Chapter Eight (Coyote Point)
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That’s Virginia answering the phone. I can hear it any time I want. Her voice is calm and husky and faintly musical, like a cello, and there’s always the same inquisitive little pause there at the end that makes it sound like she’s going to be glad to hear from me — but then in the same sad, soft, emphatic voice, she says, “I don’t want to talk now,” and hangs up.
I looked at the receiver. It was one of those heavy, black, expressionless, rotary dial phones that used to be made out of something more like rubber than plastic. It was pointless to look at a disconnected phone, I knew that, but getting the phone hung up in my ear wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned as the beginning of what I’d already made up my mind was going to be a lifelong undertaking. I pushed down the button to prove to myself that she had really hung up on me before she even knew who I was. When I let it go, there was a new dial tone.
I was just about to call her back when I made the brilliant determination that she couldn’t have come up with a better way of answering the phone if she’d tried. That she hadn’t tried was what made it so perfect. She didn’t want to talk, period — not to me, not to anyone. I was at least on an equal footing with all the other guys I imagined must have been calling her cute ass up nonstop, morning, noon and night. Why she bothered to answer the phone at all threw me at first, but then I figured, hey, why not? Whoever it was was bound to call back, or if he didn’t, someone else would. She was cool. Aloof. Self-contained. Utterly desirable. Perfectly unattainable. That sort of thing used to get me every time. And thanks to her hanging up on me, I had time to think things through. You don’t just call someone like a Virginia Good up out of the blue. No. You make a plan. Maybe write her a letter instead. And it wasn’t too late! She’d hung up on me. Ha! She couldn’t possibly have known who the hell I was. It was a reprieve. I felt like Dostoyevski.
So I wrote her a letter, instead…and what a letter! It was inspired, it really was. Everything came together in that letter. I defined myself. I made myself up. I told her that I was a “writer” and that, as a New Year’s resolution, I had decided to start keeping a journal and that, furthermore, since I met her on New Year’s Eve, I had decided to write this so-called journal in the form of letters to her. I kept getting tears in my eyes it was such a good idea. Then, as long as I was writing the stuff anyway, I figured I might as well sign up for a night school writing class at the College of San Mateo.
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The class was taught by Gordon Lish. He’s sort of famous now, too — or he was there for a while, anyway. He was fiction editor at Esquire in the seventies. Then he was an editor at Knopf, ran prestigious writing seminars and made some kind of a stir in the publishing industry in the eighties by suing Harper’s Magazine. The books he edited were critically acclaimed stylistic bare bones masterpieces but never seemed to make much money — things by guys like Don DeLillo and Barry Hannah and Rick Bass and Raymond Carver and Harold Brodkey and Cynthia Ozick and Amy Hempel — and the five or six books he wrote himself enjoyed some critical success themselves but made even less money, which made it hard to show any actual damages when he sued Harper’s for publishing an unauthorized handout from one of his seminars. I’m not sure how it all came about.
Somewhere along the line, Gordon Lish had taken to calling himself “Captain Fiction” and charging all kinds of money to go to his seminars, and I guess it ticked him off that Harper’s went around giving away what he had to say for the price of a magazine. Nor am I altogether sure what he got out of the lawsuit, either, but I think he won. All I know for a fact is that in the spring of 1963 you could get him for free if you were under twenty-one and for seven bucks a semester if you weren’t. I got him for free myself — well, for the first semester anyway (and he was worth every nickel of it, too). The next semester I had to pay the seven bucks.
The College of San Mateo was still over at Coyote Point back then. If you’ve never heard of it and don’t feel like looking it up on a map, Coyote Point is this rocky bunch of red clay cliffs and eucalyptus trees jutting out into San Francisco Bay, just south of the airport. The classrooms were old army barracks left over from World War II. Gordon Lish stormed into one of the dilapidated Quonset huts with a leather satchel under one arm. He had his own literary magazine called Genesis West and hung out with guys like Ken Kesey and Gregory Corso. His hair was short and blond and thick; he was sort of short and blond and thick in general.
The satchel under his arm had loose papers and books sticking out around the edges, as if it couldn’t begin to contain all the wisdom he was eager to impart. His face was flushed. He was out of breath. His gray wool sport coat was rumpled. His tie was loose at the neck of a faded blue work shirt. He seemed pretty image conscious. He wrote his name on the blackboard. Big initials. Chalk chips flying here and there. I’m not an expert graphologist, by any means, but the way he screeched the “G” and the “L” across the slate made it clear that he wanted people to know he thought a lot of himself — and the way he scrawled the rest of his name showed that underneath all that initial bravado, he was as least as interested in making a buck as any self-respecting orthodontist might be. I thought that was a nice touch. If you want people to think you think a lot of yourself, you damn sure better have something to gain by it.
He thought the stuff I wrote had “merit.” He liked finding people he thought might write serious fiction someday. He was interested in…
(Whoops. I have to leave stuff out here. I got in touch with Gordon Lish through his publisher to see if I could get his permission to quote a line or two from my copy of the forty-year-old mimeographed, coffee stained syllabus he passed out to the class. He said no. I couldn’t use his quote. He declined to give me permission. Oh, well. It wasn’t that great of a quote anyway.)
…No wonder none of his books ever made any money. Not making money was his criterion for writing serious fiction. I wish Danielle Steele had been teaching the class. Gordon Lish’s dilemma was that on the one hand, he wanted to make big bucks, and on the other hand, making big bucks was anathema to the making of serious fiction. He seems to have solved it by charging all kinds of money to go to his seminars about how serious fiction shouldn’t make any money.
I was the one who got him started in the seminar business, as a matter of fact. When the second semester was over, the College of San Mateo didn’t renew his contract, so I called Lish up and talked him into continuing the class as a seminar. I had to be pretty persuasive, but he finally agreed, and for a hundred bucks each — in the form of a check made payable to the Chrysalis West Foundation — three other of his former CSM students and I all went over to his house in Burlingame and read our serious, dreary, puerile fiction out loud to each other. That was his first fiction seminar. He’s parlayed it into a moneymaking bonanza over the years.
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Back before I made Gordon Lish who he is today, the way we used to work it was that he would sit in my chair and I’d go up to his podium and read stuff about my idyllic childhood from the so-called journal I’d been sending to Ginny Good. He’d look up and beam sunbeams out his eyes at me and get all red in the face and tap the eraser end of a pencil on the desk whenever I got to something he wished he could have written himself.
It was when Gordon Lish didn’t tap his eraser that I got skeptical. What the hell did he know, this fucking asshole? Here he was, pushing thirty, and still nothing but a two-bit part time teacher at the College of San Mateo. I think the College of San Mateo felt sort of sorry for him. That was probably how he got the job. He had a family to feed. He’d come there fresh from having been kicked out of Mills High School for telling kids they didn’t have to hide under their desks during atom bomb attacks. The local papers took up his cause — he was Mario Savio before Mario Savio was Mario Savio — and the College of San Mateo took a stand for free speech and freedom of expression and gave him a part time job.
Personally, I think the real reason Gordon Lish got kicked out of Mills High School was for something as prosaic as not turning in lesson plans, but that wouldn’t have gone very far toward calling yourself “Captain Fiction” and charging all kinds of money to hear what you have to say — so the story that got to the newspapers was that he got fired for telling his students that they didn’t have to hide under their desks.
Despite his ambition (and no doubt in large part because of his ambition), however, he was a great teacher — not a good teacher, a great teacher. If he’d been a good teacher I probably would have written a book or two by now — but what Gordon Lish taught us was far more important than how to write a mere book or two here and there: the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian, for example. Now, that’s a great thing to have learned. Think of all the people who don’t know the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian! I’ve long since forgotten the difference myself, but think of all the people who never knew the difference in the first place!
I think it had something to do with Nietzsche. The other thing I know about Nietzsche is that he was the guy who said what didn’t kill him made him strong. Ha! He was also the guy who was incurably insane the last twenty years of his life. What didn’t kill the son of a bitch drove him nuts. Which would you rather be? Dead? Or nuts? Now that’s a question with equally compelling answers, and ferreting out questions with equally compelling answers was what made Gordon Lish a great teacher. He even offered himself up as a sacrificial case in point. Nobody could tell for sure whether he was just a total fucking asshole or whether he was so strong and selfless he didn’t mind people thinking he was a total fucking asshole if he thought somebody might get some serious fiction out of it someday.
But the real best thing about Gordon Lish was that, when I got to know Ginny better, I could tell her that I was taking a class from a guy who had his own literary magazine and hung out with Ken Kesey, and maybe she would think that was slick, and maybe she would like me. That was the quintessential best thing. That was the only thing. All I wanted was for Ginny to like me. I would have done anything.
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I’d sent Ginny my brilliant letter at the beginning of January and had been dutifully sending her the entries I was making in the so-called journal every three days or so. Sometime in March, I got a post card with a picture of Coit Tower on the front and a note on the back that said:
“p.s. I like getting mail.”
That was it. That was all the note said; a postscript to nothing. She didn’t even sign her name. She didn’t need to sign her name. The ink was green. The stamp was upside down. Her handwriting was small and round and loopy, with a tail at the end of the last “g” in getting. I read the post card over and over, front and back, searching for secret signs and hidden meanings. The tower was obviously phallic, and had to have had something to do with coitus, but all the post card really said was that she liked getting mail.
So what did I do? Send her more mail? No. I called her up again, that’s what. And this time we actually talked for a while — well, until she interrupted and said, “I don’t like talking on the phone. You know, Jules and Jim, disembodied voices, and all that.”
“Yeah,” I said, which of course, I didn’t know, but I presumed she was trying to tell me that we should go out on a date. So I asked her if she wanted to go out on a date. And we did that. We went out on a date. It was a disaster.
She was living in a converted garage out in the Avenues by the Surf Theater. The Surf Theater was where she saw all her foreign movies. I had never seen a foreign movie before in my life. Worse yet, I wore white socks, combed my hair every time I saw a mirror and sold shoes for a living. At Kinney’s. In San Bruno. Ginny had never heard of San Bruno. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard of Kinney’s, either, except she thought she might have gone to school with a girl whose father owned Kinney’s Shoes, the whole chain, all the Kinney’s Shoe Stores in the world.
Then my new car didn’t start. I’d been counting on my new car to impress the pants off her on our big date. It was an off-white 1955 Lincoln with turquoise and cream-colored leather upholstery, power steering, power brakes, push button windows and a push button antenna. I had just bought it. I’d traded in the pink ’53 Ford convertible that had more than adequately served its purposes with Bonnie and Cyndi and the girls from the shoe store. This was the Lincoln’s first real test. Nor can I say it completely flunked. It didn’t start, I can say that, but who’s to say that not starting wasn’t the best thing it could have done?
This is all getting too complicated. Okay, probably the best thing to do would be just to go back and show what the hell happened on this so-called date Ginny and I went out on. That’s another thing Gordon Lish used to say: “Show it, don’t tell it.”
(Oh, fuck, I didn’t ask Gordon Lish if I could have his permission to quote him on that. Maybe he thinks he’s got some kind of copyright on the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” He probably does. I wouldn’t put it past him.)
I’m still not exactly sure what the hell that “show, don’t tell” bullshit means, anyway — which may be the real reason I never wrote any books. Maybe it wasn’t Gordon Lish’s fault after all. Maybe he tried to tell me. Maybe I owe him an apology. Hey, yo! Gordo! Sorry, man. You’re wrong about not letting me use your stupid quote, but you might be right about that show don’t tell horseshit.
The multimedia version has music by Bobby Vinton and Edith Piaf, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: