About William Lashner
My first year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop I was lucky enough to draw the great visiting writer as my teacher. When he spoke in workshop it was as one of a long line, going back centuries. You could hear echoes of Tolstoy, of Chekhov, of Faulkner in his voice, of Colette maybe, but not Woolf, definitely not Woolf. His was a masculine take on the world. It was the fall semester and the big weekly event was Saturday softball. He hadn't played, he said, in fifty years but he was a good and competitive athlete and he asked me if I would work with him Friday afternoon before the game. Of course I would, and it became a ritual.
Every Friday at four-thirty I'd meet with him and a few others and we'd take hitting and fielding practice. I'd pitch to him, tossing out bits of advice with my underhand offerings. I taught him the Charley Lau method of releasing the top hand after contact to increase bat speed, and he was a very apt pupil. At the start of the season the best he could muster were a few weak ground balls but by the end he was really rocking that apple. In our last game he slammed a drive in the gap for a home run and there was true joy in his face as he smacked down on home plate. That, in fact, was the last hit of the season because on the very next play I slugged a liner that Billy Peterman dove for and caught, breaking his collarbone in the process: Billy Peterman's greatest play.
The visiting writer had a standing offer that anyone who submitted a story could meet with him after the workshop to discuss the work and one afternoon I took advantage. We met in his narrow office on the third floor of the English building. We were friends by then, softball buddies, and I felt a nice equality to our relationship; Friday afternoons I taught him hitting, Tuesday afternoons he taught me writing. I was by then a little older, already a lawyer, and not so easily intimidated. We talked about softball, about the class. He complimented me on my critiques. I told him I was learning a lot. It was all very pleasant, very congenial until the question emerged.
I hadn't planned on asking it, but how could I not?
It plagued us all during our time at Iowa, the question, there was no escaping it. Did I, we all wondered constantly about ourselves, have a future as a writer. For some it seemed the answer was obvious, those like Chris Offutt, Elizabeth McCracken, Tom Grimes, Charlie D'Ambrosio, Abraham Verghese, whose work showed brilliance even then, but for the rest of us, struggling still to find a voice, it remained a torment. It was in our eyes as we sat back and listened to the others have a go at our manuscripts, it was in our greedy excitement as we set up appointments with the agents who had come to Iowa City to troll, it was in the gothic emotions of the night after fellowships for the following year had been awarded, a night of tears and violence, of overturned grave sites and wrecked pick-up trucks. At Iowa, the question ruled.
So there I was, having a friendly chat with the great writer, talking calmly of the class and softball and certain issues in my own story when, almost on its own, the question seized control of my heart and told me that this man, this great writer, could finally give me an answer.
So I asked it, the question, phrased it informally, something like, "So what do you think?" something simple like that, but it was out there, the question, raw and open and so was I.
And suddenly everything in that small room shifted. It was as if I had drunken a bottle of Alice's potion and I shrank and he grew and the distance between us accelerated geometrically until it became perfectly clear exactly what he was and I wasn't.
It was an awkward moment, this shifting, for him as well as for me. He hemmed and hawed, offered some comforting platitudes, spoke about how impossible it was to judge a writer early in his career, but in the end, to his great credit, he gave me as honest an answer as he could. I can no longer summon the exact phrasing, the awkwardness of it all was too excruciating to concentrate on anything other than not falling off my chair, but the gist of it was that as a writer I was a pretty good softball player, but that was all.
His answer killed me for two days, two bad days, days spent in despair, curled on the couch. Then I got off the couch and started writing again and kept at it. This was all in the first few months at Iowa and I was about to undertake dramatic changes in the way I wrote, in my voice, my rhythms, my subjects. He had been right of course, I wasn't then any good, and he had been right when he said he couldn't judge the future. In fact it is amazing how right he was and I've always been grateful for his honesty. I think it was one of the crucial moments in my life, when he told me I wasn't a natural and it was time to get working. And so I did, get working, and I still am.
And I'll tell you something more, I never again asked anyone that damn question and I never will.
November 25, 1998
edited by Tom Grimes
The Writing Life
Ah, the writing life.
A few months ago I found myself on a small boat, about thirty miles due west of Assateague Island, hunting for tuna. This was my first attempt at sport fishing and I soaked it all in, the sun, the salt sea, lines like spider's silk slipping from the boat into the dark roiling ocean. Beneath us a lovely silver ghost, all power and grace, slid low in the water through the blackness. In the offing was a battle against nature, a test of wills between man and fish. It was all too exquisite until, with an ominous snap, the reel on one of the rods started whizzing.
An hour later, my biceps burning, my wrist aching, my bones turned to taffy by exhaustion, the rod yanked me once again across the deck, already slippery thick with a crimson red slop. I tripped over a fish still flopping away on the boards, a fish bigger than my eldest child, and banged my hip into the rail. The rod slipped in my hands, I barely maintained my grip.
"Face the fish," drawled the mate.
"How far is he?" I gasped.
"Oh you got a ways to go. We've snagged our limit, anyways, so we'll have to throw it back."
"Throw it back?"
The rod jerked, my hands burned, the fish made another run and line fled from the reel. I stepped over dead tuna as the bluefin worked me back and forth across the deck, my muscles ripping off the elbow, my feet slipping in the blood, my seasick patch shaking loose.
Through it all one thought kept hammering at my skull: Hemingway was a jerk.
So maybe I wasn't born for the hard living manly writer's life. Maybe driving to Key West I would find myself, not reborn, just carsick. Maybe I'm more of an open the can, add mayonnaise and a touch of dill kind of guy. I mean, I figure if it's laughs I'm after I might as well step inside a cage of ropes and let some guy with the shoulders of a bull bash me in the face.
Oh yeah, he did that too.
My run at sport fishing wasn't the only time my dreams of the writing life had withered in the face of abject reality. Much of what I had hoped for when I decided on a writing career in my adolescence, the joyous nights of drink, the fame, the easy sex, the jazz bars, the place in the Hamptons, the easy sex, the prime table at Chiji's, all of it has seemed to pass me by.
I'm not complaining now, it's just that these images of the writing life, images that sparked my early desire to write and drove me though the Iowa Writer's Workshop and my family into debt until finally I sold a novel on my third attempt, have proven to be largely illusory. I always considered those who said they wouldn't let success change their lives to be a bit daft. I mean, really, if success doesn't change things then what's the point of all this confounded striving. I thought when that first book came out everything would be different, that the very earth would shift on its axis and I would be reborn, but here I am, same as I ever was, and my life is remarkably unchanged. Same house, same wife, same way I have to jiggle that knob to make the toilet flush. What could be more disappointing? In fact, only one aspect of the writer's life hasn't disappointed, only one aspect has far exceeded all my adolescent yearnings.
When I decided to stop talking about being a writer and try to actually do something about it, the writing itself was this unpleasant thing I forced upon myself with the hope of someday living the life to which we all aspire. I would dream the parties, the money, the summers on Sidney Sheldon's yacht, and then chain myself to the typewriter to hammer out still another limp page. I finished a novel that way, well, if not a novel at least a long glob of glutinous prose, forced myself to finish it and then sent it off, eyeing the catalogues for cruise wear as I waited for the life to descend upon me.
So I'm sitting home, alone, watching reruns of F-Troop, when a voice comes out of my television and asks if I am desperate for a change. Of course I am desperate for a change. Who watching reruns of F-Troop isn't desperate for a change? The answer, says the voice, is career training, and right there it offers certifications in Legal Assistant, Medical Assistant, Taxidermy, Creative Writing, Prisoner Execution, Driver Education Film Narration. The Taxidermy class was filled so I opted for creative writing, which is how I ended up in Iowa, going for my MFA.
I had never before taken a writing class and at the start I wrote like they tell you to drive, defensively. I carefully drafted a passel of short stories designed in their utter blandness to avoid the withering criticism of my workshop classmates and teachers. I wrote for approval and failed, spectacularly. Battered and bloody, oh the humanity, I gave up on short fiction and embarked upon another novel. I used to run cross country, pitifully of course -- the bus, fully loaded, engine running, waiting for me to finish -- but still I figured I was better suited to the longer track. Slowly, page by painful page, the manuscript grew. And then, strangely, something totally unexpected happened. The damn thing spoke to me.
"I'm not sure I like the direction in which you're heading," it said.
"Don't you think you should emphasize the father's role in Lee's life?"
"I think I emphasized it enough."
"But isn't the struggle being waged for his soul really between his father and Hal? Shouldn't that be the emphasis of the story?"
"What the hell do you know about it?"
Now you might think that I'm making it up, this conversation, having a jolly joke on myself and my book, but here's the thing, I'm not, it happened, the damn thing spoke to me and it took a long time for me to get smart enough to listen. Joseph Campbell says in The Power of Myth that every artist feels the work speak to him and if cave drawings could speak to the Neanderthal painter than I suppose my manuscript could indeed speak to me. In fact, it was only when I smartened up enough to listen that the voice of my narrator came alive, the story began to drive itself, and the act of writing ceased to be a painful obligation. My favorite part of the Iowa day was no longer the softball games with famous writers, or the talk of writing over beers at the Foxhead, or the poker, it was, instead, time with my ever-lengthening novel. And I knew then that I wanted to continue to hear that voice forever.
The voice doesn't make itself heard at the start, no matter how detailed the notes I've generated. I have to slog a bit, waiting for the manuscript to start whispering in my ear. It seems to come, when it does, about a hundred pages in and those hundred pages are hard, full of doubts and thoughts of other more worthy projects. Sometimes it comes sooner or sometimes later or sometimes never at all, in which case I put it away and start something new, and sometimes what it tells me is that the first hundred pages are a disaster. When I start it is an act of faith, hoping it will come, not certain that it will but certain that if I don't begin it won't ever. And when it does come, too soft to hear at first, a mere murmur that slips into my dreams, but then louder and more insistent, it brings with it not merely its own voice, but an entire world, the world of my fiction. It is only when the novel starts to speak that I know the world of the manuscript has somehow come alive for me, and with the coming of the voice that world itself inhabits me in a peculiar way even as I continue to create its contours.
It has become for me an exquisitely private pleasure, this habitation by the dreamworlds of my novels, a pleasure that grows more powerful with each book. I find myself slipping into the worlds not just when I'm writing, but at odd moments during the other parts of my life, at a concert, during a long drive, while discussing a stain with the dry cleaner. At night, before I fall asleep, I spend my last moments awake lost in thoughts of my writing and so my first moments of sleep are spent in those dreamworlds too. They are worlds with a surface comprised of words and if there is a distortion in my view it can usually be traced to a imprecise verb, a metaphor that dies, a rhythm in the sentence that clangs. Language haunts my sleep; phrases bubble up through my dreams and I fight to reconstruct the precise wording when I awake. If there is a terror alongside the pleasure in these dreams it is that my language will ultimately fail my vision.
I would have expected the worlds of my stories to be foreign, filled with landmarks and characters which I have only recently sketched with words, but I find I am not an alien in these places. Over there, that man on the crowded urban street with the slightly stooped walk. His name is Martin, and he is someone whom I made up out of the thin of the air, an old socialist rabble-rouser, a devoted follower of Eugene Debs, but when he turns and looks at me I recognize him for who he really is, my father. And that house, that split level squatting on that hillside plot, doesn't that look a little like the suburban split level in which I spent my early youth. I can write about a gothic mansion in Philadelphia's Main Line or a German immigrant neighborhood in turn-of-the-century Cincinnati, or Paris during the occupation and, somehow, the psychological profile of the worlds will all feel startlingly familiar, as if I had spent my whole life there and no place else but there. Look, within that large dormitory room at a Nazi run internment camp for Jews just outside Paris, sitting on one of the flea-ridden straw mattresses, a man, stooped and thin, patiently awaiting his fate. Is that my father again?
It is impossible to explain how lovely it is to lose myself in the dreamworlds of my novels, how delicious. I used to let others look at sections of my books before I was finished, I have the writer's pathetic need for approval, so similar to a dog's, but though I still have that need, I don't show works in progress anymore; the readers always feel obligated to give their opinions, why else of course would I show it, and I don't want their voices to still the voice of the manuscript. So I work alone to the end and rewrite and rewrite again alone until I think it is ready and all the time my visits to the world are absolutely private. It is my world, separate from the other world, mine and only mine, a place of solace and refuge where every thing wrong can be rewritten right unless I like it exactly wrong. In times of stress I enter it and lie down in its green pastures and let it restoreth my soul. There is something selfish about my visits that adds to the pleasure, gives it a tinge of guilt, like having an intense extramarital affair while retaining absolute fidelity to my family. It is mine, this dreamworld, until I'm finished with the story and I send it away and it is solely mine no longer and somehow, in the sharing, the voice quiets and the world begins to dissolve and disappear for me, like a dream upon waking. It becomes something fixed and hard and different. When I complete a book I am supposed to be happy, relieved, I am supposed to rejoice that I am finished, but what I feel more than anything is loss. When I turn in a manuscript for the final time it is as if, in the garden of my novel, I have eaten from the fruit of completion and, as punishment, been banished.
My professional life is now divided into two distinct parts. There is the writing itself, which, as I've described, is difficult and challenging and magical and something I hope to do for as long as I have the strength. And there is the other stuff that comes with publication, the expected writerly stuff, the sport fishing as it were, which I do, gladly, with a song in my heart, but only because it is what I have to do so they'll let me keep writing.
I have my picture taken, I am interviewed over the phone, I make the occasional appearance on cable television and regale the audience with clever self-deprecating anecdotes. I travel all over the country, signing books at tables in malls. I give readings and answer questions, and am amazingly grateful to anyone who takes the time to show up and listen. At my hotel I order room service and call my wife and watch HBO and sleep through the night without a child waking me with a request for water, which is actually lonelier than I ever would have imagined. I contact friends I haven't seen in years and we have lunch. I call my publicist to keep him informed of my progress. I am reviewed.
Of course I had my dreams of waiting up all night at a publication party, drinking champagne with starlets, expecting any moment the messenger bearing the next morning's papers so we can read together the grand reviews of my latest. "Here it is, here it is," says my agent after frantically searching through the paper. "Is it good?" asks the starlet. "Good?" shouts my agent. "It's better than good, it's boffo." Of course the reality of reviews turned out to be still another disappointment. Being reviewed is like being workshopped by the entire country while you stand in front of the class, naked. For me, actually, it's not the criticism that I find most unpleasant, though even a few snide words cause a pain so brutal, so unyielding, that thoughts of sweet homicide begin to infect my thoughts day and night, night and day, until I find myself loitering outside gun shops and apothecaries specializing in exotic poisons, but, really, the criticism is not the worst part. The worst part of the reviews for me is when the reviewers begin to describe the story, to distill the novel's world down to the banal few sentences that fit within their allotted column inches, taking all the quirks of architecture and character out of it, until it is almost a parody of what I intended to write. And yet the characters' names are the same and some events are the same and, yes, they seem to have gotten the basics right, but, no, it is nothing like the dream I had slipped in and out of the last two years. That, more than anything, makes me feel a failure and, somehow, drives me to find the lost world again in another incarnation in another book in hopes that I might do a better job.
I haven't given up all aspirations to the glorious fun I had lusted for as a boy. I remember reading how Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Dorothy Parker prostituted themselves to Hollywood and my first thought was, "How wasteful," and my second thought was, "How about me?" Someday soon I'll head out to the coast and stand on a street corner in a bad Hawaiian shirt, flashing leg and manuscript, holding a sign, "Will rewrite wrestling film for dinner at Morton's." I'm sure it will be fab and wild and nothing like I had hoped and I'll be glad as hell to get back home to start again and lose myself in a novel.
A room of my own, an idea with promise, two years to flesh out its world.
Ah the writing life.
January 13, 1999
THE ELEVENTH DRAFT
Edited by Frank Conroy