Monday, October 26, 2015

Article 3: Paul A. Friedman



I met Paul Friedman at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1968, when I took the first of two short story courses from him.  As I recall, Paul was one of three professional writers hired by the university to teach literature.  (Subsequent to my course work with Paul, he became director of the creative writing program at U of I.)  On that first day of class, he walked in wearing jeans, a Navy pea coat and a wool cap.  None of us recognized him as the instructor until he sat down at the desk in the front of the room.  When he spoke, it was apparent that he was from New York and somewhat reserved in front of 25 people.  He did not fit the prototype of an opinionated university literature professor.

As it turned out, I learned more about literature from Paul Friedman than from any other person in my life.  Over the span of one year's time, we covered a couple dozen short story writers, somewhat in chronological order.  For each author, we read between eight and fifteen short stories.  We'd discuss one or two of those stories in class and then be tested on any of the stories when the infrequent tests rolled around.  Much of our grade was based on our participation in class and the papers we were required to write.  We started with Nathaniel Hawthorn and progressed through Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, among several others.

Autumn of 1968 was not a good time in my life, because I knew my father was terminally ill and would probably die before the end of the year.  I was struggling to decide whether I should pursue a career in computer science or as an English professor.  I very much wanted to be able to tell him my decision before he died.  In the first course I took from Paul Friedman, just as we began reading James Joyce's Dubliners, I realized that I knew very little about how to read a story.  I read the words and could remember the plot and characters, but the deeper meanings eluded me.  Although I loved literature, I suspected there was much, much more in a story than what I was understanding.

So, I decided to visit Paul in his office and ask for help.  I had no idea what I was going to say to him, but my request for help quickly turned into a confession that my father was dying and I very much wanted to learn to read on a level that did justice to the brilliance and depth of the stories AND that somehow those two things were related.  Paul understood and told me he would help, but I left without knowing how that would happen.

In class the next day we began discussing "The Sisters" from Joyce's Dubliners.  He said that James Joyce always wrote stories that could be interpreted on multiple levels, perhaps more levels than any other writer, and that it was possible for all of us to understand those levels with a little work.  Very soon I noticed three things happening that stunned me.  First, Paul was actually using phrases that we had used the previous day in our conversation, with meanings that were very different from our original meanings.  He was teaching James Joyce using some of our own words!  Second, he did not look in my direction at all for the better part of an hour.  Although I was one of his more active students, he was obviously addressing me without looking at me.  Last, because Paul was teaching on multiple levels, I was understanding the story on multiple levels--for the first time.  It was an amazing thing to experience.

At the end of the hour, after he gave the assignment for the next class and students began gathering their books to leave, he turned deliberately and stared right at me for a few moments.  I knew part of that hour had been for my benefit alone.  He smiled kindly and walked out.

Paul pushed me to learn to read.  From the day that Paul introduced the concept of multiple levels and the use of symbols in a story, I began reaching for those deeper meanings and enjoyed reading much more.  He taught us to use the Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) to research stories in depth.  The PMLA contains a cross-reference of all critical articles that have been written about any particular story over the course of a year.  One story I researched was "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe.  After reading seven or eight critical articles about that story, I was ready to write a term paper on it, because I understood it through and through.

One of my proudest moments in learning to read was an in-class discussion I had with Paul concerning Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."  The story really comes down to interpreting whether the old waiter or the young waiter says each line, as they observe an old patron sitting in their late-night cafe.  The source of each comment is not revealed by Hemingway; that's the whole challenge of the five-page story.  At the end of an hour, I had at least partially swayed Paul to my interpretation, but my elated feeling of success faded that evening.  Something bothered me about it, and I went to the library to research the story in depth.  Several articles into my research, I discovered that a publisher's error had misprinted two lines of dialogue in the story--running them together as if one person had said them.  Of all stories for such an error to occur!  And, yes, our edition had that error in it!

At the next class, I told Paul that we both had been right in our analysis.  Of course, the victory was mine because I had learned from him how to read on a consistently deeper level.

Paul pushed me to appreciate rewriting.  Paul once told me that there's no such thing as good writing--only good rewriting.  I have used that quote more than any other quote in my life, and it has been a very valuable piece of advice I've passed along to others.  Although Paul never critiqued my writing other than term papers, for I was primarily writing songs in those days, he has been looking over my shoulder for decades.  Whenever I've written something--a letter, technical paper, proposal, business report, song, essay or blog--it is the rewriting that has been most critical to its clarity and success.  That's been true for 45 years.
 
And Finally.... For many years, Paul and I would meet over coffee and discuss books and life.  I remember discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Raymond Carver with him, and our opinions coincided about those writers.  I was also delighted to be given signed copies of two of his books, "And If Defeated Allege Fraud" and "Serious Trouble".

We primarily knew each other during the last six years of the Vietnam War.  I saw him during campus demonstrations in 1970, where he was an island of common sense amid the oceans of student emotions.  Because I believed strongly in the precepts of being a conscientious objector and discussed those beliefs with Paul, I asked him to write a letter in support of my sincerity--not in support of my position, but in support of my sincerity--and send it to my draft board.  He wrote a most incredible letter, which I still have.  The depth of his letter revealed not only that he was a beautiful writer, but that he knew me well.

Paul lives in the Los Angeles area now and is still writing every day.  Before contacting him recently, I last heard from Paul in 1997, after I had written to him and thanked him for all he'd added to my life.  In a style that instantly recalls his writing and his teaching voice, he replied in a letter, "I appreciate what you said, and since in certain ways it is as--what?--hard to hear certain things--even very nice things--as it is to say them, let me simply be direct and economical: It was great of you to say what you said; I'm extremely pleased."

So am I, Paul.

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