By Kyle Peveto, Opinion Editor
Piles of student manuscripts on the corner of Al Haley’s desk represent the most vulnerable writing some will do in their lifetimes. They submit these essays and stories hopeful for the future of their art but nervous about their instructor’s criticism.
Haley returns these manuscripts – some five or six pages, others twice or three times that length-with numerous markings. Green highlights accompany well-written passages, while yellow denotes less meaningful ones.
“This is 10 to 100 times more than you would expect from an editor,” he says of his manuscript grading system. Haley doesn’t just criticize and grade, he tries to teach and encourage writers in their craft.
Haley is an assistant professor of English and the ACU writer-in-residence. Teaching creative writing classes, he combines his new love for teaching and the writing skills he has been building his entire life.
He has published a novel, Exotic, and a short story collection about Alaska titled Home Ground: Stories of Two Families and the Land. Exotic, published in 1982, won the John Irving First Novel Award.
Haley also wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, Hudson Review, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. His short story “Canoe” is featured in the Shadow and Light anthology published by the ACU Press, which is used in most freshman composition and literature courses.
Most of his writing success came in the early 80s, before taking a seven-year break to write a novel and was forgotten about by the publishing world. His most recent writing involves Christian themes. While not overtly Christian, the stories often portray characters who lead secular lives and need the purpose that God provides.
He began teaching at ACU in 1997 after earning his master of fine arts degree at University of Houston and bachelor’s degree in economics at Yale in 1976. He took every writing course offered at Yale and stuck with economics, which he saw as a practical degree.
Haley first remembers writing stories in second grade: “On a slow day, teachers might say, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write a story.’ This was permission for me just to go.”
One day a teacher read his story in front of the class, and he loved the feeling of hearing it read.
“It probably gave me the wrong motive for years to write, just to get other people’s attention.”
Haley was born in Oklahoma. His father worked in the oil business and his family moved around, but they eventually made it to Alaska, where he set many of his stories.
In high school Haley was often bored and took challenging courses. He applied to Yale “out of vanity,” he says, and was accepted, but said he wasn’t sure about what to do after graduating, so he returned to Alaska and worked in the oil fields.
While working alongside roughnecks in the oil fields, Haley decided to “fool around and try to write some stories about it.” Through connections he made in college writing courses, he found an agent who sold his stories to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.
His short story collection, Home Ground, was called “the best fiction we have about contemporary Alaska,” by Larry McMurty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove. “No one else had written about Alaska. That was one advantage I had,” Haley said.
Haley was raised attending church, but quit going in college.
“I always believed in God and Jesus Christ, and I was baptized when I was 13.” But many of the people he met in college were a bad influence, Haley said.
“I believed in God, but I considered myself one of these ‘independent Christians,’ who didn’t go to church,” he said.
While working in the oil fields after college, Haley realized he knew nothing about the Bible and began to study. The roughnecks he worked alongside in the petroleum industry often led lives bathed in illicit drug use and alcoholism.
“That’s when I knew I had to make a decision for myself,” Haley said.
Although he considered himself a Christian, he knew his level of faith was not life sustaining.
After becoming an involved Christian, Haley’s writing changed: “I don’t think my writing was immoral, I just had a limited amount to say.”
He showed “what the world was like and how crude people were, but that there was nothing you could do about it.”
For seven years in Alaska, Haley worked at a bank and wrote. While at church he met Joyce Williams, whom he married in 1984. She was born in Alaska, returned there after graduating from Pepperdine University and worked at Alaska’s largest advertising agency as an account executive.
“I think we’re a good couple because we’re both non-conformists,” Haley said. “It’s just who we are, and it’s hard for people like that to fit in, so they need to find each other.”
While working in Alaska, he took seven years to write a 1,200-page novel. “I thought I was being Tolstoy.” New York publishers rejected the novel.
After losing contact with the literary scene for seven years, the publishing world lost interest in Haley. Combined with his new faith and his absence from publishing, his agent was now more interested in her other clients.
Joyce suggested he take a test to find out what kind of career suited him. It suggested he teach.
“It amazed me,” Haley said. “I was so introverted.”
He decided he had learned enough that he could teach writing.
“I just needed to develop the personal skills,” he said. “I always thought I was too introverted, and God would have to change my personality.”
In graduate school at the University of Houston, he had to teach freshman composition right away.
“You’re able to be an introvert and teach because when you’re teaching, you are an actor,” he said.
Joyce describes her husband as quiet and reserved, but adds, “He’s not someone who lets that get in his way.”
Haley became interested in Christian education while teaching non-traditional students by satellite for LeTourneau University, based in Longview.
“I felt like for the first time I was teaching everything, not leaving something out because it may offend someone.” he said. “All truth is God’s truth, so all truth is about God.”
Haley began teaching at ACU in 1997. He teaches workshops in poetry writing, fiction writing, creative non-fiction and business and professional writing.
“He’s a creative person; his creativity is not just in his writing, but also in creating writing assignments,” said Nancy Shankle, chair of the Department of English.
Haley teaches his poetry class to write short poems on demand. Poetry students then write poems on a given topic provided by customers at Artwalk, the monthly, downtown exhibition by Abilene’s arts community
Joyce, who is earning her master’s in digital media, teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communication Department. The two have a five-year-old son, Cole, who was born on Mother’s Day in 1998.
Haley became interested in writing poetry while at the University of Houston. As part of his degree plan, he had to take a poetry-writing course. He thought, “I’m a fiction writer, this is for sissies!”
Stubbornly, he wrote the poetry he was assigned.
“Then it suddenly dawned on me that the things I valued in my fiction were there in poetry,” he said. “You’ve taken it to a higher level of art.
“A poem always gets you into asking the ultimate question and trying to find some kind of god-like thing.”
After developing as a poet, Haley began to send his poetry to literary journals. Some of his latest poetry projects have been writing poems about the business world. He insists that poetry is about people and what they are involved in.
“There’s poetry in making some sort of a decision over coffee or making a Powerpoint presentation.”
After earning a degree in economics and working in a bank for several years, Haley is certainly qualified to see the beauty in board meetings and Power-point presentations.
He continues to write short stories and says the university setting stimulates him. “Stimulation is a key to creativity,” he said.
His newest stories convey what he calls spiritual realism – a Biblical message conveyed in contemporary life like the stories of Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene.
Haley’s short story, “In the Line of Duty,” published in Mars Hill Review, portrays the downturn in police officer Henning’s life after he is forced to shoot a man.
Henning has a revelation after his life takes a manic turn: “It was plain now: he could die as easily as he could live.”
In the last line of the story, Henning’s revelation is near complete, and Haley writes: “His heart seemed to make a leap.”
“I think of him as wise,” Joyce said of Al. “As a writer, he’s an observer of the human condition. He has great insight and wisdom because of that.”
Stacks of student manuscripts lie on a cluttered desk in Haley’s office next to his own poems and short stories. He’ll mark these pieces with the same attention he gives his own work, combining his newfound love for teaching with his life-long love of writing.