The setting: New York in the mid 1980s. Warm summer day in June. One of those delicious, sparkling, clear afternoons in midtown.
I was in my 20s and had just started my Madison Avenue copywriting trek. I had summered in the Hamptons and wintered in the Vermont with a treasure trove of ad creatives, the best and the brightest the business had to offer. Better still, I had learned that the preceding nouns – summer and winter – were verbs. Something that this Texas gal had never heard of.
That afternoon, I was strolling with my friend, Richard, down 54th street and laughing at one of his remarks about some celebrity he knew or had just seen or wanted to see. We were guffawing and being conspicuously loud.
I saw a man walking towards us. He just kept walking, not veering to our side as common sidewalk etiquette dictates.
Suddenly, there he was, this man, firmly planted right in front of us – in my face, actually.
He was older. Greying with some distinction and dressed in a smart expensive jacket, no tie.
“You are a good looking woman, you look like you would know if a man was gay or not…look at this,” he said, while he fumbled to retrieve a rolled up magazine clutched under his arm. In a split second, he unfurled it, and flipped through the pages with a fury until his hand karate-chopped a place in the center. The destination: a spread of four men in a checkerboard configuration of photos.
The headline of the page read “Dressed to Quill”.
“Which of these two guys do you think is better looking?” he said, jabbing his finger at the pages. My mind was scrambled.
Who was he? Why was he asking me this? Why me?
I looked at the man on the upper right. He had salt and pepper hair, and donned a tweedy jacket. Had sort of a sly smile. Behind him was a bookshelf.
The other man on the lower left had dark curly hair, was a bit balding, wore glasses, and sported a dark jacket. I chose this man.
“Aaaaah, ooooh, I KNEW it,” the man said. He snatched the magazine out of my hands, slapped it closed and left us just as quickly as he had appeared.
RIchard and I looked at each other.
“What just happened?” he said.
“I have no idea. New York is bizarre,” I said, and we walked back to my office.
After I returned to my office at Ogilvy & Mather, I couldn’t shake what had just happened.
That evening, I found the magazine – I think it was an Esquire – at a newsstand, thumbed through it and realized that this mysterious, forthright man who had stopped me was the person in the spread, Gordon Lish. His opposition: Harold Brodkey.
I had chosen Brodkey, and rejected Lish.
Oh dear God. What have I done?
I had dreams of becoming a writer beyond the ad agency world. After my discovery, I was stymied. Frozen. Paralyzed. Why had this magazine editor come upon me? And why did I make the wrong choice? Why had I thwarted Fate?
While I was in New York, I had sampled all the city had to offer in the literary arts. I dubbed it my Journey Through the Genres. I had taken a fiction writing class at the West Side YMCA from the daughter of James Jones. A poetry workshop in the East Village. An improv and acting class at H.B. Studios. Finally, two playwriting classes at Playwrights Horizons and Ensemble Studio Theatre, which jettisoned me into a decade of playwriting. Even though later I had a workshop production of a play in Los Angeles at the Tamarind Theater, I remained unproduced. I was nobody.
I did more research on Mr. Lish and was even more confounded, horrified, and tied in a knot. I discovered he was a famed editor at Alfred A. Knopf and at Esquire was known as Captain Fiction. He had launched the careers of Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, Reynolds Price, and Barry Hannah. Also in his steed were Rick Bass and Richard Ford. Amy Hempel dedicated “Reasons to Live” to him.
He was big. Important. I was flattened.
After my ill-fated meeting with Mr. Lish, I was a whirligig of nervosa that I could not shake for months. At this time in my life, I was untreated for OCD. Anything could set me on a crash-and-burn course of spinning thoughts and sleepless nights. This did it.
My mind, a relentless bully, birthed a loop of passages, beginnings and endings, of a letter that was a story of our sidewalk meeting. I wrote this in fits and starts. Mulled over it. Wrote, wrote and rewrote it over and over, late into the night. The obsessions came and went in waves. I was manic. Even had unexplainable leg pains. I had so many juicy thoughts to share. “It was you I should have chosen in the spread, but my sight was obscured by your shining in person, dashing good looks.”
Despite my scribbling, I remained constitutionally unable to send my letter. I was shackled in fear. This obsession plagued my psyche on and off for a decade.
By the end of the 90s, after moving back to Dallas, getting meds for OCD and coming to terms with the stasis of my playwriting career, I discovered my letter with my ramblings to Mr. Lish. I finally cobbled together a short letter, one which was more clear, and cogent than my original composition, and sent it to him.
A few weeks later, I received a small square envelope. I opened it to see a note on “Gordon Lish” letterhead and typed on what looked like a real typewriter. He said that he remembered the event clearly and stated that I had not correctly identified his competition – I wrote that the other man was Harold Brodkey. He said that the man in question was Joseph Brodsky, a vastly more important writer who had won the Nobel Prize.
In my letter I had remarked that I was mediocre, that I was striving for excellence. He replied (and I’m paraphrasing) that at some time in our lives, we must all come to terms with our mediocrity. I was startled. Touched by what seemed to be genuine humility and sweetness. My heart kind of swells with happy sadness when I think back on this.
Mr. Lish also extended to me an invitation to his writing workshop in San Francisco. I should have gone. But at the time, I had no sense of self, and could not imagine presenting myself to this master. Besides, I was thick into a relationship of Wagnerian proportions that would send me into a downward spiral, a mire of warp speed quicksand that would take me yet another decade to recover from.
When I look back, in only a sliver of my life do I see a thread, a pattern, that makes any sense. Mostly, all the synchronicities of my life seems like a bunch of crossword puzzle pieces dumped on the floor.
But today as I write this, I see two potentially interlocking pieces: Gordon Lish and Barry Hannah (see him below.)
I participated in a Writer’s Residency at the Vermont Studio Center in the mid 90s and who was my teacher? Barry Hannah – who was mentored by Gordon Lish. Mr. Hannah didn’t quite understand my story. I was crestfallen. It was about Wah Wah, my beautiful aunt Addie Willie Leopard, who was an invalid and spinster. I had even won a local Honorable Mention PEN Women award for it. He did, though, like my play. Part of it was given a reading during my stay at the Center. He was a kind, generous man. I learned a lot from him. I was sad when I read he had died.
I later took the story to a summer seminar at Bennington and my teacher, Elizabeth Cox, got it. I was heard. It felt good.
Lish also launched the career of Reynolds Price, who was the college mentor of a young magazine writer I dated while in New York. Yet another connection, albeit weak.
There is an small overlap, but what it means, if it means anything at all, is like a big wad of Christmas lights that I am still trying to untangle.
Only now, at 54, can I look back at this odd happening with some sobriety, some hope. After 30 years of writing ads, I quit my job six months ago. I am freelancing. Writing this blog. A novella. A screenplay. And I am desperate for help. I need an editor in a bad way.
I have survived my father’s death, numerous job losses, financial failure, a colossal amount of heartbreaks and getting sober. I have been through the wringer, the storm, and any other cliché you can think of.
I am laying myself wide open for criticism, ruthless painful editing, barbs, ridicule. All the wonderful things that only a writer can appreciate and long for.
I am ready.
Now that I am out here strolling, my eyes are open. My head is up. Maybe I’ll meet a new Captain Fiction. All I can hope for is for Fate to smile on me one more time and help me find a kind pair of eyes to show me the way.