Lessons in writing — and humility

Robert Masello ’74 is the visiting lecturer in literature at Claremont McKenna College and, most recently, the author of the novel Bestiary, published by Berkley Books. This essay first appeared in the Authors Guild Bulletin, Spring 2007.

In combing through Robert Stone’s recently published memoir of the 1960s, Prime Green, I am saddened, but not surprised, to discover that I am nowhere mentioned.

True, I didn’t meet him until 1971, and I was one of probably a dozen writing students he taught at Princeton University that year, but still ... you like to think you made an impression.

Even if, as in my case, it was a lousy one.

Robert Stone was a visiting professor, or whatever they called them back then, in the much-vaunted writing program at Princeton; that program was the main reason I’d chosen to go there. In high school I had fallen under the spell of F. Scott Fitzgerald; I’d inhaled his account of Princeton in This Side of Paradise (a book, in retrospect, best read when 16), and in my senior-year English class we pored over The Great Gatsby. I set out for college knowing only one thing: I was going to be a famous writer (and a girl named Susan, for the rest of her heartbreakingly blonde and beautiful life, was going to rue the day she dumped me).

Everything initially went according to plan — the campus was as bucolic and serene as Fitzgerald had described it, my room was at the top of a Gothic tower, with a cavernous fireplace in one corner and casement windows overlooking the ramparts of Blair Arch and Alexander Hall. The walkways were leafy; the Commons where we ate was suitably baronial; even the infirmary — where all freshmen spent a few nights after contracting the obligatory mononucleosis — had the air of a sanatorium in Gstaad, with the patients swanning around in terrycloth robes, eating tapioca, and slogging through Proust in the sunroom.

You can imagine how well Robert Stone — standard-bearer of the counterculture, ex-seaman, bosom buddy of Ken Kesey — fit into this idyllic picture.

To be honest, I can’t say I even knew who he was when I signed up for creative writing. Our classes were small; I don’t remember more than maybe eight or nine students in the room at one time, gathered in a semicircle of plastic chairs around Stone. He wasn’t standoffish, exactly, but I don’t recall him being especially approachable or chummy, either. (I do some teaching myself these days, and routinely make the mistake of trying to make myself popular.) Stone had a shorter and redder beard in those days than you see on him now, and his ears kind of stuck out from under lank and uncut hair. He spoke in low tones, sparingly, and most of our time was spent reading over and critiquing the other students’ latest work.

This, I came to feel, was an agony for the poor man. It reminded me of watching that sad thwarted polar bear who used to pace his cage endlessly in the Central Park Zoo.

Have you ever taken a college creative-writing class? If you have been spared, let me just suggest that you think back to what occupied your mind when you were 18 or 19 — and then imagine all that frustrated lust and inchoate longing, all those deep-seated fears (Am I as special as I think?) and dreams (Could it be that I’m even more special than I think?) fumblingly committed to paper. I also remember a lot of stories about first love and the loss of innocence (i.e., virginity). In one such tale, the phrase “dueling tongues” appeared, and to this day I recall the lost look on Stone’s face as he attempted to find a way to seriously, yet benignly, respond to the rest of the similarly styled narrative.

But I was beyond such juvenilia myself; I fancied myself a real writer, having sold a couple of things, most notably a story to Seventeen magazine. I was eager to let Stone in on this, so that he’d realize he had a peer in the classroom and not just some kid, and at our first private conference I contrived to mention it somewhere in the first five or 10 seconds. Stone was very gracious, leaned forward in his squeaky wooden desk chair, and said, “Well, you’re a professional then,” or words to that effect. I don’t really remember the exact wording because I was fixated on Stone himself — his eyes glittered with some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence, and his pale forehead looked to me as if it were almost translucent. Was this, I thought (almost swooning), an effect of the notorious L ... S ... D.? By then, I guess I’d also heard about his literary prizes and Guggenheim Fellowship, and maybe that, too, was part of the reason I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was in the presence of what they called “genius.” A quantum leap forward from all the brilliant professors I’d already encountered (one of whom was an editor of the Norton Anthology! Could you go any higher?).

It was probably then that I gave Stone a copy of the published magazine story, which I just so happened to have with me. Called “Placebo,” it was the tale of a suburban high-school student drawn to experiment with drugs, but who soon learns that they aren’t the answer and mends his ways.

Now I can’t say that Stone ever actually read the thing, but as miscalculations go, giving an anti-drug story to one of the Merry Pranksters was like offering Nixon a joint. I had written the story with a keen eye on the marketplace; drugs would make it seem hip and controversial, but the message would make it ultimately acceptable, even desirable, to mainstream editors. I hadn’t been wrong. And later that week, in my first original composition for the class, I submitted another of my slick, neatly buttoned-up narratives, with what I hoped would become my trademark O. Henry-style trick ending. (“Placebo” had had one, too.)

Although my classmates seemed favorably disposed, Stone, I could tell, was not. In fact, I had the distinct impression that he had sized me up as a budding hack (not, given my later career, such a wild surmise). While the other students were trying, however feebly, to create art, I already was trying to figure out how to get my byline in lights. I wanted nothing more than to sell out to the same audience that Stone wanted to annihilate. You could say that our goals were at odds.

It was also interesting to see the other students in the class quickly change course and blow with what they thought were the prevailing winds; after we all had had time to figure out who Stone was, and read A Hall of Mirrors, his dark, gritty novel set in New Orleans, and heard him read in the auditorium from the manuscript of his work-in-progress, Dog Soldiers, the tenor of the class submissions did an abrupt about-face. All those tales of young lust swiftly gave way to seamy narratives about corrupt narcs, burnt-out Vietnam vets, and brawls in waterfront bars — subjects with which the typical Princeton undergraduate was, of course, intimately familiar. One week after Stone casually mentioned the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in class, every story came back riddled with expletives and ellipses.

But in spite of his dismissal, I never bore the man a grudge; if anything, his patent disregard for my patently craven submissions only made me respect him more — especially as, by then, I had segued into my Alain Robbe-Grillet phase. I was churning out stories with no people in them (characters were so old-hat), or told from the point of view of a ceiling fan. He never really told me what he thought of these groundbreaking works — he wouldn’t have been so merciless — but I could guess. And I guess you could say his silence made me do what any good teacher does; it made me aim a bit higher, think a bit longer, and work a bit harder. To this day, I’d have to admit, I’m still feeling the Stone effect. I’m still trying to redeem myself by writing something worthy of the master — and master I do believe he is — still trying, however late in the day, to get that damn A.