This Is My Paul Newman Story*

Paul Newman at Camp Korey, 2007

Paul Newman at Camp Korey, 2007

In 2007, my company, Allyis, donated time to maintain and host the Web site of Camp Korey, one camp in Paul Newman’s network of SeriousFun Camps. Because of that, in June 2007 I was invited to attend a grand opening event at Camp Korey that Paul Newman himself was going to attend.

I was excited by the prospect of being in the same room with acting legend Paul Newman – Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff from “The Sting”. I was a Paul Newman fan and I’ll admit, though by doing so I’ll reveal just how shallow I can be, it was the prospect of meeting Paul Newman more than the camp opening that had me excited that morning as I drove out to Carnation, WA.

The truth is I imagined that Paul Newman was going to spend time with us personally to thank us for the work on the Web site. I’d have a chance to shake his hand and tell him I admired his films and then act really cool and nonplussed by his celebrity, which would in turn make him admire me because, “Dammit, if there’s anything I hate its people who treat me like a celebrity and not the real person I am” he would think to himself.

When I got there the room was much bigger than I’d expected and there was a horde of media and a couple of hundred people taking seats on folding chairs in front of a stage. I was confused. How was Paul Newman going to grant a private audience to me and the rest of the group from Allyis in a setting like this?

The program got underway. Dignitaries and muckity mucks began filling the chairs on the stage – there was King County Executive Ron Sims, former Governor Gary Locke, the camp’s board officers, a couple of folks I didn’t recognize. And, sitting at one end of the stage, looking small, unassuming and, frankly, more like an old man than I’d expected, was Paul Newman. Others on the stage were wearing suits and ties, Newman was dressed in a white sweater and baseball cap, aviator sunglasses perched at the end of his nose.

Before Newman spoke, though, there were others. One, the father of Korey Rose, the boy after whom the camp is named. Korey died of cancer at age 18 and his father dedicated himself to making the camp a reality in his son’s memory. Then there was a man who, as a child, had attended one of Paul Newman’s camps in California. He explained what a life changing experience it was, as a kid who spent most of his time in hospitals, to have the chance to go to camp like a “normal” kid. In a place where every kid was a sick kid, suddenly nobody was defined by their illness. They were just kids for that week, doing what kids do at camp.

I was beginning to realize by this time that this event was not about celebrity.

And then Paul Newman got up and walked to the podium. On this day that had started, in my mind, defined by Paul Newman, focused on seeing Paul Newman, all about Paul Newman, I now understood it wasn’t about Paul Newman at all. It was about the kids that would come to this camp. It was about kids who were suffering more pain and sadness than most of us ever encounter having a brief chance to experience joy. It was about a father seeing his dream come true and succeeding at something that perhaps healed some of his own pain, that perhaps made him feel connected to the boy he had held, had cherished, had worried over and had lost. It was about growing out of that pain and finding the strength to help others find their own strength.

The day wasn’t about Paul Newman at all. And Paul Newman knew that better than any of us. At the podium for no more than 3 minutes, I’m sure, he said “thanks for supporting Korey’s dad.” He said “every kid deserves the chance at least once to raise a little hell and just be a kid.” He said something about having “too many Budweiser suds” clouding his thinking. And then he said, with that Paul Newman gravel in his voice that sounded like every cantankerous character he ever played, and with a dismissive wave of his hand: “if I have any kind of legacy it won’t be for any movie I ever did. It’ll be for these camps.”

Then he nodded and he sat down.

*Forgive me. For this is recycled content. I wrote this in 2008 shortly after Paul Newman died and posted it on a blog I no longer maintain. I thought that blog was gone forever, but a friend told me she had come across this online and liked it. That made me reconsider it and so I decided that I want to keep it with me. Since this is the blog I now maintain, I’ve added it here.

So Writer, What Do You Write?

I’ve been writing almost all my life. When I was 11 my parents gave me a typewriter and I banged out stories on that all summer. They were all very tragic – lost children, dead parents…and space aliens, there were a lot of space aliens. I don’t know why. I don’t care for space aliens, but they kept showing up. I’ve kept journals throughout my adult life. I wrote for a newspaper for a while in college. I do a lot of professional writing now.

I have always had a few stories hidden away that I would pick at. But until a couple of years ago I never brought them out into the light to share with other people and to get feedback and instruction. Then I took an online course through the Gotham Writers Workshop and I found a groove, so I took another Gotham course. Those courses were rewarding experiences for the instruction I received, the validation and the encouragement. But what I enjoyed most about it was connecting with other creative people who shared a passion for writing. After Gotham, I entered the University of Washington’s Certificate in Literary Fiction program. I want to know other creative people; I want to create with other creative people; and through that process I want to gain better understanding and better control over whatever creativity I possess. What I write about comes as it will, but how I write is a life-long work in progress.

I am not a flashy writer. I would not say I am a terribly clever writer in the sense of being someone who pushes the envelopes of form and style. I can admire that in other people, but it’s not what I’m trying to do when I sit down to write. My stories are straight forward, linear, traditionally told. What I want to be as a writer is honest. I want to be a writer who, first and foremost, tells a good story. I want to be a writer who does not flinch from what is awkward, uncomfortable, ugly, sad or even ridiculous so long as what I say in my fiction is true – true to human experience.

The people closest to me in my life know that I am a writer. But I haven’t shown that part of myself to my wider circle of acquaintances and friends until recently. They’ve been supportive, but they all immediately want to know what kinds of things I write. They want to peg me to some part of the spectrum:

“Do you write mysteries? I love mysteries!”

“No,” I tell them, “I write stories about regular people living their lives.”

“Are you like Nicholas Sparks? Nicholas Sparks is great! If you’re like him, I would love to read your stuff!”

“No, Nicholas Sparks isn’t really it either.”

To try to give them some understanding I list the writers that I like: John Updike, Allistair MacLeod, Andre Dubus, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Marilyn Robinson, Steven Polansky, among others. They nod politely.

I  want them to understand, so I read to them the back cover of Steven Polansky’s short story collection “Dating Miss Universe”, because what it says there is what I would love someday to have someone say about my stories: 

Steven Polansky’s universe has no heroes, no villains. His people are fallen and eminently human. They try to live difficult lives with dignity and grace, to cope with what scares them. These are powerful stories of brokenness – broken families, failed loves, dangerous intimacies, unrealized dreams – that are surprisingly tender and often comic. These are stories that are at once bright and dark, written with scrupulous moral precision.

I don’t know that I, or any of my friends, know with any degree of certainty what “moral precision” is, however, so maybe the best I can do in explaining what I want to write is to simply say to them what I said to my wife last week as we were driving to the grocery store. I pointed to the houses along the street, their windows lit up, spilling yellow into early spring darkness, revealing to us, as we drove past, glimpses of kitchens and couples and children doing homework. “Every one of those houses has a story inside of it,” I said. “Those are the stories I want to tell.”

“And will there be space aliens?”

About that, I make no guarantee.