His ritual: wake up, light a match to a stick of sage, talk to the universe.“Please be with my wife on this day,” Michael Gills says, his arms raised in something like supplication. It’s 4:30 in the morning, and even the chickens in the darkened yard on University Street are asleep. “Please be with my daughter,” he says. And then the final plea: “Open me up.”
The craft of writing is mysterious. But it’s also simple arithmetic, so Gills goes back in the house and sits down at his typewriter. By the time the sun comes up over the Wasatch two hours later, he has two new pages; by the end of the workweek he’ll have 10. Do the math: if you keep that up for 15 weeks, you have 150 pages; keep that up for the next semester and you have the first draft of a novel.
This is the gospel of rise-and-write that Gills, associate professor in the University of Utah’s honors program, preaches to his students in Honors 3850: Novel Writing Workshop, which requires them to write a 300-page book by the end of the year. It’s a novel novel requirement, because these students are undergraduates, not graduate students getting an MFA or doctorate in creative writing.
“As far as I know, there isn’t another class like this on Earth,” Gills says.
He takes on 10 undergrads a year, every two years. All of them must sign pledges that they, like their teacher, will commit to rising five days a week at 4:30 a.m. to write for two or three hours, from September to May. As Gills says in the class syllabus: “This class is not for the faint of heart.”
Despite the promised rigor, 40 students auditioned for the 2016–17 school year. To winnow down the number, Gills interviews each prospective student. He asks them about their lives and what they like, and if they say they like writing he’s more than a little suspicious, because writing is hard and lonely. Plus, surprisingly, he’s not looking for talent, because he believes talent is secondary. What he’s looking for is grit.
“Give me someone who has struggled,” he says. “Someone who has had to go out and seek their identity.”
“Anybody here missing a parent?”
It’s a Friday afternoon in the Honors Center, where Gills and his students are seated in a circle talking about the writer Flannery O’Connor, whose father died when she was 15. Gills raises his hand to answer his own question, then asks another: “Anybody here never met one of your parents?” He raises his hand again.
His point is this: writers often use their writing to plumb the depths of their own pain. His students, he notes later, may be young and often middle-class, but “they’ve still had wants, heartaches; they’ve told enormous lies. … My job is to tease that out, to get them to be real.”
Gills’s father, the one he never met, wasn’t so good on veracity or follow-through. Gills’s mother later married a truck driver, then divorced him, then married him three more times. Gills’s absent father and the complicated relationship with his sometimes abusive adoptive father are themes that run through his novels and short stories, as does the death of his brother in an automobile accident at age 19 on a country road, a shortcut Gills had shown him but wishes he hadn’t.
Sorrow and guilt—these are the staples of the kind of Southern writing Gills gravitates toward, books populated by flawed characters and rich details of working class lives.
Gills’s father hauled hogs; his mother once had a job stuffing lipsticks into plastic molds at the Maybelline factory. The family was evicted more than once, and lost everything when their rental burned down. Growing up, Gills says, he never knew anyone who owned a house. All of this happened in Arkansas, where Gills lived until he graduated from college.
“I don’t get up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I’m going to write me some redneck white trash fiction,’ ” he says. “It’s just what I know.”
He has a doctorate from the University of Utah (’97) and in 2012 was named “Distinguished Professor” at the U. But he still doesn’t feel at home in academia, he says. “In my mind, I’m still a poor kid from Arkansas… It’s just a miracle I’m not pouring concrete.”
The path out began with a typo. This was at the University of Arkansas, where Gills was a first-generation college student and had signed up for creative writing, figuring that he had come from a long line of people who liked to sit around and tell stories or lies or both.
His teacher was an eccentric writer named Lewis Nordan, who early in the semester asked the students to write a poem. Gills had never written a poem before, but when he turned in “Night Dreams in Logic Class,” Nordan pulled him aside and said, “Michael Gills, you’re the one we’ve been waiting for.” Nordan was impressed with Gills’s poetic imagery, in particular what he deemed “the best phallic symbol ever,” namely the words “the eyes of hoses shone from buckled straw.”
Never mind that what Gills had meant to type was “the eyes of horses.” What Nordan did next was march him over to the University of Arkansas Press, where the poet Miller Williams was equally enchanted by the poem and the “eyes of hoses,” and pretty soon, even though he was just a sophomore, Gills was invited to attend the Graduate Writing Program, where as an undergraduate he won both the graduate poetry prize and the graduate fiction prize. Before that, Gills says, the only thing he had ever been praised for was running fast with a football. Even though he ended up with only a 2.3 GPA (“which means I wouldn’t even be able to attend my own honors classes” at the University of Utah), he was accepted into every graduate writing program he applied to.
At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where Gills got his MFA, he studied under Fred Chappell, the novelist and short story writer who later became poet laureate of North Carolina. Today you won’t get very far into a conversation about writing with Gills without hearing about the wisdom of Fred Chappell. It was Chappell, in fact, who taught Gills how to attack the blank page at 4:30 every morning.
“Michael is one of the best and most intense writers I know,” says his mentor now, more than two decades later. Early on, Chappell says, he saw Gills’s gifts: “his clarity, his forcefulness of expression, his desire for honesty. … I still remember his short stories, even after all this time.”
Gills was accepted into the U’s creative writing doctoral program in 1993, arriving in Salt Lake in July and renting a house with a front porch that looked out toward the Oquirrhs. He couldn’t believe that he had landed in such a beautiful place, and before driving back east to pick up his wife, he penned a love letter to both the scenery and her, and placed it on the mantel. When he returned to Salt Lake three weeks later, excited for his wife to read his romantic thoughts, he discovered that someone had broken into the house, drunk all his beer, opened the letter and scrawled “Ha ha ha” on the bottom.
“That was my introduction to Utah literary criticism,” Gills deadpans.
The collection of short stories he wrote for his dissertation, Why I Lie, won the Utah Arts Council $5,000 publication prize. It was published by the University of Nevada Press in 2002, the same year it was judged the best literary debut by The Southern Review. Since then, Gills has seen the publication of The Death of Bonnie and Clyde and Other Stories; a collection of nonfiction essays called White Indians; the novel Go Love; and, last fall, a collection of short stories, The House Across From the Deaf School. Emergency Instructions, the sequel to Go Love, comes out this year.
For a while, in the midst of all this writing, he thought he had grown tired of Utah. So he got a teaching job at Arkansas Tech University, and bought a big house, two pastures, and a barn in the Ozarks. But then he started feeling claustrophobic, hemmed in by the poverty and the landscape, the heat and the ticks. So he moved back to Utah, where he can write about Arkansas from a distance.
Besides, he says, “You never see where you’re from better than when you’re somewhere else.”
What he learned from his mentor Fred Chappell: if the room you write in is a little chilly, the discomfort will keep you alert; if you get writer’s block, look out the window and write what you see; the first sentence of your story should go off like a pistol shot heard during a preacher’s too-long prayer; and you should always know what’s happening in seven directions at any given instant in the piece you’re writing: front, back, to each side, above, below, and within. Rich details, he says, are what keep a description or a scene from sounding hollow.
Here are a few of the directions early one morning as Gills types: To his right, a picture taken on a Ferris wheel the day he, his wife, and daughter were stuck for 40 minutes above the Utah State Fair. To his left: a window his wife taps on as she heads out to work; “I love you!” Gills calls out. In front of him, the sky starting to lighten. Behind him, a photo of his mother with a young Bill Clinton, taken when she was an “Arkansas Traveler” during his 1992 campaign for president. By then she had worked her way up to be Support Services Manager with the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
“My mother was an outgoing, fierce, beautiful woman,” says Gills, who has written about her—or someone sort of like her, living a very similar life—again and again in his books.
He writes his first drafts on an electric typewriter. This provides speed without the seduction of the Internet. Also, there’s not a “delete” key to tempt a man to strive for faultless prose.
“That’s where most people get stuck,” Gills says. “They get paralyzed by perfection.” He reminds his students that a rough draft can and should be rough—“Don’t sit down and try to write well,” he urges them—and that the important thing is to just keep going. But, of course, that’s just the first step.
Former student Paul Crenshaw, who now teaches at Elon University in North Carolina and has been anthologized three times in Best American Essays, was always impressed by Gills’s idea of letting a story “get tall”—the literal amassing of draft upon draft, piled up next to his desk. “Once a story got three or four feet tall,” Crenshaw says, quoting his mentor, “it might be getting close to a polished piece.”
“He pushed me to my breaking point and past it,” says Laurel Myler HBA’16, who was a student in the 2014–15 iteration of the Novel Writing Workshop. “He would always demand more of me.” But the hard work paid o: the novel she wrote in the class, titled City Ash and Desert Bones, was published last fall by Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Writing is hard, and that’s one of the five reasons he’s a writer, Gills says. The other four: it’s powerful, it’s free, it’s a great equalizer, and he can be his own boss. And he says he feels like “the luckiest man alive” to get paid to work with young writers discovering their own voices.
So, as always, he’s at his desk before dawn.
“Keats would dress as if he were going to meet his beloved,” Gills says, noting that the English poet would even put on perfume as he sat down to write. Gills wears flannel and lights a stick of sage. But the impulse is the same: treat writing with the respect it deserves. And keep typing.
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.