Who’s the first person you wish you could share a success with? If Robert only knew, I find myself thinking when a problem story finally comes together the way he’d suggested.
I met Robert many years ago. It was a humid spring evening when I ventured into my first (and only) writers’ group. Since I had just written my first short story, I dared myself to risk exposing it to strangers. Clutching my typed manuscript (remember typewriters?), I walked into a Greenwich Village apartment. Three women were sitting in chairs, while a sole man lounged on the one sofa, a crutch beside him. Ranging from young to middle-aged, dressed in jeans and wrinkled shirts, they all looked unprepossessing to say the least. This is going to be a zero , I told myself.
A woman who appeared to be the leader said, “Since you’re new, you read first.” (Nowadays we let the newcomer breathe first!) I read my story, pages shaking so much I had trouble seeing the words. When I finished there was an ominous silence. Everyone seemed to be looking at their feet. Then that woman said solemnly, ”I like it.” She was interrupted by a male voice. “Of course most of this is garbage.”
I still don’t know why I didn’t run out, or how I knew that the blunt words were Robert’s way of saying there was 10% of my story worth saving. In some intuitive way I understood that he was trying to help me . His perceptive comments then pointed the way to a trimmer and deeper story, as did the critiques from everyone else there. So I decided to join the group – and have stayed for 25 years. .
The common belief is that writers are notoriously competitive. But every time one of us has had an acceptance the reaction from the group has been unanimously enthusiastic. You see, we feel we’ve each had a hand in it. And I will never forget the generous response from everyone the night I announced that my first book had actually found a publisher. “Fantastic!” proclaimed Robert, who used that word very sparingly.
He was also sparing – and adjective free – in his writing. A minimalist who made Raymond Carver look verbose, his surgical deletions in my stories were invaluable because I tend to overwrite. ”Sentimental!” he would write in the margins, in glaring red ink. Or– the worst crime –“Overt!”
Though his critiques usually ended up being right, there were times when his astringent spareness became the wrong fit for me. One time I confessed to him that I hadn’t taken every one of his suggestions about a story. “I would hope not!” he said.
I’m a compulsive reviser, but he far outdid me with 50 to 100 revisions of every story and poem. “I have another Golden Oldie,” he’d invariably announce at each meeting. So his output was slim, though he did have some two dozen pieces published in small magazines.
His stories were intellectual puzzles, but his hidden emotional side came through in his poems. They gave us glimpses of the women who came and went in his life, of friends who had died (mainly of AIDS) and the happiness he finally found in marriage to the widow of his best friend. He would have been embarrassed if he’d realized how much of himself he revealed in those poignant poems. Death was a constant theme, as it was in his mind. He’d suffered most of his life with an illness similar to polio and had to use crutches. For years he talked about which selections he wanted included in his “posthumous” book.
I’m putting all this in the past tense because Robert died two years ago, when his illness finally caught up with him.
Knowing these were probably his last months, he painstakingly arranged his stories and poems, demanded our sternest critiques, and then paid a publisher to print his collected work in three slim volumes.
I had envied him the restrained beauty of those poems. So much so that I once ventured to bring in samples of my secret vice: my poetry. “I’m really not a poet,” I apologized.
“You have the instincts of a poet,” Robert surprised me by saying. ”But you’re lazy.”
Those words have reverberated within me, a challenge. Recently I began revising my poems, and cut one about my father’s dying from three pages to one. I thought Robert would probably say it was still too long. (He complained that Pound’s famous two- line poem, “In A Station of the Metro,” was one line too long!)
This year my poem about my father became my first one to be published. Look what you did for me, I longed to tell Robert.
There had to be some way to thank him. So I brought his books to Manhattan’s prestigious Poets House, where they are now with thousands of other poets. You will find him under Fagan, Robert. He would probably take the books from your hands to make a final revision.
BOOKS:: Widow’s Walk, Turning Toward Tomorrow, Ten Women of Valor
LINKS:: annehosansky.com; Facebook; LinkedIn
“Another eloquent and poignant piece. As a writer, this resonated very deeply with me. A writing community is so vital, both for support and honest critique. Same with friendship, right?” – Ben Kassoy
“A very moving story and insight into the development of a writer.”- Warren A.