You talk in the book about how inspiring the writer Lewis Thomas was to you. Who else has inspired you?
There was my teacher at Harvard, John Kelleher, a professor of Irish literature and history. He stammered. The movie The King’s Speech brought him back—that was Kelleher. He could sing like an angel, but when he talked, his tongue would get caught in his mouth. He drove away students because they said, “This is just not worth it,” but I thought, “I’m going to stick this out because this guy is smarter than 99 percent of the people I have met.”
I knew nothing about Irish literature and certainly hadn’t planned to do a thesis on Irish literature. If Kelleher had taught Polish, I would have gone there. If he had taught gym, I would have gone there. He was the guy worth following, and I never regretted it. It was just a gift to me and to all the students who had the patience to hang onto him.
Among my own contemporaries, the novelist Edgar Doctorow and Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic. Alice McDermott, who lives here in Bethesda—I think she’s wonderful. Another is Cynthia Ozick, whom I know less well but somehow intuit that there’s a great soul roiling around there that’d be worth attaching oneself to. Frank McCourt was a dear friend who taught at Stony Brook. We used to get drunk together, sing together. He had all the things of the guy in the bar that you loved, but beyond that was an endless generosity toward his students and people in general.
Jim Lehrer is another—both Jim and his wife, Kate, to whom the writing book is dedicated. Ginny and I profited a great deal from their bottomless kindnesses when Amy died. We knew them long before, and it wasn’t a surprise, but it was still amazing to see everything they did. They became lessons in how to behave to your friends. I hope I can do the same thing, if the opportunity arises, to somebody I love who needs me.
What books have you liked lately?
I read a lot of poetry. It’s partly because I can steal from it with impunity. Prose writers can easily steal from a poet and nobody even knows, because what you’re really stealing, sometimes, is just the rhythm of a line or a single word that you never thought of using before.
I’ve read the collected poems of C.K. Williams recently—an extremely good poet who is not generally talked of. I read W.S. Merwin again, the collected poems. And Linda Pastan, who lives in this area. I used a poem of hers called “Anomaly” in the book coming out next year, because my daughter died of an anomalous right coronary artery. Pastan writes of someone with a heart condition that was anomalous, and she says, “No one has a heart like yours”—which is a perfect line I was happy to quote.
Do you have writing pet peeves?
One of them is the insistence of unpracticed writers—writing teachers do this sometimes, too—of always making sure there’s a different word for “saying.” So, you “say” one thing and you “aver” another and “declare” another within a single paragraph. I show them Hemingway’s short stories, where he repeats the same word over and over. I say, “Why do you think a writer like Hemingway would repeat these words?” And they finally get it that the power is in what is said, not in the verb.
Then there’s the overloading of a line. Writing is so much like music that if you can write one beautiful line, you are smart. Even if you can write four in a row, you’re overdoing it. Spread the riches. The reader does not want to have marzipan on the page—it’s just too sweet.
Writers, even the best of them, want to show off. And you can get sick of any showoff very quickly.
What have you learned about teaching?
Oh, I had a lot to learn. I started to teach at Harvard when I was 22. I was two years older than the people I was teaching. I don’t know what the hell I was doing there. I should go around apologizing to all those people.
I think I’ve become a good teacher in the last 10 years, maybe 15. By that I mean that the teaching was the accumulation of a lot of experience added to a basic unselfishness—that when you’re in that classroom, you are theirs. Any teacher who is strutting his stuff is wasting everybody’s time. And I think I strutted my stuff up till 10, 15 years ago.
I don’t know what happened—I just realized I’m supposed to be all theirs. I can only give them themselves. In order to give them themselves, I have to give up on myself. Once you realize that, it turns out to be a gift for you, because it takes away that manic selfishness that all writers basically are born with.
What do you mean you give them themselves?
If something is in them that they need to unearth, you have to give up on yourself. You have to say, “I am only in the excavation business for you.” That’s what I’ve learned about teaching: Experience helps and knowledge helps, but nothing helps as much as selflessness.
What have you learned about life?
That it can blindside you. Everybody else learns this at an earlier age. I mentioned it in Making Toast. I was cursed with a charmed life, and very little bad happened—or at least very little bad happened that I didn’t bring upon myself. When Amy died, it was like, “Are you kidding? This is going to happen in life?”
Since then, through the responses to Making Toast, through the responses of friends who had lost children, whom we didn’t even know had lost children, I began to understand what life meant—that life is to be endured. It’s not going from celebration to celebration or from satisfaction to satisfaction. It is basically an endurance test. Once you understand that for yourself, you begin to understand it for others.
This interview first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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