How I Became a Writer II

The mindful reader will recall that my series by this name began on-line in The Broad Street Review until I would not abide by the editor’s demand that I use people’s real names. Ms. Medvedev (See installment one) got by him, but Dr. Leviathan raised his suspicions. Anyway, here’s the chapter that did me in.

Sophomore year, I had Humanities II with Miss Steinberg. She had a moon face, tortoise shell glasses, brown hair braided into a bun, and sat one George Eliot thesis short of a Harvard PhD. (If we were alone, I thought, and I was Humphrey Bogart, the glasses would come off and the hair shake free.) She liked me, but I tried her patience. The biggest trial was my explication of Nat Hiken’s superiority to Moliere. My thesis was simple. Comedies were supposed to be funny; Sergeant Bilko made me laugh; Tartuffe did not. (The term “sophomoric sense of humor” may have been invented for me.) Then I compared the unpremeditated murder in “The Stranger,” which I dug, to that in “Lafcadio’s Adventures,” which I really dug. “You should consider a creative writing course,” Miss Steinberg said.
She would have startled me less by announcing that Andre Gide thought he could take me off the dribble. No one in my family – parent, uncle, or aunt – wrote or painted, sculpted or composed. My family did not seem a fertile breeding ground for writers. It contained no alcoholics or drug addicts or sexual or physical abusers. No one at our seder had even committed infidelities or contemplated divorce. (Or if they had, no word of it had reached me.) My relatives were doctors or lawyers or school teachers. It was expected if my cousins and I did not become (or marry) doctors or lawyers or teachers, we would starve. The most on-the-job creativity was represented by my mother’s half-brother Abe, who mixed paints at Glidden’s.
Then there was the Brandeis perspective. Writers wore black turtlenecks and jeans. They played guitars at Chomondeley’s, the campus coffee house. They went to Cambridge for New Wave festivals at the Brattle. They carried, for God’s sake, green book bags. I wore crew necks and khakis. I played three-on-three in the gym. If I went to Cambridge, it was for roast beef specials at Elsie’s. (I knew someone who saw “The Four-Hundred Blows.” “Not even one,” he reported.) The only person of my acquaintance with a green book bag, Mike Gaunt, had lifted it from a shelf in the book store to fill with texts he wanted to swipe.
But I had the judgments of Mrs. Medvedev and Miss Steinberg in my head. Plus, something Brandesian was working on me. A rebel stream had run through the 1950s sea of repression and conformity in which I’d grown. It had flowed through the books and movies in which the protagonist woke up, at age 40, with a wife and 2.4 kids, a house in the suburbs and station wagon in the garage, and realized he had lost his soul. Anyone who had applied to fraternity-free Brandeis – yes, we had a coffee house but no fraternities – had already been carried some distance by that current and being there, no matter how uncomfortably, accelerated its rush. I still planned to go to law school, but law school was for sell-outs, and writing…
Writing was cool.

Brandeis offered two one-semester writing courses. The most highly regarded was taught by David Leviathan, PhD. He was a gaunt, chain-smoking Brit, who was given to brilliant pronouncements that came out sounding like, “Kafkamumblemumbledespair mumblegrumble-futilityofexistencemumblerumblemumble: OBLIVION!” His one published novel – New Directions – about a patricide, exceeded the output of the rest of the faculty within the prior two decades. All the striving would-be writers on campus fought for room at his sandaled feet.
I made an appointment with Dr. Leviathan. He wore a black suit, white shirt, bolo tie. He looked up from “Journey to the End of Night” and regarded me as a botanist would a new species of lichen. I explained my Hum. II instructor had suggested I take his course. My English Comp. teacher, I said, buttressing my presentation, liked me too. These straws hovered in a draft from the void. “But I haven’t actually written a story since 11th grade. Do you think that would present a problem?”
“Bloodymumblefumblemumbleinsurmountable, I should imagine.” He blew me away like ash from his Gauloise.