perm_identity A long overdue lunch with Sidney Offit

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 164 ~ January, 2011

I was at lunch recently with my friend, the acclaimed historian and novelist, Thomas Fleming, and his friend Sidney Offit, the best writing teacher I ever had, when I took a course with him at the New School on W.12th Street in Manhattan after suffering a devastating experience in a graduate writing program.

At my request, Tom set up the lunch, which was easy enough to do once a free date was found, since Tom and Sidney O. have been friends for some 50 years, both being active in many literary ventures together, including PEN, American Center. Although Tom was a year younger than my father, and from an earlier generation than me, born before World War Two, he always treated me like an equal and a contemporary. I immediately felt the same way with Sidney Offit at lunch, I think, mostly because we were talking about ideas, writing, personal experiences, and life, from a sharing, informative perspective rather than with an trace of one-upmanship, which just wasn’t in the nature of the three of us.

Of course, Tom Fleming has the credentials to laud his accomplishments over others, but in the many years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen one instance of that. It’s almost as if others are impressed with Tom’s incredible output, but for his part, he’s just a dutiful writer, spending the requisite time each day stringing appropriate sentences together, much like a professional ballplayer, some days are good, others bad, but you still have to take the field again.

It’s hard to believe, at least for me, but in 2009, Tom celebrated his 50th anniversary as a published writer.

I don’t like to think I’m as old as I am, because in many ways I still feel like a young man trying to make my way through a complicated world, which, in many respects, still seems more bewildering than not. But to give a time frame, Ronald Reagan was in the second year of his first term as President when I first met Tom Fleming, and I took a fiction writing course with Sidney Offit the next summer.

So, there I was sitting at lunch with Tom Fleming and Sidney O., both of whom I had an advantage over because I’ve read each of their respective memoirs, so in a sense, I could keep the conversation going in certain directions, trading stories, observations, and ideas, all as if the three of us had been having lunch together every week for the past couple months, at the minimum.

When Tom was the President of PEN in 1971, he invited Sidney to come to Berlin as a delegate at the World Congress. A serious occasion, they met and talked with Nobel Prize Winner Heinrich Boll, which I learned from one of Sidney’s memoirs, but all of a sudden, both Tom and Sidney started laughing in unison before me at the lunch table. They couldn’t help themselves, they were recalling how they proved they were true New Yorkers during the trip to Berlin by continuing to cross the street while the traffic light was changing from green to amber, about to turn red, and the surrounding crowd unanimously started shouting, “Nien! Nien.”

“And then they put us in jail,” Sidney quipped, “and Tom wrote 10 books and I wrote three letters.”

While Tom Fleming has indeed been a prodigious writer; in fact, a special 50th anniversary edition of his first nonfiction book, Now We Are Enemies, the story of Bunker Hill, was published last year, and his history book, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, was named the best book of 2009 by the New York American Revolution Round Table, Sidney O. has not exactly been guilty of writer’s block.

Sidney Offit is the author of two novels, ten books for young readers, and two memoirs, as well as being the former editor of Intellectual Digest, and curator of the prestigious George Polk Journalism Awards. I liked Sidney the minute he started talking in that classroom at the New School so many years ago. He exuded a zest, and enthusiasm, and somehow you genuinely felt he wanted you to love and be as excited about writing and storytelling as he clearly was. He was someone I trusted instantly, someone I felt really cared about my writing. Whether he thought it was good or bad, he was going to try and help us with learning the craft, to make the poorly written into passable fiction, and the good into better.

In Sidney’s memoir, Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen, he explains how he had a lesson plan when he first approached teaching. His method was simple, but effective, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell it to them. Tell them what you’ve told them.”

I guess it worked because I have specific memories of what Sidney O. said and examples he used about writing in that workshop I took at the New School. I never forgot those classes, and that I was spending time with a teacher who hoped to inspire what was best in you, in an encouraging manner, and that’s why I asked Tom Fleming to see if he could arrange lunch for the three of us after I learned he had been friends with Sidney O. for so long.

What Sidney had no way of knowing, of course, was when I first met Tom Fleming the year before taking Sidney’s workshop, I wasn’t sure I could write, based on the authoritarian, but apparently highly subjective pronouncements of some in the so-called literary establishment at the time. Tom and his wife, Alice, also a talented writer, both were generous enough to read a collection of my short stories and tell me they thought I was indeed a writer. I was still skeptical, though I appreciated their encouragement, and then was further surprised, but grateful, that one of my stories was accepted and published by Martin Tucker in Confrontation, the literary journal with which his name as editor has been synonymous for many years.

Still, the critical demons were hovering over my shoulder, causing me to question and doubt almost every single sentence I started to write, when somehow I finally mustered up the courage to try a writing workshop again. Fortunately, it was a six-week summer workshop taught by Sidney Offit, and that’s the main reason I asked Tom to see if Sidney could have lunch with us, because I wanted to thank him for helping me so much, even though, like many teachers, I suppose, he didn’t have a clue his presence had such an influence on me at such a critical time.

Plus, I have to admit I was pretty impressed that Sidney O. smoked a cigar with both H.L.Mencken and Che Guverra, though obviously not at the same time, or even during the same decade.

In any case, I was so inspired by lunch with Tom Fleming and Sidney O. that I read Sidney’s Memoir of the Bookie’s Son, which vividly describes the life of a Baltimore bookmaker by his law-abiding son, in one sitting later that night. On the cover of the book is a photo of a young Sidney holding a pail as he stands next to his father on the way to the beach, with a quote underneath the photo by Sidney’s close friend, the late Kurt Vonnegut, “This is beauty.” I couldn’t agree more.