This is what matters to me: No matter what, I will live in a way that honors what people create.
— Mark Doty
Jerry Stern was my writing professor. He had a bad thumbnail, a giant, milky moonstone at the end of his right hand. To me his molting bluish nail was magical, wizardly, as though he could tell the future with it. I wanted a blue-moonstone fingernail; I wanted to see the future.
I was nineteen years old when I met Jerry Stern, and for a decade I secretly pretended that he was my real father. I wanted to grow up to be just like him: college teacher, book author, with my own office. I didn’t dare think it possible. Pretending to be related to him already felt transgressive.
Jerry dared to think I could be all of that. He asked me pointed questions. He gestured with that strange, discolored thumb. He taught me how to write short stories, how to teach, and also how to turn my teenage self into a passable adult. He did all this using his thumb, his questions, and his pained facial expressions.
I’d never met anyone like him before. I was from Orlando, Florida. Jerry was from New York City. He wore T-shirts and black jeans and the hybrid shoe of middle age, a rubber-soled leatherette affair that implied mobility but promised stability: he might spring forward, it said, but probably not. He kept his lips pressed tight together when he wasn’t talking, giving the impression — before you got to know him — that he was holding back a withering commentary, and if only you weren’t so stupid, he might be able to relax. I was terrified of Jerry Stern, and it’s only now, ten years after his death, that I can think about who he was and what he did for me.
There’s some urgency in my conjuring him now. I’ve been noticing, sitting in my beautiful office at the college where I teach (two thousand miles from Jerry’s former office at Florida State University, but facing the same direction, west), that lately when I meet with students, I’ve been doing all the talking. I’m quick to get to the heart of a story’s problem. I’m eager; I’m good at explaining; I tell them everything. And I’m always right.
This is the opposite of how Jerry taught. He sent me on errands, and when I returned — from picking up a writer at the airport, dropping off a poster at the printer, hanging flyers on bulletin boards, getting a book from the library — he wanted to know, he needed to know: “What did you notice? What was interesting?” He taught me that all writers are essentially travel writers. The trip hadn’t really taken place until you’d found a story in it and told it. Only after shaping the trip into a narrative could you honestly say, “I’m back.”
To Jerry, everything was potentially interesting. When parents say, “Pay attention,” they mean, “Know in advance when danger will occur” — which, of course, is impossible. But Jerry showed me how to pay attention; how to look and then say what I had seen, precisely, accurately, truly. Jerry embodied attentiveness. His gift to his students was to pass on this process of attending to the world.
My dog Cubby, a teacher in his own right, subscribes wholeheartedly to the same approach: Let’s go out and notice every little thing, he tells me. Let’s look again at everything we’ve seen before. Though I’m a serious academic and generally opposed to such woo-woo ideas, I’m sure Cubby — who found me exactly one month to the day before Jerry died — is a spirit transfer from my old professor. Jerry was a dog man, and I think of Cubby as his apostle, carrying on his teachings.
Rather than talk, Jerry often responded to what I was saying with grimaces; he was an alchemist of facial expressions, combining in one look two seemingly unrelated elements: joy mixed with doubt, mystification laced with curiosity. I learned what to keep talking about by reading his face: tiny details thrilled him; assumptions caused him pain. By following his expressions and that thumb of his as it waxed and waned and waggled, I learned to steer toward books, questions, and radio, and away from bad boys, literary theory, and complaining.
When I complained about an annoying fellow student named Marci, Jerry said, “Ah. Mmm. Yes. She’s interesting.” And he presented me with his famous combination grin-wince.
Off I went on this new errand: to figure out what was interesting about Marci, who wouldn’t shut up, who had nothing to say, who disagreed with Jerry in class, and who, worst of all, flirted with Greg, a boy I had a crush on.
I returned to Jerry with a report. He tucked his thumb into his fist. He closed his eyes and nodded.
After the Marci conversation, I wrote a short story in which the main character had my flaws and Marci’s strengths, and I sent my fictional composite to break up with a wonderful, terrible, fictional man. I made the whole thing up, but it felt like the truest story I’d ever written.
When I brought it to class, Jerry grinned and said, “Interesting,” and I felt anointed.
Jerry saw the future, many-drafts-later self I would become. He saw a writer, a good person, an interesting woman. And because he saw this, I had a chance to become it.
For Jerry, art was life attended to, revised, and perfected. I’d been raised in a home where artists were equated with lazy dope fiends and scammers. Jerry’s world felt scary and thrilling and foreign to me, like a Ponzi scheme and a religion both at once. And I wanted in. I never said a word to my parents about writing or Jerry Stern. I told them I was pre-law.
I only partially bought into Jerry’s errands and grimaces and obscure gestures at first, with a pretend version of myself. And only because it felt so good to pretend to be this person he pretended to believe I was — a mature adult, a gifted prose stylist, a wide and curious reader — did I slowly slide into the space he’d made for that woman. Jerry said, “Hmm,” and, “Interesting,” and, “What else happened?” And when my story drifted to the mundane, he interrupted: “But what was happening?” Whenever I brought him shoddy work, stories that weren’t even remotely stories, he asked, “What’s going on in your life?” He really wanted to know. For him, there was always something interesting; you just had to practice noticing it. In this way, he led students to themselves. And we found our topics: us.
These conversations all took place in Jerry’s office, 407 Williams, which resembled the junk closet every home has. And he was like something my childhood imagination might have conjured: an interesting little man who lived in the closet, and sometimes you could get him to talk to you.
There was so much stuff in his office that one had to wedge oneself in. Art was hung on the walls and bookcases, even over other art. When I inserted myself into his office, I felt like a piece of art, or an attempt at one, another “wayward artifact,” as he called them: each chaotic and vibrant and fascinating. There was taxidermy (a stuffed squirrel, and perhaps a hawk), local art by punks and mental patients, loose bones and feathers on the windowsill, a poster of Andy Warhol’s soup-can print (even soup was interesting!), a batik sunset. And, of course, piles of books. One leaning tower or another would brush up against me needily, like an animal, as I slid onto the folding chair beside Jerry. He’d bite his lip and scrunch up his nose. I’d look at his shoes.
We’d be meeting ostensibly to work on revising a story of mine — say, “Imperfections at Dawn” or “Woman Alone on the Pier” — but really we were meeting to revise me, an as-yet-untitled, loose collection of barely decipherable notes on the cocktail napkins of life. This was hard work: finding a reasonable, meaningful shape for me to be in. He took pieces of myself I wanted to throw out — daughter of a handicapped father, Disney employee, dater of callow boys — and held them up to the light to show me what was interesting about them. “That’s interesting?” I said. I didn’t know girls from Orlando could be interesting. Up to this point, the only way I knew to make myself more intriguing was to put on my green bikini and drink a Midori melon ball. (So green! So fun!) All I knew about writing was to put in lots of feelings and take revenge on family members whenever possible.
Jerry said, “Why don’t you write a story a month?”
Why had I not thought of this?
He said, “Why don’t you keep doing this?”
He asked, “How do you teach the process essay to freshmen?”
By this time I was a graduate student, and I explained to Jerry my ideas for teaching writing, making it all up on the spot, pretending I had already done these brilliant things in my own classroom. He flared his nostrils and winced. As I lied and elaborated, I realized what I was saying was perfect for my freshman comp class — I would put it to use immediately. I paused and checked his thumb. It was glowing. And then he grinned. Just pure grinning. Like light.
Once, after I was up and running — assisting with the visiting-writers series, teaching upper-level classes under his supervision, publishing short stories here and there — Jerry said, “I can’t believe you spend all that time sewing. You could be writing.”
I told him: “Think of it as art I wear.”
I was twenty-two by then and speaking in complete sentences.
I was a C student and not much of a reader. This is what we forget as teachers: how close the poor student often is to doing good work, and how great the distance feels to her between who she is and who she could be. We forget how painful it is to be between selves; how all of us, always, are between selves, and that it is in that desolate gap that everything true and useful is happening. The trick for the writer — and the teacher, and the person-in-the-making — is to stay aware of the gap and to write from, to teach from, to be from the other side, the better side.
We teachers forget that we are intimidating to our students. We forget to invite them into the room with us, into the process of authoring everything, because they dare not come in without an invitation. We forget to send them on errands; it’s easier to do things ourselves. We forget to ask them again and again, “What happened? What did you notice? What did you see that was new?” We forget teaching is the process of showing others how to shape chaos into something you can carry around, a story you can tell, a thing that makes sense.
The art of teaching involves staying curious, darting about the edges of your students’ sentences, waiting for an opening, a sign of vulnerable aliveness. It’s hard to remain patient, as Jerry always was, waiting for a glimpse of that self that wants to burst out. It’s so easy to go on and on and on, telling them everything you know. It feels like teaching, but it’s not. Teaching is giving errands. Teaching is letting the student write the story. Teaching is asking questions that surprise both of you.
I should stop worrying about Jenna, who sleeps in my class (I never saw Jerry look worried), and instead see the insomniac genius in her, the mixed-media experimentalist. I should say to her, “Why not use your poetry as a sound score for your dance performance?” I should make faces at her — those you-are-a-genius-poet faces — and let her reflect back that truth, slowly, as she comes into her own. Why not send her on nighttime errands? Clearly she’s better at night than in long, late-afternoon workshops.
Why don’t I say to the brilliant, wealthy, overcommitted pre-med triple major who writes achingly gorgeous paragraphs about his German-immigrant ancestors, “Can you write a hundred of these paragraphs?” I wonder what Jerry would do with this boy, more talented than most, who spends inordinate amounts of time on calculus and fraternity activities and drinking and swimming in the cold river. I think Jerry would prescribe errands. The kid loves work; perhaps it’s the outline he’ll use to create his most interesting self.
When I experienced a major depressive episode in graduate school, I told Jerry the pain was so annihilating I was worried I’d die. I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t sew. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely talk.
He looked nervous. His wild eyebrows flickered, almost sizzled. His moonstone thumbnail glowed as if radioactive. For once I didn’t care that I was making him uncomfortable — the depression insulated me from most of my fears. I was desperate for help, for a rope, for a thread, for a word. Weeping in his tiny, cluttered office, I asked him: What do other people do when this happens?
He picked up the short story I’d dropped off earlier as a pretext to come to his office, and he turned it facedown on the little pull-out board of his desk. He placed his dry palms on its backside: a decent burial. I cried all over my hands, wiped my nose on my bare arm. Jerry fumbled around for Kleenex, but it was perhaps the only thing he didn’t have in that office. He looked down at his moldering thumbnail, as if prophesying defeat. I couldn’t handle another errand; I didn’t have the energy. I couldn’t bear a withering gaze or any questions about what was going on in my life. I feared I’d used Jerry’s resources all up.
Finally, after an excruciatingly long and necessary silence during which he stared hard at the place where the wall met the ceiling, Jerry said, “Develop your subjects.” And he pressed the creased, calcified thumbnail to his lips.
I wrote, “Develop your subjects,” in my little spiral-bound notebook from the student bookstore, using a pink pen. (I wrote only with pink pens in those days, and I didn’t use capital letters for my name.) I underlined the words: Develop your subjects. I didn’t know how this would help me.
I said, “I’m so sorry, Dr. Stern.” Speaking hurt my throat; my pen hurt my hand. I got up to go, to relieve him of my presence.
He grimaced and ducked and leaned way back in his chair as I hoisted myself up, as though he was afraid I was going to hug him, which of course I would never, ever have dared to do. If you hugged the wizard in the closet, you lost him forever. He’d dissolve. Never touch the wizard.
Later that semester, at a party at Jerry’s house, I stood alone in the foyer. I’d forced myself to come, promised myself I would have to stay only fifteen minutes. Jerry was down the hall talking to a guest, nodding, furrowing. I crept halfway up the steps (which were stacked with books) and perched above his head, where I eavesdropped as he asked his guest, an exterminator by trade, question after question: Which were the hardest bugs to kill? What were the most difficult jobs like? “There’s something else I’ve always wondered,” Jerry said, raising his finger and making an awkward face. I don’t remember what followed, but in that instant, the meaning of “Develop your subjects” came to me. It was this: Burrow into what’s interesting — in you, and in everyone else. Every moment on the planet has juice to yield. Anything is interesting if you truly want to know about it. Staying awake to that was the key to staying alive.
The next time I was in his office, Jerry suggested I read a novel by William Dean Howells, and he pulled a dusty blue softcover copy from his shelf. I took it and slid it into my backpack. Then I wrote down the titles of the books next to where it had been, and the ones behind it, too. (In Jerry’s office the shelves were double-booked — instead of a single row of books on each shelf, there were two: one in back and one in front.) On my way out, I knocked over a tower of books, and, without asking, I took with me the ones that had hit the floor, as though, like fallen fruit, they were fair game.
A startled bird, I stepped into the hallway, into my life, into my subjects. I read all those books, and their cousins and neighbors and friends. I started to see my courses less as punishment and more as a chance to redirect the class discussion onto topics that interested me. How did Hemingway learn to write stories? Why was Samuel Johnson important, really? And it all came back to the same thing: there was something fascinating in the details, something I wanted to know.
Ever since then, “Develop your subjects” has been my mantra, my life’s errand: a phrase Jerry pulled from the air in the face of a young girl’s mucusy, freaked-out depression — a girl from Orlando, a poor student, an insomniac who had worn sunglasses during his lectures. He looked past all that. He just didn’t take malaise, depression, a bad attitude, or boredom personally. Or even, at the end, his own cancer.
Jerry Stern planted in me the best navigational device a person can have. He saved my life with those three words. I earned a PhD (very much without distinction) in English shortly before he died.
He never looked me straight in the eye, but I still feel his gaze. I feel him blink and grimace whenever I come across one of the books I stole from his office. I feel my own thumb quavering and blueing when I’m on a delicious errand, taking on a study of the nouvelle, or seaweed, or catnip, or acupuncture, or an old friend. I feel him wince when I prattle on during a meeting with a student.
I have to do a better job of asking juicy questions and listening to my students’ answers. I want to get past the student’s fear of the teacher and nestle up against the interesting stories they have to tell. And I need to send them on errands and ask, after they return, “What was most interesting to you?” so together we can start to see who they really are.
Jerry is still teaching: Whenever I walk into fiction class. Whenever a student waits on the floor outside my office to talk to me, ostensibly about a story in hand. Whenever I click save.