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Flatbush Flashback

Remembering Francine

Francine du Plessix Gray, shot by Irving Penn, on the cover of Vanity Fair, November 1983.

It was a long time ago, and the memories are starting to fade, but when I heard last week that Francine du Plessix Gray had died, at the age of 88, it reminded me, once again, of the best piece of writing advice I ever got. It's advice that I've adhered to since that autumn afternoon in 1975, in her office in the English department, at the City College of New York, when she showed me a spiral-bound notebook, the latest volume of the journal she'd been keeping since the summer of 1951, and said, "Keep a journal; write in it every day."


It was, she explained, how a writer finds his (or her) voice—by making writing as natural as breathing.


There were other bits of useful advice that Francine—we called her "Francine," not "Professor Gray"—shared with her students, advice of the sort you wouldn't normally get in a CCNY writing workshop. Like (and I forget her exact words, but the message was clear): Edit your own work when you're stoned on marijuana. You'll have no tolerance for bullshit and unnecessary verbiage.


Francine arrived at CCNY for the Spring 1975 semester, slated to teach one graduate and one undergraduate nonfiction writing workshop (what would now be called "creative nonfiction"). I met her my first day back at school—I'd gotten my BA in creative writing and then taken off a few months to travel. Now I was about to embark on a course of study in the graduate literature program after having been rejected from the creative writing program, which, at the time, I saw as the key to my future. I was 21 years old and crushed. The writing program at City College, in those magical days of free tuition, was a promised land where, for little more than the cost of books, one could study under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and Joseph Heller, the department chairman, who had personally rejected me.


I thought studying literature might be a constructive way to kill time while I figured out what to do with my life.


I was wandering through the English department—a quonset hut on South Campus—attempting to put together a not-too-demanding schedule of classes, when a woman, fashion-model tall with blonde hair and wearing a Viva magazine T-shirt, asked me, with the slightest hint of what I took for an indeterminate European accent, if I knew where the administration building was.


"New here?" I inquired after giving her directions. I thought she might be a night-school student.


Yes, she replied, she'd just been hired to teach a creative writing workshop.


She asked me other questions about the college, and in the course of our conversation, I told her that I used to edit one of the student newspapers and that I'd been rejected from the creative writing program.


What happened next still seems miraculous. Francine asked me to bring her some of my stories that had been published in the newspaper. I brought her a half-dozen samples of my work, and when I returned to her office later that afternoon, she looked up from my articles, spread out on her desk, and declared, "This is gonzo!"


She invited me to take her graduate writing workshop and asked if I'd be her graduate assistant.


I was in!


Because Francine never talked about it in any detail, all I knew about her history was what I read in the short excerpts about her European childhood—governesses, a Russian mother, Paris—that she showed the class from the autobiographical novel she was writing at the time, Lovers and Tyrants. Had I heard that her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was the editorial director of Condé Nast, it would have meant nothing to me. I'm not sure I knew that Condé Nast was a magazine-publishing company.


But what was really important to me about Francine was that she taught creative writing in a way that none of my other teachers had. Where Heller, for example, said that there was only one way to write a story—well-plotted with a beginning, middle, climax, and end… no deviations and no sci-fi, supernatural, or detective stories—Francine believed the best way to write was in fragments. Don't think about plot or form. Just get something good down on paper. Trust your unconscious and eventually the fragments will congeal into a coherent whole.


Rather than stories, she assigned fragments. Start from the inside and work your way out: first describe an emotional experience, then a small space, then a person, then a larger space, and keep going until you finally work your way up to describing a historical event.


This made sense to me and I flourished.


Once a week, after she taught her undergraduate class, we'd sit together in her little office in the English Hut, as it was called, critiquing stories, with me, on occasion, alerting her to an unexpected gem.


It went on like this for two terms, during which she guided me though my first attempt to get a full-length book off the ground, reading and editing my rough drafts. After I'd badly missed the mark on one of her assignments, she made a prediction: "You're going to write darkly humorous books and travel around the world."


And our bond became stronger because we were both plagued by a stutter that came and went depending on how stressed we were. Writing was a way to express ourselves fluently.


Francine left City College in 1976, returning to Connecticut and a life of writing books (At Home with the Marquis de Sade, World Without End, October Blood, and Them, among others) and magazine articles, including covering the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbi for Vanity Fair, which won a National Magazine Award for best reporting.


I somehow muddled through my final term of grad school without her.


Over the years, we'd exchange an occasional postcard, but by the mid-1980s we'd fallen out of touch. I now wonder if she was aware that her prediction had come to pass.


Yes, Francine, there have been a handful of "darkly humorous" books and there has been much travel to distant lands to talk about them. And I often think of you when I write in my notebook—which I still do every day.


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I Feel Your Pain, Ted Heller

Dear Ted,
I read your piece in Salon, "The Future Is No Fun," about self-publishing your e-book, West of Babylon, and I wanted to let you know that it might be the most depressing story about the publishing industry I've ever read. I got about three quarters of the way through it before I had to stop and put it aside. It was just too bleak to go on. Too much "extreme cruelty." But I came back to it the next day, and skipped to the end, just to make sure it wasn't a suicide note. Then I kind of read it backwards, paragraph-by-paragraph, and felt a little better. I did appreciate your epiphany--if you can call it an epiphany--that you now understand how rough it is out there, and that from now on, you'll help anybody who asks you for help. I feel the same way.

You say that your working life now consists of sending out hundreds of e-mails to people in the media who might want to review your book. You say that you consider it a good day if someone gets back to you, even if they tell you, politely, to fuck off. What you don't seem to realize is that that's how it is now, even if your book isn't self-published. What you spend far too much time doing sounds disturbingly similar to what I've spent far too much time doing since a small, London-based indie published my latest book, Beaver Street, as a paperback and in all e-book formats, two years ago in the U.K., then last year in the U.S.

Still, I found your naïveté touching—calling the media “base hypocrites” because they run stories about authors turning to self-publishing but won’t acknowledge a self-published e-book unless it’s written by a celebrity who self-publishes by choice. You’re just learning now that the media is a viper’s nest of base hypocrites? Where’ve you been? You don’t get media attention by publishing books. You get media attention by committing a terrorist act or by assassinating a celebrity. Not PR gambits I’d recommend.

I should also mention that, though we’ve never met, I did know your father. He was one of my creative writing professors at City College, and as I found out, he could be a cruel bastard, as your sister, Erica, vividly recounts in her memoir, Yossarian Slept Here. But 40 years after the fact, I can sincerely thank him for helping to prepare me emotionally for what I’d have to face as I made my way in the book biz.

Your father, of course, had no illusions about the book-publishing industry. “You can’t live off royalties,” he told us the first day of class. “That’s why I’m teaching here.” (And he didn’t think too highly of agents, either, as I recall.)

All things considered, Ted, I think you’re doing OK. Do I really need to remind you that Salon is the media, and they are paying attention to you? Big time. I wish somebody at Salon would answer my e-mails.

Bob Rosen Read More 
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Personal Faves: Volume II

This week I've been celebrating the third anniversary of The Daily Beaver with a look back at the ten most popular posts and a selection of some of my personal favorites. As I was putting together Volume II of my personal faves this morning, it reminded me that anniversaries also serve a practical purpose: They are a time to take stock, evaluate, put things in perspective--to see what's come out of this three year frenzy of writing, promotion, and travel. So, once again, here's a random selection of blog posts that caught my eye.

The Business of Smut: Critique #2 (June 15, 2011)
A review of "Hard Core," by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, one of the articles Slate selected as an example of great writing about the porn industry.

The Real Life of a Beaver Street Character (July 15, 2011)
Izzy Singer steps out of Beaver Street to publish a shocking pornographic e-book.

Still on the Bus (Aug. 4, 2011)
A review of Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Cool Place, and a tribute to my friend John Babbs, who passed away last year. I ran this photo essay on my other blog, Maiscott & Rosen, because you can't run multiple photos on The Daily Beaver.

Yossarian Taught Here (Aug. 18, 2011)
A memoir by Joseph Heller’s daughter, Erica, prompted me to jot down some of my own memories of Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, and one of my creative writing professors at City College.

The Trials of Traci Lords (Jan. 10, 2013)
A further exploration of one of the main subjects of Beaver Street: At age 44, the once underage porn superstar seems to have stopped complaining about being “exploited.” Instead, Lords complains that people won’t let her forget her X-rated teenage exploits.

Tomorrow, Volume III Read More 

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Yossarian Taught Here

Two biographies of Joseph Heller, my creative writing professor at the City College of New York, have recently been published. I've read excerpts of one, Just One Catch, by Tracy Daugherty, a straightforward chronicle of Heller's life. I've read extensive commentary on the other, Yossarian Slept Here, a memoir by Heller's daughter, Erica Heller.

Memories have been aroused.

Heller, who died in 1999, is best known as the author of the satirical, semi-autobiographical World War II novel, Catch-22, whose iconic protagonist, Air Force Captain John Yossarian, thinks people are trying to kill him, and does not want to fly any more bombing missions. I’ve read the book about 25 times.

When I was Heller’s student, he was finishing his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Something Happened. Thirteen years had passed since Catch-22 was published. Expectations were high, and Heller, to say the least, was stressed out.

City College, in the 1970s, was an extraordinary place to be—because the school was tuition free, and the English department had assembled an all-star collection of professors that, in addition to Heller, included Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Francine du Plessix Gray (At Home with the Marquis de Sade), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who taught a course in Ulysses.

I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to take a fiction-writing course with one of my literary heroes. And I was so encouraged by the results my first semester with Heller (B+), that I signed on for a more advanced course the following semester.

This is what I remember about Joe Heller:

He dressed casually, usually in jeans and a canvas shirt, except for the time he had a meeting with his agent. That day he wore a gray flannel suit.

He always had a wooden gum-stimulator sticking out of his mouth.

“All agents are pricks,” he said.

“You can’t live on royalties,” he said.

He considered Catch-22 to be one of the ten greatest books of the 20th century.

He considered James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific) and Leon Uris (Mila 18) to be hacks.

He forbade us to write detective stories or stories about the supernatural.

His conception of how to structure a short story was inflexible: Beginning. Middle. Climax. End.

He also taught me two valuable lessons about writing: Condense! Condense! Condense! And have a thick skin.

It’s this last lesson—an unintentional one, I suspect—that brings me to the scene in Erica Heller’s memoir, where she discovers that she’s been portrayed in Something Happened as a person “so barren of hope that I find myself grieving silently alongside her, as though at an empty coffin or grave in which her future is lying dead already.”

She asked her father how he could have written such a thing about her.

“What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller replied.

That is also an apt description of the “heartless” (as she calls him) Joe Heller I remember from City College. Because in that second semester, he critiqued my stories so brutally, I still find it too painful to read all his comments.

“This story goes bad on page one and gets progressively worse,” one critique began. He then proceeded to detail the story’s disintegration, line by line, in red pencil, in scathingly accurate detail.

In a meeting, I asked him what I was doing wrong, and why he liked my stories the previous semester.

“You were just lucky last semester,” he said.

I was 20 years old. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. And I was devastated. But I did, indeed, recover and learn to develop a thick skin. Professionally, it’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned.

I wonder what Heller would have had to say about Nowhere Man and Beaver Street. Barring communication by séance, I guess I’ll never find out. Read More 
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