Notes on craft: A toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge

 

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Just back from a week in Oxford England where, as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College from 1966-1969, I spent three years doing a Ph.D. in Neurophysiology—which in fact boiled down to teaching cockroaches to lift their legs.  Sic transit Gloria.

The week was a 50th Anniversary Reunion of my class of Rhodes Scholars, and it was a flood of nostalgia—the gardens, sunshine, slow-moving streams of the Isis and the Cherwell, and a trip out to a cottage in the Cotswold Hills that I rented for two years, that was so damp it was named “Noah’s Ark College.”

When I arrived at Oxford 50 years ago, I wanted to be a writer.  And I soon realized that—especially since I was now 3000 miles away from the Harvard freshman-seminar teacher named Miss Heller who gave me a “See me” on my first essay, and when I went to her she said, “This is too terrible to mark, it’s below F,  and made me think I had no talent as a writer—“she can’t get me now,” and I decided to become a writer.  I always dreamed, as I began writing, that I would someday do a reading  of one of my novels at the famous 17th century bookstore on the Broad Street, Blackwell’s.

I began to write.  But I had enrolled in a PH.D. degree program.  The conflict soon became clear.  As I wrote in a volume on Rhodes Scholars recently, about how the Scholarship changed my life:

“In 1968, I was enrolled in a D.Phil. in Physiology, teaching cockroaches to lift their legs. After a year, I wanted out. Dissembling, I told my supervisor, Denis Noble, that I couldn’t work on roaches anymore because I needed a computer.  Since nobody had an computer, it was a safe way out. One winter vac I and another Rhodes, Steve Schaffran, looked at a map and decided to drive south until the greeny/rainy Oxford became yellowy/warm Sahara.  A wild ’60s road trip, comprising belly dancers, camel auctions, olive harvests, kif.  One night, driving in the desert, the sun setting in the windshield and the moon rising in the rear view, I had a ‘flash’: I would be a writer.  Back in Oxford, I went into the lab. Big boxes blocked the door. The goddamn computer. Guiltily, I bought a steak, a bottle of wine, sloshed through walls of December rain in my tire-rubber-soled sandals to Holywell Manor, rang the bell.  He opened the door.  I said I’d seen the computer, and burst out: “Denis, I’m not a scientist, I’m a writer!”  My heart pounded–I’d let him down, big-time.  “Well then, Bergman, have a sherry!”  Changed my life.  47 years of novels, plays, essays etc. later, it’s clear that my “world’s fight” is my pen. Without the Rhodes, I’d be a divorced neurosurgeon on booze.”

And at Blackwell’s a few weeks ago I did that reading of my new novel, At the Heart of the Universe, a story set in China when Janet and I took Katie back to her orphanage when she was 10—and some miraculous things happened.

LESSON A: from what happened with my dear Mentor Denis Noble: a writer needs a little help from his or her friends, who see  clearly the writer before them—even if disguised as an Homme Blue, a nomad  in the Sahara.

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LESSON B:  And just as important: don’t EVER listen to the idiots who tell you that you cannot be what you know in your heart you would love to be, whether a writer or a belly dancer or—my second alternative wonderful job I had in the era when they had not yet been replaced by machines, a toll collector on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge over the Hudson River between Hudson and Catskill.

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Follow Samuel Shem on Goodreads and Facebook

And please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:

Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nationand with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45.  Free.

 

 

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