Writers and Mentors

The author of The Ice Storm and Demonology thinks back to his earliest years as a writer, and the kind of teaching that helped or hindered him
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I studied in writing workshops from age fifteen to age twenty-six. The first was in high school, where a benevolent chemistry teacher, Mr. Burns, who read a lot of John Cheever on the side, presided over us. We were a group of misfits and outcasts, yet he almost never criticized us. This was before the writing workshop—a regular meeting in which writers-in-training read and criticize one another's work—hardened into the structure we know now. It was the mid-1970s, and writing workshops were not so numerous as they are today.

After high school I was lucky enough to go to Brown University, a wellspring for the experimental or so-called postmodern school of American writing. And there I chanced to study in workshops with three of the great voices of experimental writing: Angela Carter, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes.

On the first day of my workshop with Angela Carter, in my sophomore year, Carter was charged with reducing the number of would-be participants in her class to fourteen. Maybe thirty people were in the room, and she simply stood before us and tried to take questions. Some young guy in the back, rather too full of himself, raised his hand and, with a sort of withering skepticism, asked, "Well, what's your work like?"

You have to have heard Carter speak to know how funny the next moment was. She had a reedy and somewhat thin British voice, toward the upper end of the scale, and she paused a lot when she spoke. There were a lot of ums and ahs. Before she replied, she cocked her head and said "um" once or twice. Then she said, "My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis."

The room emptied out at the break, and I'm not sure a quorum of fourteen returned. Maybe only eleven or twelve.

Carter did not conduct her workshop in the manner now familiar. She didn't care if anyone brought in work, and she was content to give disquisitions on how Mozart's The Magic Flute made it impossible to imitate folkloric material in fiction. She was proud of having seen Pink Floyd play back in swinging London, she liked the Doors, and she thought Franklin Roosevelt was the only American president worth talking about. I remember that she also once boasted that she rarely made eye contact.

I thought, This is the teacher for me.

For those who had ears to hear—only four or five of us took her class both semesters she taught at Brown—the Angela Carter workshop was an amazing experience. I felt not only that I grew as a writer but that I improved as a person. Carter had the audacity to tell me that drugs were not good for my work and that I was reading crap; she said she would be happy to give me a reading list. I read every book she told me to read, and these included The Thief's Journal, by Jean Genet; Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs; and everything by Bruno Schulz. In fact, I did more or less whatever Carter told me to do.

Angela Carter's class was important to me because it relied on a completely alien tradition of writing instruction—alien, that is, to what we more often experience here in the United States. Were I compelled to name this alternative style, I think I would call it mentorship. I don't think that Carter, if she were still alive, would admit to having mentored me—to having explained to me how to live a little bit, and how to act like a writer, instead of merely dreaming of being one. But she did all these things, regardless of how much or how little work I turned in, or how bad the work was.

When Carter, who had just a one-year appointment at Brown, went back to England, John Hawkes returned from a sabbatical. I spent three of my next four semesters at Brown studying with Hawkes. (I also took a literature class with Robert Coover.)

Hawkes favored mentorship too. If he liked you, he kind of loved you. He could be both lacerating and challenging—or, on the other hand, completely devoted (even so, it was sometimes hard to believe that he had read the piece of junk you'd handed in that week). He had a nearly photographic memory for people's stories, which was particularly amazing because he was so scattered in other areas. Months after you'd handed it in, he could recite specific sentences from your work and discuss them in detail.

The goal of Hawkes's class was to induce us to think like writers. He sometimes didn't seem to care whether a specific story was made fit for publication. He had a low opinion of professionalism. He wanted us to think about language and dramatic structure, and how these worked in literature, and he wanted us to delight in these things when done well. He wanted us to believe in literature. He felt he had done his job if we could explain why The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was a masterpiece, from the standpoint of language and construction.

Hawkes played favorites, which was bad; and he loved women a lot more than men, which was bad too; and he allowed us to drink wine in class, which in my case was an incredibly bad idea, since I was developing a drinking problem. All these things were inadvisable, but what was not was the idea of emotional commitment to the process, a strong relationship between student and professor. These worked for me despite the difficulties.

I wrote to please Angela Carter, and I wrote to please John Hawkes, and this may seem like a callow, naive motive for writing, especially since they were both astringent, complicated people. But the fact is that I got better by writing in order to please them, and their responses made me excited to go back and work, and excited to learn more.

After Brown I took a year off, a year in which I wrote probably as many would-be writers have done—desperately, while working nine-to-five in a sequence of horrible jobs, which for me included selling recorded tours at a museum. I was worried about the possibility of lapsing in my writing. I was worried about not writing because I was overwhelmed by the idea of paying the rent and living day to day without—because of my English major—professional skills of any kind. Hawkes had always said that we should write a thousand words a day, but I wasn't even writing a thousand words a week, so I made the decision others have made: I applied to graduate school, to get my M.F.A. In the fall of 1984 I entered Columbia University.

I didn't want to go to Columbia. I wanted to go to Johns Hopkins, in fact, to work with John Barth. But I got turned down. I got turned down by a number of places, including (it must be said) the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so I went to school in New York, where at least I felt at home. I'd been born there, and had lived within its shadow most of my life.

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