“After the fire, the fire still burns, the heart grows older but never ever learns. The memories smolder and the soul always yearns. After the fire, the fire still burns.”
– Pete Townshend
If he remembers me after these many years, it surely isn’t as an individual, but as of a type. What a sight I must have been. The mussed wavy blond hair, the scruffy beard. The black polo shirt and jeans. The brown corduroy jacket, a worn and tattered copy of “Leaves of Grass” bulging out of one side pocket, Nick Carraway’s meditation on life, passion and the American dream peering out of the other. The future rock star of American letters, radiating passion, joy, and heartbreaking charm to any lovely young thing who might be seduced. Few were.
He himself was a man of letters, a published author of three novels of good critical reputation, but little financial reward. His voice had been silent for many years and he had settled into teaching American literature and creative writing to the small group of budding young Fitzgeralds, O’Connors, Whartons, and Salingers who sailed in and out of the Humanities building of the university every year.
The first time I met him was during the spring semester of my junior year. I was applying for a seat in his fall section “Writing Prose Fiction.” I had already taken several writing courses, but this one was different. This was the senior level creative writing class offered by the English Department, taught by a published novelist. Registration for the class required his approval and a writing sample was required. A few days earlier, I had agonized over my meager portfolio of writing: personal narratives, stories and fragments of stories produced over the previous two years. For a person whose goal in life was to become a writer, I had produced very little that I could be proud of. Friends complimented my work, but it had always seemed to me that they were complimenting what I wanted my writing to be, not what it actually was. “Don’t submit anything too long,” an acquaintance who had taken this class advised me. “He gets a lot of people handing him things to read so keep it short.” Short was good because short was all I had. Finally, after agonizing over the selection, I chose a three-page interior monologue I had written earlier that year: a young man waiting for his girlfriend in a coffee shop, his mind racing from thought to thought, fear to fear, as to why she might be late.
Acceptance into this professor’s writing class would be, for me, a validation of my talent. It would tell me that yes, I did have talent and that the writing life was a worthwhile pursuit. What I didn’t understand at the time, was that competition for admission to the class wasn’t all that tough and that the writing sample was merely to assure the professor that the applicant had a rudimentary ability to put both nouns and verbs in most of their sentences.
When I had stopped by his office a few days earlier to give him my sample, he was not there. A file folder was taped to the office door, labeled “Fall Writing Prose Fiction – samples.” I pulled my story out of the folder in my hand, glanced over the first page, and slid it into the folder on the door.
The next day, I went back to his office and found the door was again locked. It was late afternoon and the hallway on the third floor was deserted. There was a pale gray light coming in through the skylight above the waiting area outside his office. I took a quick look around to make sure that no one was coming and pulled open the folder on the door. My manuscript was still there, along with some others that had been pushed in after it. That sleepless night I had spent worrying about what the professor thought about my writing, and more importantly, me, had been all for nothing. He hadn’t even read it yet.
On the day after that, The Professor was still not in his office but the folder on his door had been emptied. My future was being decided.
On the fourth day, as I was walking up the hallway toward his office, I could see that the door was still closed. This time, however, there was a young lady sitting in the reception area.
As I approached his office, she looked up at me and said, “Hi, are you here to see him?” gesturing at the office door.
“He told me he would be here at three o’clock.”
I looked at my watch; it was 3:05.
“He should be here soon,” she said, smiling.
I slid my backpack down off my shoulder and set it on the floor.
“You must be applying for the writing class,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
“You have that look,” she replied. “And a folder with manuscripts in your hand”.
I smiled and her and said, “Oh I guess I look a bit typical. Actually, I left my writing sample a few days ago and I’m waiting to find out if I’ve been accepted.”
I sat down next to her and asked, “Are you applying for the class?”
“Oh no, I’m here for something else,” she said mysteriously.
There was an awkward silence and I started looking this way and that, trying to avoid looking at her. My mind was on my story, what The Professor, who had most likely read it by now, thought of it, and my future as a writer.
“May I read some of your writing?”
The question unnerved me. No one had ever actually asked to read my writing. Usually, I would thrust it into their hands and they would be forced to politely indulge me.
I opened my folder and started fumbling through the manuscripts, not sure which one to give her.
“Do you have a copy of the one you submitted?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“How about that one then, since you picked it out to be your best.”
I pulled the extra copy I had of my interior monologue out of my folder and handed it to her.
Sitting next to someone who’s reading your work is even more stressful than thinking about someone you can’t see reading your work. To settle my mind down, I stopped thinking about the class, how embarrassingly bad my writing actually was, and just focused on the young woman sitting next to me. Up until now, all I had been able to think about was what The Professor had thought of my story. I hadn’t really paid much attention to this young woman who was now reading my story.
She was quite attractive. She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, and brushed back and feathered in that popular style of the late seventies. She wore oval shaped silver rimmed eyeglasses that were only partially obscured her large blue eyes. She was not dressed like a student, but in a well tailored, or at least well-tailored to my twenty-one year old eyes, business suit, the hem of her skirt modestly reaching below her knees. She looked like she had a grownup job. I thought she might be one of the professor’s graduate students who held a job out in the real world. “Are you one of his graduate students?” I asked.
She emitted a barely audible chuckle and she moved her head slightly from side to side as she quietly said “No.” Her eyes never lost focus on what she was reading and she appeared to be concentrating very intently, almost as if she were looking through the pages in her hand.
When she got to the end, a smile crept across her face. “That’s very good,” she said. Looking at the top of the first page for my name, she added “Frederick.”
“Oh, it’s Fred. Just Fred.”
“Well it’s very good. Thank you for letting me read it, Fred.”
Just then, I heard the squeak of rubber soled shoes walking up the hallway. I recognized the man walking toward us. Over the previous two and a half years, I had passed by him in the hallway and entered classrooms that he had been leaving. He was a slight figured man. He wore a tan sport jacket and dark gray slacks. He was bald but still with some dark hair on the side of his head, showing only a few flecks of gray. He had that bald appearance that allows a man to appear to be of indeterminate age from the time he’s thirty-five to the time he’s sixty-five. He smiled and nodded at the Mystery-Woman next to me and then looked at me.
“And you are?” he asked.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Bubbers”, he said, grinning.
He pulled his keys out of his jacket pocket and approached his office door.
“If you just give me a moment, I can give you back your story and the registration card for the class. You don’t mind if I take care of this first?” he asked looking over his shoulder at Mystery-Woman.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she answered.
He opened the door of his office and said, “Step inside, Mr. Bubbers.”
It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever called me “Mr.” Well, my parents and other teachers had called me that, but when they said it, it meant that I was in trouble. This, however, sounded polite and respectful. It made me nervous.
I stepped into his office and he followed me in closing the door behind him. Whatever he had to say to me, it was going to be in private.
He walked around to the other side of his desk and switched on the green porcelain library lamp on his desk. He set his brief case on the top of his desk and opened it. “I have your story here,” he said, pulling out a stack of papers from the briefcase. “Yes, here it is.” He reached down to his desk drawer and pulled it open. “The registration cards are in here.” He pulled one of the white cards out of his drawer, placed it on top of my manuscript and held them out to me across the desk.
“Thank you,” I said taking my manuscript and the registration card from him.
“Welcome to writing prose fiction, Mr. Bubbers, I’m looking forward to next fall’s section. We have some fine writers.”
He didn’t seem to indicate in manner, gesture, or tone of voice whether he considered me one of those “fine writers.”
I placed the manuscript into my folder and looked up expectantly at him. He had a kind, friendly face, but also a kind of reserved and distant quality about his look. His eyes seemed tired, world-weary.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Bubbers?”
“Well,” I stammered. “About my story.”
“Oh your story!” he interrupted. “That was just fine, Mr. Bubbers, just fine.”
“Fine?” I asked myself. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Maybe it was my look. Or maybe it was his experience with my type, semester after semester, year after year, coming to him for some kind of validation. He would never give us what we were seeking; he would only give us what we needed. And he would be damned cryptic about it.
“Mr. Bubbers, you shouldn’t get yourself worked up over a simple short story. Write them, finish them, and get on to the next thing.”
He stepped around his desk, reaching for the door. As he pulled it open he said, “Have a fine summer, enjoy yourself, and I’ll see you next fall.” He smiled a mischievous, conspiratorial smile and his tired eyes locked on mine.
I was ushered out of his office. As I walked past Mystery-Woman, still seated outside, she smiled up at me and said, “Congratulations, Fred.”
I’m not sure whether I answered her or not. I don’t remember if she told me her name that day. The only thing I remember from the rest of that day was bursting out the door of the Humanities building into the bright warm sun and devouring the clear, crisp air of the early spring afternoon.
I suppose that I have been a little harsh in my cynical presentation of my younger self and maybe it’s because I now live on the other side of the disappointments that that young man knew were inevitable, but still hadn’t faced. To be completely truthful about it, I have to give that young man, silly and naïve as he may now appear to be, his due. His interests were true, his devotion endless, and his commitment deep. I didn’t feel then, nor do I feel now, that he has ever had any other choices about the paths he has taken.
I come from a family whose business is medicine. They are all medical doctors, and nurses, and pharmacists. One cousin got radical and earned a PhD in Biology. Another cousin wrecked her father’s car on the way to the Woodstock Festival, but recovered from her momentary insanity and became a nurse.
It might have been the emotional barriers that everyone in my family placed around themselves that gave me a kind of loneliness that found solace in reading. Starting in my early teenage years, I began to find and then actively seek some kind of emotional charge or some kind of connectedness to other people by reading books. Reading stirred parts of me that my family didn’t even recognized existed. Literature explained to me how the world worked, how people worked, and most importantly, how they felt. Whether it was Achilles longing for his beloved Briseis, Penelope faithfully awaiting Odysseus’ return home, Prince Hal transforming himself into a King, or Holden Caulfield trying to erase all the “Fuck You’s” in the world, literature taught me that feeling things was good. I did, of course, do what was expected of me and got the required good grades in science and math, but my heart was in English class. I think I may have gotten a ninety-six or a ninety-eight on my Trigonometry Regents Exam. It meant little to me and all the trigonometry flew out of my head five minutes after taking the exam. Hester Prynne, Stephen Dedalus, Fat Jack Falstaff, and Jay Gatsby still live there, along with the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson and the essays of Emerson and Thoreau.
So that young man was genuine, no matter what his burned-out middle-aged self says about him.
During the following summer, I read all three of my writing professor’s published books. This was not to ingratiate myself with him; I don’t think I ever let him know that I had read his books. I had never met a person who had written a novel, much less published three of them. I thought that by reading the books and knowing the person who had created them, I might come to understand that mysterious creative process that creates life out of nothingness. A twenty-one year old boy with romantic visions has the right to believe such things can be known.
I started with his first and read them in the order that they had been published. The first novel was a very slim volume, a novella really, and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. His craft skills appeared to be excellent and as I re-read the book again today, they still do. His beautiful flowing prose style is exquisite and graceful, approaching poetry. His ability to describe a scene succinctly and accurately, with just the right details to make it come alive for the reader is everything that I would spend the years trying to emulate. His sense of drama is subtle. Plot elements are introduced in non-obvious ways so that when you reach the book’s dramatic climax, it seems natural and believable, not contrived.
What disappointed me at the time was the actual story he told. It was a typical kind of love story that you tend to get from young, first time novelists. A story about a young man, usually a writer, having his heart broken by a pretty young girl. As young and naïve as I was at the time, I had read enough to know the literary territory. If it’s not a Jewish family, it’s an Irish family. In this case, they were Italian-Americans, just like, wait for it…the author.
Still, I was impressed with the skills that he told the story with, the fact that he had actually started and finished it and the writing was consistently good through the whole book. There were no boring parts. And of course I assumed, as probably everyone else who reads it, that the story was close to him in some way.
I’m sure that anyone who mentions this book to him now will get this response: a smile of embarrassment, a dismissive wave of the hand and some kind of terse comment like “Oh that, I did that before I knew what I was doing. It’s not useful.”
He liked that word “useful” and used it to mean “good” or “valid” or “enlightening.” I once received back an essay exam for a literature class I took from him with my grade, a C minus, and the following comment on the front of the blue book: “Not Useful.” It wasn’t.
I’ve recently reread his first novel, and I have to say that it’s good that authors themselves don’t get to decide which of their works matter and which don’t. It’s true that he later created stories that are more complex, delved deeper into the human heart, and probably got further away from his own experience, but I now see that this book clearly shows his ability early on to capture a moment and a feeling. It resonates with me now in a way it didn’t when I was twenty-one. It is littered with true sentences that in my ignorance of life caused me to pass over the first time.
During the summer of that year, to the dismay of my girlfriend, I had remained in Albany, painting dorm rooms and trying to do some writing before school started in the fall. We had met two years earlier as residents of a coed dormitory. To others, it was a sort of odd pairing. She was majoring in business, headed, eventually, toward an executive suite in Manhattan; I was majoring in English, not sure at all where I was headed, but certainly not an executive suite. She did, and still does today, have an abiding love for the arts, particularly the theater. So in spite of the obvious differences, we could enjoy talking about books and plays, attend campus theater productions and we would even take a class together in Contemporary American novel. She had no desire to create anything, at least not seriously, but she thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the work of others. She enjoyed reading my writing, or at least said she did. Also, one of the most popular films of that decade was a love story that begins when a Jewish girl meets a handsome, WASPY writer on a college campus. I don’t know whether she consciously thought of us that way, but that’s how it appeared. For my part, although I had dismissed that movie as commercial trash, I was perfectly willing to play that role in return for some companionship, some emotional support and encouragement, and a feeling of being anchored at least somewhere. And although she occasionally tried her hand at writing, she wasn’t serious about it, so there was no competition between us. It was a comfortable relationship and we both truly enjoyed each other’s company.
My decision to spend our last college summer apart from her upset her. I was beginning to feel restless, and she sensed it. I was feeling edgy about the coming year and I needed to spend some time getting ready before school started. There were some books I wanted to read ahead of time and I wanted to get some stories written as well. It was time to start focusing seriously on writing while I still could. I would never have more time for writing then I did then; in another year, I would be out of school, working. Somewhere.
That summer we spent apart was the beginning of the end for us. I spent the last two weeks of August in New York, but the relationship wasn’t what it had been in May when school had ended. Later, in the fall, the pressures I put on myself, and the emotional energy I put into writing for that class would break the relationship apart. I think now that she was more hurt by what I did than I realized at the time, but I was too self-involved to even notice. Even if I had noticed, I’m not sure it would have made any difference.
By the time classes started in the fall, I had written five stories. I ended up only using two of them because after a couple weeks of seeing what the other students in the class were producing, I thought the other three weren’t good enough. It was heartbreaking to throw them out, but The Professor had been correct; there were some fine writers in the class.
In a writing workshop, each time the class meets, half of the students hand out stories they have written to be read and then discussed at the next meeting. The class meets twice a week, so each member of the class needs to produce a story a week for the entire semester. During the course of a semester several interesting dynamics occur. First of all, as it is a workshop format, and under the guidance of The Professor, it’s a very supportive environment. Although the motivation to write is different for everybody, all the students in the class are there for a common purpose. They share a lot of the same challenges: finding ideas for stories, getting them written on time, the pressure to produce something new each week. Also, since you are always handing out stories that you’ve just recently completed, you are very close to them and you can feel very vulnerable handing them over to others to criticize. Since every one in the class has to face that every week, people tend to be polite to one another, at least at first. As the weeks go by, and the group bonds in the various ways that young single men and women who have a lot of free time tend to bond, people become more comfortable speaking their minds. The criticism becomes more honest and helpful and the relationships become even stronger.
At the same time as the supportive nature of the group is developing, an opposite force begins to emerge: competition. I’m not sure that this is true for everybody, but I know it was true for at least some of the members of the class, including me. At each session, it becomes very clear that one or two stories that week were far better than the others. No one has to say anything, everybody just knows. Those stories become the unspoken standard of quality for the next week, and everybody gets challenged to work a little harder, with the goal of trying to impress your classmates. It wasn’t a mean-spirited competition, or at least in most cases it wasn’t, as much as it was a weekly raising of the stakes.
In this class, no one had an unbroken string of wins. I did well in this competition that we pretended did not exist, and occasionally impressed my classmates, but I also sometimes embarrassed myself.
The result of these two opposing forces, supportive bonding and competition, was that an individual student’s level of skill would improve dramatically over the course of a semester. Those stories that I had written that summer, even the two I had submitted to the class, didn’t come close to the ones I wrote in the last three weeks of the semester. The University allowed students to register for writing workshops twice, so several of us continued on the following semester.
To be fair, not everyone took this as seriously as some of us did. Some were there to earn their three credits, try out creative writing, and enjoy themselves by not taking it all too seriously. Some appeared to have some real talent and skill, but didn’t really try very hard. Others didn’t create much worthwhile work at all. There were eight people in the class. Four of us fell into the hardcore group; the other four were just sort of passing through. I have to admit that I don’t remember much about that latter group. I’d like to account for them here and give them their due because anybody who tries to write something and willingly exposes his or her work and themselves to criticism deserves some recognition for it. Unfortunately, it’s so long ago and their stories left no lasting impression on me, good or bad. Perhaps I remember the hardcore group more for their more active and serious participation in the class than for their writing. These were the students who would become my friends, colleagues, confidantes, and competition.
The workshop was held in a classroom in the university’s performing arts center. This is probably because there were no rooms available in the humanities building, but it seemed to be appropriate since the dynamics of the class gave it some similarities to an acting class. The room apparently was used regularly for some kind of workshop or another and when I arrived there, the desks were already arranged in a circle. There were several students there before I got there.
I took a seat on the far side of the circle, facing the door. A quarter of way around the circle to my left sat a young man dressed in black jeans, a black sport jacket, and a black polo shirt. He had long, unkempt and somewhat greasy brown hair. He wore black framed eyeglass. There was a large art portfolio on the floor next to him, leaning up against the side of his chair. In front of him, on his desk was a copy of “The Dubliners.” I developed an immediate and lasting dislike for him. This does not conflict with that wonderful, supportive environment I have described. It is merely an additional dynamic. “Jerk thinks he’s Stephan Dedalus,” I thought to myself, completely missing the irony of my private assessment.
The next member of his hardcore group was sitting a few chairs further down from The-Artist-As-A-Young-Man. She was a young woman who I recognized and we exchanged hellos. She was a beautiful blonde girl, with an exquisite figure and a disarming smile. She wore sandals an extremely short blue denim mini skirt, and a collared men’s dress shirt covered by a frayed blue denim jacket. At the time she was dating a friend of mine so I had met her a few times out at parties. We had spoken a few times and my friend had told me about her. In spite of any assumptions one would make of her because of her appearance, she was one of the top students in the English department, was on her way to a summa cum laude with a 4.0 grade point average and could shred anybody on campus in any kind of intellectual argument. When not engaged in any heavy intellectual activity, she reverted to being a friendly, smiling, somewhat flighty Hippy-Girl. Her relationship with my friend soon broke up as had my relationship with my girlfriend, and although I don’t know any of the facts, I don’t think it was for any of the same reasons. As I got to know Hippy-Girl, I saw that while she could be an absolutely brilliant, focused and ruthless competitor, she had the enviable ability to completely shut that part of herself off. I can’t imagine that she could ever let any kind of professional endeavor have any kind of effect on her personal life at all. Later, she became a reporter for the Associated Press.
Finally, the last member of the hardcore group was seated halfway around the circle directly opposite me. Whereas Hippy-Girl was fairly short and all curves, this young woman was tall and angular. She wore cowboy boots, jeans, and a plaid western style shirt. Her brown hair was cut short, parted on the side and framed her pretty delicate face in a soft boyish way, and she had blue eyes. And she was smiling at me. She was looking right at me and smiling at me.
I looked at her and tried to remember if I had ever met her before. I couldn’t. I’ve always considered myself of average appearance, neither handsome nor ugly. This was very strange. I’ve never walked into a room and had a pretty woman I’d never met smile at me. It never happened before then and it’s never happened since. This was very odd, so I simply decided that Western-Shirt was odd.
One would think that a young writer in the making would have strong powers of observation and the ability to notice and remember small details, and I believe I did. Maybe it was the nervous frenzy I had been in that day that previous spring when I met the Professor for the first time. Maybe it was the fact that the only thing I could remember from that day was my short, terse conversation with The Professor. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until three weeks into the semester, when the class had met for six sessions that I finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Western-Shirt was Mystery-Woman with a different hairstyle, different clothes, and contact lenses. Her smile for me that first day of class was one of recognition. I simply hadn’t remembered meeting her. I never told her it took me that long to recognize her, for if it had been under any other circumstances, she might have made more of an impression. I believe that I am now only able to remember that earlier encounter at all because she was in this class.
I tried to size up the students in the class, to imagine the kinds of stories they would write. Artist-As-A-Young-Man, taking him too seriously, would write deep introspective stories with little or no plot. A sense of irony is something I only fully developed later in life. Western-Shirt (for she was still Western-Shirt on that day, I hadn’t yet realized she was Mystery-Woman), would write rural stories about barn raisings, church socials, and the birth of new livestock. She was a hayseed. A pretty hayseed, but a hayseed nonetheless. And damn it, she was still smiling at me. Hippy-Girl, because I knew her true nature, would write powerful stories full of shocking violence, and then smile and giggle as we discussed them. It turns out I was wrong about many of my assumptions. While The-Artist-As-A-Young-Man would write incoherent stream of consciousness tracts, Western-Shirt would produce the stories with shocking violence, usually committed by angry women. And the most brooding, introspective and plotless story of all would come from me.
The Professor entered the room smiling, again in his tan jacket and rubber soled shoes. He pulled his class list out of his brief case. “Welcome to Writing Prose Fiction,” he said. “I’ve met all of you, but let me take a moment to make sure everybody’s here.” He then sat down in the chair next to mine and started calling out the names on his sheet, checking us off. There were a few no shows and he scribbled notes next to those names. “Why don’t we go around the room now and introduce ourselves. Tell us whose stories you like to read.” Smiling, he turned to me. “Mr. Bubbers?”
So I went first. I cited Hemingway first, glancing around to see if there was any reaction. That was during a period of time when it wasn’t politically correct to admit that you liked Hemingway. I’m not sure that isn’t still true. “And Flannery O’Conner,” I added. Smiling Western-Shirt raised an eyebrow at that. The Artist-As-A-Young-Man, of course, liked Joyce. Hippy-Girl liked Shirley Jackson. Smiling Western-Shirt, surprisingly, also liked Flannery O’Connor. I had expected her to like Steinbeck and O. Henry.
The Professor then explained the mechanics of the class; how half of us would hand out stories at each session to be discussed at the next session. Since the class on Thursday was going to be our first real session, we would have to read and discuss them in the same session. If any of us could get them done sooner, we could put them in the envelope on his office door so people could read them ahead of time. I had my pre-written stories, so I volunteered to do that. “Very Good, Mr. Bubbers.”
He then explained how he wanted us to read each other’s stories and what kinds of things should be discussed.
“I’d like to avoid, for the most part, discussing theme. Those are individual, personal choices for the writer. What we’re here to do is help each other with craft. Help them tell the story they are trying to tell. You don’t want them to change what they are trying to say, you want them to say it better. It’s best if you limit discussion of theme and instead talk about dialogue, setting, pacing.”
With an encouraging smile, he scanned around the circle of faces. Still, he had a detached quality about him, and there was still that tiredness in his eyes. I wondered where that tiredness might come from. I had read his three published novels and wondered about their relationship to his life. In the first one, a pretty young girl had broken his heart. In the second, he had had a nervous breakdown. In the third, marriage and children had beaten him down and he had an affair with a young secretary who wore a black leather skirt that made a particular sound whenever she walked. I did, of course, understand that these were fiction, but while the facts and the plots of the stories may have been made up, the emotional content had to come from someplace that was close. Or maybe it was the fact that here he was in yet another September, facing a fresh batch of young writers while his own writing career had stalled. His last novel had been published eight years ago. That world-weariness in his eyes could have been the sadness caused by the realization that absolutely nothing in your life has gone as planned.
With a “Very good,” he dismissed the class early and we filed out of the room. The Professor walked off with Western-Shirt, the two of them talking and smiling, so I didn’t get the chance to talk to her, although it did make me wonder if she had any leather skirts at home.
Over the course of the next fifteen weeks, we would all change as writers. The only real requirement of the class is that you produce a story each week. Do that and you pass. For young writers, however, that can be a challenge. First of all, you are taking other classes. Books need to be read, papers written, exams taken, so you have a limited amount of time you can devote to writing. You can also make it hard on yourself simply by setting incredibly high personal goals. If you look through a standard anthology of the world’s best short stories, you’ll find the absolute best writing by the world’s best writers. Most of them tend to be about that big moment, that “great epiphany.” If you look at other stories written by those same writers, you’ll see that they didn’t always write about life changing events, sometimes they wrote about small things. It’s the great epiphanies that get collected in anthologies. Most student writers haven’t had too many life changing epiphanies in their young lives, so they search for the great dramatic moments in their lives: the death of a grandparent, that tragic car wreck in their high school, their parents’ divorce. There’s no great Truth to be revealed in these dramatic events, they are actually pretty ordinary. As you get older and you’ve experienced more of these things you begin realize that you usually don’t learn very much from them. You just survive them and life goes on the way it had before. None of the broken things in your life get magically fixed, no great Truths reveal themselves. At that age, however, you attach great significance to these kinds of things, and that usually means choosing one major over another. Comparing your own epiphany stories to those in your Norton Anthology can be very discouraging.
When you have to produce something every week, you very quickly run through the source material that is easily available to you. You are, of course, encouraged to just make things up because it is, after all, supposed to be fiction. That, however, is difficult to do when you are still young and don’t know how the world works. You try out things. Some of us tried out writing science fiction, others mysteries. Most of those attempts, however, fell short because we were still not skilled enough at our craft to accomplish what all fiction must do: captivate a reader emotionally.
Over time, you learn how to mine your emotional experiences and to use them to drive the stories and characters you imagine. At first, the stories and characters are not as imagined as you grab the low-lying fruit. A story about a divorce based on your own parents. A story about a friend who committed suicide. A story about your girlfriend. A story about the girl you wish was your girlfriend. That was usually a better story because you had to both imagine more, and fictionalize more, for obvious reasons. Eventually you run out of these easily available ideas and you have to dig deeper.
By about the mid point of the semester, I had exhausted all my inspirational sources and I was groping. What little I could come up with, drove me into a frenzy. The Professor’s advice, “Don’t spend a lot of time on it,” had fallen on deaf ears. I rewrote stories over and over again, trying to get them exactly right, even after they had been delivered to class. In one case, I was preparing a story to be submitted to the student literary journal and I couldn’t get it to be as good as I desperately wanted it to be, not realizing that it was probably as good as it was ever going to be three revisions earlier. I met with The Professor at his office to discuss it with him and ask for his advice.
“Mr. Bubbers, this story is just fine the way it is. Don’t get yourself so worked up over it. Your future as a writer doesn’t depend on this one story. Just submit it, forget about it, and write another one.”
Nearly twenty-five years later, the wisdom of that advice is obvious. At the time, however, I couldn’t tell him what my fears truly were. I had struggled so desperately to find inspiration for the story and I had to get it exactly right. Who knew if I would ever have another idea again?
With all my ideas for plots and characters having been used up, I still needed to produce something for the class every week. I needed to change my approach to writing to something small, something simple. I had to turn inward and look not for a person or a plot but for something more basic and fundamental to at least use as a starting point: an emotion or a state of mind. My goal would not be to explain or teach anything, but simply to capture that emotion or that state of mind as truly as I possibly could. Forget plot, forget dialog, and forget character.
I was alone on a Tuesday night and my story was due the next day. My roommate was off somewhere with his lover of the week. I sat at my typewriter in the living room of my apartment and began setting the scene: a winter morning in Albany, a young man waking up in an empty apartment, alone, disconnected from the world.
I wrote for about four hours and completed the story. It wasn’t much of a story in a conventional sense. It was really nothing more than an exercise. Nothing much happens in the story. A young man wakes up one morning shortly after the breakup of a relationship and feels alone. He putters around his apartment for a while, and then takes a walk. Aside from a few brief interactions with a waitress in a coffee shop and a little boy on a sled, he talks to no one. There were some thoughts and some memories, but the writing mainly focused on the descriptions of the apartment, the snow blanketed city and the actions of my narrator. There were few words describing emotion at all; it was all imagery and action.
While I was writing, for the very first time, my mind had been focused on the reader. It was not some abstract concept of a reader, but an individual. I felt like I was sitting across the table from one person and having an intimate and truthful conversation. It wasn’t about my need to tell something. It was about my need for that person to understand. It was about my need to share something with someone else. I had finally discovered what it was that compelled me to write. It wasn’t about teaching, or entertaining, or even about self-analysis. It was about feeling connected with other human beings.
When I woke up the next morning, I read it again. I had gone to bed the night before feeling that I had accomplished something significant and I expected daylight to bring reality back. Instead, the effect hadn’t worn off. I was, however, very nervous about how the story would be received in the workshop. I had, after all, been critical of other stories where I thought plotting was weak or that there was a lack of serious conflict. Now I had written a story in which absolutely nothing happened and the only conflict was some sort of unstated emotional struggle in my narrator that barely reaches the surface.
It was, nonetheless, something I felt deeply about. In any case, it was what I had and it was due at one o’clock that afternoon.
I distributed it to my classmates that afternoon and then spent the rest of the class thinking and worrying about it. Being so preoccupied with what I had written the night before, I didn’t contribute much that day in class.
Two days later, when my story came up for discussion, I was still very nervous about how the class would receive my story. It was very unconventional and unlike anything else that I or anyone else had submitted. It was, to me, a very risky thing to do. I thought that it was a good piece and that the risk would pay off, but would my fellow students, and The Professor, see it the same way?
During the course of the previous two days, I had seen my classmates here and there, passing them in the hallway of the Humanities, having coffee in the campus center. The-Artist-As-A-Young-Man mentioned a story I had in the student literary journal that had just been published that week. It was a fun, comic piece and he told me he enjoyed it. I kept waiting for him to say something about my most recent story, but he didn’t bring it up, and I was too afraid to ask. Hippy-Girl asked me to go to see a play with her that weekend, and I happily agreed, but what I wanted more than a date with her was to find out what her summa cum laude intellect thought of my story.
All of my endless preoccupation with the story increased the tension I felt in myself that Thursday afternoon as I sat in the circle of writers, gripping the sides of the desk in front of me, waiting for the onslaught of humiliating and cutting remarks.
The Professor began the discussion. “Let’s start with Mr. Bubbers’ latest piece. It’s a little bit different this time. It’s a long interior monologue with few characters and very little dialogue. Quite a difficult thing to do well. What’s everybody think?”
The-Artist-As-A-Young-Man spoke first. He had always been one of my sharpest critics and we had never really gotten along. He was a good and careful reader, and he gave valuable feedback, but his tone was often condescending and disparaging and it could hurt. Days afterwards, you could rationally appreciate what he had said, but when he spoke to you in class about your work, it could be painful. With this story, and what it had meant to me, I was very afraid of what he might say.
“Fred, you did it. You pulled it off. Nothing happens in this story. I’m not supposed to like it, but I do. Normally, I hate this stuff, but you pulled it off. You nailed the descriptions, you kept me hanging on every word, and the emotional content is gripping without you ever even talking about feelings. This is the best thing you’ve ever written.”
The rest of the class liked it too. Hippy-Girl compared it to Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Every writer should have the experience of having his or her work compared to a Hemingway masterpiece, whether it’s true or not.
When we got down to the business of pointing out flaws, the class didn’t have much to offer. There were some awkward sentences and in a few places, some of my word choices were questioned. I circled the offending parts on my copy to review when I revised the story a few weeks later.
“A fine piece of writing, Mr. Bubbers, a fine piece of writing,” The Professor said at the conclusion of the discussion.
The revised version was later published in the student literary magazine. Nearly twenty-five years later, the story appears to me as a little less than I remember it, but it is still pretty good for a student. Nevertheless, I feel closer to it than any other piece of writing I’ve ever done. Perhaps it’s the circumstances of its writing, my fear of showing to anybody and its ultimate acceptance by my teacher and my peers that is what makes it feel so personal. When I wrote that story, it was the first time in my young life that I felt like I had a voice that had could be heard.
The Professor, for all his vagueness, seemed to be very understanding of what it felt like to be a writer and to write about things that were very close to you. As the semester wore on and all of us improved as writers and were better able to capture emotion on paper, he managed discussion in a sensitive way, helping to improve our writing without having us feel too exposed and vulnerable. He never singled out aspects in anyone’s story that may have been very personal and guided discussion away from them when his students tried to go in that direction. It must have been obvious to him when relationships among his students were being fictionalized, but he rarely called attention to it and no one was ever embarrassed. In the few cases where he did address these things, he was gentle and kind.
In the same week that I had written my interior monologue, the latest issue of “Tangent,” the student literary magazine was published. It contained a story by me called “The Mentor.” I had written it about a year earlier. It wasn’t as good as what I felt I was doing by the time it was published, and now it’s actually embarrassing, but it was a fun story. I had written it as a challenge to myself to see how many literary allusions I could cram into a single short story, and to make it fun. The hero of my epic was a professor of literature named “Charles Nestor Thompson,” my Odysseus. The story covered a day in his life and the people he interacts with, a sort of low-rent Bloomsday. Into this story, I stuffed every western literary theme and tradition I could. In addition to The Odyssey and Ulysses there were also subtle and not so subtle references to Dante, The Gospel according to John, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Miguel de Cervantes, J.D. Salinger, Emile Durkheim, Frank Sinatra, Star Wars, Saul Bellow, The Wizard of Oz, and Vladimir Nabokov. For good measure, I even threw in a popular local punk-rock band and a hangover scene based on Kingsly Amis’s Lucky Jim. It was an orgy for literature geeks.
When it was published that week, I had gotten quite a few compliments from people I knew as I’d run into them on campus. Even the literature professor upon whom I had (affectionately) based my hero, and who recognized himself, liked the story. “Ah Fred,” he said smiling, “If you only knew the truth.”
It was definitely a strange week for me. One part of me was terrified about how my new story was going to be reviewed and the other part of me was getting puffed up and proud of the playful bit of tripe I had managed to get published.
These two parts came into collision on the day after my story was discussed in class when I went to The Professor’s office for a consultation on how to revise my story. Whenever I met him at his office, there was always a beautiful young woman who I had never seen before, either leaving or waiting for him. In this case, she was just leaving. The young woman standing in his doorway that day was the classic beautiful young coed. She had short blonde hair and was dressed in the beautiful young coed uniform: running shoes, very nicely fitting running shorts and an equally nice fitting university t-shirt. Unlike the first time, when I met Mystery-Woman, I wasn’t preoccupied by anything else. I was twenty-one years old, recently free from a long-term relationship and I was quite captivated. The Professor introduced us.
“Miss Lovely-Young-Coed, this is Mr. Bubbers, one of my writing students. Mr. Bubbers, this is Miss Lovely-Young-Coed.”
“Oh, so you’re Fred Bubbers,” she said, “Are you the one who wrote ‘The Mentor?'”
“Yes, that was me,” I answered, thinking this was off to a good start.
“I suppose you think it’s good,” she said sarcastically.
I didn’t know how to answer that and stuttered something about the story being to be a bit of fun.
“Well maybe,” she allowed reluctantly.
Then she was gone, never to be seen again.
After having written such a serious piece the week before, I wanted to do something completely different for next week’s class. With the “The Mentor” back in my mind again, I decided to create another story in that style, using my improved writing skills. “The Mentor” had a character in it who was supposed to be Charles Nestor Thompson’s spiritual son. I decided to write a story about him. He would be my Stephen Dedalus and this story would be my Telemachia. Just on a whim, I included a scene in the story where my protagonist, a serious student writer encounters a lovely young coed in the doorway of his professor’s office. In real life, I had been taken aback by Lovely-Young-Coed’s abruptness with me, and I got even by making her appear kind of bitchy in the story (after including the most detailed description of her physical attributes my twenty-one year old mind could conjure up). It really wasn’t very fair, but at the time, I didn’t care. Everyone and everything was fair game.
When the story came up for discussion the next week, the class was amused by it. They didn’t take it seriously, it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but they had enjoyed it, especially since that week there had been at least four seriously depressing and plotless interior monologues submitted. Mystery-Woman, however, pointed out that the scene with Lovely-Young-Coed seemed to be just tacked in to the story for no apparent reason. “Where the hell did that come from,” she asked.
“I’ll tell you where it came from,” The Professor interrupted. “It came from my office.”
Then he turned to me and gently said, “Mr. Bubbers, she was very nice to you. You shouldn’t do that. It’s not nice.”
I felt bad about what I had done, even though it had only been meant in fun. The Universe, the Goddess of Literature, the Keeper of Karma, or whoever it is who administers literary justice has extracted her vengeance on me for, first ogling and objectifying Lovely-Young-Coed, and then, treating her unfairly in writing. She is now a published and critically successful novelist and I am not.
His advice was always like that. Gentle, friendly, and subtle. At the time, I don’t think I listened to him very well and I always seemed to do the opposite of whatever he said, but as time has passed, his messages have become clearer.
Over the years, I kept track of what was going on in my former University’s English Department. During the same year that The Professor retired, he finally published a fourth novel. He has continued now, every several years to produce a new novel.
I have deep regrets that my devotion to writing didn’t last but a few years after my college. Family responsibilities, the pursuit of a career, and lack of faith in my own talent, all contributed to my abandonment of those dreams. My Professor’s resurgence, however, gives me hope. Maybe it’s a pattern I can follow. Write when you are young, do some living, and then write again.
I’ve got all of his published books now. His first one, the one that opens with a pretty young girl in a white dress waving her lover goodbye as his train pulls out of a station, has his picture in the inside dust cover. He’s in his late twenties, but he actually looks much younger, like he could be a college bound senior in high school. It was taken outside somewhere and his hair is short and dark and his smile is the smile of youth and optimism and all the wonderful things that would come his way. I found a more recent photograph of him on an author’s web site. It’s taken from almost the same angle, and it is also outside. His bald head is covered with a small brimmed hat, and his face is now covered with a salt and pepper beard. It’s the same smile, however, and it is as vital and as intense as the one in the earlier picture. His face is lit up by it and his age is revealed only by the lines around his eyes that are accentuated by the smile. His eyes are clear and intently focused on something just to the left of the camera.
I have a better understanding now of just who that man was when he was my teacher. In the romantic visions of my youth, I imagined many things about him. His art was deeply personal. Maybe he had an affair with a young coed in a leather skirt that made a particular sound when she walked. Maybe he just imagined he had an affair with her. Maybe he had had a nervous breakdown or two. Maybe those tired eyes were the result of endless disappointments, life wearing him down and a writing career that had gone off the rails. All of these things may be true or none of them may be true. It’s not my right, nor is it anybody’s right to know.
My own journey into middle age now tells me a different, more ordinary story that’s neither romantic nor depressing. Those tired eyes may simply be the result of a monthly mortgage payment, braces and tuition, backaches and periodontia, and that cranky old boiler in the basement.
The newest books and that recent picture with the intense and vital look in those eyes tells me that those years of duty and devotion to family can be successfully traversed and that passion for art can survive.
There’s still a young scruffy bearded romantic in me who still believes in Odysseus and Penelope, and in Dante and Beatrice, and in Heathcliff and Catherine, and in Gatsby and Daisy. He also believes that somewhere behind those seventy-five year old eyes, focused so intently ahead toward the future, and somewhere in that ever-receding past, there is a vision of the pretty young girl in a white dress who once broke his heart.
Originally published in the Oregon Literary Review.