day of that workshop, I took note, privately and with some surprise, of the tension in the room. The first- and second-year students had already taken a fall workshop together, so we were comfortable with each other. But none of us had worked with Lee yet — he hadn't taught fiction the year before — and the feeling in the room was one of great anticipation and anxiety. When he entered, we were quiet. As he took his seat at the head of the seminar table, he asked if we were always this quiet. "No," I said. He organized his papers as we waited in silence. Then he stood up. We watched him stand. Something important was about to happen. We watched as he walked over to the window. In silence we waited. The suspense was almost unbearable. Finally, he lifted his hand — and adjusted the blind.

I found this whole episode — our terror and reverence, Lee's puzzled reaction and low-key classroom management — absolutely fucking hilarious. Later — might have been that same day, or another day that semester — we watched expectantly as he rose from the seminar table…crossed the classroom…and threw a piece of trash in the garbage can.

So. We respected the shit out of Lee, and maybe before we knew him, we feared him. But whatever badass hardass reputation he had did not align with how it felt — at least how it felt to me — to be in his company. He was an earnest and enthusiastic and effective teacher, one who could speak to both the mechanics of a story and its heart. He was the most compassionate reader I've ever met.

By the time I was in workshop with him, he had a year left until retirement, and he was inclined sometimes to offer his perspective not just on craft but also on life. Sometimes he would tell us about himself. It seemed indulgent for him — like he was not the kind of guy who would ordinarily allow himself those moments in the classroom. I found those disclosures especially moving.

The last story I workshopped with him was a departure from the way I'd been writing up to that point. The story was strange. The structure was strange. The sentences were strange. I wasn't sure what I was doing or what it was going to look like by the time I turned it in for class. Anxiously, I asked to meet with him, and he of course obliged, and I told him what the story was about — someone close to me who was struggling — that I couldn't stop thinking about her, and it was coming out in this piece of fiction because I didn't know what else to do, and it was really strange, and was that okay? And he said, write it. In fact, there's no better reason to write. Keep going. And let it be strange.

When we workshopped that piece, Lee told us a story about one of his — pardon this euphemism – childhood coping mechanisms. I won't give more detail than that, because the disclosure felt private. We received it in a kind of stunned silence. I have been trying to figure out why exactly this moment has left such an impression on me. My story was about a kid struggling to cope, and Lee responded with his own story about coping. It felt like he was trusting us with something clearly personal; that's part of it. But I think the other part of it, for me, was that this offering from him was pure reflection, with no writing lesson in it. He was telling me what the story had brought up for him not as my teacher, but as a human reading something I'd written. That he would allow us access to this unguarded reaction — that I had a master teacher who was willing to set aside any master-teacher ego and confide in us this way — felt like both a great honor and a great gift.

When I revised that story, he asked if I knew any magazines that published weirdo fiction — I knew a couple places — and he told me to send it out. "Really?" I asked, shocked. It was the first time one of my professors had suggested anything I'd written might be ready to go. And he said, very seriously, "Well, Ann, you've got to pop the cherry sometime." Thus was I exhorted to first submit a story for publication. (It ended up at Fairy Tale Review.)

I could go on and on. The time he confronted the guy in my cohort who had been harassing me. The way he responded with astonishment when I did any of the outside-of-class exercises he suggested — like he couldn't believe anyone would actually bother. I found this odd. I was there to learn from him, to take any and all advice he had about writing. But — though he took us seriously, and he took the craft of writing seriously — he was not a guy who demanded that the people around him take him seriously. He did not demand our respect. We gave it willingly and gratefully.

"Well, enough hand wringing and chest-thumping," says Lee K., in the last line of his fiction workshop course description. "Let's write some words that wake the dead and make the tyrants teary." Thrive.

 

James Phelan | Distinguished University Professor, Director of Medical Humanities, Director of Project Narrative, Chair 1994 – 2002 | Department of English

Lee was an extraordinary man and a wonderful colleague. I was promoted to full the same year Lee joined the department, which meant that we gave inaugural lectures within a few months of each other. Fortunately for me, Lee went first, because he gave me a model I could try to follow, however haltingly. Lee’s response to the task was characteristically direct: he titled the lecture “Why I Do What I Do,” and in it he laid out a stirring case for the value of literature within which he placed his own devotion to the craft of the short story.

I had the good fortune of getting to know Lee better when I became chair and Lee was directing the creative writing program and chairing the Promotion and Tenure Committee. His work in those jobs was informed by his deep caring for the department and our collective mission. And he made my job easier. I also learned from him — by teaching some of his stories, by talking with him about contemporary fiction — not surprisingly, he was an astute reader — and by having him visit one of my graduate seminars, a session in which we talked, workshop style, about one of his stories. I feel very fortunate that Lee was my colleague.

 

Elizabeth Weiser | Professor | Department of English

I remember my first annual review, when I should have been thinking about going in to discuss my year and all I kept thinking was, “I’m sitting here waiting with LEE K. ABBOTT. I can’t wait to tell my friends.” Dreams of Distant Lives, Love is the Crooked Thing, All Things, All at Once — I was such a fan of his prose. He came out to give a talk to my narrative seminar that blew my students away. Lee was definitely a character, but a character with a great heart and talent. The literary world is a less shiny place for his departure from it.

 

Valerie Lee | Professor Emerita, Chair 2002 – 2009 | Department of English

As with the other former chairs, I, too, sing Lee’s praises. He was absolutely one of the best departmental citizens with whom to work. I also would like to add to the memory bank another event: before Ohio State became a non-smoking campus, the university created a rule that one could smoke only within so many feet of a building. Well, one day I received a note from a woman student that “someone who looks like a professor of English, except that he is tall and handsome, was smoking closer to Denney than the required square footage.” Ordinarily, such a note would have placed me in the awkward position of deciding who fit the description, but I immediately knew the

student was talking about Lee because Lee liked smoking on what we both imagined was the borderline. I told Lee about the note, and then we both laughed as I recommended that he take two steps backwards. That was the last time I asked a great man to step backwards.

 

Richard Dutton | Academy Professor Emeritus, Chair 2009 – 2013 | Department of English

I shall always cherish memories of bantering with Lee as I entered Denney Hall, he mocking the shorts I wore well into winter, but having difficulty not looking like a guilty schoolboy as (banished outdoors) he finished yet another cigarette. He was not always politically correct, but you always knew where you stood with him. He always pulled more than his weight. And he always delivered on whatever he said he would do. I think most chairs would gratefully settle for that.

 

Christopher Coake | MFA’2004

So the best and most successful thing I've ever written is a story called "All Through the House." I wrote that story for a workshop at Ohio State — the first workshop I'd signed up to take with Lee K. Abbott. It was the first story I produced for his workshop; I wrote it over winter break, sure that I was making a messy, crazy failure, and that the notoriously curmudgeonly Lee K. would say all kinds of terrible things about it. To my shock, however, Lee spent my hour in workshop defending the story, and he took me aside afterward and told me more good things and also reminded me of some flaws, and that I needed to fix those things and submit it to journals. I was walking on air.

I'm also a procrastinator who hates revision. For weeks, Lee kept asking me in the hallway, over and over, how the story was coming, and I kept making lame excuses. Lee was nowhere near the curmudgeon the legends suggested, but he did not like excuses, not at all, and finally, exasperated, he growled at me, "Fix that damn story by next Friday and give me a copy. I want to show it to someone."

So, the fire under me properly lit, I fixed the story by that next Friday. And Lee took it with him to a reading at Gettysburg and gave it to his buddy Peter Stitt, who edited the Gettysburg Review, and Peter took it. And then it got anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories and elsewhere. It became the centerpiece of my first book.

After I got a job at the University of Nevada, Reno — thanks to that book and that story — we brought Lee out to do a reading. I had the pleasure of driving him around Tahoe and showing him my life here, and I was able to thank him for all he'd done in making it possible for me. He deflected that thanks, of course. And I played it cool, so maybe he didn't detect how happy it made me to discuss writing and life with Lee as a colleague, and not as a frightened student with daddy issues. And how happy I was to introduce him to the students here and to show him we took writing seriously. (After the reading, in fact, an undergraduate named Claire Vaye Watkins raised her hand and asked Lee a question about point of view, much to my delight.)

The last time I corresponded with Lee was to send him a link to the new page on the UNR website that lists our MFA program's publications. I was proud, and I wanted him to be proud, too. I always did. And I'm a little terrified of a world where I can't periodically show him my work in exchange for his approval.

I'll miss you, Lee. The words are inadequate. But once again: thank you.

 

Walter A. Davis | Professor Emeritus | Department of English

Lee and I became friends of a sort during my last few years at Ohio State. Golf is what brought us together. And there were times when we couldn’t get enough of it. A kind of conversation became possible out there at several removes from the groves of academe. Lee was a very good golfer. His driver usually a draw 250 to the middle of the fairway. I always tried to use my short game to try to catch up. I think if you put us together as one golfer, we’d have been pretty good. We were an unlikely pairing and I think to both of us all the more valuable for that reason. His devotion to the creative writing program was great and thus his legacy something shared by all in the department.

 

Joe Oestreich | MFA’2007

Lee K. Abbott's Forms of Fiction class at Ohio State circa 2006:
Lee: Are you taking notes, Joe?
Me (intimidated): Uh, sometimes?
Lee: Then I'll try to be more pithy, so that you'll have something to write down.

I filled a whole notebook that quarter. And now, in my classes, I say something at least once a week that I stole from Lee K. As everybody who ever took a class with him knows, he wasn't exactly effusive with praise, so when you got it, you cherished it. Perhaps the highlight of my time in graduate school was when a classmate told me that Lee K. told her that I was a good writer. Damn, did I need to hear that right then. Another time, he said just what I needed to hear: I was considering taking a teaching job in Myrtle Beach, and I was initially a little ambivalent about the position. Was it the right school? Could a person actually live and build a career in an air-brushed-t-shirt kind of place like Myrtle Beach? "Amigo," he said, "learn to play golf." By which I know he meant: Be happy. Have a good life. And, of course, thrive.

 

Morris Beja | Academy Professor Emeritus | Department of English

Lee’s is a genuine loss. He was a superb writer and a dedicated colleague. Everyone who worked with him will feel the loss. And a bunch of others and I will cherish our memories of evenings of poker with him, when his wit and fellowship shone. And I’ll always cherish his writing. I was proud to know him.

 

Ashley Caveda | MFA’2012

During my first workshop with Lee K. Abbott, he told me he could see my writer's hands poised over the keyboard while he read my work. He forbade me from using any Latin derivatives. He was, of course, right. My work was often overwritten. His critiques were not always easy for me to take. I remember how much self-doubt I had. But I kept writing, and he kept critiquing. By the time of my thesis defense, he told me, "You're not going to believe me when I say this, but this is a bit of a page turner."

I still have Lee's old TV cabinet in my living room. For years, I've had a reminder on my phone to pray for him each day. Even now, when I sit down to write, I hear his very first critique of my work. There are impressions of him in so many places of my life.

I've been reading through the emails we sent back-and-forth since I graduated. In one, I wrote to him that I'd been listening to Alice in Wonderland on audiobook. I also told him that I was dreaming of space exploration and future trips to Mars. Near the end, I said, "I think I want to write a short story from the perspective of one of the first settlers. Just because I can't actually go, doesn't mean I can't imagine it, right?" Lee encouraged me to "keep dreaming, even if it's only to keep Alice company." The closing of another message he sent back to me after Will passed stands out: "Your words, believe it or don't, are great comfort to me, as have been those of your colleagues and friends. What a splendid community we managed to build, no?"

Now, reading the dozens of tributes to Lee and his impact, it's clear how accurate his words still are. In many of his letters to me, Lee did not close with his trademark, "Thrive," but rather with a simple wish of, "Blessings."

Sending those same blessings to you and yours now, dear Lee. Thank you for making me a better writer.

 

EJ Levy | MFA’2002

When I got to graduate school at Ohio State in 1999, I was aghast to discover students there chanting Lee's catch phrases in a seminar, like members of a cult ("Stout Stake," "Lady on the Bus,"etc.). I was so intimidated by his workshop my first term that I threw out my back from anxiety in the days before my first story was due. I wrote it with his voice in my head, a story called "The Best Way Not to Freeze," which would later open my first story collection. When I went to workshop to hear Lee's verdict, I expected the very worst, but as we entered the class, he said, "You're a fuck of a good writer." At some point in that same workshop, after he suggested crucial if small changes, he said what seemed a benediction that I'd waited my whole life to hear: "When literary critics discuss this story in future, they'll say..."

He was my teacher in graduate school, a mentor for years, the kind of teacher who intimidates and inspires and surprises you with his generosity. Oh, shit, beloved Lee K. Abbott, please don't go. We need you here with us, making sense of the story we share, making it better and truer for your brilliance. My students — 15 years' worth

now — quote you and invoke your name, as I do pretty much daily (okay, weekly). My first novel sold earlier this year to a great editor for a heap of cash, a true big deal; that book (any book of mine) would not have been written without you. I owe you more than I can say. God, will I miss you. We will. This world will. Thrive, dear Lee, thrive.

 

Elizabeth “Libby” Lantz | MFA’2007

“Why am I able to write so well at Kenyon?” I asked Lee a few years back at the Kenyon Writers Workshop. He smiled and said, “It’s the pressure.” He said, “That’s how diamonds are made.

 

Mary L. Tabor | MFA’1999

I’m here to tell you how much I learned from Lee K. I often refer to him as the best teacher I had at Ohio State. Here’s just one example: When I was trying to explain to a graduate student how to handle the long short story, I picked up [Abbott’s] All Things, All at Once. And there again was “The Talk Talked Between Worms” because I own all Lee’s books and had read this story in Wet Places at Noon: I read out loud to myself, “Given the givens, especially how I turn out in this story, I sometimes see him chalk-faced, his teeth gritted, outerwear at his feet, no light or noise in his world except that rising up in him from memory, nothing but gravity to keep him earthbound, only ordinary years between him and eternity.” I marveled. What a voice!

I admit that in that first workshop with him, he scared the hell out of me, raked me over the coals, that I cried a bit about how awful a writer I thought I was, but I learned key aspects of the craft of this art from him. Because of Lee, I’ve never again written a story when I knew where the story was going. One only need make that mistake once under Lee’s tutelage. The story takes the writer where it’s going and one follows faithfully. As Lee knew well, the guidance comes from the unknown. As much as I feared him in that year so long past, I knew he was a teacher who had thought hard about the “how” of the work as well as the art. I read every single book and essay he suggested, ran after workshop to the library to get out the title he’d mentioned that evening.

We did an independent study together, and we read stories he knew well that I knew little about at the time (much metafiction), but then Lee began to let me choose what we would read. Together, we read and analyzed Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. From this healthy dialogue, this mature and respectful exchange in his office where I occasionally also bummed a cigarette, my admiration for his mind and for his goodness grew. My confidence grew, and I left that independent study with resolve that has held me steadfast.

My understanding of the limits of time may have something to do with all this, but so did the late, great Lee K. Abbott. When I was accepted at Ohio State, I had other choices. After I flew out to Columbus to talk with Lee K., there were no other choices. I left that meeting absolutely convinced that at Ohio State, I would study with teachers who cared about teaching, that I would study with Lee, and that his program chose its students with care. That decision changed my life. His blurb on The Woman Who Never Cooked still gives me courage.

Lee has been so dear to me, and we remained friends long after I graduated. Some of you may recall when he walked the country for a year after Pam died — a brilliantly and privately journaled ecumenical Kaddish of steps in her memory and that he shared with some of us. His life renewed when he joined with and married Natalie Walston Abbott. She has given our dear, beloved Lee joy these past few years, and we join her in grief and mourning and compassion. I oughta know how important this last is, having lost my dear son at age 46 in 2017. For the last two years, while I have been in mourning, Lee gave me succor by asking me to help judge The Flannery O'Connor Short Story Contest with him. He remained in touch with me for all these years and he was the one faculty member who asked me back to Ohio State when my first book came out.

Lee’s generosity, his fierce, wise teaching and his work, a body of funny, wry, bold and brilliant stories, will outlast us all, and stand. Our time together remains a cherished gift in my life, and I remain indebted to Lee K. Abbott, who closed with his oft-used imperative at the end of a letter or e-mail: “Thrive”— and did he ever. One thing remains for certain: No “ordinary years between him and eternity.”

 

Jenny McKeel | MFA'2010

I didn’t work closely with you, Lee K Abbot.  I wish I had. But I met with you in your office a few times, to discuss your feedback on my essay drafts. I was intimidated. You were a master short story writer and I was a bumbling student of creative nonfiction with much to learn. During those meetings, I felt myself in the presence of literary wisdom. The genuine article. And I was made to feel seen, as a writer, during those conversations. That my efforts weren’t wasted and my potential was sure. Sitting in your office, that thing that happens in an MFA program as strong as OSU’s if you apply yourself at all started to happen. I felt myself sharpening, widening. Incrementally becoming a better writer. I felt lucky to be in your nonfiction workshop, and I scribbled down your witticisms. I think about your teaching on audience and craft—"The writer does all the work so the reader can have all the pleasure"—maybe every time I sit down to write. But your teachings were never pure. While you often emphasized the importance of writing for “the lady on the bus,” in one instance you said, "I do certain things in my stories because I can and because it pleases me." When I commented that a visiting instructor had advised us against that approach you said, "Ah yes. Well there is always a spoiled sport, isn't there?" You had a clean, direct approach to teaching: “No need to use verbs of sense.” “Find one tense and cleave to it.” “Err on the side of the specific and concrete every time.” “Don’t use ‘some,’ don’t use ‘a’ or ‘an.’” I remember you saying, “Nouns and verbs, people. Nouns and verbs,” during workshop. And a rant about how short story writers today are all Raymond Carver and Hemingway and no one exploits the instrument of language and crafts gorgeous sentences like Updike and Nabokov. Your comment on whether to include sex in a story: “Fish or cut bait.” Always, in workshop, we were directed back to story, back to the words on the page. When students grew frustrated with their progress, with the rejection-letter pile-up your response never wavered: "Keep writing. Keep producing pages." In the years since my graduation from the MFA program, I’ve followed you on Facebook and the events of your life as you presented them—great suffering and also joy. I intended to reach out to send my well-wishes and to thank you for being the remarkable teacher you were, but I never did. I apologize for that. Today, at the end of a shitty week, I read your short story, “How Love is Lived in Paradise,” in the Kenyon Review online. You are no longer here, but your short story tethered me back to life, to people, to love in a moment of weakness when I was feeling as though the whole of existence was pitted against me. Thank you, Lee, for your kindness, your prodigious gifts, for your generosity in writing and teaching, and for the last four sentences of this story: “As before, ‘it,’ the me I was, desired answers. To questions about the forward movement of living life. About what to do with weakness. About why it is we have the hearts we do, and why it is they fail.”

 

Storm Humbert | BA'2012

I first met Lee in 2010 as a sophomore. It was either an intermediate or advanced undergrad workshop, but either way, that was the class that changed my life. I was all set to become a high school English teacher, but Lee showed me that I loved writing because he was the first person that I could actually watch love it. He was the first person who put into powerful words exactly what fiction was and what our job was as writers, and he made me want that job more than I'd ever wanted anything. You could see him not only love the craft of writing but love watching you get better at it, and his love was infectious. The way he talked about writing made me want to aspire to his vision of fiction, and lucky for me, that will take a lifetime.
 
Lee was an oral storyteller and a prose storyteller—probably the only person I've ever met who was a real marvel at both. He had a story for everything, and that always made me remember that we have to live to write--that we are filters that take our experiences and churn out keepsakes of real life things that people can hold and love and smile at or cry over as they choose or as they're able. Lee taught me about the stout stake. He taught me that we write for the lady on the bus, and he made me understand that character is who we are in the dark, when nobody's watching. These are all things I've brought to my own writing to the best of my ability and tried to instill in my students on the occasions when I've had the opportunity to teach. Every time I've walked into a classroom, I've aspired to be like him--to do for one student what he did for me. Lucky me, again, since that will also take a lifetime of aspiring.
 
Storytelling was one of Lee's many gifts, and I'm lucky that he gave it to me. He gave me stories, and I can't imagine my life without them. I can't imagine myself without them. Without Lee, I wouldn't have gotten my MFA at Temple, where I studied under a Science Fiction Grandmaster and made some of the closest friends I have today. Without Lee, I wouldn't have accomplished the things I have as a writer--the things that have brought me so much joy and made me so proud. Without Lee, I wouldn't have this beautiful craft that I get to continue to grow in for the rest of my life. 
 

Even during my senior thesis, while Lee was my advisor, I wished I could be in his workshop again. Since graduating, I have constantly wanted to sit in his office one more time—or anywhere at all—and talk about writing with him. His voice is one of those that never leaves your head, and I'm as thankful for that now as ever. I will always want one more conversation with Lee, and I will always regret the email I didn't send or the message I didn't write. It seems so unfair that we get no more words from him--no more advice or guidance. There is one word though--one command--that will always be his. It's a word he's claimed for the rest of my life, and it will always make me smile because I can't help but read it in his voice. Thrive. Another little gift he's left us all.

 

Jennifer Crusie Smith | MFA'1997

I was working on a PhD in feminist literature when the head of the Creative Writing Program stopped me in the hall and said, “I hear you’ve published a novel.” You really have to have known Lee K. Abbott to appreciate how startling that was: big guy, looked like the Marlboro Man, terrifying in his reputation for grilling students. And then there was me: frumpy middle-aged woman who’d written three romance novels. So I pushed my glasses back up my nose and said, “Uh, yeah, but it's for Harlequin,” and he said, “I don’t care who it’s for, you should be in the program.” I remember stammering and backing away, but Lee was not somebody who gave up, so I agreed to audit his creative writing seminar, waiting for somebody to make fun of me so I could leave. As it turned out, the only biased person in the program was me. As far as I know nobody else gave a damn who I wrote for, although the lack of cheap shots might in part be attributed to the fact that Lee stood in front of the class the first day and said, “Anybody who makes fun of romance fiction is making fun of Jane Austen, and anybody who makes fun of Jane Austen answers to me.” Why yes, I would have walked across broken glass for that man.
 
I won’t say I don’t have scars from the Lee experience, but every one of them made me a better writer. When he critiqued the first story I gave the workshop, he went through it page by page and said, “Here you went for the cheap laugh. And here you went for the cheap laugh. And here …” I flinched every time, but he was right every time. And every time since, whenever I write something that’s strictly for the laugh that cheapens my story, I can hear Lee saying, “Here you went for the cheap laugh …” and I flinch and say, “Damn it, Lee,” and then I delete that sucker as fast as I can, as if he were standing behind me. There are at least a dozen different Lee-isms that I hear when I write, every one of them razor-sharp in its truth and necessity. I learned something every day in his class right up to the end.  He was a brilliant, brilliant teacher.
 
Terry Pratchett said that a man is never dead while his name is still spoken, so Lee’s going to live forever, wherever his students gather to remember, wherever his stories are read, and whenever I sit down to write again and hit another cheap laugh and say, “Damn it, Lee,” and write a better book.  He was the best.

If you have a tribute that you'd like to have added to this story, please email it to english.communications@osu.edu.


By Madalynn Conkle and Avery Samuels