By Steven Bauer
As a freshman in high school, I decided, for complex and somewhat suspect reasons, that I was going to be a writer. My father, heedful of the fact that I stayed after school almost every day to show the young and unhappy Mrs. Miller my poems, would give a withering knowing smirk--this was not about poetry, he thought--and say, in a voice drenched with contempt, Come down off your dream cloud, son. I dont know who had said this to my father, but he had dutifully come down off whatever dream cloud hed once been on, and had lived a hardworking blue-collar life almost unrelieved of drudgery. His reaction to my ambitions was a result less of sheer callousness than of his own impoverished assessment of the world and its possibilities; my plans must have struck him as lunatic and improvident. Nevertheless, his brutal dismissal was painful to me, and, caught up in the interminable drama of fathers and sons, I was determined to win a fathers approval. I had two choices. I could become the son my father seemed to want to have--someone for whom school was more prison than liberation, for whom watching sports on television was the ultimate satisfaction; someone who was good with his hands, with woodworking and electricity and plumbing. Or I could find another father.
Fifteen years later, in the summer of 1978, when I first attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference on a working scholarship, I was still looking. I did not know this then, of course; does one ever know ones hearts desire except in retrospect? At that time my professional life was still very much in the process of being formed. Id published a dozen or so poems in good places, and was the skeptical possessor of an MFA, but had yet to publish a book or obtain a teaching job. My search for a mentor in graduate school had unearthed a number of likely prospects, but as it turned out, one was, like my father, more interested in drinking than in mentoring, and another was more interested in seduction under the guise of jittery ardor about poetry. Though I would turn thirty in less than a month, and perhaps should have been practicing my fathers harsh brand of realism, I am embarrassed to admit that my longing was still intense, and I went off to the Conference with the juvenile hope that I would be discovered, which is to say adopted. Let me offer in my defense only the fact that I was not the first, nor last, to look forward to twelve days in the Green Mountains of Vermont with the anticipation that I would return with considerably brightened prospects.
Id asked to work with Stanley Plumly, whose poems I admired a great deal, and I assumed, somehow, that Plumly would return the favor. Though I approached our hour-long session with some apprehension, I felt more excitement than trepidation. Sure, the poems Id submitted needed work, but in general I hoped that Plumly would encourage me, offer some revision suggestions, give me his endorsement, and provide the names of eager editors. We positioned ourselves on two green Adirondacks in the shade outside the cottage where Plumly was staying; he stroked his beard and stared at my manuscript, refusing to meet my eyes. What did I want my poems to accomplish? he asked. Who was I writing for? I was stunned to discover that Plumly didnt much like my new poems at all--he thought they were bloated, arch, self-conscious. Dont think about how people are going to react to the poem when they read it, Plumly suggested; just write the goddam thing. Forget the elegant subtleties and refined nuances; get more raw. As is often the case--I see this now after twenty years of teaching--the most perceptive advice in the world can fall on deaf ears if those being advised are not yet able or ready to hear it. After our talk I was shaken, not stirred, and bitterly disappointed that he had refused the role of mentor that Id happily scripted for him in my imagination.
Those two weeks at Bread Loaf would have left me confused and disillusioned if I hadnt wandered into the Little Theater one morning to hear John Gardner lecture. Though I hoped to meet and get to know other members of the faculty, I was frightened of Gardner. This should have been a warning sign but wasnt. He had a self-possession, a sense of his own importance that was both intimidating and thrilling. And he had a force field around him--I dont know exactly how to talk about this without beginning to sound flaky--which was palpable. I had encountered this only once before, in the poet A.R. Ammons. The force field translated itself to me as greatness. I had glimpsed him around the Conference, his white hair brushing the top of his collar; Id spotted him sitting in the Barn puffing on his pipe, looking jolly and approachable, which didnt fool me. Id passed his motorcycle as it sat parked on the gravel outside the Inn. But Id studiously avoided getting close enough to speak to him, and feared that hed sit at one of the tables Id been assigned to wait on, thus bringing me under his scrutiny.
Huddled in the rear of the room, where the stalwart squadrons of folding wooden chairs rose above the dreary floor on a series of plywood platforms, I was quick to notice that the attendance at this lecture was greater than at most; the place was full, the room filled with the buzz of voices and the creak of chairs, a companionable, knowledgeable hum, tinged with anticipation. I sat in my balcony seat, notebook in hand, the same notebook Id brought eagerly to the first lecture Id attended some days earlier in case some memorable remark was made, and then on succeeding days less and less eagerly as I learned that memorable remarks were at a premium. It seemed to me that most of these lectures were recycled essays their authors had written for some other venue, and they were generally of little interest to me--stiff-legged in their pedantry, or breezy and fatuous, flush with the pronoun I. As John Gardner approached the podium, the bustle and buzz increased. The man who prepared to speak looked very like the man Id seen around the Bread Loaf campus, but even bigger, as though this public occasion had magnified him. His crumpled shirt was dignified by the bright splash of a tie. He bid us good morning, pushed his thick white hair out of his eyes, and informed us that in the next hour he would tell us everything we needed to know about the writing of fiction. From anothers mouth, these words might have seemed arrogant, self-serving, even ridiculous, but John spoke them with the gravity of someone about to reveal an elaborate mystery. I sat up straight, opened my notebook.
The hour flew by--I still have the notebook with page after page of furiously taken, largely illegible notes. What remains with me most significantly is the fact that everything that John said about fiction that day sank deep inside me and made utter sense. He understood why Id first liked to read, knew about those times when Id become so immersed in a book that the world around me had disappeared, and he then made clear those few central things he suggested were necessary if one wished to write the sort of book I so much liked to read. Begin with a character who wants, he said--someone who wishes the world different from the way he finds it. What matters is less the quality of the desire than its authenticity and intensity. Have that character go after that desire. Put some trouble in his way. Create a vivid and continuous dream in the mind of the reader....
On a fundamental level, this made and continues to make irrefutable sense to me. The essential magic of fiction involves a strangers translation of words on a page into sensory images in his consciousness so striking and exact that a peopled world is created which is different from the one surrounding the reader. And if this new world is to interest the reader, it must first and crucially interest the writer. It must have substance--be about substantial things.
John spoke without notes, quickly and with rigorous organization. As I later gathered, this was not the first time hed used these words, or ones like them. In fact, in the tumult of post-lecture discussion, I learned that John had given variants on this lecture at Bread Loaf before, and that it was based on the famous Black Book (not famous to me) which had made samizdat appearances in the halls of various creative writing programs around the country (if not the one which I had attended.) It would appear in print in magisterial and greatly expanded form, two years after his death, as The Art of Fiction. But once Id garnered these factoids, I wandered off, unwilling and unready to debate Gardners points with my fellow Conferees. Why bother? What was there to debate? Id been given information of the most valuable kind by someone whose authority seemed unassailable; hed told me, essentially, that I knew in my bones how fiction was constructed, and that it was as serious an endeavor as there was to pursue. I had written little fiction since my undergraduate days when I far preferred it to poetry. But Id been recently studying at a school that had decided by fiat that my abilities as a poet exceeded those as a fiction writer, and I had dutifully listened, followed instructions, made no waves. Many things happened that first summer at Bread Loaf that were important to me--friends made, lessons learned--but all else paled beside that single hour in the Little Theatre.
During the next eight months, beginning in October, I had a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, during which I intended to revise and reorder my book of poems. I had finished what I was able to do by the end of the year, and then I remembered the idea for a novel that Id had some years before. Though Id written stories, Id never tackled a long piece of fiction and I wouldnt have had the courage if I hadnt been in the Little Theater the previous summer. But I sat down at the beginning of January 1979, with my pages of notes from the Bread Loaf lecture before me; I conjured up the voice and exhortations of John Gardner, and I began to write.
In the years since, Ive tried to understand what it was which allowed the enterprise to move swiftly and confidently; since then, almost nothing has had for me the same sense of ease. I began with an image and from that image came an action, and from that action came a plot. As I sat down to write I had a vivid and continuous dream of the novel, and I was lucky enough to be able to translate that dream into words. Unbelievably to me now, I sold that novel by the beginning of March on the basis of about fifty pages and an outline. I finished the book by June and then set about revising it; Id been invited back to Bread Loaf to act as the head of the dining hall, and I was determined that this summer Id speak to John Gardner.
On July 8th, about five weeks before the Conference would begin, The New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled The Sound and Fury Over Fiction. There was John on the cover, lit from above and behind, his silver hair gleaming, his broad face in shadow. The eyes are gently crinkled and they peer out at the magazines peruser with a gaze both shrewd and bemused; he looks like a character from one of his tales--a poor but honest woodcutter, say, who has just discovered the secret of fire. The article had been occasioned by the 1978 publication of On Moral Fiction, in which hed taken potshots at every living American writer, comparing them to Melville and Tolstoy and finding them lacking. Inside, where the article actually started, there he was again, helmeted, clad in black leather, sprawling over the magazines entire double spread, riding his Honda 750. These were imposing photographs, myth-making photographs; the motorcycle picture in particular gave the impression of someone who was taking no prisoners. Stephen Singular, the articles author, described John as looking something like a pregnant woman trying to pass for a Hells Angel. Though Singulars simile is mean-spirited, his evocation is not entirely without merit: there was in the juxtaposition of these photographs an intimation of Johns enormous fecundity and nurturance mixed with a dark shadow on the edge of consciousness, a love of speed and danger.
Johns pronouncements about other writers were often caustic, no doubt about it, and sometimes ill considered. But if the majority of todays book reviewers seem more concerned with the trajectory of their own careers than with an honest and true evaluation of the books under discussion, if their judgments are based on inch-deep reading and mile-wide ambition, Johns assessments were always based on his wide-ranging and extraordinary knowledge of literature and his belief in its importance. His models were august and his requirements austere. The article, which outlined the furor that On Moral Fiction had occasioned, made clear his impatience with writers whose work seemed insufficient to him--dishonest or sentimental or frigid or about unimportant subject matter (an impatience fueled, no doubt, by the fifteen years in which hed toiled away, unrecognized and unpublished, heaping up finished manuscript after finished manuscript; On Moral Fiction itself was first written in 1965).
This impatience found its expression in terse, almost epigrammatic thunderbolts of damnation not intended to make him any friends. In an omnibus book review-essay written for The Southern Review in 1967, for example, he had the following things, among others, to say: As for Mishimas novel [The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea], the dust jacket is excellent. Miss Sarton is a careful craftsman with considerable intelligence, but she is shallow. [In] John Updikes Of the Farm...the craftsmanship is impressive, but the people...are hypersensitive whiners. Every expert line tremulously whispers that the world is very sad. But when a writer rose, in Johns estimation, to the occasion, he could be as generous as anyone. More generous, perhaps; dangerously generous. And let me say immediately, that he was kindest to writers who were just beginning--who might yet write great work. All things were possible in Johns cosmos, every miracle imaginable.
After reading the article in the Times, which made undeniably clear what Johns expectations were, what was it that persuaded me to ask to work with him at the conference that summer? Surely I didnt believe I was better than Updike, Bellow, Mailer, Barth, and the others who John had reprimanded. Surely I went--or so I thought--with different expectations than Id had the summer before. Perhaps I believed I merely wanted to show the man what his lecture the previous summer than engendered. Whatever my conscious reasons, the unconscious one remained.
Gardner got the manuscripts, as did everyone on staff, at the very beginning of the Conference. The general plan was that staff members would have the first week to read through these and then would hold individual meetings with their authors during the second week. In a fit of chutzpah, I had submitted not the recommended fifty pages or so but the entire manuscript of my forthcoming novel. Gardner had the reputation of reading through a manuscript until it lost its hold on him; this might be on the bottom of the first page, or the bottom of the last--it all depended on whether or not John had been caught up in a vivid and continuous dream. The Conference was only a few days old when it came to my attention--and not through Gardner himself, but through the exalted personage of John Irving--that Gardner had read my novel--the entire novel--and that he approved. Irving told me this as he passed me on his way into the dining hall, where I stood to greet the members of the Conference, a little clicker in my hand to keep the meal count. The rush of wooziness that overcame me after Irvings comment renders the rest of that meal, indeed of that day, a blur. Careful what you wish for.
That Gardner had read the manuscript so quickly; that hed read the whole thing; that he liked it.... All of this was too much to be believed. But not long after, I had my meeting with Gardner himself and he told me that all this was true. He sat in a chair in the Barn, where he met all comers, and puffed on his pipe while he looked me over. How was I going to set about getting the manuscript published? he asked. How could he help? It was to be published, I said. Thats wonderful, he told me. Could he give me a blurb for the jacket? The book was going to make me rich and famous.
Satyrday was published in due course, and proved that whatever else John Gardner was, he was no prophet; it made me neither rich nor famous. Yet Gardners praise lives on in my mind where it does its best to withstand the pettinesses and indignities, churlishness and invisibility that assault most writers in our culture. In the inspired metaphors of Ron Hansen, If Gardner spent compliments like pennies, there was no tarnish on them; if I felt intoxicated by his flattery, there was no hangover in which his praise seemed magnified, false, or condescending....
So let me make my debt to him as clear as I can. If I hadnt attended Gardners lecture, I would never have had the confidence to attempt the book. From its publication stemmed my first teaching job, my invitation to return to Bread Loaf as a Fellow, the opportunity to meet my wife, and thus my life as I know it. And today when I think back on the book--about a boy adopted by a satyr after his parents, and all other humans save he, were taken prisoner by a great horned owl who wished to rule the Deadwood Forest in a time of eternal darkness--I wonder how much of Gardner went into the creation of the satyr, Matthew. The satyr was an awesome figure to the other creatures of the meadowlands, and he was never completely trusted. He had a strange smell and wilder eyes, sparked with a cunning beyond them.... Tonight hed drunk himself senseless by [the moons] light.... Part man, part goat; a legendary figure, and to the boy, who he fathers as he can, the only family the boy has ever known.
But if every action contains its equal and opposite reaction, this gift John gave me was also a curse. After the manuscript was polished and sent off for publication, I sat down to write another book--this one, predictably, with John in mind. Whereas the previous book had been written under his influence and inspiration, under his spell as it were, with the image of John tucked away in a far sleepy corner of my brain, now I could not write a sentence without Gardner sitting across the table, staring at me with those shrewd unblinking eyes. After each page I asked myself if John would approve, and as I tortuously inched forward, it was with the knowledge that the following summer Id return again to Bread Loaf where John would read the pages.
Of course he hated what Id done. Id managed some hundred or so pages before faltering, and he did what he always did--he read until the writer gave him reason to stop. With this new project that occurred on or about page 10. False, he said. Dishonest. Who are you trying to impress? Throw it away and start over. Pay attention to your characters.
In 1982, John was dead, which stopped me cold. It was another six years before I finished a draft of that novel, struggling as I did with his ghost, and the absence of his approbation. And then, nothing at all--the book was roundly turned down, and sits on my chest like a signal failure. I have not known what to do with the experience for years. At times Ive even blamed John for the books failure because, in the summer of 1981, hed read a good number of new pages and told me that this time I was doing well, this time the book would turn out, just keep going. But that is just me trying to displace responsibility, or transfer the anger I felt at his dying to the book project, where its safer, less explosive, less volatile, less dangerous.
False, he said. Dishonest. Who are you trying to impress? Throw it away and start over. I did not hear this as an echo of what Stanley Plumly had told me two summers earlier, but I should have. Dont think about how people are going to react to the poem when they read it, just write the goddam thing. Forget the elegant subtleties and refined nuances; get more raw.
Why has it taken me so long to see the simple truth at the bottom of this tale? When I had written poems for a mentor, they had been rejected; when I had written pages of prose for a mentor, they had been found lacking. Only when I sat down in a sort of existential freedom and solitude, unpeopled by the projections of my own psychic needs, did I succeed in writing from the unconscious, succeed in telling a true story.
I have been teaching now for almost twenty years and have come to see, from the far side, the minefield of being a mentor more clearly than the minefield of having one. To begin with, the degree of psychological transference one encounters on a daily basis is often bewildering and exhausting. Ive discovered, as has anyone who has ever taught creative writing, that a certain percentage of the students are there not because they want to learn to write better fiction but because theyre interested in a subterranean, precarious, and ultimately unsatisfying form of psychoanalysis. On the couch of my classes, my students spin out their often wan and discontinuous dreams and I analyze them. A good number of students tangle me up in their imaginations with more primal others. Each semester I receive a multitude of stories with characters named Stefan, Stephen, Stephanie, Steve, Stevie; some of these characters are loved, and others murdered, some are monsters and others saints. I do not think I am being overly sensitive to believe that this is not a coincidence, especially since there rarely seems to be a repetition of other names among my students stories.
And as I have come to see what my students project on me, so I can understand better what I projected onto John, right from the beginning of our association. As long as he was a distant figure lecturing to a roomful of people, of whom I was merely an invisible member, he was a benign and extraordinarily helpful figure. But as soon as he granted me his approbation, I granted him a power he neither asked for nor wanted. Even after his death I was still trying to please him, obscurely; who are you trying to impress? hed asked me. If Gardner was correct in On Becoming a Novelist when he wrote that a psychological wound was helpful in giving the writer the necessary almost daemonic compulsiveness which writing takes, then it is only a particular kind of psychological wound--guilt, for instance, such as the guilt which drove John after the death of his younger brother. My psychological wound--more Oedipal than guilt-driven; the hungry and ceaseless need for a fathers approval--seems now more detrimental to writing than helpful to it.
Recently I was rereading The Wreckage of Agathon, and came across these words in the voice of Peeker, Agathons disciple: In the beginning I used to resolve sometimes that I would murder [Agathon], but he would reason with me and twist my mind and make me believe that I ought to be proud to be seen with him. In any case, I knew that if I murdered him I would have to go back with my mother. It reminded me not only of my struggle with John but of Paul Therouxs passive-aggressive memoir about his relationship with V.S. Naipaul, in which, again, the Oedipal truth was brought home. Though the book purports to be an affectionate reminiscence of a literary friendship, I doubt if Naipaul found much affection in it. Theroux attempts the double whammy: to gain as much reflected brilliance as possible, the moon to Naipauls sun; and simultaneously to assassinate Naipaul, leaving only himself standing.
So let me admit that I hated John as well as loved him, hated his dying especially, as any son does with any father. Ambivalence, I tell my students, is the truth of human feeling. And it was not hard to be ambivalent about John. He was, alternately, darkness and light, the pregnant woman at the heart of Nickle Mountain and the Hells Angel on the cover of The Art of Living. The conspicuous generosity, even selflessness he showed, not only to me, but to scores of young unpublished writers must be reckoned against the dark Old Testament God of literature he willed himself to be; the sunny joke-telling, song-filled man of the early hours at Treman Cottage, where the Bread Loaf faculty drank, would degenerate by three in the morning into a bellicose and bullying tyrant who wanted to sing what he wanted to sing, and everyone had better well sing along.
It is high time that I honor his memory by moving beyond him, or away from him, high time that I try to regain the exhilaration and profluence I found when I first sat down to write after the inspiration of his lecture. I cannot please him any longer, and I should cease the effort; these ghosts are hungry and unappeasable.
This, let me stress, is not his fault in any way; this, as should be clear, is what I brought to bear on him. Perhaps, by acknowledging this, the curse of his death for me can also be a blessing. Perhaps in time, if I teach myself again how to write deeply and truly, remember again those words of the master who stood so simply behind the lectern in Ripton, Vermont in the summer of 1978, perhaps if I can return to John Gardner, unvarnished, exemplary, brilliant and flawed, unburdened by the weight of paternity, I can look back and say that it only took me fifty-five years to overcome that need which made my writing false, dishonest, eager to please, instead of a lifetime.