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How to Write: Lesson 23
Lesson 23: Writing
Lesson 23: Writing
In the Spring of 1963 I took a night school writing class from Gordon Lish at the College of San Mateo. That was momentous, life changing, a no shit introduction to the real world of good books, pretty cool, etc.
I’m going to talk about some of the things that aren’t in Chapter 8. I don’t know what they’re going to be yet. They may or may not have anything to do with writing, but that’s the name of this lesson.
Figuring out how to write doesn't happen overnight. Before I signed up for the class, I'd written a few things to impress girls and drown some low-grade sorrows, but that was it. I had (and have) no education and no particular skill and not much ambition, but I got a tiny sliver of training in what it takes to be a writer when I was twenty and twenty-one. From then on, I avoided people who wanted to talk about writing. I’d had my education. It was plenty. It was more than enough. I was done with what anyone else could teach me. I was on my own.
I learned a little about the mechanics of writing, etc. in the class ("don't try to sell a refrigerator with scratches on it" was one). But the main thing was that I got exposed to a guy who loved good writing. Loved it. Adored it. Reveled in it. Viscerally. Inherently. And he knew what good writing was. That was the thing. I had no clue. I was a kid. I got hypnotized. He was beautiful. And joyful. And mean. And admirable. And tough. And demanding. And smart. And funny. And serious. And liked what he was doing. Good writing, I learned, is all those things. And he knew what it was! And he was going to tell me! Yippee!
It was plain to see after about five minutes in the class that he had other things going on, a lit magazine, connections in New York, famous friends, etc., that he was just getting his feet wet, practicing up on a bunch of nobodies before he took his show on the road. I could tell right away that I needed to grab this shit before it was gone. I soaked it up like a sponge. He taught the class for two semesters, then had seminars for four of us at his house in Burlingame for another four months or so. I came away with all I could ever hope to learn, most of which I’ve forgotten. But what remains is that the guy loved good writing and knew what it was. That was the only thing that really mattered. I just wanted to be around him. Everything he did mattered. He talked about writers and writing I already knew, mostly Salinger, and guys I barely knew, James Purdy and Flannery O’Connor and guys I didn’t know at all, Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen and a bunch I’ve forgotten.
One of the other nobodies in the class was an older woman named Opal Belknap. She had a brother in a nuthouse. She knew she needed to grab this shit before it was gone, too. We got to be buddies. What I learned from her was that I had my whole life ahead of me and that I had to start living it. I did. Pick the people you get to be buddies with very carefully. Then let them influence you. That was what happened with Lish and Belknap. I let them influence me. It was close to sixty years ago. I guess they left an impression. Looking back, I suspect that was what they wanted to do.
Live your life. Hm. I thought I’d already been doing that.
But no. Lish and Belknap happened after all that. Man, I had a busy couple of years. I didn’t know it, but I had a lot going on. A lot went on after them, too, but after them it was different. I was paying attention. Almost sixty years is a long time to remember things. Paying attention helps. What else has stuck in my mind is two things:
1) I was at Lish's house one night when Kesey came over. He had just sold the rights to Cuckoo's Nest to Kirk Douglas for ten thousand bucks. He was stoked. He'd just seen a motorcycle accident, however, and was a pretty shaken up. We talked about it. We talked about a kibbutz in Israel, comic books, the sexual athleticism of the Negro male and wrestling, which we all had in common. The thing that’s stuck in my mind about it was that we were all ordinary guys, just the three of us, shooting the shit. We were all interested in what the other had to say. There wasn't anything mystical about any of it or any of us. One of us had written a book that was going to get made into a movie by Kirk Douglas. Another of us had his own literary magazine and hung out with some new literary agent by the name of Lynn Nesbit. And I had a really cute girlfriend. It seemed to me that we would all prefer to be exactly who he was.
2) I met Belknap with her fiancé. He was jealous of me. He kept trying to prove how much better than me he was. I could have told him that I was young, and he was old, but didn't. If he wanted to be better than me, fine. I wanted her to be happy. I liked her. I liked him because she did.
Here’s a story I wrote about her a long, long time ago I don’t think it had a title. Maybe Leonor Fini:
I was twenty-two and not getting any younger, mamma told me, when I married a sickly man who took me to Redwood City, California for the climate. It didn't do him a lick of good. I wrote mama about the funeral and got a letter not much more than a week later in mamma's handwriting and postmarked from Tallahassee all right but addressed to some woman I never heard of before. It was me. Mamma would be coming out "...to spend her last days on this earth," was the way she put it. Being alone in a house I couldn't pay for, mamma coming with her Social Security was a Godsend. Her last days turned out to be six thousand and some odd. She was embarrassed. I didn't mind. Married men bought me beers after work. I sang to them in their cars, songs of the piney woods and old love and whisky. Country songs, Mississippi Blues.
"Damn, you sing good, girl. Makes me tingle all over. Makes me sad and kind of happy at the same time, you know what I mean?"
I told them I did. They ate it up and sometimes me too, with mamma's shadow on the window shade. I expected to find her everywhere, in every posture imaginable. One morning she was simply in bed with the covers pulled up under her chin, holding on with both fists, sweet as you please. I opened an eye to check. Don't ever do that, by the way, if you get the chance. Time passed. I married my boss when he retired. Mr. Rausch. HAR. We mostly went by initials at work. I tinted my hair, had it permed into more curls than Clara Bow and took my early retirement, too. Homer bought me a dress with rows and rows of white fringe a foot long. The "A" stood for Arlen. It was a family name. I jumped up and down for him to see it flounce and he took me to France to see Montmarte and Monte Saint-Michel.
When we got back, he bought me a long black wig to wear up to Lake Tahoe—like Liz Taylor, he told me. We rode ten-speeds through the hills back home. Then I turned up the gas jets in the fireplace while Homer opened a bottle of wine and brought crystal glasses, bright candles and the beat-up old Scrabble box out to the Chinese rug, the heavy blue wool rug, a hundred years old, with multicolored cherry-blossoms on it and two small brown birds standing on different branches but looking at each other—mates, most likely. One evening Homer had a massive stroke. We were about tied at the time, but it looked like he might have been just about ready to lay down the word "uxorious" when he keeled over. We never knew for sure one way or the other. The hospital kept him alive until there was nothing left, including the rug I had grown to love. The little birds are rolled up in a warehouse someplace now, protected from moths, but unable to see each other, to sing to each other, suffocating probably. I have no room for a Chinese rug.
Yesterday morning, I rented this apartment. It's a furnished studio on Page Street, a block from Safeway and the Haight Street busses, across from a Laundromat and a Russian Bakery. I have truly always wanted to live alone, in a small room in a big city—to get a hot piroshky while my things were in the dryer, to hop a bus and ride it to the end of the line, to look out over the ocean with the salt wind pinning my hair back like a sailor in a crow's nest, spying specks of ships moving across the gray horizon, maybe some sea otters cavorting closer to shore, and ride another bus back again.
I was moved in by noon and went shopping in my new neighborhood. I found a Leonor Fini print at the Salvation Army, all in orange and black, of a woman at a sewing machine, and some macrame plant hangers. Today I'd planned to buy plants and picture hangers. So much for plans. I popped open a beer in the cozy armchair by the window and leaned back, mistress of all I surveyed. It was exciting. A drop of sweat rolled down the inside of my arm, startled me. I had to get a cigarette. That was when I found the letter, the envelope shoved under the front door. I read it and smoked, read it again and did a very foolish thing, something impulsive, something I thought was sort of cute at the time. Here's what the letter said. It was typed on a typewriter, an old typewriter, at that. Parts of letters were filled with ink from a frayed ribbon and painstakingly corrected in sharp lead pencil:
"Dear Miss: I know you are upset by the happenings of the other night. Nobody could blame you. Maybe you understand it and maybe you don't. It was young Collage boys. You proberbly heard the music. Now you pull down your shades so it will be OK. You may not believe me but I am telling you they could not help it. I have seen you too. Your flower lamp turns your room soft yellow through the curtins. You take off your cloths and your hair is the longest and blackest I ever saw. When you make circles over your head like a sword your hair is like whips. I cannot see details. Dont worry. It is beauty I am talking about. Sometimes you read the newspaper still with no cloths on and turn over on your back and stretch. You are proberbly lonly too but that is hard for me to believe. You will find love for yourself for sure.
Those boys could see you. One got on the clothsline to get closer. They were drunk. He got caught half way in the middle between your bilding and could not go either way and could not stop laughing. I yelled to him that I was going to call the cops but it was too late then. You pulled down your shades. I am writing to you to say that I am glad you did it. One time when you were dancing I went to your house and saw the light coming from under your door and smelled your perfume and felt the floor thump from your bare feet. I will not ever do that again but you can see it is not the boys falt. No one will ever harm you in any way so dont worry. OK? Thank you."
I was sweating like a pig. It was almost dark. There were lights in some of the windows across the yards by then. I could see television sets on. Dan Rather was recognizable. I pulled down the shades and peeked out a crack. Wind whooshed into eucalyptus trees in the Panhandle, bringing fog in behind it. The trees swatted at the fog like stalks of pampas grass, like the bundles of flowering reeds beautiful slaves used to fan Pharaohs with, in pictures on pyramid walls. There was pressure behind my eyes. I’d smoked too many cigarettes. My ears hummed like low voltage electrical transformers. I must have dozed. When I woke up, it was pitch black but only around nine. I had a brilliant idea. I must also have been stark staring mad out of my mind.
I stormed through the closet for my white fringed dress. It was on a hanger. I got it out and got out the long black wig. Then I tied one of my new macrame plant holders up to a hook in the ceiling and hung the whole ensemble, by the neck, up in front of the windows. I let the shades fly as high as they would go and turned on the lily lamp. It filled the room with soft yellow light, casting a slow-moving shadow across the far wall, looking for all the world like a woman hanging there, her long black hair like limp whips. I dressed for bed in the bathroom as though it was another wedding night. Then I propped myself up on pillows and wrote with a thick felt pen:
"I have no use for a white fringed dress. No use for a long black wig. Utilities are included in the rent. If I sleep, I'll sleep with the light on. It can burn all night long, and the next night too, and the night after that. Something will happen. Something's bound to ha..."
That was far as I got. The page is still here, still attached to the yellow, legal pad. It's the first page, the one with the brand name and advertising still on it. There was a noise at the door, as of something huge pressing slowly into it. The wood creaked. It was about to come apart in splinters. I did not give a damn and flung it open. A short dark man stumbled into the room. He had a black handled Henkel carving knife (one I almost bought at the Emporium) held high over his head like all the maniac movies I had ever seen. He looked from me to my dress hanging there and back to me again and bellowed. Literally. Made a sound from out of a stockyard. I screamed myself. We looked right into each other’s eyes, screaming and bellowing, simultaneously. Then he ran. I locked the door.
I dreamed of salamanders. Lizards with fuzzy purple growths for ears. Creeping out of a pond shining with rainbows of motor oil. Crawling onto my pillow. This morning I had coffee and smoked my head off the rest of the day. Now the sun's gone down. It's around nine again. I've gathered my wits about me. I've learned a thing or two. Don't presume is one thing. Don't get cute is another. And, keeping those two things in mind, I'd have to say that all in all, the chances are better they're there to cut you down than to cut you up.