I took a drive to the coast with a girl who had some secrets. Something rootless had fallen across her life. Some people had died. There were signs of it all over. Curled brown remnants of potted flowers in ditches. A conflation of scripture painted across the remaining wall of a smoldering house. Pairs of shoes nailed into the upper trunks of those low-standing oaks that spot the heart of the coastal plain. It was all of it from the piedmont to the ocean like something from the shadow of the valley itself.
The girl who had some secrets was mostly quiet until we reached the coast. We walked out on the beach and she told me she had been offered work by the government to analyze water samples along the “other” coast, which was the coast that ran along the other side of the continent. She had taken the government’s offer. She asked if I would join her there. Without thinking it over, I said, “Yes, of course,” and within a month she and I were packing our belongings and preparing to build a life together along the banks of the other coast.
This was around the time I was sending out my fiction up to Gordon Lish in New York, with the intention of being published in his innovative literary journal, The Quarterly. Lish was open to risk, he encouraged it, and never before or since has there been a literary journal as singular as the one he was editing at the time.
I first picked up The Quarterly at a local bookstore and broke open the spine to a story entitled, “Dear to Whoever Finds This and Reads This So That You Should Know Dozier and Me Are Not All Bad, at Leastwise Not Dozier.” The title itself demanded no small amount of attention. I read the first sentence of the story and slowly read it again. I looked about the bookstore to see if anyone was watching me, suddenly overwhelmed by a sensation that carried with it an urgent need for privacy. I needed to be alone with this story. I immediately purchased The Quarterly and fled the bookstore.
That night I read the story several times. The author was someone named Peter Christopher. Who the hell was Peter Christopher, and why had I not heard of him before? His story had a tremendous unique energy, and his diction and syntax were seemingly without antecedent. I read the other stories and poems from The Quarterly that night, and the next morning I sent Lish a batch of my fictions. Within a week my SASE was returned by Lish. Attached to my work was a rejection slip. The rejection itself was a terse composition full of difference and repetition, like no rejection I had ever read. I taped it to the wall above my desk. I sat at my desk and wrote.
During the late nights of early summer, the girl who had some secrets would lie in my bed below the window near my desk as I wrote. Above my desk, rejection slips from Lish were by now covering most of the wall. The girl who had some secrets encouraged me to send my work elsewhere, but The Quarterly had fast become the only literary journal that held the upshot of my attention. I was writing as many as five stories per week. They were returned weekly by Lish, mostly unmarked and always rejected.
Two or so weeks before I was to leave for the other coast, I received another SASE from Lish. Attached to my work was a handwritten note: “Show me more.” Though not accepted for publication, my work had not been rejected. Lish was encouraging me. I called in sick to my job that day so I could stay at home and write. I broke plans I had made for dinner with the girl who had some secrets. I wrote all night.
The next morning I sent Lish a five page story. Within a week he returned it to me, heavily marked. I rewrote the story, using Lish’s revisions and deletions as a way to mark my path. The five page story became a two page story. I sent it off to Lish. Lish returned it with more markings. The two page story became a one page story. Was Lish fucking with me? There were perhaps four sentences left for me to work with. I tinkered with what remained, and the story became a poem. Three days before I was to leave for the other coast I received a flimsy SASE in the mail. Inside was my poem and an acceptance letter from Lish.
The other coast was not suitable to the needs of my body. It was too beautiful there. There was only one season, the bright one. Parts of me needed rain and snow and a frequent low ceiling of overcast skies. The girl who had some secrets thrived there. She absorbed the brightness and grew confident and strong. My writing grew weak. I could not find a job. I spent most of my days in a local bookstore, reading and trying to write.
One morning in the bookstore I saw a placard listing reading events that were scheduled for the following month. I saw Lish’s name and looked closer. “Gordon Lish reads from his new novel, Zimzum.” I wrote the date and Lish’s name on a scrap of paper. I purchased the latest issue of The Quarterly and left the store.
The bookstore was packed to capacity the night of Lish’s reading. I wondered how many in the audience were writers whose work Lish had accepted or rejected. When Lish took his place behind the podium he was frantic and apologetic for being a few minutes late. He began an oddly beautiful rant concerning what had delayed him. The rant went on for nearly thirty minutes. Lish held the audience captive. His cadences were strong and elegant, and it was only after he stepped from behind the podium that I realized the frantically apologetic rant was actually a performance. In lieu of reading from Zimzum he had “performed” one of the novel’s longer chapters. Never at any “reading” had I witnessed such a bold innovation of the form.
I purchased Zimzum and stood in line to meet Lish. He was extremely personable. He told me I should take the class that he would be teaching on the other coast later that year. I shook his hand, and as I was leaving the bookstore with the girl who had some secrets, Lish called out, “McLendon, stay in touch!”
I stayed in touch with Lish, and a few months later I signed up for his week-long writing class. The class was held at an old fort by the bay. The fort had been converted into a cultural center. I arrived early the first morning, traveling up from the lower body of the peninsula. The other students entered the classroom, and everyone was mostly silent as we waited for Lish.
There is an agreement of confidentiality between Lish and his students. Any details of what he teaches in class are never to be shared or posted outside the classroom walls. I stand by this agreement. Even if I were to share the heft of what I learned, it would not have the greater lasting impact conveyed by Lish himself. The man has an amazing amount of energy and integrity, and a great part of what his students learn is built from the example of his tireless presence. What I am able to allow here are little more than glittering generalities of the overall experience.
Lish entered the classroom and asked each of us to give a brief personal statement concerning our backgrounds. He braided from this foundation what became a six hour lecture concerning the life one must live to live the life of an artist. He stressed that one’s greatest strength can be achieved by standing on one’s limitations. Embrace through art the thing that limits you most. Make this limitation your greatest strength. Not unlike the tenets of Gilles Deleuze, Lish proclaimed that art allows a greater opening to the source of one’s self than can ever be pried from the trap-work of psychotherapy. Quoting Deleuze, “[Psychotherapy] breaks up all productions of desire and crushes all formations of utterances.” Lish was teaching us so much more than how to write a story. He was teaching us how to live, and perhaps how to die. He wanted more than a story. He wanted something from the writer’s core. He taught us ways of twisting our stories into their original twisted forms. I could not take notes fast enough. “Dignity,” I wrote, and I underlined the word.
That evening, I took the train home and read over my notes from class. The girl who had some secrets met me at my stop down the peninsula. As we drove home I told her how one session with Lish allowed me more insight than the sum of my previous schooling. Once home, I began to write a few sentences for the following session. Lish had asked each of us to write only one.
The next day we read our sentences aloud. Lish called upon us in a random order that reminded me of being in court. The first student read perhaps five words of his sentence before Lish stopped him. “No,” said Lish, and he called on another student. The next student was allowed maybe three words. Lish shook his head. “McLendon,” he said, and I read my sentence. Lish was silent for a moment. He asked me to read it again. I read the sentence again, and as I read Lish transcribed my sentence against the classroom’s chalkboard.
Lish said I had written a strong sentence. He elucidated by pointing out acoustical tensions and harmonies that were contained within the sentence. He circled words and connected them with arrows. He suggested optional words and asked the class if the options were stronger or weaker than the originals. He praised my use of odd prepositional arrangements. He questioned my repetitions. “Good work, McLendon,” he said, and he asked me to read my next sentence. I uttered perhaps four words before he cut me off. “McLendon! What happened, McLendon? McLendon! What happened? You lost it! You had it and you lost it! You fucked yourself, McLendon! And by fucking yourself, you’re fucked!” He shook his head and called on the next student to read.
Over the years there has been no small amount of controversy surrounding Gordon Lish. Can I set the record straight? Probably not, but what I can do is offer an honest assessment of the man based on my exchanges with him. I welcome his criticisms, as harsh as they are, because no one has a better ear when it comes to listening to poetic arrangements of language. He is an extremely intelligent man, but intuitive as well. He not only knows language, he feels it. It’s my belief he taught me how to read as much as he taught me how to write. Students taking his class need to check their egos at the door. Lish coddles no one. He is interested only in what a body and mind and heart can produce through language.
The next day I arrived earlier than usual at the fort. I saw Lish standing alone by a wall above the bay. I walked over to greet him. “Look at that, McLendon,” he said, motioning out across the water to where the bay was being dredged. There was a great sense of muscularity that the dredging produced. Men wrestling with nature. Lish remarked on what was happening directly above the operation. A fine spray lifted out from the dredging, catching light and finding an arc before it dissipated. “See that, McLendon?” said Lish. “All you will ever know or feel or need is contained in that place where the spray meets the light.” We stood watching together in silence for the time that remained before class. I felt a great closeness to Gordon, and I mark this exchange as the earliest lasting outcome of what remains an importantly dear friendship.
Back in the classroom, Lish was harsher than ever. Two students had dropped out of the class. I was beginning to understand how the very source of Gordon is a place where language is everything. I listened. I took notes. I wrote sentences. Gordon suggested books for me to read. They were not novels or story collections, but largely modern philosophical texts. Away from class, I began listening to people on the street, what they said and how they said it. I listened to my own language and that of the girl who had some secrets. There were the odd prepositional combinations that Lish had mentioned in class. These were natural to she and I, as we had each been raised in the South. I noted this and began strengthening such combinations on the page.
By the end of the week I had a paragraph that Gordon endorsed. The last session of class was spent with a final reading of our work. After we read, Gordon concluded the class with some advice. He said that most of us would fail as writers, but a noble failure was better than a person who finds merit by compromising his or her heart to meet the demands of the marketplace. He said to live inside the worlds we each created, not the world that was given to us. The world that was given to us will do all in its power to beat us down. He told us to move forward, and always watch our backs.
In the years that followed, I took Gordon’s week-long class each time it was offered on the other coast. I filled wire-bound notebooks with notes on how I might better myself as a writer. Everything fell away between myself and the girl who had some secrets. This was four years after I had taken my first class with Gordon. He wrote me with news that he would be teaching a semester-long class in New York. He said it would be his final class. That fall, in October of 1997, I boarded a train for New York.
As I write this, in August of 2009, Gordon Lish has come out of retirement to teach again. I hear reports from the class that he is stronger than ever. There is much more I can say concerning my own learning experiences with Lish, but perhaps I’ve already said too much. Like plays or dance or paintings, Lish’s class is something to experience, not write about. There is also the agreement of confidentiality to consider. This morning I am in Brooklyn, looking over all the notes I took in Lish’s class over the years. There is so much here that is essential, but to share it would break a pact.
Lish’s pal Barry Hannah once wrote a passage that echoes much of what Gordon teaches: “Whosoever you are, be that person with all your might. Time goes by faster than we thought. It is a thief so quiet. You must let yourself be loved and you must love, parts of you that never loved must open and love. You must announce yourself in all particulars so you can have yourself.” It’s no secret that Lish was a great influence on Hannah and many other great writers over the last forty years. The worlds Gordon Lish helped create have made the world we were given a much better place. Just remember to move forward, and always watch your back.
Originally published at The Collagist (kudos to Matt Bell) – http://www.dzancbooks.org/the-collagist/twisting-the-story-into-its-original-twisted-form.html