"Take my hand," Los Angeles novelist Jim Krusoe said, laughing, "and I will lead you
This was the mid-nineties, a brilliant sunny Los Angeles afternoon. Jim and I were walking across Santa Monica College's campus to grab a coffee. We met weekly in those days; I had just been hired as the new editor for the Santa Monica Review and Jim was showing me the ropes.
The hilarity of Krusoe's statement is unforgettable, and oddly prescient, but the inspiration remains foggy. Since I had just returned from a rollicking two-year ride as a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, it's likely I thanked him for our friendship, for entrusting me as the new editor, and for being steadfastly supportive of my work during its long and awkward infancy.
After all, it was only three years earlier that Jim Krusoe, who was my first creative writing teacher, started me on the road that led to one of the most intense writing workshops in the country. As a new creative writer, and naïve to this world, I endured many dark days during that first year in Iowa. If it weren't for Jim, who was always available to offer up some zany wisdom, and other kind souls who lent their shoulders, I might have taken a Woolfian plunge into the Iowa River.
In addition to Jim, there was Deborah Eisenberg, the masterful short story writer, who led my first workshop and subsequently became one of my thesis advisors. David Hamilton, the editor of the Iowa Review, in whose office I took frequent refuge, offered much needed guidance, solace, and sanity during this woolly time, like soft and benevolent boulders to rest upon while flailing down Class Four rapids. And there were others, teachers, friends, and books along the way that helped me forge a long and winding path forward: Jim McPherson, Denis Johnson, Sandra Cisneros, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.
In Los Angeles everyone knew about Jim Krusoe because he ran the Santa Monica Review. He also directed the Santa Monica Writers' Conference, led workshops at Beyond Baroque in Venice, and held Wednesday night creative writing classes at Santa Monica College. I applied to everything and he said no, but instead invited me to take a beginning creative writing class on Mondays. Since I had been writing for newspapers for almost ten years, and was then writing a weekly art column and monthly cover features about Los Angeles artists for one of the biggest dailies in the area, I was humbled. Very. And fiercely determined to crack out of my beginning phase and find a path into the fictional universe.
I did. Slowly. Week after week in Jim's Monday night class, I began to learn about creative writing. Krusoe gave prompts for in class assignments that were often whacky. Write about something completely unexpected in a room, like a car behind a couch. A pool in the kitchen. Include sentences that have the following number of words. One. Twenty. Ninety-eight words. Four.
Krusoe, beyond smart, beyond hilarious, possessed another quality that I can only describe as magical. He was expert at creating a sense of discovery and adventure within the process of writing. There were no rules. The point was not to write a prize-winning story. Or even a linear one. The point was to find something new, surprising and then turn it on its ear. Again.
Krusoe is a legendary teacher, I think, because he has an almost mystical way of opening creative windows by creating absence or, perhaps, more succinctly, blowing holes in narrative. His line-to-line comments are typically minimal. He is a man committed to the solemn beauty of the bracket—one at the beginning of the recommended deletion and one at the end. Invariably the incision wouldn't be clean, leaving scraggly ends like severed organs in need of mending, or, in some cases, left to allow their host to die its proper and inevitable death. On larger pieces, I often found little x's in the right hand corner of the page, page after page after page, no apologies, no explanation, just full on mayhem: cut, cut, cut. Once, he deleted everything in a twenty-five-page story but the first paragraph.
After I recovered from the shock of the slaughter, I often sat in bewildered wonderment, a blank fury across me as I stared into craters of nothingness. I didn't know it then but I eventually learned. If I sat long enough, I could endure the horror and pain of failing (again), not knowing the answer (again), writing poorly (again), something might eventually flower, and if it did, that something was always better. Much better. Way better.
Whereas Krusoe pushed out, encouraging wild leaps of imagination, Deborah Eisenberg, more of a realist and traditionalist, pushed in, leading me toward the power of crystalline language and the constructs of the traditional narrative. Sometimes I saw the process as this—or maybe I dreamt it—Deborah and I sitting together in a teeny tiny room and splitting hairs with teeny tiny tweezers. No, not that hair. This one.
Deborah's teaching strategy was subtle, full of whispers, and never directive as if she were trying to blow you in the right direction, like a piece of paper across the room. Her comments on manuscripts were scrawled in tiny tiny letters using the lightest pencil encouraging precision, precision. Eisenberg's stories are often like little plays and, to my mind, so perfectly executed, I couldn't begin to discern the scaffolding. We were doing intricate work, not brain surgery, certainly, but almost, braiding stories with silk threads. When we sat to review a story, I'd follow her long slender white finger traipse across the page, sentence after sentence. Here, she pointed, her voice deep and dramatic and slow, here, going along. Okay, good, good, and then? And then? Chaos. It's as if you just gave up and said, oh, hell
you know what I mean.
Deborah, who said she took years to write a story, taught me that writing is a long long process of discovering clarity. You first write this, for example, but it will take many many drafts to begin to understand where you're headed. And then sometimes you have to be able to accept it's nowhere.
The workshop Deborah led that fall was full of Iowa All Stars, second year students, all big fellowship holders, with talent and book deals and agents and swinging egos, and who were versed and savvy in the ways of this peculiar world. I was one of only two first year students in the class. (The other had been studying writing since kindergarten when he took up reading Dickens and was best friends with Annie Dillard, and some other famous author, too.)
Not I. With one year of creative writing classes at a community junior college under my belt, I knew no one. Plus, I had just left a summer writing workshop in Topanga Canyon where people actually sang their novels.
At Iowa, at least to me that first year, workshops were discouraging and overwhelming because I didn't get it yet. I didn't get what it was I was after. Or why it seemed so impossible to attain, along with whatever glory waiting in the publishing world that wasn't meant for me.
That is why Jim McPherson's complete lack of interest in anything but books was such a relief. A man of very few words, my meetings with him helped me to eventually define my work. Despite its failings, which were many, he was able to intuit where the impulse might have originated, and spent most of the meeting going through bookshelves and delivering books by authors he thought might help me do whatever I was trying to do.
Marilynne Robinson was also seminal for a variety of reasons. One was she rarely minced words. Some people can never be writers because they lack the character, she once said during one of our seminars. (I am paraphrasing.) I never forgot it because I feared she was talking about me. And to a certain extent, she was. I don't think anyone would find it surprising that life and consciousness are experienced and remembered differently and are not always malleable enough to be crammed into a linear composition. I was trying to write like a regular person, but I wasn't a regular person. I couldn't seem to compose stories in a normal way. I really wanted to write like Alice Munro but to do the engineering, to invent the contrivances to make that marvel of a story, bored the hell out of me. I was interested in language and expression not scaffolding. My brain did not work in a realist way.
The early nineties was Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, all the time, both masterful, but I began to believe there was a conspiracy in narrative prose (affectionately called dick lit) and felt confused about why story had to be composed using techniques of linear narrative. For whatever reason, brain wiring, too much LSD as a teenager, or bad chemistry, it took me a long time to understand how the experience and consciousness I was interested in writing about could be accurately reflected in dialog and scene.
I took refuge in reading the experimentalists during that year and was mildly annoyed when sitting around seminar tables listening to twenty-two-year-olds criticize the work of John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass. I then was working as a reader for the Iowa Review and often retreated to its offices and talked to David Hamilton about it. Where did the experimentalists go? Who were their protégés? Where were they? Who was publishing them? Were they being published?
David Hamilton, the consummate professor, down to leather elbow patches on his tweed blazer, was intrigued enough for the conversation to continue. Eventually he suggested I help him edit a special issue about "experimentalists" for the Iowa Review. The University of Iowa Press made it a book as well. William Gass wrote the introduction, which appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
The experience changed my life. For one, it started my career as an editor. It was also another step toward becoming the writer I have become, which, it seems even after twenty years, is still becoming as I mostly bump along following crumbs through the forest.
Recently there has been a lot of controversy around Iowa and other graduate programs, a controversy as old as time that is fueled by the fate of authors' work in the publishing industry, which is in the business of selling stories that many people want to read. The truth is there are some authors whose work is brilliant and even important, but not interesting to the general book buying public. Writing programs give time to write and then push authors out into the world; what they write, however, is up to them.
The relationships between books and authors, books and readers, define us, a process that goes well beyond mentors and educational institutions. A great inspiration to me and other women at the Iowa program was Sandra Cisneros whose thesis lived in the library. The scuttle on this was rumored The House on Mango Street was rejected by the poetry committee as a thesis. (I never checked this out just assumed it was correct.) Cisneros obviously made her way regardless of the fate of her thesis, and her experience at Iowa, and her perseverance and subsequent success provided hope for many of us. When I left Iowa, I wrote her a letter thanking her for being a beacon. She wrote back saying that she was forever grateful for the program at Iowa. It was difficult, she said, but it gave her something to push against, it made her name herself as a writer. And I realized that this statement was the key to my education.