Friday, June 27, 2008

The Swimmer, Cheever and an Odd Writers' Workshop

"The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence."

(John Cheever, "The Swimmer")

"C'était une merveilleuse journée, et il ressentait comme une faveur, un privilège, le fait de vivre dans un monde si généreusement approvisionné en eau."

(John Cheever, "Le Nageur")

(Envoyé par Clotilde.)

Now, from The New Yorker's report "Hungry Minds", by Ian Frazier:

The Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, is a church only two-sevenths of the time. The other five-sevenths—every weekday (...) is the largest soup kitchen in New York City. It serves an average of about twelve hundred meals a day.


I know about the soup kitchen because I am one of the teachers of a writers' workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it.


Once when I was sitting at my table by the door, a tall, thin, long-faced black man with deep-set eyes made deeper-looking by the hood of his dark sweatshirt stopped at my table. As he was adjusting his clothing for outside, he looked at my sign. "Writers' work-shop!" he said, in a tone indicating that he was not impressed by the idea.

"Yes, we meet every Wednesday at twelve-thirty in the narthex, that little room in the front of the church. Would you like to join?" I asked.

"Uh-uh, no," he said. "I ain't doin' no writers' workshop. I done that shit before."

"Really? You were in a writers' workshop before?"

"Hell yes I was. And my teacher was a better writer than you."

"Oh? What writer was that?"

"John Cheever."

Apparently, the guy had been in a workshop that Cheever taught at the prison in Ossining, back in the seventies. I had met Cheever once, and the guy and I talked about him for a while. I asked the guy what he had learned from the workshop with Cheever, and he said, "Cheever, you understan', he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something, he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin', you got this surface thing, you understan', goin' on up here"—he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface—"an' then once you get that goin' on, now you got to come under it"—he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut—"come under this thing here that's goin' on up here, you understan'. That was how John Cheever said you write."

"John Cheever had that writers' workshop at Ossining," he continued, "and later he wrote a book about the prison, Falconer, and it was a No. 1 best-seller. I ain't in that book. He got a best-seller from the workshop, and I didn't get shit. I ain't doin' writers' workshops no more."

Complete story

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