High Stakes: Remembering Jim McElduff

by Tommy Hays, Executive Director, Great Smokies Writing Program

Jim McElduff

Jim McElduff in British Columbia. Photo by his wife, Kathy Triplett.

I first met Jim McElduff in January, 2009, when he came by my classroom to discuss taking a creative writing class in the Master of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. Peter Caulfield, a professor in the Literature and Language Department, had suggested he get in touch with me. Jim told me he’d been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and seemed to be saying he wasn’t sure how much time he had left, but that whatever time he did have remaining he wanted to devote to writing. I remember how calmly he talked, how without drama our meeting was. Yet there was a quiet intensity in his manner and a steely determination in his voice that kept me in my chair in that empty classroom long after he’d gone. I’d just talked to a man who was facing death and who wasn’t panicked or brooding or languishing in self-pity, who seemed to look upon this as an opportunity to get things down, to write.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out for Jim to take my MLA class, and I lost touch with him. A year later I ran into him at a New Year’s Eve party, told him I had an opening in my Great Smokies creative writing class, and he enrolled. Jim and I didn’t discuss his illness much. He told me he was going over to Duke Hospital often for a trial treatment but that was about it. He seemed much more concerned with improving the memoir pieces he wanted to bring to workshop and with learning how to criticize his peers’ work in a manner that would be helpful to them. His heart was in writing and the workshop. As far as I know, Jim didn’t discuss his illness with anyone in class and I think maybe only one member, who knew him outside of class, actually understood how sick he really was.

What class members did learn about Jim soon enough was that he was a hell of a writer. The pieces he brought in were stunningly beautiful, powerfully embodied, and finely wrought. And even if the class didn’t know how sick he was, they sensed that we had among us a writer who understood what was at stake and whose writing, when at its best, rendered crucial scenes in haunting imagery and almost luminescent prose. Yet, even in his circumstances, Jim never took himself too seriously, and his writing always maintained an equanimity and sense of humor.

One complication with this particular class was how often it snowed and how often I had to cancel or at least consider calling class off. I think I actually cancelled only once or twice. But because Jim lived at the far end of Reems Creek and it snowed more and deeper there, even when I was able to hold class he still occasionally had to miss. He was always very conscientious about letting me know if he wasn’t going to be there. This is one of the last notes I received from Jim:

We have about 6 or 8 inches of snow on the ground here—at the head of Reems Creek.  It finally stopped snowing a couple of hours ago, but I have no idea whether I'll be able to get down the mountain.  I also don't know if this is the right time to find out whether I want to risk walking back up the mountain after class tonight.  I'll do my best to be there tonight, but if I'm not there, you'll know I didn't want to risk the descent.

The last class he attended he brought an oxygen tank with him. That was the first time many of the students began to understand Jim wasn’t well. Several students said later that they spoke with him during or after that class in a way they hadn’t spoken with him before. The next class his chair was conspicuously empty. It was the first time he hadn’t warned me he was going to miss. My email to him the next morning came back with a message saying Jim had died the day before.

Looking back on the weeks our class was privileged to have him with us, I can’t think of any word but courage to describe the diligence with which he went about his writing and his generous feedback to others in the workshop. Never did he sink into himself and never did he stop risking that descent down his mountain.

Tommy Hays is Executive Director of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about The Pleasure Was Mine and other books by Tommy Hays, go to www.tommyhays.com.