Thursday, April 28, 2011
“Writing For My Life” appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the Auithors Guild Bulletin.
by Jay Neugeboren.
In February, 1957, a few months before my nineteenth birthday, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The malignancy, in my neck, was surgically removed, as were adjacent glands, and I was irradiated on both sides of my neck. In the half-century since, I’ve never had a recurrence.
Chance, Pasteur famously wrote, favors the prepared mind. When it comes to medical survival, it would also seem to favor those whom it chooses to favor.
At nineteen, my life was saved because, rarely sick, I became concerned about some swollen glands that appeared during an ordinary winter cold and didn’t go away when the cold did. Visiting on a Sunday afternoon with a cousin who was doing her medical residency, I asked her if she’d take a look at my throat. She looked at my throat, palpated my neck, and suggested that I get things checked out at my college health service. The next day, I went to the Columbia College health clinic, which was housed at St. Luke’s Hospital, where a young resident felt my glands, after which he called in another doctor. This doctor--a tall, elderly man with white hair and a neatly trimmed straw-colored moustache--felt my glands, nodded once, then told me to make an appointment to come in to the hospital at the end of the week for a biopsy.
In 1957, I didn’t know what a “biopsy” was (I figured it was some kind of test for an infection connected to swollen glands) and so I was a bit taken aback when, after telling my mother and father that I’d be staying overnight at St. Luke’s Hospital on Friday for a biopsy, they cloistered themselves in their bedroom, where I heard my mother, who was a Registered Nurse, weeping hysterically while my father kept trying to calm her down. When my mother emerged from the bedroom, she told me that everything was going to be all right--I shouldn’t mind her tears, she’d had a hard day at the hospital--and that there was no reason for me to have the biopsy done at Columbia. Instead, she would make some calls to doctors she knew and worked with in Brooklyn.
She did, and two weeks later, a biopsy was performed at a Brooklyn hospital, and the surgeon, after opening my neck and seeing the glands, removed all that he could find--“stripped” them, in my mother’s words. When the results of the biopsy came through ten days later, and I asked my mother what the report said, she told me that the excised lymph nodes had turned out to be ‘completely benign’ and, again, that there was nothing to worry about. It was not until I had occasion to review my medical records twenty years later that I discovered, definitively, that two pathologists (one was Sidney Farber) had, in 1957, confirmed the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease.
On February 12, 1999, forty two years after the biopsy, and a few months before my sixty-first birthday, despite being physically fit (swimming a mile a day, playing full court basketball with teenagers), and having no conventional symptoms or risk factors (no chest pain, nausea, dizziness; I’d never smoked; I had normal blood pressure and cholesterol scores, and no positive family history of heart disease), and despite not having had a heart attack, an angiogram revealed that my coronary arteries were more than ninety-eight percent blocked.
I’d been experiencing some occasional shortness of breath while swimming (but if, while swimming my daily mile, I rested for thirty seconds or so, I could complete the mile), and some intermittent burning sensations between my shoulder blades (which I figured was ‘swimmer’s shoulder’). Still, I was concerned--I just didn’t feel right--and called my family doctor. His nurse, to whom I reported my symptoms, noted that I hadn’t been in for a check-up in two-and-a-half years, and she scheduled me for an exam. I went for the exam three weeks later, and given that I was sixty years old and had never had a stress test (or seen a cardiologist), my family doctor recommended I make an appointment with a local cardiologist. I went for the stress test/exam a week or two later, and although neither my family doctor nor the cardiologist saw any urgency in my situation, I did.
And so I telephoned several childhood friends who were physicians, reported what was happening and how I was feeling, and when the local cardiologist, after an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram, diagnosed a virus of the heart muscle, one of my doctor friends, Rich Helfant, with whom I’d gone to Hebrew School and High School, shouted into the phone from three thousand miles away (he was in Palos Verdes, California, I was in Northampton, Massachusetts)--“It’s not viral, goddamnit! I want you in the hospital as soon as possible.”
Eighteen months later, visiting with this friend, and talking with him about his having gotten the diagnosis right by phone from across the country, he smiled. “Let’s face it,” he said. “You and I wouldn’t be sitting here today and talking if you hadn’t gone to high school with the right guys.”
We know many things--the percentages of those who survive cancer and heart attacks, and from which cancers and what kinds of heart attacks, and for how long, and how we can successfully treat some cancers and most kinds of coronary artery disease--but there remain many things we don’t know, and what we often overlook in our desire for answers and for “scientific” truths, are, simply, the facts of luck and of mystery. Why do some people who are in great shape and follow all the recommended rules (e.g., Jim Fixx) suddenly keel over in the prime of life, while others, who seem to follow none of them (e.g., Winston Churchill), live full lives into advanced ages?
And there’s this too: given my mother’s often histrionic penchant for dwelling on illness, and my parallel penchant, when I was growing up, never to allow that anything was wrong with me, what prompted me on that Sunday afternoon, with my mother nearby, to ask a cousin to check out what might, on another day, have seemed the ordinary aftermath of an ordinary cold? And why did I, forty-two years later, despite the lack of urgency expressed by doctors who physically examined me, persist in pursuing, with friends, what might, at another time, have seemed groundless anxieties?
When I was told at nineteen that I didn’t have cancer, part of me believed this was so. But if there was no cancer, why was I being radiated? Believing, then, in another part of me that I was going to die within a year, and, romantic soul that I was, wanting to leave something behind, I decided to write a novel. (The novel, two hundred pages long and satiric in intent, told the story of a young man who, convinced he is going to die within a year, feels compelled to deliver a message of hope to the world; through a series of improbable events he becomes a hero, dispensing homilies far and wide. At novel’s end, the rumor of his death has become non-existent.)
At twenty, I wrote a second novel, and by the time the magic five year period arrived when, supposedly, I didn’t have to worry about cancer anymore, I’d completed another three (unpublished) novels. It was as if I somehow believed that as long as I kept making up stories, I could stay alive.
So: grateful for the gift of life given back to me at last three times (doctors, operating on me for a ruptured appendix when I was two-and-a-half, lost my vital signs for thirty seconds), and without underestimating the supreme importance of surgical skill, biological luck, and the good fortune to have had access to doctors who knew me and listened to me, I sometimes think that the element of chance that favored me--that, against all odds, gave me life and kept me going--was enhanced, at least in part, by my desire, born fifty years ago, to spend my working hours imagining lives different from the one I was actually living.
For even even while I may occasionally receive, from within, physical signals of alarm unheard and unseen by others, when I sit down to write fiction--to make things up--I also see worlds nobody has seen: worlds of possibility, where anything, for good or for ill, and against predictability, might occur.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
by Jay Neugeboren.
When I was eight years old, inspired by Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and Howard Garis’s Uncle Wiggily tales, I wrote my first novel. My mother typed the manuscript for me, the top halves of the words coming out, magically, in red, the bottom halves in black, and for several months I would stand in front of my fourth grade class at P. S. 246 in Brooklyn each Monday morning and read a new chapter of the book. The novel, made up stories that recounted the adventures of a family of pigs, ran to about seventy or eighty pages, and afterwards, at lunch hour, recess, and on the way home, my classmates would crowd around me and ask: What happens next?
My answer: I don’t know. Until I actually sat down and wrote--until I gave myself up to my characters and their lives--I never knew what was going to happen next.
Seventeen years later, I was substitute teaching in a Brooklyn Junior High School that had a largely black and Hispanic population, and was assigned to what the Vice Principal told me was the school’s most unruly eighth grade class (“Just try to make sure nobody gets hurt,” he advised). “You the sub?” a student called out when I entered the room. “Yes,” I answered, and I asked the class to please take out their notebooks and begin writing a composition about how they had spent their summer vacations. The students cursed and groaned, several of them packing up their stuff and heading for the back door, when--a survival instinct?--I shouted, “And you don’t have to tell the truth!”
This stopped them. You mean we can lie? a student called out.
“I didn‘t say that,” I said. “I just said that you don’t have to tell the truth.”
For the next half-hour or so, the students worked quietly and diligently. I was amazed (as was the Vice Principal when he came by to see how things were going). When the students were done, they brought their stories to me, I made corrections and suggestions, they worked on revisions, they read their stories to one another, and for weeks afterwards when I would meet some of them in the hallways, they would ask what I had thought of their stories, and if I would read new stories they had been working on.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the years during and after World War Two, I lived on the margins of two worlds, one Jewish, the other American. Both sets of my grandparents, and many of my aunts and uncles, were born in the region of Russia and Poland that is now the Ukraine. My father’s family (he had eight brothers and sisters, all married, all with children) were Orthodox Jews. They kept kosher homes, and observed the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays, on most of which days they did not ride, write, cook, turn lights on or off, or use the phone.
My mother’s family (she had four sisters and one brother, all married, all with children) was non-observant, and my mother was fierce in her belief that religions were the cause of most of the world’s ills. Although I attended synagogue each Saturday, and, starting at the age of thirteen, prayed in our living room six mornings a week alongside my father, first putting on my talit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (black leather straps I wound around arm and head), I also, on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, cooked, wrote, turned on the radio and TV, used the phone, rode the subways, played ball, went to movies, and worked at part-time jobs.
In my neighborhood, distant by about a dozen blocks from the Crown Heights neighborhood in which most of my father’s family lived, I was the most observant of my (non-observant) Jewish friends; when I visited with my father’s family, I was the least observant of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Thus, not only was I endlessly navigating the borders between the Jewish and American worlds into which I was born, but within my Jewish world, I found myself continually moving back and forth between two very different worlds, and wondering always: Which world was, or might be, mine?
Feelings, thoughts, and dreams engendered in my childhood by living in several worlds but feeling at home in none of them--these, along with the discoveries and joys that came from the reading and making of stories--shaped me as much then as, six decades later, they do now. Like the black and Hispanic students I taught, I too felt safe--and happy--when I could imagine a life different and more exotic than the life I was actually living. To be able, in my imagination, to be anyone I wanted to be, and to travel anywhere and do anything I wanted to do--this, then as now, both saved my life and gave me life, for the worlds that lived in my imagination were rich in ways the actual world was not, even if what both worlds were often rich in were misery and madness.
Through the years I’ve published books and essays in which I’ve written directly about my actual life--about living for several years in a village in the south of France; about teaching for three decades in a rural area of Western Massachusetts; about life-long friendships that helped save my life before and after a quintuple coronary bypass; about my involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements; about being a single parent to my three children; and about being caretaker, for five decades, of my brother Robert, who has been a mental patient during these years.
Although the places in which I set my fiction are usually places I have known first-hand, because I am often unaware of where the stories set in these places have come from--because they rise up from wells of memory and desire I don’t know exist until I write the stories they have helped generate--they are usually, for me, like remembered moments of dreams--more vivid and more deeply felt, more intense, mysterious, resonant--than my non-fiction.
All through elementary school, I would go to my local library several times a week, bring home four novels (the limit), and return them a few days later so I could take out another four. At school, I made up stories for my classmates and friends, and daydreamed so constantly that my parents were asked to come to school and talk with my teachers because, though my grades were excellent, I seemed alarmingly distracted much of the time.
My imagination was my best friend, and seemed the most real and safe place I knew because living in it I didn’t have to tell the truth. When I was reading stories or making them up, though I might be writing about loss, I never felt lost. Although I sometimes feared I might, like my brother, wind up living in a fractured, illusory world, when I was making up stories, I felt whole and safe--able, in words, to make sense of a world that often seemed to make no sense. Though I might conjure up stories about matters weird, dark, and grim, I could also, in the people, landscapes, and tales I created, delineate moments that suggested at least the possibility of joy, or happiness, or relief from pain.
And whatever else I have written since I wrote that early (and lost) first novel--memoirs, essays, screenplays poems, reviews--I have through the years returned again and again to my first love, and to what continues to inspire: the sheer magic that accompanies that crafting of lies that tell the truths stories tell.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The following appeared in the latest, Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue of the Author's Guild Bulletin.
by Jay Neugeboren.
In 1936, the year my father and mother married, my father suffered a detached retina and lost all sight in his right eye. His left eye was already severely compromised; without glasses, he could not read the large one and two-foot high numbers on advertisements in supermarket windows unless he pressed his nose right up to the glass. I was born two years later, in 1938, and throughout my childhood I’d often walk from room to room of our small four-room Brooklyn apartment while covering one eye with a piece of cardboard so that I could see the world as he saw it. At Halloween and other dress-up occasions, I always chose to be a pirate, a patch over my right eye.
When, at eleven, I was a member of a Cub Scout pack, I earned an arrow point by demonstrating how, despite not being able to perceive distance, my father could score in basketball by calculating angles so that the ball would slam off the backboard and carom down through the hoop.
But why, with one good eye, couldn’t he see in three dimensions?
My Cub Scout den chief drew a diagram and explained that, since our eyes were lodged asymmetrically in our heads (and were not equidistant from some central point), they each saw objects and scenes differently--with binocular (as opposed to monocular) vision. If you were looking at a ball, for example, your left eye would see the ball from a different distance, and angle, than your right eye did. Actually, he explained, each of your eyes was seeing a different image of the ball, which images were somehow combined instantaneously in the brain so as to enable those of us with binocular vision to see the ball--and the world--in three dimensions.
The great passion of my early years, along with reading novels, was sports: I lived as much of my life on ballfields and in local schoolyards as I could, and when I was thirteen, in the concrete backyard to our building, my father taught me how to throw a curveball. When I tried out for the baseball team at Erasmus Hall High School--I was five foot three and weighed one hundred ten pounds--facing guys older and bigger, I not only struck out the side twice in a row but attracted dozens of players to the chain link backstop, and they seemed as amazed as I was that the ball could leave my hand, head for the batter’s head or shoulder (if he were batting right-handed), and then, thanks to my father’s coaching, dip swiftly and suddenly away from him in a two-to-three foot arc, and cross the outside corner of the plate.
But how, I wondered, not being able to perceive distance, was my father able to throw and catch a ball? And how was he able to shoot baskets, or drive a car? And what would happen to him if he lost vision in his one good eye?
The summer I was six years old, my parents rented a two room bungalow in Long Beach, New York. My father slept in our Brooklyn apartment during the week, and on Friday evenings took the train to Long Beach to be with us for the weekend. The first thing he’d do after he arrived would be to get out of his suit and tie and into a bathing suit, after which I’d walk to the beach with him. And all week long I’d hope it would be raining on Friday night, because when we got to the beach, he’d take off his shirt, then hand me his eyeglasses to hold for him while he went swimming in the ocean.
He never hesitated--just handed me the shirt and glasses, ran to the water, waded in, and dove straight into the first line of waves. He’d thrash his way out to where it was calmer, and then would swim further and further out while, his glasses tight in my fist, I’d stare as hard as I could--as if by concentrating with all my might I could keep him from going under--and I’d pray that he’d return quickly (by this hour the lifeguards were gone), for what would I do if, one evening, he disappeared, and I had to walk home alone? What would I tell my mother?
Most weekday nights, on his way home from work, he stopped at the local candy store where he’d take out a novel from their rental library, and he’d spend most evenings lying on the living room couch, reading, a hand cupped over his good eye to shield it from the glare of the lamp.
Through all the years of my growing up, my father worked in the printing business as what was called a ‘jobber’: he had ‘accounts’--businesses and individuals who would place orders with him--for stationery, invoices, business cards, invitations--which orders (jobs) he’d take to various printing shops around the city to get the work done, after which he’d pick up and deliver the order (or, on school vacations, have me deliver them) to his customers. Sometimes, when I asked about his business, he’d show me how he prepared material for the printers--how he wrote out the words, and created columns, charts, and designs with a straight-edge ruler, a protractor, and stencils--and I was always astonished at how neat and clear his handwriting was, and how graceful his script.
I remember wondering why it was that a man so compromised in his vision had chosen to spend so much of his life having to look at words on paper, but I never asked him about this. Later on, though, after I’d begun publishing books, I’d sometimes find myself attributing my own love for words and story--for how magical it was that words on a page, in my mind and feelings, could be transformed into entire worlds--to those times we were together in printing shops and factories, where what had been blank sheets of paper would fly out from the presses--across rows of small blue flames, positioned there to dry the ink--with words on them, words that in my life, as in my father’s, were suffused with enormous power.
I recall, too, when I was in the fifth grade and we had a unit on people who, like Helen Keller, had overcome physical disabilities, going to the front of the room, and telling the class that my father was blind in one eye, yes, but that because he was, his hearing had improved miraculously and he could now hear things, especially music, better than most people.
Although what I told my class was largely a sentimental wish, it turns out that, neurologically, I may have been on to something, for we now understand that the nervous system has astonishing plasticity, and that when areas of our brain ordinarily used for one function--seeing, for example--are disabled for that function, that region of the brain can often be taken over--reallocated--for other sensory functions such as hearing.
At about the time I was trying out for my high school baseball team, Tommy Thompson, blinded in one eye when he was a child, was the starting quarterback on two Philadelphia Eagles championship NFL football teams. A few years later, Bob Schloredt, a one-eyed quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies, was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Rose Bowl. I doted athletes like these, who, despite handicaps, had succeeded: Whammy Douglas, a one-eyed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, Gene “Silent” Hairston, a deaf Golden Gloves champion, and on others who, later on, would occasionally make their way into the ruminations of characters in my early stories and novels.
My father failed at the printing business, and it was my mother, a Registered Nurse, who, often working double-shifts and taking on extra jobs, brought home the money that paid the rent and put food on the table. Although they fought about money constantly--my mother railing at my father for not earning a living, and my father retreating into a depressed silence because he’d failed to provide for us, I never recall either of them, even in their most heated arguments, referring to the fact of my father’s impaired vision.
From the time I was about ten years old--1948--until my father’s death in 1976, at the age of 72, however, my mother would chastize him at least once a day for having given up his driver’s license, and he would respond with the obvious: that he couldn’t see well enough to drive, especially at night, and that he didn’t want to endanger us or others. Although their cruel dance--a painful mix of rage, guilt, venom, shame, and humiliation--was a constant in our lives, in this one thing, and with a confidence he rarely showed on other occasions, he’d state his case and stick to it.
And though he occasionally threatened to put an end to my mother’s misery (and his own) by killing himself, he never, to me, or to her, or to anyone else I knew, excused his failures or moods by reference to his faulty vision. So that, when I walked around the house with one eye covered, I was identifying with that part of him which, though wounded, was also a source of strength. When I closed one eye while shooting baskets, or throwing a ball, or crossing a street, I was training myself to do what he and men like Tommy Thompson and Bob Schloredt did: I was noticing shadows, and which way they fell; I was becoming aware that the smaller objects were, the further away they were likely to be, and that the brighter similar colors were, the closer they were likely to be. I was noticing the way people and things overlapped, whether they were arms or legs or curtains--and I was paying attention to the infinity of small and large markers that, like roadsigns on highways and yard lines on football fields, defined space; by being attentive to such things, I could, in my mind--the way all of us do when we watch (2D) movies or look at photographs--turn two dimensions into three. In this way I could not only see the world the way my father saw it, but I could also, briefly, be my father, and could be close to him in ways that eluded us through most of our lives.
In the decade before he died, I began publishing stories and novels, and he talked to me about them in ways he’d rarely talked to me about anything else. He even bragged to others that I’d not done the expected or the predictable--become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer--but had become, his emphasis, a writer and maker of stories. How sweet, it occurs to me, that I had somehow chosen a vocation whose task, as Conrad reminds us, is “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.”
Monday, April 25, 2011
by Jay Neugeboren.
I recently sold a short essay on Ingmar Bergman to The Notre Dame Review, which was especially welcome news since I’d written the original version of this essay in 1962--46 years ago--and had been submitting slightly revised versions of it, if intermittently, ever since.
A few months after I’d written the Bergman essay, as it happens, I sold my first short story, by which time, at the age of 24, I’d accumulated, by count, 576 rejections. By this time, too, I’d written five unpublished novels, and it would be another three years, and nearly 2000 more rejections, before I sold my first book.
During those years, in order to keep track of where things were, I kept a scoreboard pasted to the wall beside my desk on which I listed the title of the work, the place I’d sent it to, the date on which I’d sent it, and the odds. Most stories went out at somewhere between 500 and 1000 to 1, novels usually had odds of about 10,000 to 1, although, depending on the early morning mood of the handicapper, these odds could, on any given day, ascend to several hundred thousand to one. At the bottom of the scoreboard I posted additional opportunities: a Best Bet, a Long Shot, a Hopeful, a Sleeper, and a Daily Double. Shrewd bettors in those years, undismayed by previous losses--the odds became outrageous once a story collected more than thirty rejections--could have cleaned up. Several times, in fact, after sending a story around for a few years, I’d change the title and send it back to a place I’d previously submitted it to, and it would, the second or third time around (this happened at The Atlantic, for example), be accepted.
Things didn’t change much after I began publishing. Thus, my eighth book, The Stolen Jew, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and winner of Best Novel of the Year Award from the American Jewish Committee (and still in print), was rejected 17 times during a two year period, and a non-fiction book published a decade ago, Imagining Robert, also still in print and also a New York Times Notable Book, along with being a Book of the Month Club Selection, a Featured Selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club, and the basis for a prize-winning PBS documentary--was rejected, during a three year period, by 41 publishers.
During the years I taught writing, what I used to say to my students, as to myself, was that while it was hard not to feel rejections personally, one shouldn’t take them personally. Given the long list of commercially successful books turned down by publishers--from Catcher in the Rye and Peyton Place to A Separate Peace and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--who could figure out how to figure--how to tout--the vagaries of the literary marketplace? Best was to keep your eye on the object: to write the books and stories you wanted to write, and to hope that, with persistence and luck--and never underestimating either--your work would see its way into print. And once it did, as in any good story or--or any interesting life, since the essence of both was unpredictability--anything could happen.
And sometimes I’d console myself, or celebrate, as with the Bergman essay, by reciting a faith-based mantra learned during the basketball playing days of my Brooklyn youth: If you keep making the right moves, eventually the shots fall.
Next week we're out with Jay Neugeboren's fourth collection of stories: You Are My Heart. The stories included in the collection have appeared in an esteemed crop of literary magazines, such as The Notre Dame Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Columbia Magazine, Hadassah Magazine, and Black Clock.
Madison Smartt Bell says: "The stories in Jay Neugeboren's new collection are astonishingly good, each one fresh, startling, sometimes shocking in its originality -- with a complex and subtle substructure binding the whole group together."
Jim Shepard says: "Jay Neugeboren's You Are My Heart is an object lesson in imaginative empathy and observational intelligence. His fiction for years now has had the courage to be quiet and careful and comprehensively humane, but it's in no way slight. One of his great subjects has been the damage that even the most caring and thoughtful can inflict, and though these stories take place all over the world, they're at heart about the difference between the America to which we aspire and the America in which we live."
Here, also, are some upcoming readings in the NYC area:
Tuesday, May 3 @7pm - 192 Books
192 Tenth Ave @21st St.
Thursday, May 19 @7pm - BookCulture
536 W. 112th St. @Broadway
Thursday, June 23 @7pm - BookCourt
163 Court St. (b/t Pacific & Dean)
Over the course of the next two weeks, we'll be posting articles by Jay that have been published throughout the years. The pieces discuss accumulating rejection notes before finally finding success, his father's hindered eyesight, and his own quintuple bypass. We hope you enjoy.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
So while some folks like jmww and The Rumpus got into The Correspondence Artist this past week, Barbara Browning's been hard at work on her second effort, a novel called I'm Trying to Reach You, which we'll be publishing next spring 2012.
The book incorporates choreographed YouTube dance videos as Gray Adams attempts to unravel the mystery of who may be murdering the world's most famous dancers.
One of the videos is performed to the song 'Elephant' by Pattern is Movement. The band dug the choreography, so did Deli Magazine, and the video has been getting some play. Check it out.