I walked into the salles and onto the piste on the B level gym at Princeton University in the fall of 1988, ready to submit myself to the will of Maître Michel Sebastiani. Never mind I didn’t know the fencing room was properly referred to as a ‘salle’ and the fourteen-meter-long two-meter-wide fencing strip as the ‘piste’, or that ‘maître’ meant ‘master’. I didn’t know any of this but it didn’t matter. I labored under a vow of greatness, and ignorance was just one more thing to overcome.
I had decided, the spring of my senior year in high school, to find something, anything, and dedicate myself to it – to sacrifice myself to it – and become the best in the world. I chose fencing largely because I played Dungeons and Dragons and I thought swords were cool. But there was something so Princeton about fencing, too. Something aristocratic, clean, linear, definable and white: everything the Indian reservation I was from was not. I was determined to define my entire life by the rules that governed play on the twenty-eight-meter-squared woven copper fencing strip, and to concentrate all my time, energy, intelligence and hopes on driving the .25-inch tip of my foil into the target area on my opponent’s lamé.
I had first met Sebastiani in the spring of 1988 as a prospective student. I had travelled from Leech Lake Reservation to Minneapolis, from there to Newark, and from Newark to Princeton as a part of ‘minority student hosting’, which was what the meritocracy called the five days over which Princeton auditioned for us, rather than the other way around. The distance I had come was a song I sung under my breath about myself as I was fed and toured and given pamphlets and a T-shirt and encouraged to be stunned by the bluestone sidewalks and the neo-Gothic dorms and the brilliance of the professors.
The fencing room was large and spare. There were eight metallic strips arranged in two rows of four with the scoring boxes set up off to the side, a tennis ball on a string and a large mirror on the far wall. A bench along the wall opposite. Near the door I entered was the maître’s office: a small, windowed room looking out over his domain. Everything was in order. The neat, institutional desk, the track jacket warming the chair back, a bouquet of foils and épées resting in the corner. Maître Sebastiani was bustling about in that odd way of his I would come to know so well. He was perfectly bald on top, with a fringe of severely short hair circling the back of his head from ear to ear. His face was sharp – thin, pointy nose, tight, close-set mouth, small eyes that poked out from underneath his sharp brows. He wasn’t that tall but he had a powerful chest and strong arms – an old-fashioned strongman’s torso, which tapered down to very small, almost dainty feet. His eyes were severe, searching, as if his whole being were concentrated in a point about three to four feet in front of him, much like the weapons he trained people to use.
I introduced myself and told him I would like to join the team.
‘Ahh! So you’ve fenced before. Where? Who trained you?’ When he spoke his voice didn’t come from his throat as much as from the center of his chest, his French accent that of Inspector Clouseau.
The truth was, no one had trained me. I’d never fenced before. Not once in my life.
This was the preposterousness of my ambition. Everything about my life till that point carried the taint of mediocrity. Being Indian was part of it, being Jewish was the other part of it. Being both was . . . absurd. Growing up on a reservation wasn’t something that was even remotely interesting to me then. By the time I was seventeen I was exhausted. Everyone was, or so it seemed. Tired of fighting the government. Tired of fighting the weather. Tired of fighting one another. Tired of fighting the flat tires. Tired of sitting for sixty or ninety because of DUIs or old warrants. Tired of the snow. Tired of the trees that oppressed us; growing so close overhead as to block out the sun. Tired of the noble qualities bestowed on us by the enlightened left and equally tired of the beatings and the cheatings and the exclusion practiced by rednecks. Tired, even, of ourselves and our supposed virtue and nobility. Tired of the costume that poverty forced us to wear. Tired of being expected to wear feathers, real or metaphorical. Tired of seeing ourselves in the movies where we were expected to do one of two things: die a noble death or provide a correct answer to the questions posed by white people. Tired, also, of everything meaning something else.
I saw this most of all in the stooped and weary Indian astride his horse in the velvet End of the Trail painting in my grandmother’s house. Pretty much every Indian I knew had that image on something – a velvet painting, a polyester blanket, pillows, mugs or airbrushed onto their car – an Indian astride a horse seen in profile against a setting sun, his spear pointing uselessly at the ground, his head heavy in defeat. I wanted to mean the opposite. When you’re not that smart and not that self-aware it doesn’t occur to you that your desire to go forth from your home and do something special is quite the most common
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘I’ve never fenced before.’
But what would you want to do? Foil? Épée? Saber?’
‘Foil,’ I said, feeling very sure of my choice.
Maître Sebastiani frowned. ‘Are you athletic? Are you involved in sport?’He busied himself around his office as he spoke.
Was I involved in sport? Well, no. Not really. ‘I road race. Bicycles. And I’m on the weightlifting team.’
‘Do you run?’
‘No, not really.’
He shook his head. ‘Running is the best thing for sport. For escrime.’ Our time was nearly up. He even looked at his watch. ‘So you never fence before? Never? No one has coached you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not once.’
He nodded at me gravely. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Very good. American coaches know nothing. They know one trick. Or two tricks. They don’t see –’ he made a full circle with both hands, ‘the whole. They see only one thing or one other thing. They fill you with bad habits. But you come here. You come to me without any bad habits. You come with no habits at all. This is good. I will train you to be a world champion. It is simple. Come back in fall when you arrive. And you will fence for me.’
I walked out of the room, took the elevator up to the ground floor, and walked out of Jadwin, and it wasn’t until I was in the center of campus, surrounded by the comings and goings of students and faculty, the leaves precepting on the chestnuts and oaks, that I woke up from his words and remembered where I was, and found it in myself to smile.
My training that fall consisted of running. We ran for forty-five minutes before practice along the footpath past Lake Carnegie. We ran shuttle sprints in the salles after practice. We were timed on the mile, 800 and 400 meters, our results recorded in a book the maître carried. Maître Sebastiani encouraged us to run in the morning before classes in addition to our practice runs in the afternoon. There was an unspoken but deeply felt understanding that if you didn’t run in the morning you weren’t committed. So I ran in the mornings, too.
‘Do not run like a machine. Like a robot,’ he shouted at us as we gasped by. ‘To fence is to move in space, to control space. Reach! Jump! Skip. Change your stride!’ And so I skipped and jumped and hopped up onto walls and ran their length and jumped down and hopped from flagstone to flagstone.
My real practice began with drills that we ran by squad, led by John Kissinger. From him I began to learn the eight different positions: four quadrants and two hand positions (supinated and pronated). At night in front of books I moved my hand from two to four, eight to six, and then turned my hand over and worked one, three, five and seven. I learned the difference between a lunge, a riposte, parries and point-in-line. At times during practice Maître Sebastiani called us out individually and drilled us mercilessly. He closed distance and retreated, lunged and went back to guard and we did as he commanded. He slapped his thigh in frustration when we didn’t get it right. He muttered. This would go on for five minutes of sweat-drenched effort of my part before I occasionally got a ‘Oui! Yes! That’s it. La. C’est ça!’ I would collapse in exhausted gratitude at his feet. I had a knack for certain showy moves: the flèche for instance. And, being a lefty, I had the natural ability to stay in second position and drop down into eight. I reveled in the hits I got doing this. ‘So you have a trick, David. A very good trick. A trick will not make you a champion!’
After two months of practice we competed among ourselves for places on the team. I made the junior varsity squad. Our first opponent was U Penn, and I was beside myself with pride. But a week before my first collegiate competition, a teammate accidently broke his foil and drove the blade through my thigh. Blood coursed down my leg from some place very close to my groin. His broken foil had punched all the way through my thigh, about a half inch under the skin, and broke out through the surface of the skin right next to my left testicle. I’d been stabbed. Deeply. I got a tetanus shot and went to bed. The next morning my entire thigh was black and purple with blood, but it didn’t hurt too much so I went to practice and said very little to anyone about it. I didn’t want to be pulled from the match against Penn. I fenced three bouts that Saturday – I won two and lost one.
I didn’t go home during fall break. Instead I went to New York and saw the inside of smelly, dirty fencing clubs and managed not to see any sights at all. I traveled to Philadelphia, State College, Annapolis and Cambridge and saw nothing except the pixelated advancing and retreating forms of my opponents. I lost a lot. After Christmas, Maître Sebastiani offered me a chance to take private lessons in the morning at around 6.30 a.m. So I ran two miles, took my lesson and then drilled footwork and lunges before breakfast.
During these times Sebastiani began instructing me on what I thought of as the ‘deep art’ of fencing. It is not enough to work a move or two. One must fence on three levels at once. A level of first intention: a committed attack that one expects to fail, even though you are committed to it totally; a second level (or, as he put it, a ‘second intention’), which is a calculated response to how you anticipate your opponent will react to your first move; and then to where the real game is – the third intention: your answer to your opponent’s reaction to your first move. Fencing was chess. Victory in the martial arts was not just a victory over another body: it was the subjugation of someone’s mind.
These verbal lessons were welcome breaks from the private tutorials, which left me quivering and dizzy. If I could get him talking I could get a break. And he liked to talk. He talked about a Japanese fencer who executed one thousand lunges a day until he had the most perfect form. So I did that myself, after our lessons. He mentioned a fencer who had mastered ‘third intention’ by letting his opponent score four points (out of a possible five) before attacking and scoring five times in a row to win. So I began doing that in my bouts, until I could do it regularly. As a result my game became very fluid. Almost every morning he complained that American fencers were not good on the basics: perfect hand position, perfect footwork, perfect lunges, perfect timing. And so I drilled these things until I didn’t even think about them anymore.
He also talked about himself. How his family was exiled from Algeria during the civil war and moved from there to Corsica. How he joined the French Special Forces and was part of the military coup meant to restore Pieds-Noirs to Algerian soil. Sebastiani was borderline racist. Maybe not even borderline. He extolled the virtues of dance (ballet, not ‘monkey-dancing’). He described torturing the men he fought in Algeria. ‘They put a bomb in a lamp post and it goes off when children are coming home from school. I see this. I say, what is the pain of one man that I give with only a knife compared to the pain of all those children and their parents?’ And he demonstrated with my shoe how to sever someone’s spinal cord, how to flay their fingers. I think I understood from him that a person can be flawed and beautiful. I don’t think I knew that before. Before him I thought only in absolutes.
I was in love with fencing. I was in love with the maître. I was, for the first time, in love with my life. Fencing had a kind of clarity the rest of my life lacked. All the small moments, the small victories and the large, the frustrations and disappointments, were of a whole. There was pleasure there, and a certain agony. Much like love. And much like love part of the pleasure and part of the agony was giving yourself over to the largeness of the enterprise. You were dwarfed by it. You let yourself be made small compared to the enormity of total command and total competence.
There were things to ponder. For instance, for the first year I fenced I found in the neat lines of the sport – the division of the torso into four quadrants, the eight hand positions, the finite number moves (derobement, envelopment, the beat, the press, the bend), the very finite ways to advance (lunge, flèche, double-lunge) – everything I had been looking for but never found in real life: a very clear right way and wrong way; a set of moves that could be defined and practiced and perfected, and which yielded results. This was important to me in a life that was, off the piste, becoming rather confusing.
What did being Indian mean? What should I do with my life? How come I hated and loved home in equal measure? Whom to fuck? And how many times? And why did I always pursue and then release those women with whom I had fallen in love for a day or a week or a month? What, exactly, was wrong with me? (That there was something wrong was not in question.) What I pondered as I lay in bed was that no matter how committed I was to the art, no matter how many lunges I executed or miles I ran or lessons I took or drills I completed I was not met with complete success. Some opponents stymied me. I won most of the time but I didn’t win all the time. How come my moves didn’t always mesh with the reality of a living opponent with moves of his own? Of course, this is the heart of competition in individual sports, certainly the heart of martial arts. You meet a prepared opponent in a field of battle or play and your agenda clashes with that of your opponent, and the trick is to bend their mind to your own.
The season wound down in the spring. I emerged with a winning junior varsity record. I stood five feet seven and weighed 174 pounds, having gained two inches in height and thirty pounds of muscle. I returned home and worked on the reservation for what was known as the ‘preservation crew’. Funded by the tribe and the US Forest Service, our job was to conduct cultural impact assessments before bridges could be replaced or land swapped or roads widened. It was archaeology. We dug in the dirt and smoked a lot of pot. I had no car, so I biked the ten miles to Cass Lake at 6.30 in the morning, worked all day digging and chopping roots, and biked home. In the evenings I studied tae kwon do. In the late evenings I spent time with my girlfriend Patti, also home from college. We watched movies and talked and fucked. We had been friends throughout high school and there was a pleasing familiarity we had with each other, which felt a lot like how I then thought married couples might feel. We knew each other’s history and sorrows, we were comfortable with one another.
It was a good summer, but then two things happened: my best friend’s father died while flying the ultra-light airplane he had built in his garage, and Patti got pregnant. Life – which before now had followed the orderly rules of a fencing bout, proceeding in a regular fashion with the kinds of surprises that are all the more pleasurable because they are anticipated and contained by the rules of play – became discursive, wandering, chaotic. I had been playing by the rules but life had not. The day after Dick died I went to work. I unpacked my tools and began digging and got massively stoned and began thinking about Dick. He had been kind to me. A father of sorts. Patient. Good-humored. Gentle. The more stoned I got the less I remembered, until all I could remember was that he was dead. I couldn’t remember anything he had ever said or done. The drug emptied my mind of everything except the fact that he was gone. Was this, I wondered, the way to treat someone who had always been good to me? Was it right to erase what existence he had left (as a memory, a feeling, whatever), if only in my own small mind? I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I quit smoking pot. And I quit drinking, too.
Patti left for Ohio in August, and I left for Princeton around the same time. She called, drunk, a month later and told me she was pregnant. I don’t remember much about that call. It was late. She’d woken me. She was at a bar, using a pay phone. I asked her what she wanted to do. I said I’d be a father if that’s what she wanted, following (unexpectedly) in my own father’s footsteps. We could keep it if she wanted. Or we didn’t have to. She’d already made an appointment, she said. It would be done in three days. I tried to console her, but I didn’t know how. There’s nothing like being told you’ve helped to conceive a baby to make you feel both like a man and a child. Life was very big. And I was very small. I continued to fence. I continued my morning runs, footwork and lessons. I joined the judo club. I was as mindlessly physical as I could be, and it paid off. I was moving up from junior varsity to the varsity squad itself. I was actually getting good at fencing, but perhaps not at being a good human being.
That year I also decided to apply to the creative writing program. As with all of life’s big disruptions it began as a whim; a bet I made with a hall mate. I’d never written a story before and the story I wrote was bad, tinged with the melancholy of autumn leaves, a lonely walk down a path lined by winter-stricken trees. A certain angle of light. Underneath it, of course, was my own grief about the abortion. But my literary grief was not compelling, and I was rejected.
I tried again. This time the story included a bar, a gruff old gaucho, tequila – something actually happened, as basic and derivative as the piece was. And in the spring of that sophomore year I was admitted to the program. It was more of a lark than anything: I could write well enough to perform in the limited sphere of the undergraduate writing workshop, but that didn’t mean I actually wrote well. Or could even be considered a writer. But it felt good to be a ‘natural’ at something, to coast on ability for once. I couldn’t and didn’t coast in any other way. Every other way meant hard work.
I also took, that term, a course on European short fiction. Hausman, Flaubert, Mann, Joyce. Theirs was the game of champions. Theirs was Olympic-level writing. I was drawn to Tonio Kröger because I too felt locked out of the inner circle. I was drawn to ‘The Dead’ because of my own dead. During one workshop I asked my professor how they did it? How could I learn to do what they did? Not to do it as they had but how to make the words do, in my own idiom, what theirs did? My professor, palms out, slowing me down, calming me down (I must have looked half-crazed with hope for an answer), ‘Let’s just focus on what we’re doing here. Let’s not compare ourselves to them. They are masters.’ I wondered why, if we don’t aspire to similar greatness, write at all?
But the question nagged and the challenge he posed remained: he said I shouldn’t compare myself to the greats. I thought I should, so I began to work harder. And in the spring of 1990 I applied for Professor Toni Morrison’s long fiction workshop. I don’t know how many applied, but only six of us got in.
There are days in one’s life that are more or less like the one just past and the one coming on the morrow. Most days are like this. Change, if it comes at all, is not sudden. And there are days that bring with them all sorts of surprises. You say to yourself: this is it. It was on a day like this I walked from 444 Witherspoon across campus to 185 Nassau to meet the great woman.
There are times when Princeton can seem like a very pretty shell – a crust of excellence covering everything; a crust made of granite and marble and bricks and ivy and Polo and Top-Siders; of gardens and turf; and the patient wisdom of oaks – covering a yolk of callowness and privilege and shallow self-serving striving. This was not one of those days. There was a generous but kind version of sunlight dappling the gravel walk past Nassau Hall. The flagstones in East Pyne were level and secure. A crisp solidity attended Firestone Library. And underneath it all was a systolic rush, pulse and murmur. And the song that pulse sang was I am here. I am here. And I have a chance to do great things. I, who knew very little, knew what Morrison represented. And I was terribly nervous. I spoke under my breath. She’s only a person, I said. Only a person.
In the seminar room, I was surprised to notice that when Morrison sat in a circle she somehow managed to be at the top of it. She had a strange effect on space and time. Black skirt, gray shawl-sweater, thick beaded necklace. And those famous dreadlocks. She organized us without having to say very much. We must have made small talk but I don’t remember it – there was nothing small about any of it.
‘You all applied to this workshop because you’re working on novels,’ she said. Her voice was all whisky and cigarettes, but still languid and precise. ‘But that doesn’t mean you’re novelists.’
Hard to dispute.
‘To begin,’ she said. ‘Let us go around and talk. I want to hear, and your classmates want to know, about what you’re working on.’
I don’t remember what the first two students said. I was too nervous for any of it to sink in. The boy next to me spoke. I didn’t know him, but that didn’t stop me not liking him. He had the floppy hair of a natural-born Princetonian. Small eyes. Small nose. Thin lips. He spoke in a reedy Capote-esque voice. ‘I am working on a novel set on Martha’s Vineyard. My protagonist is a half-breed Indian. His mother is the town drunk. The novel opens when –’ The rest of it was lost to the rage spitting up in me. ‘Indian’. ‘Half-breed’. ‘Drunk’. He was talking about my people.
‘Maybe,’ I said, when my turn came, my voice controlled but quivering with anger, ‘maybe I should talk about why I write rather than what I am writing. I write because I am Indian, from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. And I write because people like that’ – I pointed right at the boy – ‘don’t know what the hell they are talking about. People think they know about Indians. But what they know is from Dances with Wolves, from The Last of the Mohicans and crap like that. That’s why I write. I write because everyone else writes crap like that about Indians.’
The class went deadly quiet. Morrison looked at me levelly. And then she glanced down at some papers in a Manila folder she held across her lap.
‘It says here,’ she said, her eyes on the paper, ‘that you’re an anthropology major.’
The other students looked at the floor. I had violated all sorts of unwritten rules. Don’t make a scene in class. Be ironic, not direct. Act like you don’t care as much as you do. Try without seeming to try. Don’t let them see you sweat. I had made the whole class uncomfortable on the first day – and I had done this in front of the most famous and successful professor at Princeton.
‘Well,’ she said slowly. ‘You write better than most anthropologists.’ And then she looked at me.
I had attacked, and she was redirecting my line. Feinting maybe. ‘Is that a compliment?’
Pause. And she smiled. Half smirk, half actual amusement. ‘Yes. Yes, that would be a compliment.’
And it was. But somehow she had won the exchange. ‘Oh. In which case: thank you. Thank you very much.’ I looked at the ground.
And so we began. On one level I knew it was only a class. And Princeton was full of classes with famous people teaching them. But even I – stupid, wounded but innocent in the way wild animals are when they can’t quite accept they are hurt; impatient and unknowing – knew I was starting something else.
In class Morrison would make pronouncements. ‘Why do you write “a smile spread across her face?”’ she asked one student. ‘I mean, where else would a smile spread? What’s wrong with being declarative? “She smiled.” Unless that smile is really important, don’t inflect it unnecessarily.’ This made sense to me. In fencing the best lunges were direct. The shortest distance between two points.
‘Every novel begins with a question or set of questions. Lead with that. If you make your reader wonder – why? who? – then you’ve got your reader invested.’ This made sense too. In fencing you have to ‘invest’ your opponent, trouble them, get a response, and then fencing becomes a conversation. ‘A reader doesn’t approach a book empty, blank, unknowing. You must know what your readers know and use it against them, to bring them to a new place, a new understanding.’
Every two weeks we would meet her individually – our meetings were friendly, conversational. I got over my fear. I liked her, and I think she liked me. Or at least I amused her. She made fewer pronouncements in her office, asked more questions. When I used jack pine as a metaphor, ‘So jack pine can’t produce new trees unless there’s a forest fire?’
‘That’s just too good not to use.’ She shook her head. ‘You do flora and fauna really well.’ Her voice was almost wistful. ‘You have a tendency to write purple. You can always prune later. But be aware of this weakness.’
One time, while we were discussing a draft of a chapter, she told me ‘Effective writing is strategic. You want to bring your reader to a new place. They don’t want to be brought there.’ And, later, ‘You write like no one knows anything about Indians. They don’t. Their ideas about Indians get between them and your subject. Don’t give in. Don’t be ethnographic. Don’t explain. This isn’t a handicap. This is a place of strength.’
I always emerged from her office committed to making the writing better. She pointed out weaknesses and I would drill those weaknesses exclusively. Too discursive? Too descriptive? I used a highlighter and highlighted all the adjectival words and clauses and sentences and rewrote the page without them.
My tenses drifted all over the place: past, past imperfect, past perfect, present. ‘What’s wrong with past tense? It’s quicker. It’s simpler. Be simple when you can. Save the fancy stuff for the fancy places.’ So I drilled my tenses.
‘Watch out for received language. This is dead language. Dead language was alive once – sayings, metaphors, similes. But it’s been used so much it is dead. When writing about race dead language will make a dead book because it promotes dead ideas.’ I searched out and destroyed such excrescences.
‘You write very well in your first drafts but it’s automatic. You’re not thinking about your words. You need to think about them. Each word, each sentence should be a choice, but it shouldn’t feel like that for the reader. For the reader each sentence should feel like the only one that could possibly work.’ So I took the draft of my novel, bought some yellow legal pads like the ones Morrison used, and copied the thing out longhand before typing it back into my computer again.
‘The difference between someone who writes and a writer is real,’ she said. ‘A real writer trusts their inspiration, but they edit. They approach what they’ve written as a stranger. If you can’t look at your own work with fresh eyes, with those of your readers meeting your book for the first time, you will never succeed.’ I practiced this. I read my work out loud to myself and when my tongue tripped I stopped and backed up and fixed the offending words. I had checklists that I used after each chapter, each scene: (What does the reader already know? What don’t they? What do they need to know? When do they need to know it? How fast does this feel? How slow?).
She liked to talk about strategy. Writing race and writing beyond it, changing our thinking about it: all this required strategy. The job of writing was the job of moving thought through space. She liked two things, I think, that she found in me: she liked sparring with people who weren’t afraid of her, and she liked teaching the teachable. I like to think I offered both. But I’ve never asked her.
Before I knew it I had fallen in love. Writing was something I could do. And I found in Morrison what I had found in Sebastiani: a competitor of the highest level. An artist for whom the art was a passion and a science. Something to be felt and something to be studied. But – and I felt this deep down, I felt it in my gut – whereas fencing was something I wanted, writing was something I needed. And I was good at it. Really good. Not in terms of what I produced then, but I knew I could be good if I worked hard, if I studied, if I – as I had done with fencing – submitted myself to the greatness of the effort. I found first in fencing, and later and more completely in writing, the opposite of what I thought I would do at Princeton.
I had come to Princeton to transform myself from something small into something big. What a stupid idea. A better thing was to make myself small in front of a thing bigger than myself, and earn the right to enter it, the way pilgrims will kneel before a church. I quit the fencing team. Sebastiani’s disappointment was palpable. ‘But who will be captain? Who will lead the team?’ I didn’t have an answer. He shrugged and turned away. And I learned I could live with the disappointment of others.
What I found in fencing I continued in writing. A set of habits, a way of directing myself to the work carried over. I traded a father for a mother, one martial art for another. Indians died by the gun, but they died by the pen just as much. Rather than giving up one for the other it felt that I had found a way to knit them together.
I practiced my basics. I worked on my form. I worked on my tempo. Of course the moves themselves were different. Gone were thrusts and parries and flèches. Instead I practiced the written lilt, growl, cut, surprise, lullaby and cry. I practiced surprise, and I practiced structure. ‘Remember, David. Sometimes novels proceed by way of plot, in a simple sense: one action leads to another. But other kinds of novels proceed by other ways, by a set of secret associations between images. You do that well. But you don’t do plot well. That is something you’ll have to work on.’ I worked. I am still working. I am working now, sitting by myself in my room. I am in the midst of a divorce. I have children. I have now (as I didn’t have then) cares and concerns, and still Professor Morrison is at my elbow, in my hand, in my head. I am still working. Still drilling the words.
Late in the spring of my junior year Professor Morrison set a meeting with me. She wanted to know if I were considering writing a creative thesis. At Princeton you can’t double major, and there is no major in creative writing. Up to that point students in the arts would combine a thesis in their home department with a creative work, a hybrid of sorts. Easy enough for English majors. Harder for anthropology majors. I didn’t want to dilute the theory I was enjoying in anthropology. Nor did I want to turn my art into ethnography. I said I wasn’t sure.
‘Well,’ she said, as she signed title pages for a new edition of Beloved, ‘if you do want to do a creative thesis I’d be happy to work with you.’
‘I’m not sure. I just don’t know. Can I think about it?’
She should have been used to my stupidity by then. But I could always surprise her. ‘Think? By all means, please, think about it.’
I ignored the sarcasm and said my goodbyes and went to Chancellor Green to meet my girlfriend for lunch. I told her about the meeting.
She paused over her pasta. ‘Are you a moron? Am I dating a moron?’ she asked.
‘Toni Morrison offered to be your thesis advisor. Toni. Morrison.’
‘Find a way.’
‘I’ll be back,’ I said. And then I ran.
I found out that I could write two senior theses: one in anthropology and one in creative writing. No one had done it before. But so what?
And so it was I worked with Professor Morrison for a year and a half on what would become my first novel. In the spring, right before graduation Professor Morrison asked me to write her a letter. ‘I want a letter about our process.’
‘What should be in it?’
‘Just a letter. How was I as a teacher?’
‘More specific, please?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I want to know if I just helped you perfect this one thing. Which, if that’s the case, means I failed. Or did I help you become a writer? Did you learn to write? Do you only have this one thing that I edited for you? Or will you be able to write on your own?’
‘I can answer that in one word, yes.’
I don’t know now if I am so sure. The answer is evolving. Middle age is the age of doubt, the age of backward glances. It is also the age of walking forward while blindfolded. The more I write the more uncertain I become. I try now, as I never did when I was young, to remember what I’ve forgotten. Which is its own art, I suppose. But there are some things I have not forgotten. I have not forgotten the chill of the salles at 6.30 in the morning, the tap tap tap of my feet on the woven copper piste as I practice my footwork. I’ve not forgotten the energy in Sebastiani’s eyes as he asked me to engage en pointe. Again and again. I’ve not forgotten the stillness of Professor Morrison’s office. Or the way she picked up her pen and paused a moment before setting the point to paper, the seriousness of her thought collected in that pause. I’ve not forgotten the swooping lines of her handwriting on each and every page of my manuscript, or the thrill of editorial marks in general: the arrangement, the pose, the stance – being made better. I’ve not forgotten the kind of grace that attended the hard work they asked of me. I’ve not forgotten the thrill of beating Marc Pavese, the Junior National Fencing Champion, or of getting the message on my answering machine that my first novel had been accepted by Graywolf Press, of pulling a faceless opponent into the rhythm of my footwork and knowing before our foils touch that I had him beat, and of putting together word after word after word and making a story come out the other end of the sentence. Nor have I forgotten my teachers’ work of bending the life of an energetic, half-crazy, fierce, opinionated boy to some greater thing, some greater good. I’ve not forgotten, because I get to feel it again and again, the heart-quickening thrill of allowing myself to be surprised by my efforts, and how humble and proud I feel when I let myself live inside the greatness of others and things bigger than I. It feels like victory.
Photograph © Princeton University Library, Michel Antoine Sebastiani, Office of Communications Records, Box 133, Folder 30, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Oil painting of Toni Morrison © Robert McCurdy.