David Winters: Let’s discuss the ideas behind your teaching. I’m especially interested in your thoughts on literary originality. In the past you’ve suggested that every human being possesses, at some buried level, a unique relation to the grammar of their native language – what you’ve sometimes called an ‘Ur-language’.
Gordon Lish: Yes. In the old days, I called it a khora. An innate melody that some psychoanalysts would claim issues out of the melody of our name, or whatever affectionate name we might be given by our parents. Early in life, we have established within us a certain brief musical jotting. This is what is elaborated if we spread ourselves out into acts of writing. It can be seen in the writing of others, but I believe that it can also be consciously elicited. In order to do so, you must understand that you’re safest when you’re at your most honest – which I would be quick to justify my own scribbling as being. In my writing, I’m psychopathically engaged with the phonemic; the smallest spicule of the construct is a concern to me. At the same time, I try to give way to a speech which has its origin somewhere well beyond my understanding. It is as if something interior is determined to speak.
This sounds preposterously operatic, but most if not all of what I’ve done has been in the way of releasing myself, or getting a look at myself that I otherwise would not have had. Although I’m erratic and flamboyant when I’m teaching and giving talks, in life I tend to be not a little shy and constrained. And yet, in my writing, I’m not. And by writing I find out, bit by bit, who I am and what has animated me. What we’re really talking about here is the claim that one can both exert extreme control over the properties of speech, and at the same time be free. And I take the view that one can.
Winters: You taught creative writing at several universities. Can you share any memories of that time? When you began teaching privately, did the content of your classes change?
Lish: At Columbia, I remember the class went from fifteen to 120 students. I said, ‘I’m not keeping anybody out. Anyone who wants it can come. It won’t mean more work for me, since I’m not going to read every word they write.’ Having been an editor, I had gotten to believe that I could merely look at the work, look at the first page, and within instants know if it required further investigation. This may be insanity in the extreme, but I had the view of myself that this was my gift. That I could see, from the configuration of the first page, whether it was worth going further.
In my private classes, I was teaching people whose investment in the undertaking was clearly more intense than at the universities. So, I felt that I had to have in my kitbag that which was available nowhere else. The brush with which I’ve been tarred, all the rumours, all of this issued out of those latter years. I exerted some pressure on students to retire. And many did. The class became a more difficult undertaking to endure. But those who got through, who stuck it out, were of a different kind from those that took flight. The popular methodology of the time – the ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ approach – was inimical to my muses.
In my case, if you had a sentence, I’d want to hear you say it. And you might utter no more than four words before I’d tell you to stop. You know, the other night, I had dinner with some friends and their daughter. The daughter began a sentence with the words ‘I mean I think’. Five minutes subsequent to that moment, her father asked me what I did in my class. And I told him this: if a student said ‘I mean I think’, I’d say, ‘That’s four beats you’ve expended. But you don’t understand. You have a life that’s four beats long. That’s it. You get four beats.’ I’m thinking of physics; that argument between Einstein and Bohr about what happens inside the electron. The span of our life, if construed in relative terms, may be no longer than four beats. And if you say ‘I mean I think’, you’ve used those four beats to say nothing. I tried to convince my students that every utterance must have substance, must occupy the instant utterly, fully.
I preferred teaching to anything else that I did. I could not have taken myself more seriously. I would try to get my students to understand that what they were doing was a matter of life and death, that the soul was involved, and that the only important things were the self and the work – certainly not newspapers or sales. So many writers today are only involved in the social act. But if you’re playing the game in that way, you can’t possibly play the game with art itself. If you’re involved in these activities that are peripheral to the creation of art, you’re not, indeed, yielding to your khora; you’re not yielding to the truth that’s in you.
David Winters is Gordon Lish’s authorized biographer. You can read the full interview in Critical Quarterly (December 2015). You can also find out more about Winters and his work over at davidwinters.uk.