“It all begins
with f*cking around and intuition
and without any idea of
what you’re doing.”
– Allen Ginsberg
It began for Steve Lewis in 1964, with a question from his “somewhat mentally ill” college roommate: “Have you ever written a poem?”
The answer was no. Hadn’t entered his teenage mind. Lewis was a brand-new freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was, by his own description, a typically callow kid, a three-sport high school jock whose life on Long Island revolved around athletics, going out with Judy Goldstein and playing pool on Jericho Turnpike. But somewhere in his testosterone-addled brain, Lewis knew he had to escape the Long Island middle-class life that he’d had growing up on Candy Lane in Roslyn Heights. Poetry – or writing of any sort – wasn’t part of his escape plan.
“I remember getting on the Eastern Airlines plane at LaGuardia – the kind with the drop-down steps in the back – and Iwas thinking, ‘My life is about to change forever.’ It might have been my first conscious thought as a human being.”
Once ensconced in Madison, Lewis’ mind turned to important things. The important thing: meeting girls. After batting zero-for-150 at that endeavor, Lewis discovered the magic of poetry – or at least the magic of the appearance of poetry. “I scribbled a whiny, self-indulgent, immature…dirge about how awful life was. On a napkin. I was midway into this thing when a slinky girl dressed all in black comes up to me and says, ‘What’re you doing?’” Bingo! as the poets say.
Lewis continued his education writing poems at bars and getting dates. But at some inexactly remembered point, the emphasis shifted, and writing took on an impetus of its own. Now, roughly half a century later, that impetus is as strong, if not stronger than ever.
His scuffling days at Wisconsin came against a rapidly changing political landscape that neither he nor, it seems in retrospect, anybody else in America had foreseen. In a word, Madison was “exploding.” “For the first time in my life I was finding out that the myths about this country – we were getting into Vietnam – were just that: myths. And an enormous number of people were hurt and being killed by those myths.”
Madison was at least as politically lively back then as UC Berkeley. Lewis remembers attending rallies there when Barry Goldwater campaigned, where Lyndon Johnson came to speak. He remembers passionate debates outside the campus union.
By 1967, following protests against the Dow Chemical Company’s attempt to recruit on campus, the streets of Madison were being patrolled by 8,000 National Guardsmen. The FBI was on rooftops. Teargas was in the air. Lewis was a long, long way from Candy Lane.
By that time, he had met the love of his life, his wife Patty. They’d had a son, the first of seven children. The times were serious, and Lewis found himself drawn to the underground literary scene – particularly after he and Patty moved to Milwaukee in pursuit of a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing. It was there that he met his best friend and mentor, a man named Jim Hazard. “That’s when writing became a more central part of my life, not just something I liked or that I could do; it was something I had to do.”
It was a heady time. The early ’70s found him living a happily “literary/Bohemian” life. Just about the time he’d gotten an appointment to teach Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, he became the father of two. And just about the time he realized that poetry wasn’t going to pay many bills, he lost his teaching job. “That’s when we loaded up three dogs, two children, several cats into our Dodge Tradesman van and came east.” They took out a road map and wound up in New Paltz. They’ve lived in the town ever since.
Necessity brought a new, less-Bohemian-style realization to the still-unemployed young man. Lewis was by this time cornering the market on what he calls “Dad pieces.” He chuckles at the memory of his first freelance sale, to Baby Talk Magazine: “It was delivered free in diaper-service bags.”
He looks back on his freelance days as an early example of a pattern that his writing life has followed. He calls it “stumbling into things.” Before there was ever any talk of finding a market niche for freelancers, Lewis found one: “Unlike today, there were no dads writing about changing diapers, breastfeeding or such. So, over the next bunch of years, as kids started to roll out into my life, I was writing for almost every parenting publication in the English-speaking world.” In the job-juggling world of the freelance writer/teacher, Lewis was an adjunct at almost all the regional colleges, as well as the Grand Old Man of Dad Pieces.
By the late ’70s, Lewis once again stumbled into a what he remembers today as his dream job: He became a writing mentor at Empire State College, the SUNY system’s storied “college without walls.” It was a gig that lasted 35 years and only recently ended. “There was just no place that was more perfect for me, because it allowed me to be the kind of teacher I wished I had had. Not only was there one-to-one teaching, I wasn’t bound by any one educational theory, since there are many ways to read and talk about a book.”
Over his years at Empire, Lewis kept his hand in the game, writing for magazines large and small (including several years as a columnist for the New Paltz Times). He wrote two knowing and affectionate books that drew on his unparalleled expertise as a Master Dad (Zen and the Art of Fatherhood and The Complete Guide for the Anxious Groom) and another about his g-g-g generation, Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton: A Hippies’ Guide to the Second Sixties.
Come the millennium and then some, not only had the seven Lewis children left the nest, they’d also begun their own families. Master Dad was becoming Master Granddad.
One hot summer day about five years ago, the Lewis clan – all 15 grandchildren – were gathered in Hatteras, North Carolina. Lewis was alone with his five-year-old granddaughter Eleanor, swinging in a hammock on the upper deck of his seaside home. The two began a conversation familiar to every grandparent. She asks how old he was. He asks what she wanted to be when she grew up. The conversation stalls for long minutes. She huddles in the hollow of his shoulder. She wants to be 30, she says. He’s tickled, a bit confused. “Why 30?” he asks. “I don’t want to be little when you die,” she says.
That answer, perfect and startling in its innocence and understanding, sent Lewis’ writing life on a new path. His voice still colors with wonder when recalling that conversation (which he has since written about in his new book of poetry, If I Die before You Wake). “I realized this child had knowledge that she was unaware of – much the same kind of knowledge that drove me out of my parents’ home and into a new life in Madison.” He’d come full circle, in a most unexpected way, where he said he realized that “we know for ourselves intuitively much more than we seem to know.”
That realization drove him to admit a certain weariness with what he’d been writing about and how he’d been doing it. “I thought, ‘I’m tired of writing things that I know. Or just using writing to speak my mind.’ Suddenly, I saw a chance to use writing to find out what I didn’t know, or what I knew without being able to articulate it.”
Lewis had played with writing fiction periodically over the years. Now, he embraces it fully, as the best means of manifesting what he’d come to recognize about the writing life. He began writing a novel, with no thought of what it would be about, what its thematic goals were or even who his characters would look or sound or be like.
“I started what turned out to be the novel I called Take This. It started with being down in North Carolina. I was on a line at the local gas station, getting a barbecue sandwich, and the person in front of me just said to someone else, ‘Take this.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s what happens: The universe gives you stuff, everything from good stuff to really bad things, and that’s what we do: We take them and we go with them, because we don’t have any choice. This is where we are.” He started the novel committed to the idea that he wouldn’t organize or program the story; he would simply let it write itself.
About these wonderful and miserable things that life presents you with? It’s not about those things, he says; “It’s only what you do with it them that has any bearing on the quality of the life that you lead.”
The process of letting loose every writerly inclination that he’d ever experienced has proven to be personally liberating. Writing every paragraph, he says, was like jumping off a cliff. “Suddenly, telling people what I thought was less important than actually finding out what was deeper and truer, whether or not it sold well – or at all. Whether or not anyone thought it was a good novel, I understood immediately that it was a true novel. A true story. Something revelatory for me. And it held together; there was no organizational chart, no cards, no outline. I let the story tell itself.”
The novel allowed him to uncover things rather than restate things. It was, in a word, “exhilarating” – so much so that he has published a second novel, Loving Violet: what he has called a “generational sequel” to Take This.
The experience of writing both novels has plunged Lewis into more questions – the nature of love, its costs and rewards – than he might never have explored without Eleanor’s innocent wish. She’d be about 10 years old by now. Her grandfather is 71. Life – full as it is of stumblings and discoveries, of diaper-service bags stuffed with youthful wisdom and novels full of the real thing – awaits them both.
“Escribir Borracho, Editar Sobrio”
(“Write Drunk, Edit Sober”)
Writer/novelist Steve Lewis will offer a writing workshop at the Gardiner Library on April 14 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The workshop’s title invokes a popular description of writing usually attributed to William Faulkner: “Write Drunk, Edit Sober.” Its aim is to provide strategies for writers who wish to let a story tell itself.
Lewis offers another famous saying from sportswriter Gene Fowler to describe the writer’s plight: “Writing is easy,” he famously said. “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
The workshop will involve neither alcohol nor bloodshed. It’s about breaking through writer’s block. It’s about the virtues, the challenges and the exhilaration of letting the story tell itself. And then – and only then – about the relatively minor scrapes and bruises (and sleeplessness) that come along with editing. Bring pen, paper or laptop – and discover how to unblock the story you’ve been longing to tell.