From today's Times and News-Star
* The author is one of Mr. Hilburn's friends, fans, and (since-college) lifelong students. The two are pictured below, at Wiley's Retirement Reception (from LA Tech) in 2008. They are talking about fashion wear and how soon they can leave this party.
Wiley Wilson Hilburn Jr.
(Feb 20, 1938-Jan. 16, 2014)
In the mid-1970s in Wiley Hilburn’s creative writing class, a young journalism student turned in a paper that contained, most unfortunately, this phrase: “…the frost-kissed turnips.”
What Wiley wrote on his paper – he had some classics when he was advising students -- was this, though I paraphrase, but only slightly:
“You are from a big city in Arkansas. The only thing you know about greens is from crayons and the grass your daddy made you mow. You know little about frost and probably nothing about kissing. Three strikes. Write what you KNOW!”
That gentleman went on to become a fine photo-journalist, another in a long line of Louisiana Tech students who learned from the pen and the mind and the patience – and the good heart -- of Wiley Hilburn, a treasure for north Louisiana in general and for Ruston in particular.
Even though he’d been sick with cancer, his passing last Thursday, peacefully at noon at age 75, came as a surprise. He’d been frail since his cancer had been in remission, but still he’d meet us to eat, go to ballgames on campus, drink coffee with his buddies at the Huddle House. He was still All Wylie. But his immune system was so weak that he had little gas in the tank to fight the pneumonia, and after three days of holding on, he was gone.
I feel sorry for his friends and his family and sorry for his readers, who knew they’d always get an honest effort from Wylie, whose column appeared regularly in these pages for more than 30 years. Sometimes he was politically polarizing and sometimes, writing of pork soup and pomegranates and green-gabled roofs, he’d just hold up a mirror to your memory, cause you to stop and really see something, something important and needed, something you’d missed, though right in front of your eyes.
For most of us, our faults are irritating. Wiley’s were endearing: he couldn’t park, often wrecked his car, more often than that was late, laughed at his absent-mindedness and lacked anything even remotely resembling a sense of direction.
In other words, he was each of us, only better. And if he was your friend, you did not have one more loyal or sincere.
Practically, his instruction for writing was simple, yet hard to pull off:
Work at writing: no magic writing butterfly is going to sprinkle magic writing dust on you;
Write what you know. Your readers aren’t stupid; don’t prove to them you are;
Use significant detail: What did the guy look like? Did he fidget when he talked? What is the setting? The sounds and textures? The mood? What makes this place or this person different from every other?
And sometimes, a writer has to take his shirt off: the only way to make people feel less lonely is to show them that you’ve been there too. It’s about honesty, not self-loathing. But that’s your job. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Wiley was a man who, like Robert Frost, “was acquainted with the night.” He was not afraid to write in the dark.
Wiley endeared himself to his students, certainly to readers, by the way he shared the truth. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was honest, efficient and compelling. We students trusted Wiley because he proved to us he knew what he was talking about, and he proved to us he cared, genuinely, about us, whether we were Hemingway wannabes, frustrated athletes, aspiring business pros or “just wanting to pass journalism class.”
One day long ago in the parking lot outside Tech’s George T. Madison Hall, “Mr. Hilburn” encouraged me to get, well, a college major. He’d heard I had good grades in English. He offered me a spot on The Tech Talk. And he gave me the two best lessons I’ve ever had in writing, right there: “It’s hard work,” he said, and “let’s stick to writing what you know.” And then, thankfully, he said this: “I’ll help you.” He put me on the sports staff. He coached me up. He built my confidence. As busy as he was – with family, with writing, with teaching and with just being Wiley -- he showed me he cared about me. As it is with good writing, good living means showing, not just telling. Wiley was good at both, at the writing and, infinitely more important, at the living.
As enjoyable and influential as he was as a teacher, his greatest gift, at least to me, was that he was, through the years, 100 percent Wiley, 100 percent of the time. It takes knowing exactly where you live, who you are and who you love to pull that off, and still it’s harder than it looks. That’s why so few people do it.