ERNEST HEMINGWAY AS CREATIVE WRITING INSTRUCTOR

Student : I’m writing the best I can.  Just as you do.  But it’s so terribly difficult.

“Professor” Hemingway: You shouldn’t write if you can’t write. What do you have to cry about it for? Go home. Get a job. Hang yourself. Only don’t talk about it. You could never write.

Student: Why do you say that?

Prof. Hemingway: Did you ever hear yourself talk?

Student: It’s writing I’m talking about.

Prof. Hemingway:  Then shut up.

Jeez, Hem, a Paul Engle you ‘aint!  That’s no way to build an MFA program!

25 Comments

  1. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    August 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    The above exchange or rondelay
    Reads like an excerpt from a Mamet play.

  2. Tattooch said,

    August 28, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Excerpts from a short story
    By my hero Joseph Epstein.
    He describes certain scholars
    Each “Ed. note” tries to define.

    “Casualty” by Joseph Epstein (excerpts)

    After getting my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Yale, and being kept on to teach in the English department there for six years, I was, as they said in those days, “let go,” which means knocked off the tenure track, which really meant I had to look elsewhere for a job. I felt, I won’t say lucky, but at any rate pleased to have got back on the track, with a promise of a tenure decision within two years, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    The English department there had a solid reputation, though such things inevitably look much better from a distance. A Teutonic Czech — a Jew and a homosexual — was still on the premises, who, with a genuine power for dramatizing ideas, served up in his lectures a fine heavy Germanic intellectual martini, five parts Nietzsche to one part Goethe. He claimed a friendship with Isaiah Berlin, and used to say the name Isaiah with the same reverential excitement that other men reserved for talking about divine sex. [Ed. note: I believe this refers to Erich Heller.] A man who had won a Pulitzer Prize for a three-volume biography of Henry Adams and was finishing up a two-volume work on Bernard Berenson was on the edge of retirement. Jewish himself, he seemed not to notice the fact that he had spent his scholarly career working on the lives of an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. [Ed. note: I believe this refers to Ernest Samuels.]

    A man said to be the greatest living Melville scholar was in the department; failing to write the great book on Melville everyone expected, he dissipated his powers in the grinding complications of a scholarly edition of Melville in many volumes that used up his life, though he always seemed much jollier than one would have thought his failure permitted. [Ed. note: I believe this refers to Hershel Parker.] Then there was a specialist in the teaching of English composition, a teacher of teachers, who went about always looking angry, except when drunk, at which point he turned even redder in the face than usual and went in for praising everyone well beyond the limits of credulity. [Ed. note: No idea who this refers to.] The department also had a Blakean whose almost comical mixture of long-out-of-fashion clothes (spectator shoes, polyester suits, too-wide floral neckties) betrayed his claim to being an aesthete; in the attempt to hide his baldness, he had a hairdo of such complexity of construction that I could never be in his presence without thinking to myself, Ah, the long unhappy life of Francis Combover. (American literature is my own specialty.) This man later wrote a book about great romantic couples in literature and opera, which didn’t stop him from introducing me to his own defeated wife no fewer, I’m sure, than thirty times: “Mel, have you met Hazel?” [Ed. note: No idea who this refers to.]

    The remainder of the English department was made up of the standard snobs, dry-as-dusts, and small-time academic operators whose dream was in one or another way to get back to the Ivy League schools whence they had been hatched. My own generation among the faculty, not yet in its forties, was already beginning to take on the look that only faces long pickled in disappointment acquire. They would easily be run over by the new historicists, deconstructionists, queer theorists, and other goofies waiting in the wings of history, as the young marxisant professors, now wearing black turtlenecks and unlaced Air Jordans, might put it. Of the two women among my generation of teachers, one took her own life in her fifties with a razor blade in a warm bath; the other allowed alcohol to do the job for her at sixty. Three others were homosexuals very far from on the loose; and most of the remainder sought their identity in an ill-formulated leftism that they thought might permit them to keep their youth by retaining what they actually believed was their idealism.

    And there was Leon Meisner… An operator, Leon, to the highest power. When I was in Champaign, he was usually off in Bellagio, at I Tatti, or some other such place, working a cushy visiting professorship, on leave with a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller, an NEH grant — he seemed to have everything but Marshall Plan money. No less than twice a year, he’d sashay over to the dean’s office with an offer from another school in his pocket, which he used to jack up his own salary. Now toss in the New York accent, his scraggly beard, his paunchiness, and we’ve got perfect typecasting for someone doing Shylock in modern dress in a university setting. An anti-Semite’s dream, Leon, and of course a Jew’s nightmare…. [Ed. note: Not sure who this refers to, Stanley Fish perhaps?]

    The most famous man in the department, a biographer of Yeats and of Shaw, had recently left to take up a professorship in Oxford at half his old salary; snobbery in those days still trumped money in academic life. His name was Maurice Picard (accent on the last syllable), originally Pinsky (accent on both syllables). [Ed. note: I believe this refers to Richard Ellmann.] With him gone, the department’s Anglo-Irish connection was cut off. When he was around, Stephen Spender and Frank O’Connor used to pop up for a semester each year, Spender to chase boys and complain about the low quality of American students for his ill-prepared classes, and O’Connor, I’m told, to give full dollar value, working very hard at teaching what he always announced on the first day of class to be the quite unteachable subject of how to write the short story….

    • Hershel Parker said,

      March 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Alas, the one from whom much was expected is not me, not even in a satirical portrait.

      • Noochness said,

        March 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

        If it’s not you, sir, then I needs must holler:
        “Who ELSE is the world’s greatest living Melville scholar?”

  3. thomasbrady said,

    August 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    “A man said to be the greatest living Melville scholar was in the department; failing to write the great book on Melville everyone expected”

    A “great book on Melville?” Hey, that’s a given! LOL

    “get back to the Ivy League where they had been hatched” LOL

  4. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    August 31, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Of the empire and the closet,
    Of mice and of men —
    This piece is good enough, methinks,
    To post the link again.

    http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/joseph-epstein-nostalgia-for-the-empire-and-the-closet/

  5. Hershel Parker said,

    March 21, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    I like your skepticism, Noochie-Coochie Man, but I am far too young for all that to have been a portrait of me. Go back a generation. I realize that it seems strange to anyone under 65, but I have not always been described as the glMs,
    Far from it.

    • Hershel Parker said,

      March 22, 2011 at 3:59 am

      I’ve been shoring up fragments in a blog since early 2011. Noochie-Coochie Man, you might check it out. I am speaking out on many topics. It’s the fragmentsfromawritingdesk blog. Thank you for your couplet.

      • Noochness said,

        March 22, 2011 at 9:08 am

        I requested Melville: The Making of the Poet
        And will certainly give it a look,
        If ever I can finish reading
        Guitarist Keith Richards’ book.

        Thanks, Mr. Parker!!!

  6. Hershel Parker said,

    September 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Noochness, there’s a bigger book that needs intelligent reviewing, which (in the decline of print reviewing) probably means Internet litblog or individual blogger reviewing: MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. Out soon. in final pdf now.

  7. Hershel Parker said,

    September 6, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Hey, what a guy,Noochness! you gave a link!

    Now, I get to ask you if you have ever seen a Melville cover that striking.

    I’ve had two Sendak covers, and this one is right up there with Maurice’s second one, I think, if not ahead of it. I’ve been lucky lately. The new (2001) Norton Critical Edition of MOBY-DICK has that mysterious, evocative cobalt and gold New Zealander Tupai Cupa on the cover, the inspiration fo Queequeg. The original woodblock, of course, lacked the cobalt blue and gold.

  8. December 24, 2012 at 3:37 am

    The red-faced teacher of teachers in the excerpt from Epstein’s story above is Wallace W. Douglas. The Blakean is Jean Hagstrum. The operator is Lawrence Lipking.

    • noochinator said,

      December 24, 2012 at 11:27 am

      Thanks very much, Mr. Myers,
      I’d long ago given up hope—
      You sure know where the bodies are buried
      (Meaning those with whom Epstein did cope).

      • Hershel Parker said,

        December 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm

        My lips were sealed
        Till they congealed.

  9. December 27, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Joseph Epstein wrote another story called “Postcards” (collected in his wonderful book of short stories Fabulous Small Jews) in which the protagonist, Seymour Hefferman, sends out uncomplimentary postcards to famous persons who are described but left unnamed. Below are excerpts from the story, with each postcard followed by an “Ed. note” making a guess at the addressee’s identity:

    [Hefferman] had begun to think a great deal less of Ravinia ever since it had been taken over by a small German conductor who wore a white tunic and hopped about on the podium. He decided to send him a postcard:

    Dear Maestro,

    How regrettable that as a conductor you turn out to be what a French writer on music called “one of those good dancers”! Your antics, like a great jackanapes, enormously increase your general grotesqueness. A mistake, I think, in every way. Stick to the music, kid, and while you’re at it, my advice is to knock off the tunics.

    Sincerely,
    Ronald Landesman

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Christoph Eschenbach]

    A famous poet, who a decade earlier had announced the onset of cancer, had filled the intervening years with all sorts of poems and essays about his approaching death. Meanwhile though, the creep stayed alive; even his wife had died before him. At this rate, so would Hefferman. A postcard was in order.

    Dear Cancer Victim,

    Don’t you owe your readers — not to speak of many editors — your life? It would be one think if your imminent demise had been announced by someone else, but since you yourself promised it, don’t you feel you ought to make good? Do consider pegging out before too much longer.

    Sincerely,
    Sandy Cohn

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Donald Hall]

    When a now elderly and formidably boring teacher of his from the University of Chicago wrote a book about playing the viola in amateur string quartets, Hefferman, warming to his task as the Zorro of culture, seated himself before his laptop:

    My dear dottore,

    My idea of hell is you playing your viola while simultaneously lecturing on any aspect whatsoever of English literature. The thought of you scratching away for nearly fifty years on your oversize fiddle makes me pity your wife. Be merciful and give her surcease.

    Sincerely,
    Anson Ginsberg

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Wayne C. Booth (with viola substituted for cello)]

    Once fully into the swing, Hefferman found himself writing three or four or five postcards a week. Such was the quality of the culture that there was never any shortage of recipients. When an elderly novelist produced, not for the first time, a book excoriating his previous wife, Hefferman saddled up:

    Yo, Bluebeard,

    Time — no? — to stop using literature as a means of paying off old resentments, imagined wounds, petty injustices way too deeply felt. Time, too, to stop insisting on the largeness of your soul. Now that your prostate must be almost as imposing as your ego, why not ease back into the gentle solipsism of old age?

    None of the best,
    Myron Hausman

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Philip Roth]

    To a critic who wrote a self-serving article in the Sunday New York Times in defense of the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters, Hefferman shot off another missive:

    Dear sir,

    It must be lonely for you, taking the courageous positions you do. Lonely, that is, what with the red hordes to your left, the black hundreds to your right, and only one good man — that would be you, Jughead — in the middle.

    Hang in there,
    Lenny Pomeranz

    [Ed. note: I have no idea who the above refers to]

    Another critic, a terrific operator, wrote regularly about the Jews, availing himself of a “we” that Hefferman disliked above all pronouns in contemporary writing. When a piece by the critic appeared in the New Republic, giving the Israelis all sorts of moral advice strewn with quotations from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Walter Benjamin, Hefferman booted up again:

    Josephus,

    What’ll it take for you to quit writing about the Jews? I think I could get you a million bucks from prominent Americans who feel the same way I do. If you’ll throw in a promise never to mention the Holocaust again — vas you dere, Charlie? — I’m sure the ante would rise still higher.

    Shalom,
    Lee Schwartz

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Leon Wieseltier]

    All in all, thought Hefferman, not a bad week’s work. The week that followed likewise began looking promising, with a scorching card to a novelist who, starting out as a chronicler of the miseries of contemporary Jewish life, had gone on to produce a pornographic bestseller, much cut-rate Kafka, and considerable diddling with the melding of autobiography and fiction. Ah, thought Hefferman, reading a typically approving review in the Times of the novelist’s most recent production — the guy had lately adopted the mode of high moral dudgeon — time to put on mask and black shirt and ride out:

    Dear Moral Leader,

    As a simple American, Midwest version, may I be permitted to apologize to you on behalf of all our countrymen for having let you down? Hard, I realize, to rise to your standard of moral equipoise as the self-acknowledged legislator of mankind. But does the world really need a pornographic Polonius? Don’t believe it does.

    As ever,
    Sherwin Skulnick

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Philip Roth]

    …[Hefferman] began by shooting off a note to a man who at a youthful age had been named president of a small college in New York State and later turned up as a conductor — apparently a damned poor one — of an orchestra for which he had been able to raise funds.

    Dear Leonardo,

    I address you as Leonardo because you are truly a Renaissance man. The only problem is that, with your third-rate college, your hopeless conducting, your many fatuous statements about education and the state of the world, you, kiddo, give the Renaissance a bad name. Do consider taking an early pension and returning to a St. Helena of your own choosing, where we shall hear no more of your passionately expressed banalities.

    Cordially,
    Lyle Futterman

    [Ed. note: I believe the above refers to Leon Botstein]

    http://www.amazon.com/Fabulous-Small-Jews-Joseph-Epstein/dp/0618446583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356621027&sr=8-1&keywords=fabulous+small+jews

  10. thomasbrady said,

    December 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    The venom expressed by the Jew-hating Jew–
    Is this unusual or new?
    Or just what groups as groups often do?

  11. noochinator said,

    December 27, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    Epstein’s a down-to-earth American guy,
    Despite his high level of success—
    And whether he sees it in Gentile or Jew,
    He despises pretentiousness.

  12. noochinator said,

    July 4, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Speaking of Melville, below is from Edward Dahlberg’s Can These Bones Live:

    Ugly, bald dirt, as though cast down his ghostly gullet, lies upon Herman Melville. He is in Woodlawn Cemetery, that PIT OF ACHERON betwixt the subway terminus and the hither fringes of Yonkers, cankered with graying curls of dust from the yards of monument makers and palled with bitter macadam and the orchidaceous fumes of automobile gasoline. Is it not fitting, so American, that the most astonishing genius that ever came out of the Western Hemisphere should be so uncleanly slabbed in mean, cheap dirt, not among the pitiable poor, but with the common drab bulk of rightly unremembered dead. Look upon his sparse tombstone and read the frugal inscription written thereon, “OCCUPATION WRITER”; then utter aloud the pity for the artist, that Hamlet so dolorously sighs forth before his father’s apparition, “Alas! Poor Ghost.”

  13. Hershel Parker said,

    December 30, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Now, I have a couple of letters from Dahlberg somewhere . . . . He needed money bad, as I recall . . . .

    • noochinator said,

      December 30, 2016 at 9:04 pm

      Hello, Mr. Parker! I tried to turn on my St. John’s College Graduate Institute classmates to Dahlberg’s maxims, from his Reasons of the Heart, but they weren’t buying. The class was on Heraclitus, and I referred to Dahlberg as the American Heraclitus, but they didn’t see D.’s depths, probably because they’re too young. Dahlberg is best read by those over 40 methinks.

      Next semester we’re reading Moby Dick at the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and we’re using the Norton Critical Edition you edited! I’ll be consulting your other books on Melville too for the end-of-semester 12-page paper!

  14. noochinator said,

    July 1, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    In the 1970s, Nick Tosches found this long-lost love letter written by Ernest Hemingway:

    June 7, 1961
    Ketchum, Idaho

    Maria,

    Do you remember? Do you remember that time I came to your bed the night before the attack at Pozoblanco and I placed my hand upon your breast? My hand was rough and hard. Your breast was smooth and soft.

    “I am afraid,” you said.

    “No. Do not be afraid, mujer.

    “I am ashamed,” you said.

    “No. Do not be ashamed.”

    “I am ashamed and frightened,” you said.

    “No. Do not be ashamed and do not be frightened, mujer.”

    “We can not go on speaking like this,” you said.

    “Here,” I said. I placed your hand which was smooth and soft upon the buttons of my fly. “Que salga el toro,” I said.

    You took my carabine in your hand, which was smooth and soft.

    “It is the color of burnt gold,” you said.

    “Watch it, puta. There is room for only one escritor in this bed.”

    “I am afraid,” you said.

    “Speak not. Speak not.”

    I lay upon you and within you. My body was rough and hard. Your body was smooth and soft.

    “Your chin scratches my shoulder,” you said as you felt the earth move beneath you.

    “I have no tools to shave,” I said as my carabine discharged.

    You shuddered as the earth halted beneath you.

    “Speak not. Speak not,” I said. “Your eyes tell me that you are happy and that once you wanted to die but now you are happy that you did not die. You are so happy that you did not die. Truly happy. And you love me, mujer. And you will never do with any other hombre what you have done with me. And I am Oak Park, Illinois’s greatest living Spanish-speaking writer.”

    I was tired from speaking such a long paragraph, and I slept. You held my cajones, and you wept. A woman who has felt the earth move weeps much.

    That was long ago, Maria. My Spanish is better now. But my carabine is old and rusted. I must know, Maria. Was I the only one? Have you felt the earth move with other men? Was my Spanish really that bad? On second thought, speak not.

    Another long paragraph. I must rest. Yes. My carabine and I, we must rest.

    Adios from Idaho,
    Papa


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