Brushes with Writing Greatness

When David Letterman hosted the Late Show he had a bit called “Brush with Greatness” where an audience member would recount a time when they met, or saw, a famous person out and about. I loved this particular segment for two reasons: 1. They were standing next to David Letterman who was a very famous person and probably the celebrity the audience member most wanted to meet. 2. I grew up in a town where I was pretty sure I would never run into anyone famous.

Over the years, and through my wanderings, I have managed to have a some brushes with greatness. When I was working as a bellman at a mildly nice hotel in Spokane I had the opportunity to run into a couple of handfuls of famousyish people. What I discovered about these people is that they are pretty much like everyone else, except smaller. I was only star struck once: John Denver. I don’t know about you, but if you are my age or a little older meeting John Denver is pretty much like running into the Pope. I will never tire of telling people that John Denver gave me $5. (I spent it. I should have listened to the advice of Anton Chigurh and  never put that $5 bill in my pocket where it would get mixed up with the other money.)

These days my heroes are confined to the world of writing and since most of my writing heroes are dead there is very little hope of me seeing them on a street corner in Seattle. (I did run into Sherman Alexie in a bookstore last December, so I got that going for me.)

One of my most prized possessions is a signed copy of Seamus Heaney‘s District and Circle.

To John- have a great time in summer school.  Seamus Heaney July 2010
To John-
have a great time in summer school.
Seamus Heaney
July 2006

This is awesome on a bunch of levels, but the best part of it is that I did not get the book signed myself. A friend of mine was fortunate enough to be in Ireland over a summer and was able to meet and spend time with Heaney. I was spending the summer teaching summer school because I am an idiot. My friend thought it would be very funny to rub my face in the fact that I was teaching summer school while he was having fun and amazingly enough got a Nobel Prize winning author to help him.

Three days ago Heaney’s was my favorite author signature, two days ago I found a mysterious package in my mailbox. I was expecting some green tights (this detail is here only to confuse you) but when I opened the package I found this:

Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End
Gary Snyder‘s Mountains and Rivers Without End

This package contained a book that I had not ordered and already owned. This was strange. I looked at the envelope again and then it hit me. I opened the book and found this:


A signed copy with my name spelled correctly. Take that Heaney!

How this ended up in my mailbox is a long story with a number of odd coincidences* and I could tell it but instead let me say how much I admire Gary Snyder. He is the only poet I have ever considered writing a fan letter to, I keep a copy of his poem Axe Handles on the wall next to where I write, I memorized his poem I went into the Maverick Bar  so that I could recite it, and he is GARY SNYDER! He hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac modeled the central character in Dharma Bums on Snyder, his books on the environment are so good that they should be required reading for every human on the planet. If people read more Snyder we would live in a much happier world.

Remember how I said I “considered” writing Snyder? The only reason I didn’t was because I did not have his address…well, now I do.


*I took my daughter and two of her friends to see Sol (a rapper) in Seattle this past year. At dinner we were all talking and somehow I mentioned that my favorite poem is probably Axe Handles. My daughter’s friend said, “I know him.”–“What? You know Gary Snyder?” –“Yeah, my mom studied poetry with him. I ate dinner with him and his son..”–“Kai?”–“Yeah, at Galare Thai.”–“What? You had dinner with Gary Snyder and Kai at Galare Thai in Sequim?”–“Yep.”–Long pause while I picked up the pieces of my mind that had just been blown all over the restaurant.–Fast forward a few months. My daughter steals my book, gives it to her friend, who gives it to her mom, who hands it off to Snyder, who takes the book, signs it, and sends it to me costing him $2.69 in postage. The world is a wondrous place.

12 thoughts on “Brushes with Writing Greatness

  1. You’ve made me realize how out of touch I am with modern literature. Show me any guy who lives in a stone house and tends sheep and goats in his spare time and you could convince me that I’m looking at a Nobel Prize winning author. My ignorance is shameful.


    1. The more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t know much. I wish I could 18 again, that was the last time I knew it all. As far as modern lit goes, I think there is so much out the that it is hard to keep track of it all. You should read Axe Handles though I think you will like it.


  2. If Seamus Heaney sent me an autographed book, even if he had the audacity to spell my name with a Y, I would magnanimously forgive him and then double dog dare anyone to touch that book in the shrine I would erect on my bookcase. Incredibly cool story, Jon. Now I have to go repent for coveting.


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