A magic moment in the life of the literary legend, who died Tuesday at the age of 84.
Of the thousand students in attendance, E.L. Doctorow could spy but one or two even paying attention as he looked over the podium. They spilled into the aisles, sitting cross-legged at the largest venue on campus to be wowed by their famous alumnus. His name graced the posters across campus, the advisory board of the Kenyon Review, the numerous titles on display in the library and a special coffee mug available at the bookstore of this bucolic campus an hour plus from Columbus. It read, “Writing poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way they play football at Ohio State.”
But still, he knew, he had lost his audience.
To think that we could all have a connection, just a moment really, across several generations: That’s the power of a story.
To be fair, EL Doctorow had attended Kenyon when it was a men’s college for serious students who thought the Ivy Leagues were for playboys. Many of them were still working off the G.I. Bill, fresh from WWII. Not so in the fall of 2002, while a 70-year-old Doctorow unspooled yet another complex sentence involving then-presidential hopeful John Kerry, the Bhagavad Gita and a couple of things that I had to look up later at the library next door. His opening lines were, “Since I’m back at home here I think we’ll just stick to the hard stuff.”
But then he paused. What did we do, I wonder now, in the era before smartphones, when bored in a lecture? Did we page through our wire-bound day planners? Pass handwritten notes? I don’t remember. But I do remember what Doctorow did next.
“A memory has just come over me…” Students shifted in their seats. This is what they’d skipped seminar for. Doctorow, the author of epic, critically lauded tomes like Billy Bathgate and Ragtime, which was later adapted into a film and a four-time Tony Award-winning stage musical. “…To back when I was your age. And I came to this very auditorium to see the great poet Robert Frost.”
He had us. He had us right then. As college kids being reminded that grownups were once your age. But moreso with the lineage. As if you could get from us to Robert Frost to Walt Whitman in just three moves. “Back then this room was the basketball arena. But they set up folding chairs and we all assembled to see the great Robert Frost. I remember because he read, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ ”
“Now, before the hippies, before the Beatniks, we had these sort of Pre-Beats on campus. One of them I’ll never forget was named Frank LeFever.” Doctorow went on to describe that certain soul that had never not been on every college campus since. He might be Steve Jobs, but he also might just be… that guy. “He wore shredded blue jeans cut off at the knees and t-shirts with great looping holes and hanging flaps. He never bothered to have his hair cut, so that it hung long and shaggy down the back of his neck. He favored workshoes without socks and sometimes affected a single earring, like a Portugese fisherman.”
“And when Frost had finished, he got to the part where he says, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
A rumbling coo came over the young audience. Yes, Robert Frost. Yes, E.L. Doctorow. Yes, you get it. Yes, you understand decision and indecision. The thing our parents don’t get. In 2016 that poem will be 100 years old, but it will not have aged.
“And LeFever stamped over in his workboots and hollered, ‘Mr. Frost, was that a real poem or did you just make that up?’ ”
Laughter, rapt attention, thunderous applause, and an hour-long Q&A followed. He had the audience through the entire rest of the night. To think that we could all have a connection, just a moment really, across several generations: That’s the power of a story. It’s not how Robert Frost’s heckler derailed their lecture, but how Doctorow used that bit—50 years later—to get his back on track.
After the lecture I went next door to the library to look up just what the hell a “caesura” was, and I found it had closed at midnight.
If you go to a writing conference or get one of those cutesy books at Barnes & Noble, you might bump into one of Doctorow’s bon mots, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” Or: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” And my favorite: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
But the one I keep coming back to as a writer is just that moment of Doctorow watching LeFever make an ass out of himself while heckling Robert Frost. There will be critics and naysayers and YouTube commenters. Those people rarely lead happy lives or produce quality work. It’s best to imagine they are all Frank LeFever, doing whatever it is these people did before hacky sacks.
After my first book came out, I told that story in a small lecture back at Kenyon College (I’m no Doctorow). The students laughed, just as we had laughed. The young writers in the group asked how you will know if your writing is any good. And I told them: You won’t. But years ago I learned from Doctorow that only you will ever truly know if you’ve written a real story, or if you had just made one up. So just write it so damn well that even you won’t care.
And that has made all the difference.