How I Became a Writer

Several years ago, at the now defunct Red Room, I blogged a seven-part series entitled “How I Became a Writer.” The first four of these were published on line by “The Broad Street Review, but then the editor discovered I was not using people’s real names. He insisted I do so. I insisted I wouldn’t. It was his court and his ball, so the other three never played.

So I will blog the complete set here. This is the first.

Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, April, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”
I should add, at Brandeis in 1960, everyone was as unhappy as Don Nussbaum. The athletes were unhappy because most of the student body regarded them as on an intellectual plain with elm trees. The party people were unhappy because the school’s idea for a for a blow-out weekend headliner was Odetta. The political activists were unhappy because of unfair play for Cuba and the bomb. The scholars were unhappy because the library closed at 11:00 and they only had exams twice a semester. And the artists were unhappy because their art demanded that.

Based on a free-choice writing sample, freshmen were exempted from English Comp. or assigned a section. The sample was to determine if we could organize simple, declarative sentences into coherent paragraphs. Only no one had told me. My lyric essay about a West Philadelphia pool hall won me a slot with Mrs. Medvedev.
She was a green-eyed redhead, with a tattoo on her wrist from Auschwitz. She was married to Yankle Medvedev, the chairman of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, and, according to worldly sophomores in my dorm, having an affair with an untenured abstract expressionist from Fine Arts. She was also, when it came to grades, “Brutal.” After our first assignment – describing how to tie one’s shoes – she flailed us like Xerxes the Hellespont.
The second assignment was to describe a character we admired. That, let me tell you, set competitive juices flowing. Irwin Selzman was doing Paul Tillich. (I had never heard of him.) Victor Goldblatt had Reinhold Niebuhr. (I had never heard of him.) Celia Peltz chose Eleanor Roosevelt. (Okay! One for three.) I picked Garnet “Sugar” Hart, a Strawberry Mansion welterweight, who had earned my fascination by spicing his training regimens with emcee-ing gigs in Ridge Avenue bars.
I sat beside Rick Feldman, an aspiring Beatnik from Darien. (He had gone with Jean-Paul Sartre.) “These papers are not bad,” Mrs. Medvedv said. “They are abominably bad.” My eyes were on my desert boots. I would have settled for a C, easy. “But one of you shows promise.”
I saw a familiar paper clip.
“That’s mine,” I said.
“That might be yours,” Rick Feldman said.
“‘He was tall and thin and could hit with either hand,’” Mrs. Medvedev said.