I was pleased to find in the mail today a book I ordered online, one I haven’t read in years. Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness is by my friend and journalism mentor Mike Taylor, who teaches JOU and a variety of other writing courses (as well as advises the campus newspaper) at my alma mater, Henderson State University. Mike is one of the most talented and skilled writers I know, and he’s also that rarest kind of writer: the published kind, as his two books, Cave Passages (1996) and Dark Life (1999) can attest.
I first met Mike in 1991, the first day of class in … Mass Media, I believe it was. It was my first day at Henderson and Mike’s, too. I was seated on the front row of class; I didn’t really know anybody. I’d moved into a house my uncle had generously loaned me, rent-free, for the school year, and I was … well, on my own. I’d spent two years as a general assignments reporter at the newspaper in Hope, Ark., I’d won a couple of statewide newspaper prizes, and I thought I was pretty big shit. What I needed, though, was more than a co-worker and more than a friend. I needed a mentor. Enter Mike.
He swept into class wearing a gray blazer and tan slacks, his hair slicked back yet windblown, as mine often is. He had a stack of books under his arm and a cup of coffee in his hand. (“Coffee” quickly became his nickname among us Gen-X punks in the newsroom.) I instantly knew, in that strange way that happens only once or twice a decade, that he would become one of the most influential people in my life.
I decided to walk up and introduce myself at the end of class. (I had a rather high opinion of myself.) Mike had just finished lecturing on inverted pyramids and such like, and how they should be avoided in writing. I, having just completed two tours of duty in what they call the “real world,” knew better – the inverted pyramid was indispensable for getting one’s point across without bogging an article down in … so-forth and so-on. We had a debate right there after class, then agreed to go to lunch and talk about it some more. I don’t think a day went by for at least the next three years that I didn’t have a conversation with Mike about writing, art, journalism, newspapers, magazines, travel, adventure, movies, music, or women.
Mike quickly became mentor, pal and father-figure to a bunch of us mere boys who wrote and edited the student paper. We’d have late-night bull sessions while putting out the weekly paper, hang out at lunch, etc. Mike owned (as he still does) a vast library of books on travel, caving, etc., and he did his best to share these with me and inspire an even deeper love of literature (fiction and non-) than I already possessed. He had no interest in seeing me continue my career in newspapers – he wanted me to become a freelancer for magazines.
I could understand why, though I never followed through. The money was (generally) better (if spottier), and the travel and writing opportunities were spectacular. He’d been to China, Jamaica, Asia, Hawaii, and written about all these places. Even after he started teaching at Henderson, he continued his writing career on the side, generating these two books less than 10 years into his tenure. He was more than a teacher, more than a storyteller. He was, and is, a craftsman and an artist – if you don’t have the patience to fashion a story, what good is there in having one to tell? He understands nuance and style, pacing and tone, and to read one of his stories is to plunge into a master class in the nuts-and-bolts of writing.
Mike always says to add a human touch to the most technically difficult of stories, and so in Cave Passages we get a paragraph where he and some photographers tour a remote cave in China and then climb out, singing a Monty Python tune. They trek to a nearby village for some pepper omelets. What kind of omelets? Pepper omelets. It’s the little details that sell a story.
He can also tie a physical description together with a scene of deep personal reflection, describing even a handful of pebbles with such precision that, well, you’re there, looking at those pebbles right alongside him. That is a hallmark of Mike’s: you forget you’re reading.
I’ve been trying to recapture or re-gather books that were lost to me over the years by relocation or other nefarious means. This is actually the third or fourth copy of Cave Passages I’ve owned, but I’m determined not to have to buy any more. This one hits too close to home; I was around when Mike was writing it, and it’s a huge part of my personal connection with Henderson State.
Dark Life, his second book, means even more to me, because I’m named in it. During the spring of 1999, Mike asked me, incredibly, to proof his manuscript of the book while it was in draft stage. He was making corrections and sending them off to his editor at Scribner. It was a great privilege helping him, and I got not only one but two mentions in the acknowledgements.
I reordered Cave Passages via Amazon, but Dark Life (my first copy of which I sold to a book store in Dallas about 15 years ago) came back to me a different route. My wife, a biology professor at Southern Arkansas University, inherited a copy of the book from a retiring mentor of hers. I showed her my name in the book, which was on her shelf, and we marveled over the coincidence. Today it sits on my shelf in Communications, next to its brother. I have no plans to part with them.