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How I Became a Writer

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Fred Waitzkin
Fred Waitzkin

Even when my mother was an old lady we fought like dogs. I recall a few times screaming at one another in restaurants. It was embarrassing. Stella knew how to tear me open. We argued about my wife, my children. Sometimes the subject was my writing. If a story or essay of mine appeared in The New York Times Magazine, she might say it was OK, but her pained expression told another story; she didn't consider it the best work that I could do. Then after a pregnant pause she'd lecture that a true artist would be totally devoted to his work, not distracting himself with family life and sports on television, as I did. He wouldn't waste his time going fishing, as I did. She'd make these points with a smugness that enraged me. My mom was a gifted painter and sculptor, and for her art was everything -- all else in life was relatively trivial except in so far as it might provide inspiration or material. Even as an 80-year-old, Stella lived and breathed art 24/7. I admired her devotion, but still, it didn't make sense to me that one couldn't go fishing and be a true artist. I was desperate to make things right between us before she died. More than once I came by her place for a surprise visit, hoping for a new beginning or at least a big hug. Stella would meet me at the door and say, "Get out! I'm working! Get out." I just couldn't believe it. There was love, but we kept smashing one another.

So how did I become a writer? I think my father was a big part of it. He didn't know anything about writing. He didn't care about it. He was a lighting fixture salesman, a great one. In truth, Abe Waitzkin was the Beethoven of fluorescents. During his heyday in the '50s, he sold more commercial lighting than the next 50 best salesmen in New York City combined. Everyone in the industry knew of his prowess, although now, sadly, the top reps and distributors are long gone and forgotten. I wrote about Abe Waitzkin in The Last Marlin, and he is a presence in The Dream Merchant, as well.

My father was charming, driven, ruthless and sickly, often going into the hospital or coming out after surviving another grim operation like a hero. He would do anything to close a deal, like my central character, Jim, in The Dream Merchant. "I'll bury him," Dad would frequently say about one of his competitors. This was no idle threat. Abe ruined men who crossed him over lighting deals, put them out of business. But so what? In his time, he lit most of the new office buildings in Manhattan. He made the city skyline glow -- that moved the hell out of me as a kid. I worshipped the ground he walked on. I loved his smell and the way he smoked Luckies and drank his beer. It was Abe who hooked me on fishing. He took me to fancy steak restaurants where we never had to wait for a table. He was sickly and couldn't eat much, so I tried to eat for both of us. Other reps came by our table to say hello as if they were greeting the pope. Tammany Hall politicians waved from across the room and he grinned back at them -- he had them in his pocket. Abe Waitzkin was on top, and I was his son.

My mother recognized that her marriage was a disaster from the start. She despised Abe. She considered salesmen ignorant bullshit artists. She once told me that to close a big deal Dad had offered her favors to an elderly lighting distributor, but I think she lied about this -- she hated Abe so much. By the time I was 10 Stella was making abstract paintings in her studio. Her portraits were dark and fierce and often grotesque. My father hated them, and so did I. In fact, I decided that she painted in this ungainly manner to humiliate dad in front of his customers, who sometimes visited our suburban home.

I wanted to be a salesman just like him. When I told Mother this bold plan for my life, she turned red in the face. I frequently reminded her of my intention. It tormented her and made me feel powerful, but also it got her to pay attention to me. When I was 11 or 12 she began my aesthetic education. She blasted the music of Thelonius Monk and Ornette Coleman, if you'd call it music -- what a distressing bedlam of noise! She showed me the paintings of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, with whom she studied drawing on Long Island. I disliked their foolish paintings as much as my mother's. But worse yet, her adoration for these men irritated the hell out of me. De Kooning once came to our house for dinner. He had paint smeared on his pants and had no razzmatazz, no style that left any impression. How could she revere such crude men while being critical of Dad's high-octane business friends who went to fights at the Garden on Friday nights and sat ringside beside their lovely young women? That was style!

Mother gave me The Old Man and the Sea to read, a book about fishing. Hum. The rhythmic little sentences called me to the blue water, made me yearn to catch such a fish. The novel left me feeling loss and longing. Stella fed me more Hemingway and then Kerouac, who revealed a world of unknown possibilities and a connection between writing and ecstatic sex. Mom blasted jazz on the hi-fi. There was no escaping this music in our house, and it gradually became a part of the beat of my life. She took me to the Living Theatre in Manhattan to watch Theatre of the Absurd. I nodded sagely and pretended to understand Pirandello and Becket.

Mother urged me to write stories of my own. Then she fiercely scribbled India ink revisions all over my stories. Stella's metaphors were lush and unexpected. They turned my head. Stella drove me to Manhattan and enrolled me in Afro-Cuban drumming class. I was the only white Jewish boy in the class. But I was good at pounding the skins. Rhythms were living inside me. Who could have guessed it? Within 18 months I was a drumming on Saturdays in Alvin Alley's dance class. Yes, of course I loved her.

And quite naturally, my father wanted me to walk in his footsteps. He wanted to shove open the heavy gates for his boy. One night, when I was 15 or 16, he introduced me to his most important distributor: a man who gave him power and money. This was a little rehearsal for the main event in my life. But when I found myself in the presence of his august friend, I shuffled my feet and looked away. I couldn't make small talk like Abe Waitzkin. I couldn't look him in the eye. Instead, I appeared uninterested, like a callow existential thinker. I was pretending to be the next Raymond Radiguet. My pretentious manner irritated the hell out of Abe.

OK, how did I become a writer? I came to it in fury and revolt. I wanted to be a salesman like Abe Waitzkin, and I wanted to be Jack Kerouac or Raymond Radiguet. Probably it was the tumult, the tension and war in my home, the beat of the conga drums, the rhythm of Hemingway's sentences that first tempted me, and a hunger for drama. Abe and Stella were my creative writing teachers.

In writing, tension is a key element for me, fission. Where will it lead? I never know exactly. I really love that part, the discovery. In my new novel, the protagonist is both dying and experiencing sexual rebirth as an old man with his preposterously young lover. Sex and dying is very appealing. Where will it lead? Milton understood tension. Stella did also. She was a master. I believe that she stoked her anger for art. My father engendered fury to close lighting deals. She learned the trick from him -- she told me this. Mother was playing for big stakes and was willing to accept collateral damage.

They were both masters. I feel tension in each of my paragraphs, a pull. It is the scaffolding. It is always there, although sometimes I take it out. But it's still there. It is the same with rhythm. I write to the beat. She brought me to the class, and the rhythms stuck. I always tap my feet -- people think I'm nervous. If the rhythm is wrong, I cross it out. Sometimes the beat is very quiet, but it is always there. I need to hear it.