My literary education with Elizabeth Hardwick

When I saw her again, she was working as usual, telling me that writing was often a matter of slowness. She spoke of the joy of the review; she also talked about the pain of editing and said that anyone who couldn’t bring themselves to deal with it couldn’t be a real writer. “My first drafts always read like they were written by a chicken,” she said. You cannot write in committee, she said. Writers should be free to make their own mistakes. But it was much easier to tell someone else what was wrong with what he or she was doing than to see those things for yourself.

She had a way of talking to young writers that assumed we understood what was involved in producing something – anything. Part of what made us believe that the life of a writer was possible for us, too, was that she took our anxieties seriously. But all writing problems had a solution: you had to do it, you said you would do it, it was the contract you made with yourself, it was your life.

It moves me to think of her sitting on the red sofa, surrounded by books about Byron. Even the creak of construction noise didn’t drown out her own music as she sat down at the typewriter. She said that while you’re working on one thing, you’re so busy with six other things that you don’t feel like you’re moving forward at all. She didn’t have a clothes dryer. We passed by her laundry, hung by the housekeeper on a small wooden shelf on the way to the kitchen. “Professor? I’m no more a teacher than a doctor,” she laughed.

One evening, when one-piece galleys on the wives and mistresses of Byron and Pasternak were arriving from the Exam, she sang the fourth paragraph, including the punctuation marks, in the style of a bel-canto tune. She was glad to be done with it, but the feeling never lasted. “The problem with finishing anything is that you just have to do it again,” she once said. And so she would go back to work. Watching her disappear into her world of great books, I realized what was needed: writing – the deed, not just the idea – was the last thing you wanted to do. Before getting up to date, she often read Heine, just to open up to the possibilities of language. She did not write poetic prose, but she composed a bit like a poet; she couldn’t go to the next line until the one that stood before it was OK. She said it had to do with not knowing what she was thinking until she wrote it down.

The summer of 1979 was burning and I had a new job, as an editorial assistant at Harper & Row. My boss had a distinguished list of writers: poets, literary biographers, emerging novelists, cookbook authors who wrote about food from many cultures. I was late most of the time. I went out for long, liquid lunches, and when I came back, the trickle of sweat down my spine instantly chilled in the office air conditioning. It was impossible to feel clean. Phone calls, making appointments, listening to excuses, arguing over contracts – all of this made walking through Central Park after work a chance to dream of getting lost.

I did not know the Park well and always risked being put off. I sped the roads, as if on the run, worried about the office, my home office, the people I might have disappointed or offended, everything I hadn’t done, read, lived, never. The people on the park benches who looked like they lived together might be secretly upset, but I really couldn’t believe it. None of them, I was sure, sank into a hole as dark as mine. I fantasized about running downhill, letting everything spiral out of control, hit rock bottom.

“I know,” Elizabeth said. “It’s very difficult to love yourself.”

“Sleepless Nights” caused a stir, and she immediately tried to start something new. She called it “Ideas”. “Everyone has political ideas these days,” she said. She had several debuts on the way, all in third person. She wanted it to be as different from “Sleepless Nights” as she could make it. She often warned against not finishing things, letting fragments pile up in a drawer. We only learn from what we’ve done when we’ve finished it, she said. In the end, she decided to use first person after all. “You can think with it,” she said.

I had been lucky enough to get reviews in newspapers and periodicals, almost always on books by black writers. (James Baldwin described overcoming his resentment about such assignments by realizing he was born with his subject.) At one point, Elizabeth had to show some of my work to the co-editors of the Exam, because books started coming in, with letters asking if I wanted to take a look and see what could be done. In September, Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, which would turn out to be his last, was released. I remembered discovering Baldwin the Essayist as an undergrad. The memory went with the fall weather, with Salingeresque leaves blowing across the crosshatched brick walkways of campus. On College Walk, I had stopped and leaned on a stone ledge to finish “Notes of a Native Son,” in which Baldwin recounted his flight from Harlem and his father’s bitterness on a trip outside ‘Egypt. It was a moment that affirmed what reading was for and what writing could do. The campus had shifted around me. The effects of this trial stayed with me. When I was asked to write about the new novel for the ExamI knew I would have too much to say about him.

Elizabeth used to tell our class that nothing is casual or lighthearted – anything undertaken is a challenge. She always called after reading a piece of me, and she was always honest. My efforts in the Exam particularly interested her, and she believed that writing about the history of black American literature was an important education for me. She made a point of not consulting the Comments editors when she found out I had given them a draft. But, as I struggled to revise Baldwin’s play, she did what she hadn’t done before: she told me to let her see it.

I rewrote the draft with Elizabeth’s help. We sat on the couch and she went line by line. She asked me again and again what I meant here, what I meant by this word, this notion. When I found a better way to say something or when I came across what she thought was a good line, she would say, “Now you write. What Pound could do for poetry in her readings, corrections and reviews, she could do for prose. My school days would never end.

“It’s easy to admire what you can’t do yourself,” she once told me. “Consider yourself the author. You have to tap on the very thing that the author is worried about, what he thinks doesn’t really work, but maybe it’s okay, he can get away with it, So-and-so liked it, the thing he’s on very ambivalent but unable to give up or revise. You have to learn to do this for yourself, she said, to stay ahead of the reader, to protect yourself when you write.

I quit my job in the spring of 1980 to write. When Elizabeth returned from Maine, she showed me the short story she had written while there, “The Bookseller,” about the owner of a small, tight second-hand bookstore. He likes books, but he doesn’t read them. Yet he welcomes them in one way or another. He knows the first line of everything, the first page of everything. “Life’s paths captured him, even captivated his mind,” she wrote. It is a love for New York that she shares as a writer with her character, the flow of spectators after the cinema and the opera, “the palmist’s broom closet”, “the Saturday night garbage”. Even the deserted city was animated: “the soft waters at the edge of the pavement are agitated under the tide of the moon.”

Some writers we know by voice, like singers. She always hoped that a novel would take shape from the ideas and characters she touched on in this story. But this fall, she felt the book wasn’t going in a convincing direction.

The upcoming election was a distraction. We watched the candidates’ latest TV appearances, alternating between laughter and despair. She was trying to diet and not smoke and drink so much, giving up bourbon and wine. She processed the chicken, stirred the broccoli. Reagan and Bush met in front of a fake fireplace. She noticed how much Reagan wanted to “share” with us. Carter was filmed in a black church, with a children’s choir singing “I don’t see nothing but blue skies”.

Angela Davis was running for vice president on the Communist Party slate. Elizabeth was suspicious of Davis as an intellectual, because of CP, but admired his consistency over the years. She had meaning, never harangued. Elizabeth wasn’t the fan that my family was of Barbara Jordan; perhaps Jordan’s speech patterns didn’t have enough echo of ordinary truth, by Elizabeth’s standards. Jesse Jackson had been seen as an arsonist in the basement for encouraging black Americans to support the Republican Party in previous midterm elections – to prove to Democrats that they could not count on the black vote.

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