Part I : SFO to JFK
You can’t be the first, but you can be alone.
Lish was not for everyone.
If you came to be coddled, if you came for support, if you wanted a parent, you were headed for disappointment. If you wanted to have your say but could not say it well, you would not be heard. If you had weak boundaries, you were in trouble: a woman passed out cold in one class, an editor from Esquire threw up in another. If you considered yourself politically correct or any category of citizen ending in ist, you’d likely leave by the end of the first class. If you thought you could top Lish, you were in for a surprise. If you did, if you could, he would be the first person to jump to his feet and sing your praises uptown and down.
If you can look at the world as no one else has seen it, then you’ve got something.
You sat for six to eight hours without a stretch or a piss. You listened to the teacher and artist at work, while ignoring or forgiving the man. You accepted 12-gauge evisceration of your work and returned to the next meeting with something new, and you hoped better, to offer.
There were gifts to be had. You learned – intellectually, acoustically, through absorption, osmosis. About fear and desire. About desire and Desire. Maybe one day you got it. You began to understand how replacing a single word, say finger with hand, converted a pedestrian sentence into one glorious with promise.
You knew why you came. You were in love with the infinite elasticity of language, could be moved to tears by a classmate’s sentence ringing sweet and true, while still not possessing one yourself.
You knew why you stayed. There were gifts to be had. You were determined to have them. You just knew, and with that came the knowing that nothing Lish gave was really a gift, but as an artist you understood that everything was there for the taking.
Your only impediment is fear. Your only advantage is desire.
And of course, if you didn’t know when to quit, you were hooked.
The first sentence is the catastrophic equation. . . is a sentential event. . . is congested. . . is dense with utterance. It comes from the body, not the mind and cannot be taught; the rest can.
You are trying to produce an opening . . . You have to find in yourself the bearing of a god . . . The best way to start is to build more fear of dying, cultivate an awareness of its omnipresence in your life; then the consequences of your act, your utterance, are more likely to reach farther . . .
You should have nothing but that object of your fascination . . . Go to an extreme of desire . . . Engage in an act of self-interrogation; what is the real mystery? Who is talking? Who has the need? Who sees? Who sees me? Who’s talking when you talk? What do you see first? Go deeper, what aspect of this fascinates you? What language do you need to describe them?
Your task is to produce an illusion of the world beginning now . . . Don’t write until the totality of the song is in your head as a total eruption . . . The sentence should not be a sentence that communicates, but one that presents. Not a sentence about the world, but one that is the world entire.
Four years ago, fresh out of a master of fine arts program and certain that if I never participated in a writing workshop again it would be too soon, I signed up for a Gordon Lish class. I knew of Lish only from my former writing teacher, Amy Hempel, whose work and methods I much admired, and whose piece on Lish, “Captain Fiction,” I had read in Esquire and which inspired me. Still, a class was a workshop was a workshop, and as I drove toward the appointed room and time on a sunny June day in San Francisco, I was certain that I was about to spend three days of time in the same hole that had already swallowed my three-hundred dollar check.
On the first of the hundreds of pages of notes I took that Friday and in the succeeding eighteen months, I described him:
A man with cool blue eyes and a partially unzipped olive-tan jump suit emerges from a London Fog raincoat and Australian bush hat. White hair whipped up over his ears as if he blow-dries his hair with a leaf blower. He is wearing unusual high-top, maroon leather lace-up shoes, well worn but highly polished â€“ the same style of shoes worn by the strange man I once followed across the Golden Gate bridge because I thought he was going to jump.
After perfunctory pleasantries and introductions, Lish went to the blackboard:
How do you go to the instrument and strike a note newly?
Without a glance at the dozen of us in attendance he began to answer his own question, beginning with a half-hour definition of what the question asked. Then, over the next three days, continuing for nearly twenty hours in six to eight hour stretches, he told us exactly, precisely, in great rhetorical swathes and in minute detail and at great length, the answer to his question, and how we might come to write something truly original and linguistically compelling.
With your language, you are looking for a new heart.
Pop culture is about the erosion of what we already have . . . your job is not to be consumed by them, but to lead them to a place they’ve never been.
When the voice isn’t your voice, it’s the voice of death.
Lish’s style as speaker bore a dizzying disrespect for the protocol, political correctness, pop-truisms, and personal sensitivities that were the very foundation of the writing workshops I had grown to loathe in my then seven years of becoming a writer. He rarely took questions; it was up to you to figure it out. He was entertaining to boot. He spoke of his enjoyment of fucking with all the ease and nonchalance that we Californians talk about how many lattés a day we are up to. Over time, I wondered which parts of his stories were true. But with Lish, that sort of truth did not matter.
I’m not telling. I’m not teaching. I’m not hiding. I’m using words to reveal.
I was in awe. He was brilliant, arrogant, a pedigreed chauvinist, charismatic, perhaps even a tad mad. He gloated that he had stayed up half the night working on a two-hundred odd page novel of high promise when the narrative had suddenly reached a dead end. Without a second thought he deleted the entire thing. Here was a man willing to sacrifice anything to his art, a man who used the occasion of his wife’s long and painful death to write a darkly humorous epistolary novel, Epigraph. I liked him; crazy or courageous, he dove in to whatever was at hand. He had a refreshingly radical and compelling take on what it took to be a great writer, not merely a published writer.
The art of writing is like the art of giving head: relishing your dominion over the other body.
The man standing there at the front of the room was unlike any of the teachers I had previously worked with and admired, and I sensed it was probably advisable to keep some distance from him. Lish had a well-deserved reputation as a tough, even brutal, critic, but my years as a journeyman writer had toughened my hide and prepared me for his sort of criticism. No, the danger was not about how I could be damaged; the jeopardy I sensed lay in allowing myself to be drawn too far into the aura of his charisma. And as I learned only later, even that foreknowledge was of limited use in preventing me from subordinating my instincts to his.
Put yourself in a state of mind, positing a blank frame. Into the blank frame, cleared of everything — expectation, ideas, teachers, whatever — introduce an object (in the case of a novel – several) which can be anything seen, heard, touched, perceivable, sensual — to the exclusion of all other objects. Be open, truly open, in the presence of what truly fascinates you. The more powerful your ability to exclude, the more successful you will be.
On Sunday morning, the third and final day of the San Francisco workshop, I sat in the back of the class, which had shrunk to about eight people. The previous day Lish had instructed us on how difficult it is to write his kind of first sentence, then sent us home at 5:00P.M. with orders to report to the next class with just such a sentence. Between eight hours with Lish and a due-any-day pregnant wife plus a two-year old boy at home, I had been too exhausted to write anything that made much sense. I sat in the back because I had nothing to offer.
To be caught unawares â€“ that is a starting point.
The more I can defeat my connections with a world prior to this world, the more I can encode the moment with its own lingual echo.
Around midmorning, Lish asked for our sentences, quickly dismissing most as “statements of fact,” “mere description,” or in some cases, he said nothing and moved on to the next person. I understood the difficulty of what he wanted and was consoling myself with this when something he said about “a sentence as a linguistic eruption” made me look at my notebook. In the middle of the two pages of linguistic thrusts and doodles I had eked out the prior night were splattered several lines completely alien from the manner and substance of what I usually wrote. If not an eruption, they were certainly a burst. I raised my hand.
Spaghetti, it’s all he says no matter what I ask.
Can you see? Is there pain?
Do you know your name?
Lish paused a moment, then asked me repeat it.
“That’s something I’ve never heard before,” he said. It had possibilities, he continued. It was an opening; I should work on it. Try to widen the opening, he suggested. I might have something there.
I had done it.
Though he returned to New York on the Red Eye that evening, the sentences Lish had blessed possessed me like a raging influenza of the brain. I wrote with a freedom and force entirely new, which delighted me and made me laugh out loud as I put the words down. I could not stop writing. Even when not at my desk, while in the shower or driving my car, the torrent of words continued to pour out of my head. For the entire next week, I couldn’t drive home without missing an exit or taking a wrong turn.
Schizophrenic: Lish’s suggested stance towards composition:
- Loosened association.
- Antic behavior.
- Morbid ambivalence.
But within this semi-ecstatic state a dark side was emerging, gathering force. This encampment of the Muse in my back yard and its associated exhilaration and loss of control sent my anxiety levels soaring. I began to freeze up. I became paralyzed with fear. In the space of a week, the fire in my work – ignited by those first lines and fanned to a fury by Lish’s acknowledgment – flickered and went out.
The swerve is taking the turn into jeopardy.
Momentum carried me on to an ending of sorts, but it was not the one the story deserved. It was the kind of story that needed to be worked from the inside out, and I couldn’t get in.
Still, the state of rhetorical grace I briefly experienced both inspired me and gave me an appetite for more. I wrote to Lish, and with his permission signed up for his twelve-week class and twelve round-trip tickets to New York. It was the fall of 1996, where I was to learn that how he taught, the manner in which he taught, was as important as what he taught.
You become a god in your work by saying ‘no’ to the culture. You don’t want to be cool, you want to be hot.
Part II : In Flight
I want you to be a fortress. Not knockable. A juggernaut.
On twelve mostly consecutive Wednesdays starting that September, I flew to New York from San Francisco. Rising before dawn and returning early the next morning, I took only a small backpack containing four energy bars, a thermos of tea, packets of an instant vitamin-C drink, a change of socks and underwear, a notebook for stories and another for class, a half-dozen pens, and a book of Harold Brodkey stories to read when I grew tired of writing. I caught a bus from Kennedy airport to Grand Central Station. Walking the forty blocks from there to Eleanor Alper‘s one bedroom pied-à-terre, I mentally and physically prepared myself for the rigors of an evening with Lish.
I noticed that Lish had cut his hair. It no longer flared up over his ears. He still wore khaki safari pants â€“ cinched around his bony waist with a three-finger-wide leather belt, the overlong tongue of which dangled down his groin like a flattened phallus â€“ pointing up Lish’s randyness and penchant for sexually explicit anecdotes and language.
He lectured about the art of composition in front of a windowed wall overlooking 5th Avenue and Washington Square Park. Before the windows stood a chair and a stool and a blackboard propped up on stacks of Encyclopedias. The chair was for Lish, the stool for a shiny red apple, a fresh one each week.
Want to know what I hated about Lish’s class?
The apple. The apple that sits on the chair next to Lish’s chair â€“ the chair he sits on when he has to sit, the seat without the apple â€“ that apple â€“ one of those delicious, red apples, maybe Macintosh, maybe Red Delicious, the sort of apple you see on teacher’s desk all polished and cheeky-red.
The apple that Lish never touches.
I want that apple.
Lish picks everything apart, but not that apple. He cores our words and dices our sentences; his disappointment is a knife. He pommels us, pommels too our bad grammar, our lifeless words, our lack of desire and surfeit of fear, we who have left our doomed and senseless lives for the immortality of the written word. He cores, chops and dices. He stomps those whom he despises, the rotten fruit on his tree: certain former and famous students who he made and who betrayed him or turned their backs, anyone associated with the Gotham Writer’s Workshops, most screenwriters, Harold Bloom (for championing the Canon? or not including Lish therein?). Betrayers the lot, craven all!
Everyone, everything takes a hit but that cheeky red apple on the stool. Cheeky red, sitting there so smug, so faultless. A real fucking pip.
I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I gotta piss.
I want the apple.
Give it to me.
Bruise me, man. Bruise me!
I hate that apple.
One evening in October, Lish arrived a very uncharacteristic thirty minutes late. As he unpacked his book-bag, wiped down the blackboard and made small talk with us, he seemed obsessed with his pants, the right leg of which he kept pulling and plucking at. Finally, his pants commanded his entire attention and he yanked out the pocket lining, leaving it sticking stiffly skyward Then he began a story, a performance, that consumed most of the night.
The more you cannot find your wound the more distance and narrative you have to travel to get to it. You don’t want the cure, you want the illness. This is the opposite of therapy. Your congestion is your source of narrative. In the cure is nothing, in the disease is narrative. Take your wound as your identity, turn it into your instrument, your cudgel.
Lish’s theory of writing was simple, as simple to understand in principle as Einstein’s E= MC2. You have your object and your first sentence. The first sentence is the object in motion. Keeping the object in motion was what Lish called “the consecution and the swerve,” the consecution being the business of creating new sentences from elements of prior sentences; the swerve, the process of deforming of what was prior so as to avoid predictability in the work.
This was not a formula, however, that could be passed out like an exercise at some writing workshop. Lish maintained he could teach us the part about the consecution and the swerve, but the object and creation of the first sentence could not be taught. What he gave us was a path, not a process, and certainly not a textbook. He provided a map and some milestones. Finding the path and journeying down it was the choice and task of each of his students.
Though the formula is as frustrating to achieve as its description is simple to state, Lish’s performances revealed what his words could not. If you paid attention not just to what Lish was saying, but how he said it, you could see how one might walk the path.
Never look forward; your next sentence always lies in what you have already written. As soon as you forecast what will happen you begin to narrow.
Stopping for his usual pre-class coffee, Lish had discovered a black stain on his trouser leg. This spot on his trousers, this blot, this hemorrhaging pen in his trouser pocket, grew to consume him.
For the next two hours, and intermittently thereafter until class ended around 2:00a.m., Lish kept the spot in his trouser leg pocket in motion. He used every weapon in his rhetorical arsenal. He described how fussing with the spot had caught the waitress’s attention. How, at the luncheonette, she had suggested hairspray to remove the spot. (Hairspray?! Not only did she recommend hairspray, she gave me a can of it! She gave me her can of hairspray.) How Lish locked himself in the bathroom for the next forty-five minutes and sat on the sink with the hairspray, and sprayed and blotted that spot with a stack of paper towels (Stack? It wasn’t a stack, it was multiple stacks: stacks upon stacks, cases of accordion towels in stacks) until he had filled up the bathroom trash can and covered the floor with hairspray-and-spot-blotted towels, until at last, until finally, until the ink in the pocket and on the trouser were gone, and he emerged from the bathroom with his now spot-less right-hand trouser leg ruined â€“ spotlessly clean and blotter-stiff, the threads atomically saturated with hairspray, ruined, never to be worn again, ruined.
This performance and the others like it â€“ on many nights successful, on some not (those were the long nights) â€“ were extraordinary if for nothing else the intensity of linguistic and psychic attention which Lish could bring to bear on the thing that fascinated and obsessed him â€“ the object.
Dramatic and unpredictable, more spontaneous than monologue and more directed than improvisation, these performances demonstrated how the linguistic exfoliation of your object (Lish preferred “unpacking”) naturally produced subject, narrative, and form.
The second sentence must negate what is prior. Everything that follows is a negation of what began. The second sentence recurs to the previous sentence, but revises. It moves to collect what is behind it â€“ always with a difference. The form of the story will develop as a result of this procedure.
You want to hear one thing about myself? I’m two things â€¦
For four weeks Lish spoke of only the first sentence. Sometime after midnight of the fifth class, he asked for ours. By then the class had shrunk from around twenty-five to fifteen: fear, exasperation, and other forms of attrition had taken their customary toll. Several of us had a sentence to present; all were unremarkable, all failed. Mine was torpedoed by a misplaced personal pronoun. Our collective failure greatly displeased Lish. Though he used a few of our sentences to demonstrate where they might have gone, for the remainder of the evening he vented his disappointment with us.
Lish’s ear: a heavy-set man in his twenties submits the following: “The kid’s name was Bummer and we stole his house.” Lish dismisses the sentence as predictable, its predictability augmented by the conjunction. He moves on to someone else’s sentence, then abruptly stops and returns to the blackboard. He has an idea for an opening. He writes the following: “The kid’s name was Bummer and we stole his name.”
I returned the next week with a fresh sentence, but before I had a chance to deliver it we ran out of time. During the evening, however, Lish called on a man whose name I don’t remember, but whom I will call James. James had been a student of Lish’s for some time, and though he hadn’t volunteered a sentence, Lish called on him anyway.
“You got something for me tonight, James,” Lish said, both as challenge and invitation. James looked up and nodded.
“You got something that’s going to knock me down, knock me dead? It better be good, James. It better be damn good. You’ve been here a long time, man, you should have it by nowâ€¦”
Lish continued on for the next five or ten minutes, segueing into a rant on the lack of courage in today’s writers before returning to James.
“Give it to me, James,” he said.
James’ spoke in low voice. Spoke a sentence; spoke a series of ordinary words made extraordinary through some alchemy of desire and craft and soul. James’ voice changed as he spoke; there was a subtle shift in authority, as though the words themselves now governed the speaker. Before even four or five words came out of James’ mouth, the atmosphere in the room changed. Something was being said that had never been said before, the very sound of which our bodies responded to before our minds could digest the words themselves.
As James finished, there was a stunned silence in the room. Then Lish spoke the words that we all hoped to hear someday.
“Go on,” he said. “Go on.”
It is worth noting that James’ sentence was not the opening to some great novel or poem, a Ulysses or Blood Meridian or The Wasteland. It wasn’t Proust or Mansfield, Carver or DeLillo. The sentence and story that followed probably wouldn’t change the world or be ensconced in the canon. Nonetheless, his sentence invoked a world, an entire world of words, self-contained and self-defined.
James repeated the sentence and read on. Each new sentence carried forward the object revealed in the first. As I listened, I understood why so many people stayed so long with Lish, why so many came so far with him.
Each of the five or six sentences like it that Lish’s students produced and which I witnessed in the following months, may have been for me as close to spiritual revelation as I’ll ever come. (Many have since been published, including Sam Lipsyte, Michael Kimball, and Dawn Raffel.) From them I grasped, at a gut level, the difference between words on a page and art, between the given and the made.
I presented my next sentence in early January. By then, I was consumed with objects and first sentences. I was no longer writing stories, only sentences. At home, on the flights to and from New York, by day and by night, I wrote first sentences, some of which led to second and third sentences, but none of which ever became a complete story. If the initiatory sentence had some oomph I would play it out a ways, until generally within two to three pages, uncertainty set in and I stopped. And started over.
I was obsessed. I had written one myself, heard others often enough in New York to know that mine had not been a fluke. I wanted another. I wanted to be a member of the club. I was lost. I began to want Lish’s approval as much as I wanted a sentence. I brought other sentences to New York. Some I lost faith in and never even shared. Of the others, none flew. Then, about the next to last class, I brought a sentence and paragraph that I felt pretty good about at the time. I was the first to stick up my hand and Lish called on me:
Prankster Pan arrives at Timmy’s frozen window sill, in and after lights-out light, when the moon is not and the pocket park across the boulevard is empty but for strays and thugs, and sometimes, though not tonight, little boys locked out by angry moms.
I waited a moment. Lish didn’t stop me. Neither did he say “go on.” I continued. Midway through the next sentence (which I will spare you) Lish raised his hand for me to stop. He regarded me not unkindly for a moment and I half-knew what was coming next.
“George,” he said, and paused. “I want you to go back to San Francisco and write me something from your heart.”
It is not the image but the gesture that makes the art. In language arts, it is not the statement but the speech.
Part III : Return
With your language, you are looking for a new heart.
In the following fall of 1997, my writing and writing life a shambles, I returned to New York for another go. I had not completed a story in a year and was struggling with writer’s block and a depression brought on in part by my chronic incompletion. If a second great sentence had dropped out of the blue and landed on me, I doubt it would have made it to page two.
The classes were still held at Eleanor’s, but I have no memory now of who was there and who wasn’t. By the second class it became clear to me that I had lost my appetite, if not for Lish himself, then at least for his classes. I no longer had the patience. I didn’t want to wait for my turn. Besides, I had nothing to offer except rehashes of former work. I was no longer flying to New York to learn about writing, I was going in the hopes that something would happen to redeem me.
In fact, it would be three years before I wrote for the pleasure of writing again. It took that much time to digest Lish, his voice, his philosophy and presence. I don’t blame Lish for any of it. There were gifts to be had. I wanted them. I understood the risks and made a choice.
Nothing is fiction. Everything is fiction.
Most of all, I needed to learn to write from the heart. Lish had been right: I was writing about the heart, not from it. I was afraid to fully express my aggression and my passion. Nor could I let go and submit to my desire, an essential requirement for the transformation of the given into the made.
Just as you don’t feel the weight of your body pulled downward always by gravity, so too you don’t feel the pull of your death.
On a Wednesday night in late October I arrived in New York for my third class. Usually I wrote for the duration of the of flight but on this flight my notebook never left the seatback pocket and I dozed all the way to New York. At Grand Central, I slung my pack over my shoulder and headed downtown. At 34th street I stopped on the corner.
I was exhausted, partly by the flight as well as the prospect of eight hours with Lish. Class lay another thirty-three blocks south, five blocks east was my cousin’s flat, where I usually crashed after class.
I started walking towards my cousin’s. But I wasn’t ready to go there either. I wandered on. Two blocks later a theater marquee caught my eye. It was a blockbuster; one of those enormously popular films that Lish wouldn’t have been caught dead at. I bought a ticket and a large bucket of popcorn and slipped into the darkened theater. As the opening sequence rolled I began to laugh. I had just spent three hundred and fifty dollars to cross the country in hopes of literary salvation, and there I was, on a cold October evening in New York watching the final crossing of the Titanic.
The film was terrible.
I enjoyed every minute. Every last frame.
To become, you have to die.
King me, man. King me!