Lessons in Writing and Life from E.L. Doctorow

From a story on lithub.com by Alison Fairbrother headlined “Lessons in Writing and Life from My Grandfather, E.L. Doctorow”:

The first time an award-winning novelist gave me feedback on my writing, I was seven. I’d written a short story about a flying pony named Gold Dust, who was stolen from his pasture and locked in a trailer where even his wings couldn’t save him. It was up to a young girl named Alison to find him and set him free.

I presented a copy of “Gold Dust”—illustrated in colored pencil, its pages tied together with string—to my grandfather, E.L. Doctorow, who I called Papa. By this time, Papa had written six acclaimed and bestselling novels, among them Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and World’s Fair, as well as two story collections and a play, and had won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award twice.

He read the story while I sat on the carpet next to his chair. “This is pretty good,” he said, sounding surprised. He peered at me through his glasses with slightly more interest than usual. Then he dispensed some editorial feedback. “You introduce the thief who stole the horse at the end. If you put him in the early pages and show him hanging around the barn, the reveal will be more effective.”

Perhaps most seven-year-olds wouldn’t have wanted a grandparent to instruct them how to tell a better story, but I was thrilled that he’d taken me seriously. I’d have to put in some hours on a rewrite, not to mention redraw all the pictures, but my grandfather’s attention was worth it. I set to work.

“What’s he like?” my second-grade teacher asked.

I got that question frequently from the adults in my life. “He’s very nice,” I told her.

A truer answer would have been that he was fiercely private and deeply caring. He often let other people talk, entering a conversation with a single considered sentence. He didn’t smile unless he was really pleased, and his biggest laugh was a small chuckle. His eyes would squeeze shut and his head would tip back and after he chuckled, he would look at you with delight.

He approached his writing with maniacal dedication, but there was nothing else maniacal about him. He woke every morning and ate the breakfast my grandmother laid out for him, which included fat-free cottage cheese and low-cholesterol mini muffins. After reading the paper, he retreated into his office to work until lunch, and afterward he’d work again until 6, when he’d emerge and pour a vodka soda. They’d eat the dinner she prepared, he’d watch a little television, and then he’d go back into his office until he was ready for bed.

Despite this schedule, which was obviously made possible by his wife, he never missed a family event. Not one birthday party or school play or holiday.  He and my grandmother were late to the PEN/Faulkner award ceremony in 1992, where he was being honored for his novel Billy Bathgate, because my grandparents were giving my single mother a night off, and on the way to the event, I was stung by a bee.

Papa wasn’t like many other white male writers of his generation. Cheever drank. Roth womanized. My grandfather wrote quietly in his office for sixty years.

What was it like to grow up in the shadow of a great man? The family prioritized his needs. We bolstered him up. My grandmother handled all the domestic affairs, the cooking, paying the bills, managing the schedule. Because of how private he was, we learned to jealously guard information about him. When my grandfather felt wronged, particularly as it related to his public image, he could lose hours or even days to worry or to rage. So we closed ranks.

My grandmother handled her role with graciousness and wit. “Elvis has left the building,” she would say, if Papa was out. She had a master’s degree, volunteered for Planned Parenthood in the sixties and seventies, and wrote her own novel, Pretty Redwing, in the eighties; despite all this, she spent her days picking up dry cleaning and fielding his calls. Papa’s success was a joint endeavor, though he got all the credit. In my family, this was unquestioned.

Their children—my mother and her siblings—are all accomplished and creative, but none have attempted the kind of intellectual life he wanted for them. My mother worked in book publishing briefly in her early twenties but couldn’t bear to sit still. She left to become a fitness instructor, a career she has continued happily for decades. Even if she had wanted to be a writer, it would have been hard to carve her own artistic identity beneath her soaring heritage.

But I was a generation removed. I didn’t bear his last name. I liked to write.

When I was eleven, I wrote a story about a man who was drafted into WWII, and before he went away to serve, his mother took him for his army physical. To this day, this story cannot be brought up without my uncle convulsing with laughter. But my grandfather was pleased. “Alison is good, but I’m not going to tell her because I don’t want her to get a big head,” he told my mother, who immediately repeated this to me. Unable to keep it from me, he told me himself the next day. He began encouraging me to send him what I wrote. I was flattered by the attention, happy to oblige.

By the time I was in high school, Papa was sharing word documents of his books with me when he finished them. They were always complete, beautiful, profound, assured. I took my role very seriously, spending weeks crafting responses. I felt like a literary critic with the most high-stakes job in the world—reading the work of the person I admired most.

“You’re his second reader,” my mother said, her voice proud and awed. His first, my grandmother. I knew it was meaningful that he trusted me with his novels before they were published, especially because almost no one saw them until they were ready for print. He worked alone; he edited his own work meticulously as he went along, so that when he finally finished, his books were marvels. Still, my opinion mattered to him.

It was as if he had entrusted me with the family business. By investing in my writing life, he also elevated me above other family members, which implied a judgement that could then be turned on me. I became terrified of disappointing him.

He still gently asked to see my writing, but I was no longer a precocious child. I wrote often and I read a lot, yet I was stuck in a sophomoric phase. My work was a series of pastiches. I produced a long story in the vein of W.G. Sebald. I entered a lengthy Zadie Smith imitation phase. I tried to be Lorrie Moore.

As I got older, this dynamic calcified. The closer we grew, and the more it seemed that I would pursue the life Papa wanted for me, the less free my writing became. Still, books were what we shared, no one else in the family had our passion for them. “What do you think of David Foster Wallace?” he’d ask me. “Have you read von Kleist? I learned tremendously from von Kleist. All writers should read him.” “Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect novel.” His encouragement was a gift I wouldn’t trade for anything; it was also a source of pressure, obligation, and fear. I was too honored by his attention to admit to him that I doubted my ability.

He made writing look so easy, but it wasn’t, not for me. Papa went happily into his office every day and seemed to love the process just as much as he loved its completion. I only heard him talk about the difficulty of writing once.

On the day he finished his novel Andrew’s Brain, I happened to be staying with my grandparents. He came out of his office and shuffled into the kitchen where I was standing. He slid open the freezer and plunged his hand into the automatic ice tray. The sound of his fingers rattling ice against the wide plastic bin was the sound of a day’s work done.

He poured vodka over the ice until it cracked, and then he turned to me. He seemed lighter, relieved. “There are only two, maybe three great moments in a writer’s life,” he said. “The first, when you have an idea for a book. The second, when you start writing and you realize it will become something.” He took a sip from his drink. “And the third is when you finish.”

He held up his glass. “Remember that,” he said, and went into the other room to watch football.

I was stunned. It was the first and only time he’d ever suggested to me that there was toil. That his writing days may be filled with doubts, procrastinations, and half-baked sentences. In other words, that his days were not so different from mine.

In college I pursued international relations, and in my early twenties, I went into journalism. I swore off fiction writing; I felt that the only way I could write was in a sphere my grandfather hadn’t touched. But it never felt like me. Finally in my late twenties, I gave in. All I had ever wanted to do was write stories.

I hadn’t written fiction in years when I decided to apply for graduate programs in creative writing, a decision which thrilled my grandfather. I wanted to go to the school that had clearly liked my work—their admissions offer included a generous stipend and fellowship. Papa wanted me to go to the prestigious program where one of his friends taught. But I hadn’t gotten in there; I’d refused to name drop him in my application. “One phone call and I could get you in,” he said. “All I have to do is pick up the phone.” I was horrified. “Please don’t ever do that,” I said. How could he not understand that I wanted to make my own way? I left his apartment that day without saying goodbye.

A few months later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I hope I can live long enough to see Alison’s novel,” he told my mother. I was moved by this, cowed by his words, certain that I would disappoint him. I put in longer hours on my book, but the prose wasn’t alive, and I knew it. In July 2015, he was admitted to the hospital for a final time. He was heavily sedated when I went in to see him, his breathing shallow. His skin was gray, and his hair, which had always been trimmed and neatly combed, was wild. He looked sick in a way I’d never seen before.

I sat beside him, holding his thin, soft hand, and tried to tell him what he’d meant to me. I told him I loved him, and that I would keep writing, and I hoped that was enough. He died a few hours later, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. We buried him at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a short drive from where he’d grown up, near the graves of many other New Yorkers, famous and obscure. When we’d asked where in the cemetery he wanted to be buried, he’d answered, “As close to Herman Melville as possible.”

Months later, I was telling my uncle how easy Papa had make writing look—he went into his study for eight or nine hours a day and emerged after a few years with haunting, incomparable literary novels that were dazzlingly inventive in style and form, and virtuosic in their prose. My uncle interrupted me. “He actually played a lot of solitaire. And he finally got himself to write around four pm, and then stopped at five or six.”

“He was playing Solitaire in there?” I shrieked.

“Oh, definitely,” my uncle said. “Tons.”

I never saw the struggle. I saw only the perfection. Had he kept it from me? Or had I not really noticed?

Early in his career, he had written a short story called “The Writer in the Family.” In it, a gifted young storyteller is pressured by his relatives to write false letters to the family matriarch in the voice of her son who has recently died. The relatives wanted to shield her from the pain of his death, so they demanded that the writer keep him alive.

When I re-read that story not long after my grandfather died, I saw for the first time that he had been working out his feelings about his outsized role in the family. Talent comes with its own ambivalence. He had supported all of us through his art and his imagination; he had grappled with fame and reviews and prizes and book sales, and also, I saw now, he had likely faced doubt and uncertainty and grief and the burdens of expectation. Because of his success and the public persona it engendered, he had lost the ability to err. And he must have grieved the loss of a simpler life. My chest constricted. We had never shared with each other the emotional burdens we’d each felt. Him, the writer in the family, assiduously cultivating his image, and me, the other writer in the family, afraid of falling short. We may have shared books and words, but we’d been alone with our feelings.

In the summer of 2016, I received an email from the painter Perry Schwartz, who had been my grandparents’ friend and neighbor in New Rochelle for decades. She wrote that some years ago my grandfather had visited her studio and she’d drawn his portrait in charcoal. She wondered if I might like to have it. I agreed immediately. We planned to meet the following week at my apartment; my grandmother would join us.

On the day of our meeting, Perry emerged from her car carrying a frame the size of a human person. “I didn’t realize it was so big,” I said weakly. Perry had sent the dimensions, which I had mistaken for inches. The drawing was life-sized.

We carried the portrait upstairs to my apartment, where I’d made us lunch, and where my grandmother was waiting for us. Perry removed the protective blanket from the frame and it fell to the floor. There sat my grandfather. He was resting his hands on his knee, his shoulders rounded slightly in concentration.

I looked at his face. She’d perfectly captured the slope of his cheeks, his wide forehead, the attentiveness of his eyes. But he was frowning, the corners of his mouth turned down in obvious displeasure. It was a critical expression, a look of severe judgement.

“That’s what he looked like when he didn’t like the sandwich I’d made him,” my grandmother said cheerfully.

My partner at the time, to his credit, refused to let me hang a life-sized portrait of E.L. Doctorow in our living room. This left me with limited options. I wasn’t going to hang it in the bedroom. So I dragged it into the little room off the bedroom that I used as an office and rested it the corner. The room was small enough that no matter where I put it, the drawing faced me as I sat at my desk, looming over me as I wrote.

In graduate school, I took a class with the novelist Meg Wolitzer. At the time, Meg was writing her novel The Female Persuasion. Several of the characters were my age, and Meg asked if she could hire me to serve as a kind of cultural fact-checker, assessing whether the details of their lives rang true. It was a dream job. I soon found myself sitting beside her most days at her dining table.

Occasionally Meg would read me a sentence she had just written or ask me what I thought about a tricky paragraph. Sometimes she had a question that required input from a friend or expert—she rang Katha Pollitt, the feminist essayist and poet, to ask about perceptions of feminism in the seventies; she called a psychiatrist friend in Boston to learn about manifestations of grief. I would look over at her and marvel. She didn’t shut herself away until she finished a perfect novel, she wrote openly and sought input. We discussed plotlines, we talked character arcs. She eagerly solicited the advice of other writers and friends, and then made her own decisions. She worked hard, on her own terms, and she left room for community.

From Meg I learned a new way to be a writer. Hers was not the great man model. It was the model of a woman in the world—a daughter, mother, friend, ally, mentor—who was also a writer. It made intuitive sense to me.

I started a new book shortly after. I knew immediately that this one was different. I had been trying to be something that I was not, and in shaking off that false cloak, I felt lighter.

I wrote a rough first draft and I shared it with Meg and a few other friends.

Three years after my grandfather died, I completed another draft, and my agent submitted my novel to editors. Among them was Kate Medina, a legend in book publishing who had been my grandfather’s longtime editor at Random House. Her name was spoken with reverence in our family; my grandfather’s good (or sour) mood could depend on what she’d said to him; he had dedicated his 2009 novel Homer and Langley to her.

My agent called a few days later to say that a few editors wanted to meet with me, among them, Kate. I sweated through my shirt on my way to lunch with her and had to drape myself in an extra sweater. Kate had read my book and thought it had promise, but she had a lot of editorial feedback. I was so nervous that I wrote down every single thing she said. I don’t think I looked at her face more than once the entire lunch; I was too busy transcribing her very good ideas.

She told me that she had edited my grandfather lightly. I wasn’t sure if that was because he turned in near-perfect drafts, or because she felt he wouldn’t take criticism well. Either way, it fit with my understanding of how he wrote, alone and cocooned, saving the best parts of himself for his work.

I spent nearly two additional years working on my novel using Kate’s generous and astute feedback. During that time, the doubts came roaring back, but the community of writers I’d befriended stepped up to bolster me. I called Meg to read her a paragraph or two. Slowly, I made progress in the evenings after work and on the weekends. I wrote new chapters that didn’t quite cohere and when I couldn’t figure out how to fix them, I shared them with friends anyway. Little by little, my writing became stronger. My novel took shape.

In June of this year, Random House published my first novel, The Catch. I cried when I saw my name beside the Random House logo on the early proofs. I had so often fingered the spines of the books in my grandfather’s office, feeling that the novels published by Random House contained ideas and sentences far beyond anything I could conjure.

In my great admiration for him, I hadn’t been able to see my grandfather’s complicated, messy humanness. Our relationship had flourished around books and writing and it had also been, in so many unspoken ways, about heritage and legacy. I wonder if we missed other parts of each other, parts that were perhaps more important.

I often think about that moment at his bedside, when he was dying, and I held his hand and told him that I loved him and that I would try to become a writer. If I could do it over, I would say something different. “Papa,” I would say, “the fact that you were a writer wasn’t even my favorite part of you. I loved your small, delighted laugh. I loved your gentleness. I loved how often you sat at the dinner table and told the same stories about growing up in the Bronx over and over. I loved how you could play anything on the piano by ear, but only in the key of C. I loved that you pretended to know how to use a drill. The way we could never leave the house without you asking us if we were wearing sunscreen. I loved how you let your toddler-aged grandchildren play a game called ‘pile the pillows on Papa.’ I loved the look on your face when we uncovered you. I loved that you were always there for the uncovering.”

Sometimes, now, when I’m writing, I turn around to find his portrait staring at me. In certain lights, I see that his face has softened, his brow relaxed. He’s no longer judging me critically; he’s concerned the way a grandparent would be. He’s worried about whether I will have a good life, a life of meaningful work, a life in which I pursue my craft with doggedness, humor, and occasional joy. Every day I answer him by sitting at my desk.

Alison Fairbrother is an associate editor at Riverhead Books. She worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., before getting her MFA at Stony Brook University. The Catch is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

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