I’m in the middle of writing a piece for the terrific blog threeguysonebook.com that got me thinking about all the writers I’ve had the privilege to encounter, and so I thought I’d offer some of the things I’ve learned from them over the years. None of these are in any particular order, nor is this list complete.
At Washington University, where I got my M.F.A., I had the good fortune to study with Reginald McKnight, author of the short-story collection The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas (the title story is widely anthologized and deservedly so) as well as the novel, I Get on the Bus. If you get a chance, go hear him read, because he’s a born performer and mimic, and when you sit down with his work afterward, his spoken voice animates the prose in ways that only add to the experience. Anyhow, one evening the English department took McKnight and the creative writing students out for dinner; it was a big group, and during the meal, someone said something particularly funny, upon which McKnight busted out a pen and notebook from his backpack to write it down, which brings me to my First Secret: Bring a pen and notebook with you everywhere.
William Gaddis, the legendary modernist author of The Recognitions, JR, and Carpenter’s Gothic, also spoke at Wash U, a guest of William Gass’s International Writers Center, and before a huge audience, gave a talk about his life and career that was tinged with bitterness. Mostly he bemoaned his lack of readership, claiming that for years he could count on one hand the people who’d read The Recognitions. I confess I haven’t helped the cause, but it brings up Number Two: Don’t become a writer if you want to be famous. He went on to discuss a seminar he’d given during his one year teaching (he made his living primarily as a corporate speechwriter, which gives truth to Secret Number Three: Don’t write to pay the rent), a course he called “Failure in American Literature,” and his curriculum, which he grumpily enumerated for the audience, got quite a few laughs (Ahab: failure; Gatsby: failure; Jake Barnes; failure), proving Samuel Beckett’s observation that nothing is funnier than unhappiness. The department took Gaddis out to lunch afterward, with me in tow. I jumped every free meal I could back then (addendum to Number Three: Don’t write to eat). We went to Dressel’s, which serves great hot buttered rum and homemade chips, and I asked him if there was something he was currently working on. He considered the question and then said, “I’m working on working on something.” Secret Number Four: Trust idleness.
The great Carlos Fuentes, Mexican author of The Death of Artemio Cruz and Christopher Unborn, also spoke at Washington University (not a bad place to be a young writer, huh?). I have the date of his talk in my journal, October 6, 1993, and its title: Culture and Crisis in Latin America, during which he offered his Ten Commandments for the Novel. Let’s make these a set and call them Secret Number Five:
1. The novel does not inform.
2. The novel imagines.
3. The novel imagines everything that is invisible.
4. The novel transforms the unsaid part of the world into the said part of the world.
5. The novel reflects and creates reality.
6. The novel’s creation affects the future and anticipates unrealized possibilities.
7. The novel depends on the future and the past. Creativity gives new life and novelty to the past.
8. The novel creates a new time, one of reading assimilated into life. It brings the memory of the past and desire for the future together in the present.
9. The novel is an area where realities that might not meet actually shake hands.
10. The novel is a precise parabola of an unfinished world.
They’re pretty incredible and bring me to Number Six: Go hear writers speak whenever possible. Or at least go here them read.
At Vassar College, where I received my B.A., I heard Mary McCarthy do just that. She read from The Group, it was the spring of my junior year, and McCarthy was very near the end of her life (she would die several months later). A desk and chair were set up for her on stage, and she struggled to get through the chapter she’d picked because she kept chuckling at the scene. Sometimes it even doubled her over, as if she hadn’t been its author or, like Kafka, found something secretly funny in work that, to me at least, seemed anything but. That brings me to Numbers Seven and Eight: Be willing to laugh at yourself (Lee Smith, who spoke at my wife’s graduation, is good at this too) and Don’t be afraid to like your own work, although I’ll tack on to these Number Nine: Don’t like your work too much (Faulkner’s version of this: Be willing to kill your darlings).
Number Ten may go without saying: Knowing the secrets to serious writing won’t guarantee you’ll get published.
During another great event at Vassar, the poets Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz paid a visit, performing like a pair of Nobel-prize-winning dueling banjoes. In their appearance and delivery, they were a study in opposites: Milosz was imposing, large, with a receding hairline that made his huge head look bigger, and had a deep basso voice that rang out like the last ding-dong of doom (Number Eleven: Allude to a Nobel-prize acceptance speech if the opportunity presents itself). Brodsky, meanwhile, was thin, ironic, and humorous; he had a tonsure of curly hair and was lightning to Milosz’s thunder. Brodsky said, and I quote: “The difference between the language of art and life is that the language of life is cliché.” Thus, Numbers Twelve and Thirteen: Memorize memorable sayings and Avoid clichés (see “lightning to Milosz’s thunder”).
Robert Coover visited Wash U for a semester and gave a lengthy talk on hyper-texts. This was back in 1994, and he used—I get nostalgic just thinking about it—an overhead projector during his lecture. His thesis: hyper-texts are the future of the novel. (Secret Number Fourteen: Hyper–texts are not the future of the novel.)
By the way, I’m guessing everyone reading this has probably figured out Number Fifteen: If you want to be a serious writer, it certainly doesn’t hurt to go to a writing program.
The incomparable Stanley Elkin, my professor at Wash U, was almost completely crippled with MS when I arrived. I was fresh off an M.A. at Hollins University, and I’d had a monstrously productive year at the latter, due in large part to the gentle guidance of Richard Dillard, a writer and teacher of such prodigious gifts his brain needs to be cryogenically frozen and studied upon his death. At the time, I was well into the middle of a novel that had its moments but was altogether a failure, a fact that would take me two years to realize (Number Sixteen: Writing is an inefficient process; see also Seventeen: Writers are self-deluded. Or quoting Stanley here (see Twelve above): “Don’t confuse your hope with your evidence”). A large man, he’d teach seminar in his living room, slumped in his wheelchair. At the time, he was taking heavy doses of prednisone, which puffed out his features, gave his skin a shiny, almost reptilian appearance; his right arm, if memory serves me, was the only limb over which he had any motor control (this was soon lost too, so that by my final year there, he had only the use of his hand; he typed his last novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, with one finger; Secret Number Eighteen: Writers need a great deal of determination).
Elkin could be brutal to students, though he was never untruthful. My first day in workshop, he brought two women to tears critiquing their stories and, of the four of us accepted into the program that year, two quit before the end of the term because they couldn’t handle working with him. The third person stopped writing altogether and fled to Stanford Law School, though that was for more practical reasons (Number Nineteen: The writing life isn’t for everyone). I respected her for that, but the two quitters lost out. The gauntlet you ran under Elkin’s tutelage was surviving his influence because he was a writer who was great, first and foremost, at teaching his own aesthetic, which he summed up as follows: “All comedy is rooted in powerlessness” and is also Number Twenty.
He was also about the funniest person I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around. When Joyce Carol Oates came to speak on campus, I happened to be in the department lounge with Elkin when she poked her head in the door. She has a long, beautiful neck and a tiny voice; she said, “Hi, Stanley,” to which Elkin said “hi” back. She began to withdraw, but she was slow to do this (her neck was something) and he stopped her and said, “Hey, Joyce, don’t ever get a cold in your throat. It’ll kill you.” Secret Number Twenty One: To learn how to write great comic fiction, study Elkin’s “The Guest”, from Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers—my wife and I can crack each other up by uttering the words, “Camel shit!”—as well as his novella The Making of Ashenden, in which a man must bring a female bear to orgasm in order to save his own life. Both will make you cough a lung.
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In more Mr. Peanut news, copies of the Knopf edition arrived in the mail yesterday, and as Humbert Humbert says in Lolita, “They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.” My favorite thing about the cover: the pixilated skull is so shiny you can see your reflection in it. Form, as it’s said, goes hand in hand with content.