Trying to Write Literature

Maybe everyone wants a mentor; someone who will take us under their wing, someone who will open for us closed doors, someone who will tend the thin flame of our talent and coax it to burn brighter. One of my main reasons for applying to grad school is the hope that I will find a mentor, someone who will find my writing worthy of encouragement. Someone who, let’s face it, will help me get published.

I want to blame my parents’ failures for my lack of self-confidence, for instilling in me this need for approval and guidance. But I’m thirty-two and at some point I need to grow up, so let’s pretend I’m starting today.

There’s my insecure desire for a warm, parental figure. But there is also a cold, utilitarian need for a mentor. I have chosen a career in which it is notoriously difficult to make a living, one in which contacts and networking are crucial. I want a mentor to guide me through the battleground. If I stop to think about what’s in it for the mentor (which I don’t do very often), I come up with some vague notion that he or she would be personally rewarded by the selfless act of giving.

Fueled with this combination of insecurity and mercenary manipulation, I came to the summer writer’s workshop at Sarah Lawrence College. I pretended to arrive with realistic expectations; I wanted to see the campus and get a feel for the school. I also hoped that I might learn something; that somehow a week’s workshop would contribute to my growth as a writer. I wanted the opportunity to work with one of the leading practitioners of the personal essay, Phillip Lopate.

I didn’t know much about Lopate, and I had only read a couple of his essays. But one of my classes last year through UC-Berkeley extension had as required reading an anthology that he edited, an anthology of personal essays throughout history. This book had introduced me to several writers whose work I have come to admire: Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, Mary McCarthy, Michael de Montaigne. Lopate’s anthology, along with his own writings, had helped establish him as a leading authority on the personal essay.

Hiding beneath my realistic expectations, however, was the not-so-small hope of being “discovered”. In my grandiose daydreams, Lopate would seize upon my considerable talents and urge, no, plead with me to further my craft, explaining that I owed it to myself and society to keep writing. He would frantically call editors around New York in order to have a piece of mine published in their hallowed pages. He would introduce me to his personal agent, write breathless letters of recommendation for grad schools and would, upon my return to San Francisco, engage me in lengthy, passionate e-mail exchanges about craft, talent, and How to Make It as a Writer.

The idea that every writer wishes this for himself, that perhaps everyone else in the workshop would arrive with the same glimmering hope, did not dull my dream. I knew there could only be room for one ingénue, and behind my nice-guy façade is a ruthless competitor. If I had done more research I might have realized the near impossibility of this dream, but that realization would come later in the week.

///

I awoke Sunday morning on the plastic mattress. The sheet beneath me had pulled free of the corners and was bunched around my shoulders. I was curled into a fetal position under the thin blanket, and I lay there listening to the sounds of people walking in the hallway outside my room, dragging suitcases along the floor. I lay there a few minutes, willing myself to gear up for the day and for all the strangers arriving on campus. I’m not naturally a “people person”, so such moments require a certain amount of determination.

I grabbed my towel and shaving kit and headed for the bathroom down the hall, which appeared to serve the four rooms of my wing. I passed a middle-aged man sitting in his room at his desk, and we greeted each other. We were both, as it turned out, named Michael.

“I’m in the poetry class, how about you?” he asked.

“Nonfiction,” I said.

“Oh. Ah.” A blank look crossed his face, an expression I would encounter frequently over the coming week. Fiction and poetry are the stars of every school’s creative writing program. Nonfiction is sort of the ugly stepsister. It’s regarded suspiciously by many writers, especially in light of the recent success of memoirs such as “The Liar’s Club”, and “Angela’s Ashes”, as if these memoirs were taking money away from poets and novelists. Some book critics get all snarky when it comes to memoir, labeling creative nonfiction a passing fad.

“So do you write about politics or something?” he asked me.

“It’s more like memoir or personal essay,” I said.

“Ah, I see. Great. Well, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, then went down the hallway to the shower.

///

Later I went across campus to the music auditorium, where the opening announcements were scheduled. My natural inclination in any situation is to sit in the back. I don’t like people sitting behind me. But I made myself sit up front. My plan for the week was to get my money’s worth, which meant I would have to be a little more assertive than usual. Of course, all the other students sat several rows behind me. The instructors were gathered up front, and I had the feeling, like I often do, that I had missed the memo, the one that told you where to sit. But I stayed put and watched everyone arrive. There was a small jolt of displacement as I recognized Phillip Lopate from his book jacket photo. He was thinner and much taller than I imagined, well over six feet. His appearance was fairly nondescript; his dress shirt and slacks could have come from any major department store. I knew from his bio that he was sixty, and he looked sixty; with his gray hair, academic pallor, and quick, dark eyes. He walked with a certain hesitation, as though he wondered if he had come to the right place. Later that week I’d realize he always walked that way, and I would secretly identify with his apparent social awkwardness.

After a few announcements (“the red dot on your name tag means you paid for the meal plan, please show this at the buffet line”) we gathered around our respective instructors, and were lead by various workshop coordinators to our specific classrooms. Once settled, we gave brief introductions of ourselves. I mumbled something about how I used to write a lot of poetry, but that now I have a website and am thinking about grad school.

There were ten students in Lopate’s workshop. Only three of us were from outside the New York/New Jersey area. One woman was an English Professor at a small college in Illinois. Another girl, slightly younger than me, lived in Boston and had worked with Lopate when she was an undergraduate at Hoffstra University. We were the youngest by several years. Memoir and personal essay writing seems to attract older writers, people who have already lived a few years, and who now have time to reflect. At least half of the other students in my class had already retired.

That week the workshop reinforced a growing suspicion of mine: the memoir genre attracts people with Issues. Myself included. Everyone has a tragedy, everyone has suffered a death or an illness or a horrible injustice, and everyone wants to write a book about it. Hence memoirs of addiction, cancer, abuse, poverty, etc. Fiction writers and poets can hide their issues behind verse or character, if they prefer, but in memoir it really is all about me. And I am just another writer with Issues, and for me that is a bitter realization. Because, as you know by now, I must be special, I must be unique. But in that workshop I was just another guy who’s suffered. Yes, I am gay, I have HIV, I am sober, my mother died of ALS. But in that class there was a woman who had three diseases, including lupus; there was a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder; there was a woman with an alcoholic husband; there was a woman whose grandson had been killed by a car. The genre also seems to attract mostly women, which means that either men don’t have any issues, don’t want to write about them, or don’t think they need help in becoming better writers.

The focus of the week was the morning workshop: a daily class where Lopate and the other students gave feedback on pieces we had submitted. We’d hand out a copy to each student, and that night everyone would read each piece and give feedback the next morning. There is the potential at any workshop for the feedback to tip from constructive criticism into petty cruelty, but for the most part everyone is pretty respectful, if only for karmic purposes.

The purpose of the workshop, as I have always understood it, is not to present a highly polished piece, but one that is in the early stages, one that needs work. So I decided on a piece that I wrote several months ago, a piece that I felt had potential, but that only scratched the surface of its major themes. Not my best writing, but neither was it the worst. I had always felt a special affinity towards the piece, which is why I wanted to flesh it out and improve it.

I sometimes fall prey to the idea that growth experiences are all rooted in a kind of joy, or are the result of an openness towards life. I forget that learning is usually painful, that what we call “learning experiences” are usually horribly uncomfortable events. There is a rip in the skin of what we thought we knew, and what we learn tears through and emerges like a squealing baby, demanding that we turn all our attention his way.

Things began to hurt on the first day of class. Lopate told us that many current writing instructors are doing nonfiction writers a huge disservice by telling them to “show, don’t tell.” Lopate actually touched upon this in the wonderful introduction to his anthology, but somehow I had overlooked it upon first read:

“…the essayist happily violates the number-one rule of short story workshops, ‘Show, don’t tell’: the glory of the essayist is to tell, once and for all, everything that he or she thinks, knows, and understands…All good essayists make use at times of storytelling devices: descriptions of character and place, incident, dialogue, conflict. They needn’t narrate some actual event to produce a narrative. Even a ‘pure’ meditation, the track of one’s thoughts, has to be shaped, given a kind of plot or urgency, if it is to communicate.”

The italics are mine, because it is those words: “at times” that struck me cold. Everything my recent instructors had been telling me was “show, don’t tell”. I can still hear Margo, the woman I’ve taken two classes with in the last year, say “You must let the reader in on the experience, you must show them through all the details exactly what happened, how it felt; they must feel like they are experiencing it at the same time you are.” She was firm and unbending on this idea, and I had been working on that method for the last year, dipping into my past and constructing little narratives, little scenes full of sensory details, often in the present tense so as to heighten the sense of immediacy.

No, Lopate said. You must do more than just describe what happened. There must be the reflective voice, the voice that speaks from the present, with the writer’s full knowledge. You can’t put the blinders on the reader and lead him through the experience so that he has the same awakenings, the same dawning of realization as you did at the time. You can’t expect that he will have the patience to wait for you to wise up. You must be able to reflect on the past, and tell us that even if you didn’t know much back then, even if you didn’t know what the event meant at the time, you do know now. That is why we read the essay or the memoir, for the insight of a unique voice. We owe it to the reader.

I am not doing his words justice, and I certainly did not understand his point on the first day; what I have presented is the argument he made all week, day after day, with all of our writing. And it was hard to hear. Because each of us had been told the same thing; show don’t tell, and now it seemed that Lopate was telling us the opposite. At least, that is how it felt the first day or two. I sat there in class in a blue funk. Everything I had been taught, everything I had written in the last year and a half; it was all wrong.

What I came to understand eventually is that there should be both in the personal essay or memoir, there can be showing as long as there is also telling. I understood eventually that what I had been learning wasn’t wrong, just incomplete.

I had been working so hard on showing, in fact, that I felt like my telling voice, the voice of reflection and insight, was my weakest. I didn’t trust that at thirty-two I had much wisdom or insight to offer, certainly nothing very original to say. Because of this fear, Lopate’s words were that much more discouraging. If I wanted to keep writing in this genre, I would need to use that reflective voice; the voice of insight. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough.

So with more than a little trepidation, I handed out my piece to Lopate and the others on that first day of class; he had picked three of us to share our work first. I didn’t sleep so well that night, tossing and turning on the plastic mattress, wondering what everyone would say.

///

It did not go well, to say the least. Many words were used. Words like “cliché” and “platitudes” were used to describe my piece. At one point Lopate said “…what we are trying to write here is literature”; his point being that my piece fell far short of that goal. Even the subject matter; testing positive for HIV, was overdone.

I took it well, nodding dutifully, making notes in the margins of my clichéd essay. When class ended I gathered my notes together, slid everything into my backpack, and went out quietly into the sweltering heat of Bronxville in July. The other students streamed past me on their way to lunch, chatting together. I turned the other direction and walked slowly back to my dorm.

The criticism stung. I was more than a little discouraged. My mind conveniently discarded all of the positive comments, and magnified the negative till it was like a chorus of seventh-grade girls in my head, signing together in cruel mockery: “You’re a big loser!” I told myself I should quit writing. I should save the world from the embarrassment of my platitudes. I cursed my decision to share such a weak piece; if I had shown them something stronger, then they’d see that I could write. My vanity writhed in agony. Lopate would not be calling publishers on my behalf. I would not be discovered.

And that is how I handle criticism; I take it as far as I can, to the brink of surrender, to the point at which I will give up the thing I love best for an emptier existence. I will give up the harsh, thankless life of the artist. I will get a normal job and join the human race and not torture myself with the neuroses of the creative life. I become very childish and wounded. And that is what I did; I sulked for a day or two, avoiding the other students, sitting alone at dinner.

But then, true to my pattern, I emerged, ready to fight. What doesn’t kill me may not make me stronger, but it does piss me off. Because inspiration can be hard to find, I take what I can get; I had fuel for the fire.

Lopate wanted each of us to have the opportunity to share two pieces. That week the other students in my class passed out two separate pieces that they had previously written. But I would be different. I would take my first piece, the one that lay tattered on my desk, and I would make it better. I would show Lopate, I would show them all. Picture me in my tiny dorm room, fist raised to the heavens.

///

Lopate had given us a list of recommended nonfiction books, many of them memoirs or books comprised of linking personal essays. I circled a handful of authors on the list, and it was in their company that I spent much of the remaining week, slunk low in an upholstered chair in the library’s basement. It was not enough for me to hear Lopate’s words on writing; I had to see how authors such as Vladimir Nabakov, Lucy Greely, and Mary McCarthy told their life stories. I had to see it with my own eyes. And he was right; each of them spoke of the past, but with the full wisdom of their present selves. They described the past while reflecting on the meaning of each event.

I spent so many hours in that library, in fact, that I started packing a sweatshirt each morning. It may have been 90 degrees outside, but after an hour of air conditioning I began to shiver. I sat with my laptop and began the first torturous steps of revision. I typed a few sentences to get past the blank page, and soon I was writing. I spent so many hours there that I missed out on some of the ongoing social activities; the evening readings, the volleyball games and the barbeques. I weighed my options, and I chose the writing.

///

I had come from San Francisco, farther than any of the other students, and that week many of them asked me why. “Because I wanted an adventure”, I’d say. I will admit that at one point, when we were all having lunch together, I said, “You know what I love? Hearing you all talk.” They indulged me, the quaint Midwestern boy, with a few smiles. Several of them, including Lopate himself, were Jews who had grown up in Brooklyn. Others were from New Jersey. I loved their quick-paced conversations, and I had to learn to jump into the classroom dialogue without waiting for someone to indicate it was my turn. The urban music of their voices, so familiar from movies and television, was nonetheless still fascinating to me. Their accents heightened the sense that I was on an adventure, in a foreign place. They also heightened my sense of being a stranger, the fish out of water. Maybe I’ve seen too many Woody Allen movies, but I equate the accent with intelligence and education, and a certain amount of academic rigor lacking in other American accents. There are still some stereotypes I wholeheartedly buy into, if only out of ignorance.

I appreciated their no-bullshit approach to conversation. I didn’t want politeness or sympathy, I didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves. I wanted to succeed on my little trip to the East Coast, where the bar was set highest. I realize that I am buying into a stereotype that perpetuates the marginalization of non-East Coast writers. I’m certainly not the most original of thinkers. If pressed, I wouldn’t actually say that the East Coast is the most important place for writers. But I am a man who learns through experience; I do not want to wake up at fifty and wonder “what if”. And so I do things like attend writers’ workshops across the country, and I make small steps in the directions that tempt me; love and adventure. A new city. Underneath all of my insecurities is a thriving ambition, which in itself is probably just another insecurity; a need to be recognized as someone special, someone talented. I know that if I were to move to New York, after a year or two I would get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and I would come to know the fallacies of the East Coast. I would find that New York is still just another place, or as Sandra Bernhardt said: “Ah, New York, New York. If you can make it there, you will fail everywhere else.” But until then, I am intrigued.

///

My hopes for the whole mentor thing were quickly extinguished. Lopate just wasn’t the mentor type. He was not like the other workshop instructors, who hung out all day, eating lunch and dinner with their students, talking passionately over coffee, joking and laughing and being, from my perspective, very warm and accessible. Lopate left campus as soon as class was over. Even during the ten-minute break we took each day from class, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid us. We would be sitting together on the benches outside the classroom, blinking in the sun, and he’d wander away towards the other buildings, as though his only motivation was to stay away from us.

A couple of days into the workshop I told Lydia, one of the other students, about my disappointment that Lopate wasn’t as sociable as the other instructors. Lydia was about forty, with a lean, Ashtanga build. She wore her black hair slicked back into a ponytail. She was Jewish and lived in Great Neck. She spoke quickly and directly, with pale blue eyes that fastened on you. She was so different from the women I grew up with in Minneapolis; the blonde, polite, hesitant girls. She was the kind of person on whom nothing was lost, the kind of person who would suffer no fools. There wasn’t anything soft about her, and I liked her very much.

“I asked him today if he wanted to have lunch with us,” she said.

“What did he say?”

“He said he didn’t want another community. He has that already at the other schools where he teaches. He said he was basically here for the paycheck.”

What could you say to that? “Well, at least he was honest.” I said.

It was there in the library that I finally cracked open a book by Lopate, one that I had bought from the campus bookstore on my second day of class. It was a compilation of his personal essays, and there in the middle of the book was one titled “Terror of Mentors”:

The word ‘mentor’ has always had an appeal to me, in the abstract. I like its dignified sound, its promised protection, its sense of a craft personally handed down. Only the reality terrifies me. Either because of this fear or a lack of opportunity – the right mentor never came along, as bachelors in the mentor field are wont to rationalize – I had none when I was younger, and now it is too late.

He goes on to describe how he went through years of higher education without anyone taking that personal interest in his work. How he watched as fellow students were taken under the wings of various professors, often for less honorable intentions, and how his skepticism and jealousy of the relationship kept him at arm’s length from any possible connection. He even admits that underneath all of his rational arguments against mentorship is an irrational fear of the implied erotic connection between two men, the younger man presenting himself for the older man’s marking. He goes on:

Now the tables are turned: I am no longer the young man who could not seek out a mentor, but the middle-aged one to whom some young people look for that bond. How do I reconcile my skepticism about mentorship with the fact that I make my living as a creative writing professor? Partly, I think, by denying the degree to which I actually play the role of mentor. I often ‘pretend’ not to see the embarrassing extent to which a student is in my thrall; or I try to defuse the situation with humor and impersonality while continuing to offer concrete assistance. I have had students pursue me with requests for recommendations, blurbs, advice, twenty years or more after they have studied with me: some are shamelessly using me, true, but a few actually think of me as their mentor. Yet I have refused the intimacy of that term in my own mind.

Shall I confess one reason why I don’t think of myself as their mentor? I have never had a student whom I considered my peer. I have had plenty of students who were talented, lively, perceptive, and great fun to read, but not my literary equals. Perhaps I am being unfair, and the mere fact of their taking writing courses with me disqualified them in my eyes from seeming to possess original power and independence. Perhaps I am being overly competitive with my students. In any case, how could I truly mentor someone I did not believe would ever grow as high as myself?

I closed the book. I realized that if I had done some research, if I had opened this book several weeks ago, I would not have signed up for his class. I had to laugh at the irony of me traveling across the country with the dim hope of being Lopate’s discovery. I even had to laugh at his discomfort around the homosexual implications of mentorship. I had to hand it to him. Say what you will about his ego, he was nothing if not honest.

///

As the week progressed, we critiqued pieces by each student and Lopate, in fact, spared no one. It did not matter if the piece was about something as sensitive as terminal illness; he inspected it for trite phrases or unoriginal thoughts. He held no one’s hand. When that focus had been turned to my piece, it hurt a little. But I could see that his critiques of the other pieces were fair, and when the sting wore off, I began to respect him.

Others would disagree. His criticisms toed the line of harshness and, depending on where you stood, sometimes crossed over. One woman, a top editor at Essence magazine, left the workshop after the third day when Lopate told her that her writing was well suited for a mass market publication, but that it was not literature. Another woman who wrote about the accidental death of her grandson noticeably withdrew from classroom discussion following the critique of her piece. She told me later that she wished she had signed up with the other nonfiction instructor, Noelle Oxenhandler, because she felt a woman might understand her writing better.

I knew what she was saying, and while there was a part of me that also longed for the warmth and diplomacy a woman instructor might bring to her critiques, there was another part of me that did not want to settle, that wanted to impress the skeptics of the world, of which Lopate was clearly a member. He was not particularly moved by spiritual discussions or the use of dreams or fate in our writing. “You have to anticipate that many readers will not buy into the idea of this fate you mention; some of us will only see it as coincidence. It doesn’t mean that you can’t believe it yourself, or that you can’t talk about your dreams in your essays, just that you have to anticipate their argument, you have to address such skeptics, you have to show a little worldliness.”

///

I worked my ass off that week. I stayed all day in the library, reading and writing until they closed at nine pm. Then I’d trudge back to the dorm and stay up late reading the other student’s essays so that I could give them the feedback they deserved, the kind of feedback I would ask of my own work.

I took apart my original essay and began a new one. I tried a new approach and a new structure, and I attempted to use what I had been learning in class all week, to use that reflective voice, to use my full knowledge of the present to talk about the past. I was conducting an experiment, and I wasn’t sure if it would succeed, or if I would have yet another humiliation ahead. I worked up until the second to the last day, when I made copies and passed it out to the others. In another 24 hours we would meet for the last time, and they would tell me what they thought.

///

The first student who spoke said “I liked this piece…” and I knew there’d be a “but”. It came, and I sighed a little as I realized that she didn’t get it, that she didn’t see what I was trying to do. Another student joined in, voicing similar concerns. The experiment had failed. All that work, all those hours.

Lopate normally waited until all of the students finished before giving his own feedback, but at that moment he interrupted. “I think you’re missing the point,” he said, and I realized he was addressing the two students. He went on to defend my piece, and to praise it. He got it; he saw what I was trying to do, and he loved it. He talked for a long time, and there were many kind words and compliments that would sound immodest if I listed them here, but I scribbled them into my notebook, so that I would always remember. “It’s a terrific piece,” he said, and that was that.

Later, in our individual conference, he told me that my essay had been the highlight of his week. I felt vindicated, exalted, exhausted. We talked about MFA programs in the city, and he recommended the program at New School, where he taught. “It would be an exciting program for you,” he said. I had him sign the book I had bought that week, the one with the essay on mentoring.

There was something a little awkward about Lopate; a sort of social hesitation that, combined with his skepticism and desire to keep us at arm’s length, made him unapproachable. The girl who had taken undergraduate writing classes with Lopate at Hoffstra University said that he was always like that, that he never really warmed up on a personal level. I knew that if I were to study with him at New School I would not find that warm mentor relationship, at least not with him.

But that is why I felt such elation and vindication; Lopate was not the type to encourage a young writer past his insecurities. He was tough and critical, and as a result his words were that much more meaningful. I knew he liked my essay, and I knew his approval was genuine. If I wanted warmth, well, maybe that’s what boyfriends are for. When it comes to a writing instructor, I’d rather get the truth.

I came to realize many things that week, some of which I had always known, in the way we sometimes know things but don’t realize it until later. I realized that one doesn’t need Issues to write good nonfiction; the subject matters much less than the voice. Joan Didion wrote an excellent essay about migraines. Virginia Woolf wrote one about the death of a moth. The essay I rewrote was full of big Issues, but it was liberating to know that I don’t always have to write like that, that I could write about small events or observations or irritations. Which is fortunate, because each of us only gets a limited number of Issues. Sooner or later I’d run out.

I realized that some pieces need more time and space; they need room and leisure for the ideas to fully form, and that writing for the attention span of the average Internet reader can mean too many sacrifices. One thing’s for certain; if you’ve read this far you are not the average reader, and that’s why I like you.

I knew that the essay I wrote that week required everything from me, required me to be at my best, with all of my questionable intelligence and skills, and that if I were to get anywhere as I writer I would always have to reach that level, and that I would have to get even better.

Looking back over this I can see that I have placed Lopate on a pedestal. He loved my essay, and as a result I left the conference with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and confidence. Had he not liked the same essay, I would have been absolutely discouraged. Lopate is just one person, one man with his own opinions. And those qualities of his I value are the same that would drive another writer to distraction. Lopate is that little voice that has always been in my head, the one that questions everything, the one that bristles when I write something the least bit gooey. He is the voice I had always feared, the skeptic, the elitist, the East Coast intellectual of impossible standards. In Lopate I have a found a symbol; the most demanding of readers, one for whom I will work harder. I will concede that his approval seems to matter more than my own convictions. But the few convictions I have are under constant revision: I am susceptible to the strong beliefs of others; and in my defense I call this learning.

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