The Writing on the Slanted Wall*

by Steve Lewis

From the cluttered, dusty corner of my seasonally frigid/muggy attic, I would lean back in the creaky chair and imagine each mother clasping her well-oiled of Olay hands to her chest, cooing over her teenager’s creative writing genius. And so I would imagine as well each father peering up over the top of his newspaper, “Send that to Uncle Steve, he’s a professional writer, you know ….”

Which was presumably how in the later Eighties I would occasionally find in my battered rural mailbox, pressed between SASEs from The New York Times Magazine or Ploughshares, thin manila envelopes stuffed with short stories and essays written by my sister’s son Pete, my brother’s son Jake and my sister-in law’s daughter Isabel.

Reading those typewritten pages speckled with whiteout, I happily assumed the pose of the kindly uncle professional writer, responding promptly to each of my young scribes. I enthusiastically pointed out those isolated moments of real resonance—and, by the by, offhand, ever so gently, made one or two standard issue suggestions about showing not telling.

Of course, that’s not all. With my earnest encouragements paper clipped to those dog eared pages, I would drive to the post office imagining their mothers breathlessly peering over their young writers’ thin shoulders: ”Oh my … see? What did I tell you! Uncle Steve’s a professional writer—he knows what he’s talking about!”

Whereupon having fallen prey to my own fiction, I would return to my attic racked with guilt and the kind of fear of exposure that dogs all posers. At that time in my life, perpetuating the invention that I was a professional writer was a stretch worthy of a circus contortionist. Aside from a few chapbooks of poetry, one from New Erections Press (Madison, Wis., 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 very modest living 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, L.A. Parent and Baby Talk, (which, btw, was given away free with diaper service deliveries).

“No harm no foul,” I would mutter, trying to beat back my self-editing self, taking some small comfort in the not unreasonable assumption that each of my young relatives would not be harmed by my charade. Given the vagaries of life, it was likely that they would graduate from college and head off into careers and marriages and corner offices doing something, anything, other than being a part of the thankless, heartbreaking world of publishing—and they would be none the wiser about their Uncle Steve.

Now imagine, just glancing over the top of the screen in front of you, time passing the way it always does, a snowflake drifting into another snowflake and another and another and suddenly but certainly not suddenly, my hair has mostly turned white and Marj’s Pete is headed west to be famous screenwriter, Florence’s Jake has made the elemental literary trek east because he knew someone who knew someone at the New Yorker, and Leigh’s Isabel has landed an internship at Marie Claire.

Meanwhile back at the ranch: I am still up in the climateless-controlled attic, despite the fact that my so-called writing career has taken a gentle if unremarkable upward turn with the publication of some books on parenthood. Just in time, too, as the family literary plot would thicken rather quickly until voila! it’s old news that there’s a new millennium and tall funny Pete is now Peter Steinfeld (LA screenwriter–Drowning Mona, Analyze That, Be Cool, 21); beautiful sultry Isabel is Isabel Burton (Executive Editor at Shape Magazine); and sweet thoughtful Jake is Jacob Lewis (Vice President and Publishing Director for Crown, Hogarth and Broadway Books.).

Big Enchiladas.

And Uncle Steve? Small potatoes. Still in the same creaky chair in the same seasonally frigid/muggy dusty/dusty attic of a three story home in the Shawangunk Mountains. Still teaching. Still hustling up columns and articles, small and large. Still running writing workshops, north and south. Still writing books, still cashing small checks and … what is smaller?

Well, for one, this “office.”

In the years after overlooking the grit and resonance behind the voices in those youthful stories, while I have learned well the wordless, capricious ways that one arrives at the dawn of each writing day, I have been returning day after night, cold unto hot, to the cluttered corner of this musty attic to do my work. Now imagine what I imagine to be the starkly impressive professional Manhattan suites where Jacob and Isabel labor to put out their publications—never been to either one—or the posh L.A. studio where Pete develops scripts—nor there.

Which might give rise to Groucho Marx’s notion that “Home is where you hang your head.” However, despite all humbling evidence to the contrary, the writing on the slanted wall as it were, I occasionally lean back in that same old creaky chair and marvel at how I was an agent of the remarkable successes of my niece and nephews. However unintended. However misguided. However absurd the claim.

And I’ve managed it all from this artless attic, James Lee Burke’s spider-webbed counsel dangling from a coffee stained slip of paper tacked to the wall over my cluttered desk: “You do it a day at a time. You write as well as you can, you put it in the mail, you leave it under submission, you never leave it at home.”

Take This (or that) to the bank.


* A version of this narrative was originally published in the Ploughshares “Writing Lessons” series..