Which was presumably how in the later ’80s I would occasionally find in my battered mailbox white envelopes stuffed with poorly folded short stories written by my sister’s son Pete, my brother’s son Jake, and my sister-in-law’s daughter Isabel.
Scanning those typewritten pages speckled with whiteout, I happily assumed the pose of the kindly uncle professional writer, pointing out moments of real resonance—and, by the by, offhand, ever so gently, making one or two standard-issue suggestions about showing, not telling.
I would then drive to the post office imagining their mothers peering breathlessly over their children’s thin shoulders: “Oh my, see? Uncle Steve’s a professional writer—and he knows what he’s talking about!”
Whereupon having fallen prey to my own fiction, I would return to my attic racked with guilt for posing as a real writer. The truth at the time: Aside from a few chapbooks of poetry, one from New Erections Press (Madison, Wisconsin, 1969, of course) and a textbook on emergency care (another story, another time), my so-called career as a writer meant supplementing my crummy wages in academia by making a few bucks off the backs of my four, five, then six, then seven (!) kids; i.e., writing pieces on fatherhood for such austere publications as Seattle’s Child, LA Parent, and Baby Talk (which, by the way, was given away free with diaper service deliveries).
On those dark mornings I would try to beat back my self-editing self by taking some small measure of comfort in the reasonable assumption that my young relatives would not be harmed by my charade. They would go to college, get real jobs outside the heartbreaking publishing industry, and never again write another story in their lives. Nor would they learn the truth about their Uncle Steve, semiprofessional writer.
Now imagine, just glancing over the top of the magazine in your hands, time passing the way it always does, one gray hair drifting in the wind into another gray hair and another and another and suddenly but certainly not suddenly, a whole head of hair has mostly turned silver—or fallen out—and it’s a new millennium and tall, funny Pete is now Peter Steinfeld (LA screenwriter—Drowning Mona, Analyze That, Be Cool); beautiful, sultry Isabel is Isabel Burton (deputy editor at Cosmopolitan); and sweet, thoughtful Jake is Jacob Lewis (managing editor of the New Yorker). Big enchiladas.
And Uncle Steve? Small potatoes. Still in the same creaky chair in the same seasonally frigid/muggy, dusty/dusty attic. Still teaching. A “mid-list” writer still hustling up columns and articles, small and large. Still writing books, large print and small. Still eking out small paydays and…what is smaller?
Well, that old guilt, for one. In the years after overlooking the grit and resonance behind the immature voices in those youthful stories, I have learned well the wordless, capricious ways that one arrives at the dawn of each writing day. And so I have occasionally marveled at how I, despite all humbling evidence to the contrary, the writing on the slanted wall, as it were, was an unintended agent of the remarkable successes of my niece and nephews. However misguided. However absurd the claim.
From this hot/cold, dusty/dusty attic I have traced and retraced my own path as a writer, stumbling backward from New Paltz through Milwaukee and Madison, scuttling across the floor of the inland sea all the way to high school on Long Island and a English teacher at Wheatley High, white-haired Dr. Harold Wells, long gone from this life.
And so I occasionally imagine as well the old man sitting at his desk reading something I wrote on the bus and, overcoming once again all good sense, telling this lazy, thoughtless boy that he was a good writer.
Sometimes that’s all it takes.