August 28, 1983
I have arrived at Creative Writing Stalag 17, otherwise known as the English Department at the University of T____. I have never been to T____ before, and I was disappointed that it is hot. Worse, as a mere visiting lecturer, I have to share a cell with two TAs.
My crime? I am a writer. While this is not formally a chargeable offense, the fact that I wish to eat and live in a domicile, but without actually working at a job, condemns me to imprisonment in this wasteland. And I was also convicted with extenuating circumstances: I have talent.
September 6, 1983
Beginning of the first week of torture sessions, also known as grading my students’ papers. One writes a science fiction fantasy obviously lifted from American television; another a ridiculous romance more suited for a scandalous tabloid, and a third a thinly-veiled tale of his first sexual experiences.
Red liquid runs off the table where I am being tortured. I suppose it was a mistake to actually use red ink in a fountain pen. Note to self: get red pencil.
October 5, 1983
I try to begin each class with a bit of Proust, Stendahl, or Trollope. One of the students snickered every time I said “Trollope;” he thought I meant a whore. Faced with À la recherche du temps perdu, only one student had a question: “Has anybody ever read this whole thing?”
I moved on to a discussion of point of view. A student wearing what I later discovered was a cap associated with the American sport of baseball offered this observation: “So, no matter how many people you got, third person is only one person.”
Only two more months before I go to Ibiza.
November 14, 1983
The grounds are a sea of orange, less from any autumn foliage — there seems to be no real autumn in this accursed place — than from supporters of the University’s American football team. Football, as it is practiced here, seems not merely an athletic contest, but a collection of crypto-fascist symbols and roles that recall preparations for war. I thought the United States got itself into enough wars without having to re-enact them, but apparently they do it to keep in fighting psychological trim.
Even my cellmates are caught up in the excitement. One of them — a callow blonde girl who appeared today in an orange-and-white sweater set, orange trousers, and cowgirl boots — took it upon herself to explain the rivalry between the University of T____ and their arch-enemies, called “Aggies.” Later, a marching band trooped past our window, but I could only hear, not see, them. The window is high up to discourage escape attempts.
February 20, 1984
A new crew of loutish Southerners and would-be hippies. The hippies here think they’re in San Francisco, the Southerners seem to yearn for Yoknapatawpha County, though they’ve never heard of it. Despairing of teaching them European literature, I’ve tried to interest them in Henry James. No luck.
Yesterday I endured that particular form of torture known as a faculty cocktail party. I had to talk to a little man who seemed particularly interested in South Africa, but when he found out I didn’t own any slaves, tottered off in disappointment.
Look around you, I wanted to say: we are all prisoners. But I didn’t say anything, because I was afraid they would take away the brie.
March 1, 1984
Only two weeks till the spring holiday, called here “Spring Break.” That’s what I will do if I am given any more essays like the one today, titled “My Friend Burrball,” about a cat. The essay’s theme was “Does sleeping count as a hobby? Because my Burrball is best at it.” That’s a distillation; the essay was nowhere near as succinct. F.
April 17, 1984
The students have taken to asking me, “Will this be on the exam?” After weeks of saying there would be no exam per se, I was taken aback to find that exams are mandatory.
What to do? I could simply take a story and an essay at random from the piles of student homework, hand it out to the class and say, “Correct this.” But they haven’t learned anything all semester, so it wouldn’t be fair. I might as well give them a chapter of Faulkner and ask them to punctuate it.
May 20, 1984
Exams are over. I toss them all, ungraded, in the trash outside the Mathematics Building and go back to my cell to compose grades. Long ago I decided these would be strictly based on attendance. Perfect attendance gets a C.
May 24, 1984
I saw my cellmates for the last time today, and when I mentioned that, based on my good behavior, the authorities have granted me time at Yaddo, neither of them knew what that was. This despite the fact they are both Ph.D. candidates in English at the University of T____. That says it all.
June 5, 1984
To refresh myself, I spent a week in Paris with my husband, followed by a week driving in the south. I recall that, of my 100 students at the University of T____, only ten of them had ever been outside the United States, but of those, six had only gone to Nuevo Laredo. I have been to 23 countries. Why don’t they at least go to France? What’s wrong with them?
July 31, 1984
At the Yaddo Minimum Security Facility. I’ve done more work in six weeks than I have in the previous ten months.
For this, I’ve seemingly been punished with a trip to that torture facility known as a “writers workshop.” I appealed. I know I could finish the second draft of my book if I am given just a little more time here, among the Adirondack chairs.
Then I learned that what I thought was good behavior — doing my work, exercising my rare Talent — was in fact dooming me to more hard labor. Now I have to read twelve stories by next Thursday. If you want to call them that.
August 8, 1984
If the University of T____ was a concentration camp, and Yaddo a minimum security facility, what do I call the Napa Valley Writers Workshop? A sort of temporary jail. Every morning, a two-hour session with the would-be writers: housewives, delivery truck drivers, high school teachers, pesticide salesmen, insurance agents, all under the false impression that they can write.
What do they know of Talent? (I’ve taken to capitalizing it when speaking of my own gift, the better to distinguish it from other so-called talents such as juggling or putting on makeup — the latter being something one girl at the University of T____ claimed was her great gift. Perhaps — if she were about to go on camera to read the weather.) They know how to cook a roast, or how to amortize a mortgage, but they know nothing of writing, literature, and great art.
I know about all those things. But I can’t teach them. It’s unthinkable.
September 15, 1984
The authorities have released me for a few months, during which I’ll write a new novel, six essays and reviews for the New York Review of Books and the Guardian, and reform PEN. So I’m hard at work, which for me is play.
I met a fellow writer — which is to say, a fellow prisoner — at Yaddo this summer. Now she’s back in stalag 32 (B____ University’s creative writing department) babysitting a bunch of wetnosed American youths. She said they all suddenly want to be Madonna, and I made a madonna-whore joke, but she didn’t even react. I should pay more attention to popular culture. Maybe I should subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. Though it’s written for the hoi polloi, and rarely contains anything close to an original idea, I suppose I could skim it once a week.
November 7, 1984
Reagan re-elected. I don’t understand this country. But what matters is, is this good or bad for artists? Republicans hate all art because they think it’s gay, and they hate gays worse than anything. On the other hand, Republicans provide much fodder for protest and satire.
But I am not interested in satirical novels. I am interested in the experience of the foreigner, the exile, the outsider. That’s why I travel, why I live abroad — which is to say, why I live in the United States.
How glad I am not to be teaching this year in some corn-fed American university. The little fascists must be gloating. They’re probably composing odes to El Presidente and his Los Angelean dentures.
December 26, 1984
I’ve finished my new novel, though I ought to rewrite the second half. I won’t be able to work on it for the next month, though, since I must earn lucre. A trip to Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia for the travel press. God, why don’t I move to Sweden and get myself supported by their government? I’d probably have to teach there, too, though.
February 2, 1985
Thanks to the Guggenheim fund I can stay home for precisely seven weeks and finish the rewrites on my new novel. How I wish I would never have to darken the door of a classroom again.
April 1, 1985
Just balanced my checkbook and realized I’ll need a few summer workshops to tide me over until the second half of my advance comes in. God, summer workshops. Those doughy, hopeful faces; the awful prose.
The only good thing about them is talking to other writers. (By “writers” I mean, of course, other published novelists and authors like myself. Those who attend summer writers workshops have not earned the appellation. I shall capitalize Writer when I am speaking of others like me.) When I meet men like John Cheever, Gore Vidal, Gay Talese, I feel at home. No slight intended to R.
I just had a horrible thought. People have to apply to attend those summer workshops. I’ve seen their work. Imagine what gets rejected!
July 27, 1985
Dead of summer in Napa Valley. Mornings are workshops; afternoons are free, except one. The workshops remind me of a passage in DeSade when one of the villainous protagonists picks up a set of blacksmith tools to torture some unfortunate lass. He urges his companions to make free with his victim while between her legs “I shall labor in the workshop of human flesh” — in other words, he’s going to do something nasty to her reproductive system.
I know just how that feels — from his perspective, I mean. That’s what it’s like to take up your pen and try to enlighten the cowlike purveyors of prose like… oh, just to take something that’s lying around:
Monica woke with a start. She had been having one of her save the world dreams again. In this particular version she was in a crystal city of the future where people floated on air soaring through the blue sky like birds. They lived blissful lives in shiny glass towers. The air felt light and smelled fresh and mountain tinged. But computers ruled the planet and an evil faction was trying to take over the city while randomly killing people. Monica was the only person in the world with the correct access code to stop them.
She knew from her years of therapy that these dreams were not premonitions, just the overworked imaginings of her driven, “Type A” personality.
It’s the punctuation that gets me. Her driven COMMA QUOTE CAP Type A QUOTE personality. And then the cliches…
Dear, dear. It’s enough to wish you were like one of them. I see them gather in groups to go to lunch, excited at the insights they received during the morning. They seem to be having fun. As for me and the other faculty members, it’s all we can do to drag ourselves into the local tavern at the end of a long afternoon of reading students’ work. And when we meet, it’s not to talk about the workshops, not at all. We talk about book contracts, fellowships, movie deals. I think if another Writer came to me today and said he’d received a brilliant piece from a student, I’d drop dead.
August 17, 1985
Another writers workshop — Squaw Valley — as good an excuse as any to drive into the mountains in the summer. This workshop is supposedly more prestigious than Napa Valley, but that’s like saying Andropov is a nicer dictator than Breshnev. (I live near the Napa Valley affair, so I probably shouldn’t be bitchy, but it’s like so many things in what they call the Wine Country: self-consciously handsome, faux-aged, too expensive.)
The low point today was when a young lady came in wearing a an open blouse over a bathing costume. Nothing else, not even footwear. I thought, where are the standards of today?
But I said nothing. They want to make me talk, but they won’t. I know that soon their sly attempts will end, to be replaced by the direct interrogations. I only looked out the window at the glacier atop some nearby peak, so unlike Kilamunjaro. Then I turned back to the assembled students, who were discussing the finer points of a story that contained the sentence: “Walking down the street, all the shops were displaying their finery.”
Sometimes I want to have done with words. The piano — that has always seemed like a good instrument. Dignified, heavy, and black.
September 25, 1985
The notion of taking up the piano still in my mind, I got the name of an instructor last weekend. She lives in Marin County, but that’s not far to go.
October 1, 1985
I go for my first lesson with Mrs. Tanizaki. She lives and teaches in a small bungalow in Ross, an affluent, leafy town in Marin County. It is one of the few places where oaks and maples grow in profusion, so that the autumn actually looks like autumn.
As I walked up the sidewalk to her front door, I noticed the path had been swept that morning. There were a few leaves fallen on the path, as if they had been scattered by a human hand.
I rang the doorbell and waited. Across the street, humble Mexican gardeners raked the leaves that drifted down.
When the door opened, I saw a small, neat woman in late middle age. Her salt-and-pepper hair was arranged in a no-nonsense style, and she wore simple black glasses. “Yes?” she said, not smiling.
“I’m Mrs. Freed,” I said. “I’ve come for my piano lesson.”
Mrs. Tanizaki looked me up and down with what I came to fear as her most calculating gaze. She did not move to let me in, but only looked at me, as if evaluating me before I had even touched the keyboard.
“I hope I haven’t come on the wrong day,” I said.
She did not answer. The thought occurred to me that I might be speaking with the piano teacher’s mother or housekeeper. “Are you Mrs. Tanizaki, the piano teacher?”
Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Of course.” She still did not let me in.
I started to feel uncomfortable. “We did say eleven o’clock, didn’t we?”
“How many leaves are on the sidewalk?” she shouted. “Don’t turn around! How many leaves?!”
“I– I don’t know,” I gasped.
She slammed the door in my face.
October 23, 1985
After enduring numerous trials more suitable for entry into a zen temple, I finally had my first piano lesson today — in a way.
When I sat down at the keyboard I asked, “Would you like to hear the piece you asked me to prepare?” I readied my hands over the keys.
Her eyes flashed with anger. “Never touch the keyboard until I give you permission,” she shouted. “Now stand up!”
The next forty minutes were devoted to the proper techniques of approaching a piano and sitting at it. When I had finally managed to do it satisfactorily, I sat with my hands in my lap, waiting for her next word.
“Good,” she said in a low voice. “You are learning.”
“May I play my piece?” I asked. My own voice sounded high-pitched, like a child’s.
“Time is up for today,” she replied.
November 14, 1985
Money problems at home are forcing me to take a teaching position for the spring at a girls’ college in Wisconsin. At least I will be able to finish the editing process for my novel. The publisher can send the galleys to me at the college.
My piano lessons are proceeding at a glacial pace. I have not yet played the piece Mrs. Tanizaki asked me to prepare in order to show her my level of skill. But I continue to practice it every day, and by sheer dint of practice the piece itself is getting better day by day. Meanwhile the lessons are concerned with issues of posture, focus and attitude. I have gotten so far as to play a C chord. After eight lessons, I guess it’s the best C chord I’ve ever played.
December 23, 1985
I had to waste time this week preparing syllabi for the classes at the girl’s college. My own high standards war with my revulsion at grading papers, so while I want the girls to read Henry James and Herman Melville, I can’t bear to see these great works dissected by a bunch of pouting, preening, post-pubescent pipsqueaks. So I fell back on Hawthorne and Twain. But I’ll be damned if I let them read Huckleberry Finn. It’ll be “Innocents Abroad” for the little cows.
Putting these together was like building a cage for myself, bar by bar. In bad dreams I see their dull faces, and I scream, but no sound comes out.
January 5, 1986
To Fiji and Tahiti, briefly; I should be able to get at least three travel pieces out of the trip, at three thousand per. That’ll help tide us over the summer.
On the beach in Tahiti I considered taking a stroll and never returning. For a moment I indulged a fantasy of natives finding my tanned, trim body covered with forest ants, and the broken-hearted obituary in the New York Review. Then I went back and took a shower and packed for the trip back to the States, and then Wisconsin.
February 3, 1986
I have been in this Midwestern capital twenty-one days, of which it has snowed seventeen. The walls of snow on either side of the paths across the prison camp, I mean college, grow higher and higher. When I have to venture out, I must take precautions for both frostbite and (on the clear days) snow blindness.
My cellmate is a longtime inmate here at stalag 12, and is regarded as a trusty. He even has a key to the copy machine. But when I asked to use the copier, he laughed and spewed a stream of gulag-inflected abuse, of which I could only understand the words “tenure” and “vice-chairman.”
February 24, 1986
When I entered the classroom today, burdened with my usual sheaf of substandard student papers covered with red marks, I heard one corn-fed girl whining to another, “It’s soooo boooooor – ing.” She had her finger in “Fanshawe,” one of the Hawthorne books I, in my munificence, let the girls read instead of “Omoo” or “Moby Dick.”
I froze the class with a glance. “Speaking of boring,” I hissed, “let me read you a thing or two,” and then I read at random from the papers I had just slogged my way through. A paragraph from this one, a paragraph from that one. After a few paragraphs one of the more spirited girls spoke up.
“But Mrs. Freed,” she said in an American drawl, “We want to get better, we really do. Teach us about theme, teach us about point of view.”
“Such things are child’s play,” I replied. “You should have learnt them in junior high. We’re here for higher things. What is Hawthorne’s perspective on class in America at the time he was writing? How does his use of characterization in the portrayal of Fanshawe and Ellen illuminate the position of women in early American society? What does his title character’s formal approach to scholarship suggest about Hawthorne’s own education? Well?”
In the silence that followed, I thought of Mrs. Tanizaki, and of spending a whole 90-minute class teaching these slovenly Americans how to sit at their desks. They’d complain, and perhaps a third of the class might drop out, which from my immediate perspective would be a good thing. But I want a good reference from this job, so that my next teaching position, if I must, might be someplace where the largest road in town is not referred to as “the bypass.”
Later I related the incident to another visiting instructor. He gave me a sympathetic look and said, “Try teaching ‘Don Quixote’ sometime. They don’t even know what Spain is. They think it’s part of Mexico.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
May 2, 1986
The last week of classes. Just in time: the snow melted last week, and this week a girl said I should “watch out for muskeedas.” Little blood-suckers. I know just how they feel.
May 18, 1986
On my right: a pile of final exams ready for grading. On my left: a bottle of Valium. I must do all of one, or all of the other.
I choose the exams. If I commit suicide now, I’d never get to play my piece for Mrs. Tanizaki. The black lacquered furniture; the imposing instrument; the severity of her discipline. How I long to be back under her commanding gaze.
June 29, 1986
Since being released from stalag 12 a few weeks ago, I’ve been tempted by the devil. Every day I get another idea… for a movie. Of course, there have been many great American writers who sacrificed their Talent on the altar of Hollywood; I could become the first South African writer to do so. The infamy appeals, but not the mental picture I have of Southern California. I did a workshop there once, and they served wine in a box. At least at Napa they have wine in actual bottles.
I once stole an empty wine bottle from a faculty reception and spirited it away to my cell for possible use in an escape attempt. But when they cleaned my office, they threw it out. A few days later the department chairman had a little talk with me in which he discretely mentioned that all faculty, even visiting faculty like me, had medical benefits that entitled them to all sorts of treatment, including, ahem, a substance abuse clinic. “I don’t abuse any substances,” I told him in a cold voice, “unless you count white-out.”
Here are my movie ideas.
In the Holes of Academe — A talented novelist is forced to teach second-rate books to third-rate students. When she uncovers a long-lost portal to another world, she realizes the inert students are actually aliens bent on conquering Earth. Now she must choose between her sinecure and the fate of humanity.
Learning to Play — An icy, withdrawn piano teacher with high standards and uncompromising musicianship comes down off her pedestal when a shy and tender-hearted adult student needs more than music lessons.
Hold Your Head High — Depressed at her students’ failure to grasp the fundamentals of writing and appreciating literature, a Creative Writing professor bravely quits the business, moves to Tahiti, and nurtures young, appreciative native poets.
Ten Little Freshmen — A maniacal professor eliminates the members of her seminar one by one. Gene Tierney stars.
July 26, 1986
Writing workshop in Washington state. Though almost all the students show no talent and little skill, I do my best. I treat their work respectfully and try to help them see the good and bad points and how the latter might be improved. “Improved” being only a relative concept.
The only exception is a man who is a sixth grade teacher in Fresno. He has written a rather polished novel about John Tyler, the tenth president of the U.S. He’s worked on it for eleven years, and it shows. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to talk about craft. He wants to talk about publishing; he wants to get an agent.
Can’t stand ambition.
August 1, 1986
Napa Valley workshop again. Many stories written in second person, imitating Jay McInerney, complete with drug use, lost jobs, casual sex. But because this is California, jobs were lost from non-profit groups, not Wall Street firms. Loses something in the translation.
August 9, 1986
Squaw Valley workshop again. Many stories written in arch, knowing voice, imitating Don DeLillo, complete with satire of large institutions (one is set in the FBI), orthogonal conversations, casual sex. What is convincing in DeLillo’s books is utterly unconvincing in the hands of these amateurs. Difference: they have no Talent.
August 27, 1986
Piano lessons with Mrs. Tanizaki resume. As soon as I stepped into her cool hardwood living room, I relaxed. Odd, since she spends at least half the lesson scolding me. I realized afterward that the relaxed feeling lasts all through, and is even enhanced by, the scolding. It’s simply that with Mrs. Tanizaki, I know my place.
My daughter is five years old. I would give anything for her to look up to me the way I look up to my piano teacher.
October 19, 1986
Learned I received a Guggenheim for next year, so I won’t have to teach, except for a few summer workshops.
In retrospect, I actually enjoy some things about summer workshops: talking to other Writers (that is, the other faculty), and drinking the good wine of the sponsors at the VIP party. Drink, smile, nod; don’t be drawn into a conversation, because one often finds out things about the other person one doesn’t really want to know. Such as the time at one workshop when I found out the wealthy benefactor, who had not twenty minutes before given a speech extolling art and the brotherhood of man, was a rabid homophobe who thinks gay men’s tongues and lips should be severed so they would never be able to kiss each other again. I was much happier before he offered that opinion, though it has, at least, a frisson of brutality.
I drank more after that, and that night I dreamt that the wealthy benefactor had made a bowel movement in my hotel room’s toilet.
March 2, 1987
Freed by Guggenheim to actually write, I began drafting a new novel, but I must interrupt my work to begin that dismal exercise known as a book tour. I began today in New York where, after a fitful three hours’ sleep, I awakened at 3:30, showered and put on makeup, and was downstairs by 4:30, my stomach growling. At 5:00 I was in a chair having more makeup applied.
Then the wait began, in something called a green room, where there was a buffet. A straw basket contained two dozen pastries laid out like playing cards, their sugary glaze giving me a headache from across the room. I didn’t dare eat one and risk going hyperglycemic on national television, so I simply maintained a grim, upright posture. The only other person in the room was the boyfriend of a homosexual chef who was going to give a cooking presentation. The boyfriend couldn’t eat any pastries, either; he probably had to watch his figure. So we sat and watched television, where someone was interviewing a medical expert.
At some point it dawned on me that we were watching the program I was actually going to appear on in a few minutes. It was strange to think that the source of those audio and visual emanations was a room down the hall, and real human beings. By that point I was starting to feel as insubstantial as the flickering television images, so I had a little orange juice.
Then I was called. A few moments later I was plopped onto a chair under lights bright enough to perform brain surgery under, and while two assistants buzzed over me with wires and tape and velcro, the woman who was going to interview me was speaking some sort of preparatory words to me, but I couldn’t follow what she was saying. Then the assistants fluttered away, and a man was counting backwards in a loud strident voice.
The next thing I remember, I was in a taxi on the way back to the hotel. Somewhere, dawn was breaking. I realized I had just appeared on nationwide American television before something like five million people. But if you want to know what I said, you’ll have to watch the tape, because I can’t remember it at all.
March 15, 1987
Appeared at a bookstore in Louisville, which I keep confusing with St. Louis. A young woman presented herself to me and seemed to think I should know her. I smiled vaguely until she said, “You know! I was in your class last spring in M_______. You said my story was clever.”
Little does she know that “clever” is, from me, not a compliment. I knew what was coming next. Sure enough, she presented me with a manuscript. When I murmured that I would like to talk to her about it at the end of the event, she practically glowed with excitement. But when I met her after the reading, it was only to give her the manuscript back and tell her I just don’t have time to read unpublished work, that it’s hard enough to keep up with my own. She did not get the joke.
August 1, 1987
Napa Valley workshop again. Is the fact that it’s the only workshop I’m doing this year responsible for my feeling that all the laziness, stupidity and sheer illiteracy are concentrated in one group of 15 stories? I set aside a weekend two weeks ago to read them through. I thought I might be able to get through them if I did them all in one gulp, like a plate of unappetizing food one is expected to eat as the guest of an ethnic dignitary. But I couldn’t stop myself from making extensive notes on each one, four times as many notes as I have time to deliver in the workshop, because one must make time for the other students to comment as well.
“I thought your scene specifics were good,” said one lout to the person whose work was the subject of our critique.
“‘Scene specifics,'” I repeated. “Could you tell us what you mean by that, and why you thought they were good?”
From the way his mouth opened and close without sound, I could see I might as well have asked him to say the Lord’s Prayer in Xhosa.
October 14, 1987
Second anniversary of beginning my lessons with Mrs. Tanizaki. In my secret thoughts, I have been calling her “sensei,” because I feel the false equality imposed by the American setting doesn’t truly capture the feelings of devotion and obedience I feel in her presence. The other day she asked me to play a passage again, and it just jumped out: “Yes, sensei,” I said.
She showed no reaction. But I played better than ever, and at the end of the lesson, as she opened the door to let me out, she said, “You are an interesting student.”
I waited, but she said nothing more. Nevertheless, this is as close as she’s come to encouragement, much less a compliment. The smell of the autumn leaves that struck me as she opened the door and uttered her statement formed a sense memory that imprinted itself on my mind. Now whenever I smell autumn leaves I will always remember her upright posture, her dry voice, and the firm line of her lips.
December 8, 1987
The Guggenheim people have renewed my grant. What a fabulous feeling, to be able to do nothing but write. Perhaps this country has some redeeming features after all. Aside from the fact that everyone can vote, that is.
January 17, 1988
A thought struck me today as I was practicing for my lesson. Playing the second section of the Liszt I suddenly realized that, while I hate teaching, Mrs. Tanizaki seems to love it.
At least I hope she loves it. I hope she loves teaching me, with her firmness and high standards and erect posture. If she didn’t love it, wouldn’t she slump the way I do when faced with a poor student?
But I am not a poor student — I hope I am not. I try to be the very best student I can be, not only because I love playing the piano and want so badly to get better at it, but because she is so fiercely exacting.
I cannot make my students want to write as passionately as I do, or even as passionately as I want to play piano. But I can give them high standards, so that those who apply themselves can, at the very least, have something to aspire to.
Whether I dare to impose these standards on my own students is another matter. Her reserve, her insistence on excellence, the intense attention to detail — these come naturally to sensei. I strive for the same effect, but it comes across as arrogance. But for that matter, when I use a word with more than two syllables, some students interpret it as arrogance as well. So I can’t worry about what they think. Except for the matter of their student evaluations which, as department chairs continue to remind me, do figure in the hiring of visiting lecturers.
I suppose the best way to sum up my attitude toward students is with these tried-and-true words: Noblesse Oblige.
March 30, 1998
I was momentarily breathless today when Mrs. Tanizaki took my hands in hers for a moment. “Lift your hands, lift them,” she said, as with her delicate white fingers she gently pulled my hands upward over the keys.
Surely she heard my thundering heart.
April 17, 1988
Trying to get Mrs. Tanizaki to touch me again, I deliberately let my hands go limp as I played the beginning of the Liszt. She signaled her displeasure with a sniff, and before I could even form the intention, my hands snapped back to their proper position.
Only the merest suggestion of displeasure, and I obey. If only my own students were as attentive. In fact, it is not a matter of obedience as much as fealty. Now I know the meaning of the Psalmist’s words, “As the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes wait upon the LORD our God.”
Not that I need a religious faith: my obedience to sensei is religion enough for me.
June 12, 1988
Now that my daughter is 7, I thought it might be time for her to begin her own piano lessons — and who better to teach her than my beloved Mrs. Tanizaki?
Clearly I had underestimated her. In response to my ever-so-polite, indirect, mere hint that she might deign to teach my daughter, sensei replied: “No. I never teaching a Caucasian children.”
“I can understand that they are not raised with the same discipline as Japanese children–” I began.
She shook her head firmly. “Japanese children no good neither. Too middle-class, too looking-around. I only teach a Chinese children.”
She lifted her chin a little bit, and seemed to gaze far off into the distance, perhaps toward a lofty, inaccessible, pure mountain peak. She said, “Chinese understand excellence.”
One might think that I would be insulted. On the contrary, this rejection of my own offspring utterly thrilled me. Mrs. Tanizaki is above social niceties, above the notion that she owes me anything, and most of all, she is above taking a teaching job in order to make money. It is only this — proof that she is superior to me, a hypocritical sellout who hates teaching but does it for the money — that puts me to shame.
September 3, 1988
Hard at work on reviews and an essay for the NYR, I neglected my piano practice. Not so much — but I was only able to practice five days this week instead of every day. And after all, it was Labor Day weekend.
Sensei was angry; she could, of course, tell the difference. She stopped me only two minutes into the rhapsody, and seemed to draw herself up. Though she is a tiny woman, there are times she seems to loom over me.
“You grow bored?” she asked. “Maybe you finished with piano.”
“No, no,” I murmured. “I love the piano, I love playing for you.”
“Then why have you not practiced? What, you practiced only twice maybe?”
“No, several times… Just not every day.”
“Maybe you bored.”
“No, sensei, no.”
The silence lengthened. Finally I whispered, “I had a lot of work to do. Writing, reviewing. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say sorry. That’s the one thing I like about America, nobody cares about sorry or not sorry. I hear on TV: ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’ That’s it exactly. I don’t care sorry.”
I tried very hard not to cry. “I promise I will practice every day.”
But the lesson was over.
November 5, 1988
I had to go to New York to meet with my agent and sign some papers. In the past I stayed at the apartment of a friend, but this time I stayed at a midtown hotel, because they have a piano I can play. In the evening, after all the conventioneers and party guests have departed, I creep into a ballroom and sit down at the piano. The room is dark and vast and lit only by green EXIT signs, but I don’t need light. I memorized Hungarian Rhapsody no. 4 long ago, and now I play it all the way through, then again, then faster.
My Guggenheim money is almost out, and I will have to teach again next year. But for now, I play in the darkened ballroom.
January 22, 1989
Sentenced to a whole year of teaching at Creative Writing Stalag 16, also known as the University of V_______’s writing program. They think I’ve got it easy: all I have to do is teach a lit class and give a graduate seminar. Little do they know how it eats at my soul and corrodes my Talent.
They even acceded to my request that I have full access to a piano in the nearby music building. They think it’s some kind of eccentricity, this drive to play the piano. But while I am away from my beloved sensei, the piano’s is the only keyboard at which I can express myself, and music will be the only thing to keep me sane.
January 28, 1989
All students on hardbitten, film noir kick. I have a seminar full of pint-sized Hammetts, Chandlers and Elmore Leonards. To wit:
She was a tall, blonde glass of champagne, the kind you order when you’re on a lucky streak and running the table in the third hour. But I wasn’t on a lucky streak and this was no casino. This was the waiting room of the Trailways Bus station in Phoenix, Arizona, and nobody ever got lucky in a bus station waiting room. Nobody, until now.
My, my. I can just hear the wailing saxophone on the movie soundtrack. Nobody ever got lucky in a bus station waiting room? I write in the margin: “I wish I could take your word for it, but this is a generalization you don’t even need. You’re just putting it in because it sounds good. Besides, the end of the story proves this was no luck at all.”
Had to squeeze in last bit because I ran out of margin.
My pal George Harris couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag, but that didn’t stop him from trying to intervene one night in a neighborhood tavern when some drunken dockworker started using his wife for a punching bag. George went up to the guy and said, “Hey, pal, why don’t you take it easy? Let me buy you a drink.” And the guy’s wife hauls off and clobbers him. George’s eyes roll back, he falls, his head hits the edge of a chair and that’s it, goodbye George. The woman got three to five for manslaughter and was probably glad to get away from her husband. George didn’t have a wife — or so I thought.
The authors of these pieces aren’t cheap detectives from the streets of Los Angeles circa 1948, they’re college kids who’ve never been in a bar fight or on a lucky streak at blackjack, never known a murderer or even ordered champagne. They know nothing. They’ve experienced nothing. And nothing they can write can convince me otherwise.
Oh, that’s right, I could tell them to “write what you know.” I guess that explains the avalanche of When-I-was-wee memoirs about life in the American suburb, and the thinly fictionalized tales of being on the receiving end of various kinds of abuse — child, racial, sexual, drug. Since the American educational system is free and this is a public university, I might have expected some diversity of experience, someone who has, at least, experienced genuine abuse. But the blacks here seem determined, more than anything else, to demonstrate they’re like all the other students. Well, if it makes them spell accurately, so much the better.
February 4, 1989
Prisoner conclave, otherwise known as a faculty meeting. Work assignments are handed around and there is general griping. The chair wants a committee to examine “Alternate expressions of racial and gender identity” as expressed in grad student applications. A longtime inmate says each member of the English Department is getting a computer terminal in his office. What possible use could a computer be in the English department? Are we going to be calculating formulae for the Physics Dept. in our spare time?
March 7, 1989
Disgusted by latest raft of student work and by my recent discovery that the most substantial thing most of them read is Cosmopolitan, I decide nothing will do but direct exposure to the classics. I proceed to spend the entire class today reading from Alice Munro. Next class, Joyce Carol Oates.
Foreheads hit the desks with satisfying cracks.
March 30, 1989
I asked students to experiment with point of view.
I got the usual: a football tells about being passed for a touchdown; a bed tells about the people sleeping in it. Of the more imaginative (yet just as atrocious) pieces, one student wrote a story from the point of view of her underpants; another wrote from the point of view of the “z” key on the typewriter. (The “z” was envious of the “s.”) A third wrote from my point of view — that is, of someone reading the class’s stories. I wrote in the margin, “The stories your narrator reads sound much more interesting than most of what I actually get. Why don’t you write those?”
Still another student wrote from the point of view of a chunk of ore buried deep beneath the earth, so deep it will never be mined. Another lovely fantasy.
April 6, 1989
Called in by department chair. This is never good. I wondered if it could be to complain about assigning my graduate seminar all of Faulkner, or perhaps to spank me for not turning in a syllabus. (A syllabus — nothing more than a glorified lesson plan. What is this, junior high school? I could no more plan a discussion of literature and writing than I could choreograph lovemaking. On the other hand, come to think of it, I haven’t had much of either in a long time.)
It turned out a couple of students had complained to the chair about my comments on their stories. He showed me a page with red slashed across: “Who cares? I don’t care! Make me care!”
“What did you mean by this?” he asked.
“Simply that a narrative is worthless unless the reader can be made to care about the characters and what happens to them,” I said, as simply as I could.
“You were trying to tell the student that her story is worthless?”
“In its present form, it is worthless.”
He looked away for a moment, at the high window that reminded me of the police lockup in Durban. There my classmates and I were detained for a few hours following a demonstration. It was literally an occasion of no consequence: we received a slap on the wrist for our timid banner which read “Afrikaans is the Language of the Oppressor.” Even so much as that slap is probably beyond the capacity of the chair of the English Department of the University of V_______, so I wasn’t very concerned.
“These are students,” he said finally. “We are here to teach and encourage them, not to make them feel worthless.”
“Are you suggesting I lower my standards?” I asked in an icy voice.
“You’re here to teach, not to judge. Your job is to show the student where she went wrong, and help her correct it. With some students, you must take them step by step. You can’t expect polished work. They’re here to learn, and to make mistakes.”
“A story is no good, until it is,” I retorted. “There is no middle ground.”
“Again, you are not a judge. You are here to lead them across that middle ground until their stories are good. Tell them when they make mistakes, by all means. But a little encouragement along the way won’t kill you, and it might make all the difference for them.”
“So I’m to be Nursey now. I’m to be Mummy, wiping the little brats’ noses and telling them they could grow up to be good little writers. Well, they will never learn to be good little writers, not without talent, and talent is innate. It cannot be taught.”
“So you bear no responsibility?”
“Don’t psychoanalyse me,” I snapped. “Children need a firm hand. They need standards. They need to know the difference between quality and garbage. This society encourages them, all right, this society pats them on the head all day long, it has for their entire lives, and when they arrive here at what is supposed to be the pinnacle of their educational lives — much less the beginning of an academic career, and I shudder at the thought that any of these whippersnappers will ever teach another person how to tie her shoes, much less how to write a story — they arrive here barely knowing the difference between a comma and a period. They don’t know the difference between past tense and present, they don’t know the first thing about character. These are the products of V_______’s vaunted educational system, these are the ones who got through successfully. I tremble, Dr. Wheeler, I tremble at the notion that these are the cream of the crop of V_______’s schools, and… and…”
I had to stop before I had a heart attack.
The chair looked at me a long time. Then he handed me the student papers he’d been given. He said, “Sucks to be you.” Then I was dismissed.