Groucho and Me
On the second day of the Creative non-fiction writing conference, I totaled my car. I think it was my fault. I think I might have started to turn right on a green and the light turned red while I was turning but I don't know. Two cars hit me. One, a huge jeep with two guys (bros) on their way to play golf. The other, a hysterical girl who kept screaming, "This is my boyfriend's car!" That was the extent of the drama. A gentle, nice policeman arrived and asked if we were all okay and didn't react when I couldn't find my driver's license which, as it turned out, I had left in Chicago. After I tried to drive we realized my car was completely wrecked and I parked it, called the insurance people, arranged for a tow, and then walked over to where the writing conference was just beginning with trays of bagels and other things, people expressing happiness about listening to the speakers and possibly getting chosen to do a pitch in the pitch slam. I think I was in shock. The shock replaced my initial sense that somehow I didn't belong in this group of people – these writers – and that the chances I'd learn much were slim to none. This feeling came from several different directions. First off, I'm a novelist who occasionally writes and publishes essays and of course, this blog. Second, after receiving an MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College in 1990, I was determined only to be paid for my work, never to pay. Third, Groucho Marx – "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." I was channeling my father. My wonderful, terrible, funny, slightly bitter daddy who I absolutely loved but sometimes understand was not the best role model for a writer. Or maybe he was.
When I was in sixth grade both my older sisters went off to a hippie camp that my mother called "that place you go to smoke pot, screw, and learn to hate your parents." My father was a professor at Breadloaf and I was briefly, an only child. It was 1968 and things were, to put it mildly, tumultuous. Breadloaf was full of runaway nuns, famous writers, wannabes, and then there was my dad, literary genius, ground zero for not playing nice. Any Breadloaf tradition that smacked of cronyism, self congratulatory bonding, or simply was rather sweet like croquet, he rejected. He rejected the notion that he should befriend the famous writers unless he liked them and he refused to attend the pre-dinner cocktail parties held for the faculty. I had a glorious time attending a naked version of some ancient Greek play multiple times, singing with a Madrigal group and watching the astronauts walk on the moon in the "Barn" with a bunch of other "fac brats" my parents and everyone else who wasn't off having affairs or writing. We had our own traditions – our cabin in the woods was called "the house of the three bears," coming down the hill in neutral, my dad would wait for the last possible moment to put the car in drive sometimes making it all the way to the dining hall. I remember that summer as incredibly happy. I had both my parents to myself and I belonged to all sorts of groups. But I know the stronger voice belongs to my father; if they want you, they must be worthless.
Let's face it, there were some losers at the writing conference. There was a man who told me his book was about complexions whose pitch made absolutely no sense and why he'd pitch me, a car crash survivor who had no platform, remains a mystery. But there were others who promised fascinating stories crafted with elegant and powerful words. I took a 13-hour Greyhound bus ride back to Chicago and stared out the window watching the landscape of America, thinking about my dad. He grew up poor and spent a year in an orphanage. He went through Harvard and then taught at Amherst, Princeton, and Rutgers where he spent most of his career and published numerous novels, critical essays, and was a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. I am a completely different member of this club. I married missing the opportunity to have a tenure track teaching gig in creative writing. I followed my journalist husband from New York to London to Dallas to Chicago where we divorced and after a few years of adjunct college life I returned to school and became a certified English teacher. High school teaching was challenging and wonderful and awful while the administration was mainly awful.
My father died last year. He taught me never to give up, not to settle, to be unstintingly critical of myself but to teach with love and kindness. He gave me the gift of humor, of intellectual curiosity, and an inability to suck up to power. We are outsiders, outlaws, possibly outcasts. But, like Groucho, I prefer it this way.