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The debt I owe to Tony Beasley

Tony Beasley, first known to me as Conger, and I met at D’Bronx on 39th and Bell one fall afternoon. I had contacted him because he wrote travel memoir, which was and is my favorite genre. I asked him to come have a talk with me. He didn’t ask what the meeting was all about. It didn’t matter to him. That I was an aspiring writer was good enough.

Photo: St. Joseph News-Press

Over lunch, I asked him about becoming a writer and told him that I wanted more than anything to be one.

He was a handsome man with a huge smile. He looked at me from behind his round glasses, his deep brown eyes gleaming. “Patrick, I have no secrets to tell you. I have never made more than $7,000 in a year from writing.”

I was stunned. I thought that with his notoriety and the quality of his writing that he was a working writer. I had read several of his books and they spoke to me. The poetic, ethereal atmosphere he developed for his scenes and the intricate structures of his stories, I believed, was way beyond me. I knew he had something that I didn’t have. I wanted it.

“I also have to tell you that I find myself in special circumstances,” he continued. “I have money. I’m supported in ways that most writers aren’t. The fact is that I don’t have to make money from writing. I can do it because I have to and don’t have to worry about making my living from my work.”

He said this, I think, because he knew I didn’t have any money. At the time, I was laboring day and night at a Kansas City hotel, barely keeping the bills and child support paid. I had been writing for years. I had a stack of stories but no one to read them. I had submitted things occasionally to my favorite journals. But with each rejection, I withdrew, unable to handle the disappointment. I didn’t yet have a clue that the writer’s lot is rejection, and that for every hundred rejections, maybe one or two pieces would be published.

I had a long way to go. But that day that Tony sat down with me drove me further down the road I had to travel.

We sat at D’Bronx for hours, our lunches long gone and drinks emptied. We talked about writing, the process, and the creativity it took. At one point, he said he wanted to see a sample of my work. I had brought a piece with me that I hoped he would look at. At the time, I craved any kind of affirmation for my writing.

No one had ever encouraged me in my writing. Some teachers saw promise, I think, but discounted me as one unwilling to do the hard work it took to be a writer. My family and friends said to me that I shouldn’t aspire to being a writer. The competition is too rough, they said. I would never make it. One of my college teachers told me I should just give up the idea of writing. I wasn’t a writer, he said. I ought to find something that would make me some money.

When I gave Tony my piece, I expected that our meeting was complete, that we would part ways and that he’d get back with me at some point to tell me, as many had before, that I didn’t have the stuff to be a writer.

“Wait a minute,” he said. He began to read the piece. I watched his eyes move over the page. He carefully considered what he was doing and turned the pages slowly. I sat for about twenty minutes in silence, thinking that I was facing another grave disappointment.

“Patrick,” he said when he finished, “I think this is a good piece. It’s publishable. It needs some more attention. But the ideas are clear and the writing expressive. From reading this, I think you have everything you need to be a writer.”

He leaned forward, his arms on the table, and looked at me very seriously. “You see, you can’t let others dictate to you what you ought to do or what to do with your creativity. Being a writer is hard, heartbreaking work. If you are willing to put in that work . . . you don’t have to become a writer, Patrick. You are already a writer. You may not be able to make a living, few writers do. But that’s not really the point. The point is that you do the writing. Above all, you do the writing. If monetary success follows, well, that’s really icing on the cake.”

Tony was the first person who ever told me I could and should be a writer. I don’t remember what else happened that day. Tony and I only had very sporadic contact after that day at D’Bronx. I remember he sought me out when I was running for county office in 2006. He shook my hand vigorously. “Guess what?” he said. “I’m going to vote for you. You are my favorite candidate, ever. I’m pulling for you.”

Tony moved from Kansas City to his home town of St. Joseph shortly after the election. I never saw him again.

I was sad to see that Tony passed away this week. One of my friends posted the article about his passing in the St. Joseph newspaper. I had just floated through the city on the Missouri River last week, when my son Nick and I took a trip from Rulo, Nebraska, to Kansas City. While we were negotiating the current between tow boats and barges, I scanned the St. Joseph waterfront. I thought of Tony and wondered what happened to him.

I thought to myself, you know, I never thanked the guy for what he did for me. Had it not been for Tony, I never would have published my first book. Years after that meeting at D’Bronx, he read my initial manuscript. He said, as he did before, that it needed work. But in that big pile of words, he said, “There’s a publishable book.”

I hung on that. It would be another several years before I rewrote that big pile of words into two publishable books. I included Tony in the acknowledgements of the first one. The second one is no less influenced by him, though we hadn’t spoken to each other in years.

I’m sure of one thing: His encouragement of me was not an isolated incident. Though I have no evidence, I’m sure that he influenced other young writers. There’s more than two books out there because of Tony.

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