Douglas Messerli

  Creative Writing 458, or How I Learned to Write Immorally



When I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, I determined to take a creative writing course that was primarily for upper-level students. I had previously had a creative writing course-a rather dismal experience with a little-known novelist-at the university in Milwaukee. But it was not really the writing that led me to want to enroll in a higher lever course, but the man who was teaching it, the Yiddish writer, Isaac B. Singer. I was surprised and delighted to hear that he was teaching at Wisconsin, although I never bothered to ask why or how had he come to be teaching there. Although the great story-teller and novelist was already well-known-I'd read several of his books-he was still not exactly a household name, and I suppose he was happy to have the money. Perhaps he had a close friend on the faculty, or…well, the idea of this urban-based legend sloshing through the cold snow across the Madison campus was amusing to me. He'd required a story for entry into the course, and the word had just come down, I was selected!

As I recall, we met class every other week. Those few classes were an absolute delight for me. It's not that I learned how to write-Singer's primary lesson to young writers was to write about place, to write out the experience of upbringing-something which, given by my continued iterancy, I couldn't quite respond to. But he was wonderful in the classroom, full of funny and wise sayings and little stories concerning everything from his place of birth in Poland, to remembrances of how he had come to the US, the brother of an already famous author, and been absolutely terrified to publish anything. He had, so he claimed, burned the galleys of his first book, canceling its publication. When some of the students-all older than I-probed him about other contemporary Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, the corner of Singer's eyes glistened with a slightly naughty and possibly malicious intensity as he explained how he was no fan of their work-something with which I was in complete agreement. I loved each of our sessions.

However, as clever as he was in telling stories, Singer was not very wise when it came to selecting my fellow students. To me the university was filled in those days with exciting students from all over the country. But for some reason-perhaps because these students had written about where they lived-most of my classmates were from Wisconsin, and a duller, less sophisticated group could not be imagined. They were disinterested in Singer's marvelously musings, and regularly interrupted with protests or their own rather insignificant observations. One day, a young woman suddenly burst out in the middle of one of Singer's marvelous retellings, "O look! Look!" as she pointed to the window. Singer slowly shuffled over the window scrutinizing the sunset: "Oh, yes, it's doing that same thing again," he answered in his heavy Yiddish accent. I was disgusted by the interruption.

Little was I to imagine that that simple-mindedness and country-bumpkin like stupidity would soon be directed against me! It was time to read our stories to the rest of the class. Singer called my name, and I quickly stood up and went to the front of the room, reading in a nervously hurried manner. Singer had to tell me to slow down several times before I caught on. Finally, I read the story in a more leisurely pace. There was a deep silence.

"Well," coached Singer. "What do you people think?"

Eventually, a senior raised his hand. "I think that this is the worst story I have ever heard," he exploded. "It's immoral," interrupted another. "It's-well you can't write about things like that!"

"Like what?" Singer asked, seemingly nonplussed. "How is this immoral?"

"Yes," I uttered within my head. "How can this story be immoral?" I couldn't understand. What were they talking about?

Before going any further, perhaps I should recount the subject of my story, based on a real-life experience. That year I was working in the university Admissions office-I had even been given a key to the Administration building so that I could do my work late at night (to this day, I can't believe my innocence in not recognizing that I had been offered incredible trust, that had I been a political activist, I could have brought the University to its knees!). In any event, I met there a middle-aged woman, who befriended me. She always reminded me, a little, of Shirley Booth, or, later, of Shelly Winters-a kind of overweight, sad being, who had, evidently, a son by a former husband. One night she asked me if I'd be willing to "babysit" the child. I had often taken care of children throughout high school, so I readily agreed. I arrived at the appointed time, and was introduced to her son, whom today we would describe as a hyper-active child. I played with him for while in his bedroom, finally getting him into his pajamas and into bed, while his mother, presumably, finished dressing for her evening date. But when I approached the kitchen, there she sat in the same bathrobe in which she had greeted me.

"Would you like some coffee," she asked, "or a little brandy?" Brandy suited me better-although I had just begun to drink. We talked. We talked some more. I checked on her son, returned. And we talked. It was apparent that she was not at all intending to leave. Although I was quite innocent in those days, I wasn't an utter idiot. I realized that she had invited me over for intentions that lay outside of the care of her young son. I felt as if I were playing a role in a movie based on a play by Robert Anderson, William Inge, or-more probably-Tennessee Williams: Tea and Sympathy, Come Back, Little Sheba, A Streetcar Named Desire. And I was clearly the object of desire, even if she cloaked it with the verbal ramblings of a lonely housewife. Finally, I told her-despite her protestations-that I had to go home, and I stumbled off into the night.

My story was simply a recounting of that event. Nothing sexual had happened in reality and nothing happened in the tale, even if the intent of the character had been that something might. I was suddenly being described as an immoral author for writing about the quite innocent event. It wouldn't be the last time I would be described as writing immoral literature, but, as a young man, unable to realize the absurdities of my culture, I was stupefied. So, apparently, was Isaac Singer. We bonded, a bit, after this incident. Still today, I have his signature in all of his books published to that date, one addressed to my pseudonym of the period.

The next year, when I temporarily left the university to live in New York, I met with Singer on at least two occasions. The first time, we met at the deli/cafeteria where he usually ate-Singer was vegetarian. We talked about his new story, just published in The New Yorker, about that same cafeteria and about a writer we both loved, Knut Hamsun. As we walked back to his nearby apartment, Singer asked me which Hamsun novel I most loved. Mysteries was my immediate response. He too felt that that was Hamsun's best work, and offered to give me his original edition. Unfortunately, when he went to look for it, he couldn't find it.

On a second visit, knowing of his interest in strange phenomenon, I reported a story I had read in the newspaper: scientists had evidently been doing a strange experiment with plants, hooking them up (quite inexplicably) to lie detectors. When they threatened the plant (whoever had thought to do so? I remember wondering), it apparently went haywire, producing readings on the lie detectors that were equivalent to a hyper-emotional state.

When I told Singer this tale, he put down his water glass. "I don't believe a potato can think," he quietly replied. "I don't think plants are emotional beings…..Besides, if it were to be true, what would I eat?"

For several years after these events, I was afraid to write another story. And when I returned to writing fiction, I tried to make my stories as "immoral" as I possibly could.

Los Angeles, May 16, 2005