Lit Counts: Catching a Craftsman Midstride

By Hillary Frances

“I ate an eggplant. My parents arrived. I was vaccinated.” John Cotter punctuated this list with a pause, conducting hand midair. I scribbled “eggplant, parents, vaccinated” and looked up  for more instructions, rolling with it. John is giving an example. His examples come from his internal botanic garden of curated words, images, and ideas. He has a region for authors and publications which allows him to reference people and texts for any specific need. Who has written great works without many dialogue tags? He’ll tell you. Which contemporary essay best handles the author’s mother? No problem. He has a region for character descriptions. Another for landscapes. Another for thematic meanings. Another region is ready with bits of dialogue.

I wonder if he collects these examples purposefully. Maybe on the way to the grocery store he’s thinking of an example for describing a mail carrier. Or maybe he tests his examples out with his wife. I picture them on a flight home from Boston. He turns to her and asks, “do you think students would like my eggplant example?” “No!” she says as she looks up from her poem sharply, as if startled by a bit of turbulence. He shrugs and scans for another one. We do know that he carries around a notebook for bits of things people say, lines of dialogue he can remember from a conversation over coffee. He uses these excerpts later, like a carpenter who looks at his old deck and sees a picnic table.

I’m curious about John’s work in the same way I’m curious about other celebrated craftsmen. The chefs at Sushi Den selecting fish, slicing the meat at precise angles, passing their knives down through the generations. I wonder about their morning habits, how they spend their free time, where they get the patience required for hours and days of dedicated practice.

When I was about ten years old, I spent the summer writing letters to celebrities, thanks to a book at the library that published addresses for hundreds of movie stars, singers, athletes, politicians, and international royalty. I sent out dozens of letters, trying to charm them with something that made me stand out, but also respected their time. I asked for their autograph and concluded with, “your fan,” even if I didn’t really know what they did.

I have a reverence for people who are out in front of the peloton, a concern for preserving their energy, a fear of interrupting at a crucial invisible moment. John gives us no signs of being interrupted, but I find myself reacting to him like a celebrity. And I’m not sure I’m alone in that response. Recently, after John concluded a one-day workshop, a student herded us all into the corner of the room for a commemorative photo. And several people have agreed that he deserves an award.

When Lighthouse puts John in front of a class, they are giving us access to a craftsman midstride. John’s craft is not only in his ability to teach from his botanic garden of illustrations, not only in his pinpoint accurate feedback on our writing, and not only in his own collection of publications. His craft is in his ability to curate fundamental elements of the human experience. He works with fear and desire like someone else would shape iron and wood. “Everyone is haunted by two specters: an image of our fears and an image of our hopes. Both represent us in a little time,” he says. He asks students to write “with an awareness of your motives in the past, your fear of the person you’d least like to be.” “Take your characters to their nadir,” he says, “before you raise them—or don’t—to their dreams.”

This kind of coaching only streams from an instructor who has elevated his work to a prayer. And we, his students, can’t help but memorize the lines. Congratulations, John Cotter, for winning the 2018 Beacon Award. Let it be a companion to your own nadir and back out again. We’re proud to know you.  

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today.

Hillary Frances is the co-founder of Prodigy Coffeehouse, an apprenticeship program for young adults in Northeast Denver. Her professional work focuses on activating talent in marginalized populations including refugees and immigrants and young adults who have not succeeded in traditional schools or workplaces. She is a proud member of Lighthouse and has just published an essay in Sojourners Magazine.