The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Alan Cheuse's Gift

Some weeks ago I was headed down up the Hudson River on the train from Albany-Rensselaer to Penn Station. As I rode I was thinking about my former teacher, Alan Cheuse because at the time, Alan was still in a coma from head injuries sustained in a car accident in California and I was among thousands of people worrying and praying about him and because I often thought about Alan on that particular train route. Back in my student days in the George Mason University MFA program in the early 90s, Alan and I often commiserated on what a stunningly beautiful ride that is, the way the train hugs the Hudson river the whole way, the sun glimmering over the water, the Catskill mountains rising across the river, cloud shadows intensifying the deep, deep green of the trees and the tall, russet sandstone outcroppings along the shore. Back then I often traveled that route to get home to Albany, where I'd grown up, and Alan traveled it to see his girls, his daughters, Sonya and Emma, who lived there and who he spoke of with only the deepest affection.

Two weeks later, as my train hugs the Hudson once more and I gaze out over the river glinting in the sunlight like a jagged knife, it is with the unhappy and somewhat surreal knowledge that Alan is physically gone, that his injuries ultimately took him from us July 31. And so the vista calls me to think about him again--I believe it always will--this time about the kind of teacher he was, the way the tributes to him flowed in the days of his illness and afterward, the fact that he was a profound mentor to so many people all over the world and across the decades. I remember how, when he found out I was commuting in to his Forms of Fiction class from DC my first semester, he quickly figured out another new student, Robert, also needed a ride in from the district, and put us together--two scared new students grateful to have an hour going and coming to get to know one another and make the world a little less scary once a week. I remember that once during another class, fellow student, Dallas Hudgens, worried aloud that he wasn't getting much writing done because a trombonist had moved into the apartment next door, and how Alan instantly offered him the use of his office at Mason to work in on the days when he wasn't there. The speed with which Alan Cheuse's generosity materialized to help young writers could be staggering.

But what I remember most of all, perhaps, is the advice Alan often gave us that has been the most influential to me as a writer, the most freeing, and which I have passed along most often to my students, to other writers, even to other artists.

It would have been very easy for Alan Cheuse to judge the lot of us, and, with a few exceptions, found us wanting, at that embryonic stage in our careers. It would have been easy for him to cast us off as hopeless or without potential, as unteachable, even. We were immature (I know I was, at twenty-three), we could be egotistical, short-sighted, easily offended, unevenly read--you name the flaw and it could probably be found among our motley crew. And we were probably not unlike students he taught year after year--that is the nature of nascent writers. But instead of throwing up his hands, he did teach us. He did find potential. Because Alan knew, and reminded us over and over, that we had just begun a very long process of developing. What was important at that time wasn't so much what we were writing but that we were writing. And that we would keep writing. Preceding Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" theory by over a decade, Alan often reminded us that we would need to write several hundred thousand words before we could even hope to begin producing steadily good work.

Several hundred thousand words. Several hundred thousand words. From that point on, no matter what kind of day I had writing, at least I had contributed to what had become, for me, some kind of gargantuan word count in the sky. A gargantuan word count that I needed, because as something of a Type A personality, no matter how much I loved the process, I needed to know I was accumulating something, even if it was just failure.

And so now, in addition to giving it to my students, I am giving that gift to you. As a writer, it's probably the most precious thing I have because what it is, is really, is permission to fail. To show up and fail over and over and over again, and to revel in the process and the making because that is the only sure thing we ever have in art.

But don't thank me. Thank Alan Cheuse, and whoever gave him the gift before that. Go forth and just write, just get the words down for now.

Unless you're ever traveling along the Hudson by train. Then you must make sure you get a seat on the river side of the car so you can take in that glorious view.