For years gurus have both repelled and attracted me. One of them ran an ashram in India where I lived for a while with my first husband. No sex for enlightenment, no divestiture of your life savings–simple bhakti yoga, devotion to the guru, who would show you the emptiness of all desiring and thus the love which moves through all things.

A fairly benign environment; still it didn’t work for everybody. There was the usual uneasy hierarchy, the inner circle who sometimes ate dinner with Baba and received little presents, and the hoi polloi who cleaned leaves off the garden paths and lunged for the spot on the pavement his bare soles had touched. I remember a Frenchman, bone thin, trying to cure his amebic dysentery with meditation and faith in Baba (I had used Flagyl). And a whiny girl with bad posture who had been there 18 months and had not yet been given an Indian name. Pained and resolute she stood on the outskirts of groups waiting for some acknowledgment from Baba. The prevailing belief was that Baba intended to teach her something by his indifference. Baba’s behavior was always right and good; no need for us mortals to fathom it. We had simply to thank our lucky stars, or some good deed accomplished in a past life, for the privilege of witnessing it.

Many years have passed, and gurus go by different names, but their mixed charm remains–emanating now from writing workshops run by high-powered literary figures.

The one I attended recently was sponsored by Story Quarterly, a well-established local fiction magazine edited by Anne Brashler and Diane Williams. It was held at Lake Forest College, from 9 to 9 on an April Saturday. It was the workshop’s third year; the first two were so successful the sponsors upped the price a hundred dollars to $350 and still found 30 practicing or would-be writers willing to write the check.

The indubitable draw was the workshop’s leader, Gordon Lish, a senior editor at Knopf as well as a writer and a teacher. Lish is a household name in the world of contemporary fiction: in Esquire’s 1987 map of the literary universe he was placed at the “Red Hot Center.” Named Captain Fiction in Vanity Fair (for–perhaps?–the khaki clothes he likes to wear as well as for the devotion he gets from his crew on the good ship Literature), he runs a weekly workshop in Manhattan with a regular waiting list of 80 to 100. Students fortunate enough to have gained entry revere him (the word is not too strong) and point to their work as proof of his power. Some of them fly to New York every week to see him. Workshop sponsor Diane Williams, a Chicago frequent flyer, with a substantial list of publications, said to me dead-earnestly, “I want to know what he knows.”

I was leery of the cultish aspect of the Lish phenomenon. Having spent six weeks trying to learn what Baba Mukhtananda knew, I’m worried by women with rapt faces, whose eyes shine bright, who purr the name of their guru. Lish’s followers are primarily women; 16 out of 18 in his New York workshop, 25 out of 30 in Lake Forest: how very (chewing on my pen) . . . interesting.

Nor did the instructional method, as it was described, appeal to me. We were to read aloud from the manuscript we’d brought until Lish found fault with it, then he’d point out the mistake for the viewing audience. The average was two sentences. He was supposed to be very critical.

My husband (second husband) thought it was a scam. “You mean he doesn’t read the stories beforehand? He gets $350 for two sentences? How many people signed up for this?”

He multiplied 350 by 30 and decided Lish was at least a financial genius.

By this time I was dying to go. It turned out there were scholarships available this time, and I had been offered one; I had nothing to lose except time. I’d go out of sheer curiosity, to find out what all the fuss was about. If for some reason I were impelled to read him my story and he didn’t like it, I’d simply disregard him. I’d already published 11 stories, some in magazines that paid money, so really, basically–I plumbed my imagination–what could he say to me? And there was always the off chance–since, as every aspiring writer knows, Lish is the guy who discovered Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah and Amy Hempel, wrote their names into the annals of American literary history–when he heard my story (did I dare even think this?), despite all the others he’d criticized or condescended to, I’d be Captain Fiction’s First Mate!

By the time I arrived at Glen Rowan House (having struggled pleasantly during the long expressway drive against thoughts of a contract with Knopf), the workshop was in session; no lengthy introductions, gabbing over coffee. I peered past Diane Williams, who was taking care of us latecomers, trying to ascertain whether the silence in the room was boredom borne politely, or awe.

The room was wrong for awe. Lish later remarked he didn’t like the room, found it ugly. There was something disharmonious about the proportions, wide, as you’d imagine the interior of a flying saucer, and so low that words seemed to get trapped where they were spoken instead of flowing out to the congregation.

The group, though, looked like a congregation. Predominantly female, 30 to 40-ish, dressed to escape notice: beige spring suits, slacks you’d teach school in. The five or six men were no more flamboyant. A fellow with glasses and an indoor complexion sat with his eyes on his notebook; he would continue to stare at it even when Lish mentioned his name. Two people called attention to themselves, a round-faced middle-aged man who kept snapping pictures with a mini camera resting on the top of his head and a young woman in a shirt that matched the trim on her culottes, with the kind of tan you have to work on; but they seemed out of place, tourists in a mosque.

For the most part these were not artists or even artsy people, the kind who wear headbands and earrings that pull at the holes in their ears. In the backs of their minds there must have been tiny springs burbling, a sense of a power leashed that, with a little digging, the right tools . . . But they sat quietly, anonymously, manuscripts tucked away in purses and briefcases or lying face down on the table. Notepads out, pens in hand, postures at attention.

Williams led me to a table in the center of the room, directly in front of Lish. For the next two and a half hours I sat on a hard chair while 54-year-old Gordon Lish, in khaki from head to foot, lean as a Marine, walked back and forth in front of a chalkboard and, without smiling, with a dead-blank face, letting his voice and hands portray the urgency of his message, told us how to be great writers:

“What you utter must be yours alone, what you only know at the center of your being, with only your language. Your sentences must be touched by the unique cast of your spirit.”

I wrote that down, but without the piety I imagined was called for, more intrigued with the person than the message. A nice-looking man, young for his age, with the kind of spareness that comes from indifference to food as opposed to jogging. Hard to picture him eating buttered toast. Hard to picture your arms around him. He was all one hue, light khaki and aluminum, aluminum hair and skin, khaki eyes and clothes, as if he’d been dipped in a vat of pale powder. I sketched his face and hands, writing down only the statements that seemed especially provocative or sonorous:

“Your job is not to use the pen to stabilize yourself or to celebrate yourself or to take revenge. Your job is to celebrate the diversity of the world, starting with you. Seek them out, the flickerings across the face of your soul. They are infinite.”

He exhorted us to look into ourselves beyond the bounds of our specific personalities:

“Let go of everything you think you know. Your ego and your successes, they are puny.” And: “You must see in yourself you are all things. The prospect of being Anyman, not who you are. Then you become susceptible to the spirit that can make you God.”

He spoke gravely, severely, urging radical measures to widen our sense of ourselves, a process he called “tweaking the superego.”

“Make life hazardous for yourself. Tweak your stability. Your essential statement hereafter should be Bullshit, I’m a liar. I’m not going to lie to myself anymore.”

Great are the rewards for those who follow his dicta:

“I’m going to show you how to count in the larger picture. If you put the right sentences on the page, no one, or history, will care what you look like.”

Some people looked a little glazed. Others watched with small fascinated smiles. He seemed to have selected certain people to look at, working the room like an evangelical preacher, gathering up first the easy ones, the ones waiting for the slightest breath to sweep them away. These would be his core, the central mass to which more and more would adhere. “My spirit is infinite,” he said. “I am like God.”

After the motivational segment, the lecture became concrete and specific, setting forth a new approach to story writing based on the sentence as a discrete unit and building block. According to Lish, all the power of the story is seething there in the opening line, an embryo that generates the line that follows, and to which all subsequent lines refer back. Story is not the ordering of a wedge of the author’s experience but rather the emanation of a sentence that the author has created. In this way the author is like God. “There is nothing in the world,” said Lish. “You are going to make a world.”

He wrote the following first line on the board: I don’t know what my life would have become if I hadn’t seen before lunch the light from the window and the floating motes of dust. Then he picked out three key words:




These, he told us, were the three elements his story would be built on. Every succeeding sentence would refer back to one or more of them, weaving and interweaving until a discovery was made and the story ended.

“Consecution.” Lish’s word. Essay writing teachers call it coherence. It’s not a new idea, but he demonstrated a variety of ways in which it could be achieved–not through theme alone, but repetition, sound, rhythm, and other elements.

“Torquing.” Another Lishologism. The story is a winding spring, and each succeeding sentence ought to give a little turn to the spring. Stakes should rise steadily, sentence to sentence.

“Endings.” A “great” short story follows the line of greatest resistance from incident to incident, “cell to cell,” each sentence exploiting the most dangerous element in the preceding sentence, until the ending cancels out the original assertion. Example (related to his hypothetical opening line): I saw NOTHING that morning. There was NO revelation.

Was this brilliant and original thinking? Could be. I had been bored during the Call to Write but now I was listening attentively, writing furiously. Some of it seemed to be dogma, the basics of minimalist fiction (no flashbacks, don’t change verb tense, show instead of tell, no metaphors–language is metaphor), but much of it fascinated me, a new way of progressing from sentence to sentence I wanted to go home and try. I had written what I thought were good stories, but probably not yet a great story. Following Lish’s principles, might I not write a great story?

Even Carol Dickson (not her real name), a suburban elementary school teacher who would later react violently against the workshop, was pleased at this point. Afterward she said grimly, “I wish he’d quit there.”

After lunch came the individual critiques, the most problematic part of the workshop. Many people had come here highly apprehensive about presenting their work. Carol Dickson, who has been writing for some time and attends a North Shore writing workshop, said she was scared, hoped she’d be ignored; her greatest fear was of “being trashed.” Alice Berger (not her real name), who wanted “to get back into writing stories,” said she tried to go in without preconceived notions, ready, bravely, to “lay it on the line.” Said Berger, “I tried to prepare myself for whatever might happen.” Steve Gowen, who dropped out of the writing program at Bard College (but who is serious enough about writing fiction to drive in from Lake City, Indiana) also feared his work would be picked apart. Said Gowen, “[Lish] has a fearsome reputation.”

Initially Lish had wanted to eliminate the critiques entirely, but bowed, he told us a little snidely, to the demands of our egos. As I learned later over lunch, it was true: although people were terrified of reading their work, they were dying to read their work, both the experienced writers and the relatively inexperienced. Marcia Coburn, for example, a local journalist covering the workshop for Chicago magazine, and Alice Berger, who hadn’t written fiction since college, were both eager to read.

Carol Dickson was called to read first. She read her opening line: His mother had already picked out his blue suit for the first day of kindergarten.

Lish hated it. It did not “enclose and enshroud” the reader. There was too much there. He said it was “ungepotchkied,” the same word my grandmother would have used to describe a dress with too many ruffles. He rewrote it: She had picked it out for him.

The rest of the discussion Dickson asked me not to quote. Suffice to say he challenged her use of the boy’s point of view, calling it avoidance, a weak and cowardly way of writing a story. He urged her to use the mother’s point of view, bringing to light the underlying traumatic personal experience of the story.

Then it was Berger’s turn: I once saw a man who cheated on his wife.

Lish turned to the group, asked what was wrong with it. Many people raised their hands. Someone said that the cheating couldn’t be seen. Lish nodded. Next.

Berger, understandably unhappy with this summary dismissal, approached Lish with her manuscript during the break. She asked him to read a little more of her story, indicating a paragraph that cleared up the ambiguity in the first sentence.

As soon as we resumed our seats Lish related his conversation with Berger, explaining that her weak first line had disinclined him to read further; he had no “trust” in her. “If you meet someone who shows you they’re a bad driver,” he said, “would you get in the car with them?”

Pithily conveyed. Berger listened as well as she could; I had a profile view of her smiling. But as the afternoon wore on the smile became a little fixed, a little wooden. In between other critiques he would bring up her name, first name and last name, Alice Berger Alice Berger Alice Berger, and her disastrous attempt to redeem her story. He waxed explanatory, as if he were afraid someone had missed the point, then passionate, his similes becoming more inventive: “It’s like saying, ‘Marry me, I’m beautiful–look, my elbow is beautiful’!” Said with enjoyment, almost glee at his own bit of cleverness.

There was a little silence at that point, the kind of thing that could mean love, terror–an emotion people weren’t prepared to feel. Glances were cast. Feet shuffled. Up until this time most of us had belonged to Lish, or were mildly disaffected, a little bored, maybe. Now it was hard to be bored. But it was also hard to fully approve of what was going on: The guru had doffed his benign mask or donned a wicked one. We weren’t sure whether he was teaching us something we needed to know or he was a bit, well, mad.

He told us a strange story about his own first novel; a writing teacher had demolished it–garbage, was the opinion–and Lish had stopped writing for several years.

This may have been meant as a cautionary tale–profit by my example, do not follow me–but you couldn’t help but wonder if this was the source of his almost vengeful style of criticism. Exacerbating the group’s ill will, not only toward himself now but toward each other, he glorified the work of several of his New York students, then ranked his midwestern devotees, most of them present in the room, in order of “greatness”:

1. With her last story Patricia Lear has overtaken Amy Hempel (Lear interviewed Lish in Story Quarterly 23).

2. Diane Williams (Editor, SQ) learned how to write last year but her worldview is only “this big.” (Indicating a small space between thumb and middle finger.)

3. Sharon Korshak and Anne Brashler (Editor, SQ) are “trying.”

The devotees themselves did not seem unhappy with the ranks Captain Fiction had assigned them, no matter how far they were below deck. Williams, who later told me she’d missed Lish’s comment about her, sat on a table by the door smiling gently; Brashler stated forthrightly that she knew he didn’t like her work. But the unnumbered, unranked masses buzzed with a kind of confused rage. A desire to protect one’s colleagues vied with a desire to beat them to a place at the Captain’s table, which vied with hatred of Lish for unleashing such nastiness. He was thoroughly aware of the effect he was creating. “You may find me a repulsive presence,” he said. “But without me there’ll be no one to tell you no. You’ll be lost. Unless you learn in these twelve hours to tell yourselves no.”

Later I would find the warning outrageous, and later still, silly. But at that moment at that table for the fifth or sixth hour I had lost faith in my judgment. Surrounded by people watching him the way you watch someone who might have a gun, I felt a little dizzy. Lost, that was the word. I was lost.

He dared us to take everything we’d written so far and throw it out. He said: “You sit there clutching your five-year-old manuscript saying, ‘I’m right, I’m right, I’m right, I’m right. Keep away, Gordon!’–Well, you’ll die with that rectitude!”

Lish had named the rage and made it work for him. He knew where he was going and where we all ought to be going; he was ready to lead us there if we’d only let him. His stern face and military posture conveyed his readiness so unshakably I started rifling through the four stories I’d brought for something to read to him. Which had the strongest beginning? The greatest degree of consecution? The most torque?

While he listened to other story beginnings I made my choice. I had stories that were maybe better on the whole, but this one had a wonderful opening paragraph. There was daring in the writing, or so it seemed to me, and honesty; it felt closest to what he seemed to be looking for. I crossed out a stray adverb, a sentence that failed to heighten tension, remembering the goose bumps I’d felt as I’d typed the first line. Put yourself in jeopardy, he’d said.

In the vague middle of the afternoon he called my name. I read: My sister is not as pretty as I am.

That was all I got to read. My character was judgmental, he said. My character probably thought she was prettier than anyone here. According to Lish there are two qualities essential in a main character: (1) adorability, and (2) gravitas (seriousness). I don’t know if he found my narrator lacking in gravitas but she was not at all adorable. An adorable character was always the weaker character. An adorable character did not diminish other characters. An adorable character glorified the other characters. If I wrote from the viewpoint of the less pretty sister I might have something.

“But I wanted her to be judgmental.”

That wasn’t exactly it. I’d wanted her to be vain, and cheeky enough to declare something you’re not supposed even to be aware of–this being the top layer of a personality that unfolds with the story. I argue with most people who challenge me, but I do it poorly, over a kind of static from my thumping heart. I tried to point out what seemed to me distance between author and narrator, and was granted a second line:

She’s not fat but what you call chunky, padded just enough to blur the bone structure. I used to nibble in front of her . . .

I managed to squeeze in part of that third but failed to please him once again. Either my irony wasn’t apparent, or else it was so apparent I was putting my character down. I remember the expression of distaste on his fate.

He no doubt went on to other writers. I couldn’t listen. Was this insty-opinion a prejudice I could disregard? Or did he know something I didn’t, that I needed to know in order to write great stories? I thought of a few vain or judgmental or otherwise unsympathetic characters from world literature. Raskolnikov. And the guy in Notes From the Underground. But Lish might ask, “Are you Dostoyevski?” I could hear it, the words like pebbles dropping from his mouth. Would I dare to respond, “Maybe I am!” Would I sound stupid then? I decided I would sound stupid, tried to listen like a good student, take notes, follow the discussion, but Lish seemed to have taken my name to his heart. Sharon Solwitz kept coming up, linked not with my imaginary Knopf contract but with the revolting first line of my story. He hypothesized an inane little plot that he felt arose necessarily from that line. He asked me to repeat the line to demonstrate how a contraction could weaken a sentence, then accused me of taking out the contraction. It didn’t even help to know that he had originally misheard me. I felt like the movie slut who is slapped on one side of the face, then the other, again and again. Who peers out dully from her ragged hair, too dizzy, guilty, inert for tears. My mind remained in the fuzzy, disengaged state that makes for poor journalism, surfacing only when some new note in the air told me Lish had at last found work he approved of.

It said on the board:

My brother died.

This line belonged to Steve Gowen, the writer from Indiana. “OK!” said Gordon Lish.

Gowen read on: I got his weights, sweats, stationary bike.

“What’s nice about this sentence?” Lish asked, and got the response: the omission of and his between the last two nouns.

I got the unused portion of his unused health club membership.

Lish was a little unhappy with the Latinate word portion but otherwise remained “trusting.” There was consecution in sound, theme, and syntax.

Gowen continued, Lish nodding: Everything was new. What did I expect? Not Muscle Culture magazine. My brother was fat . . .

At that point Lish stopped him. “It’s getting weaker, isn’t it?” He had ceased to trust Gowen when he made his brother fat. His character was losing his adorability. Gowen’s narrator was supposed to glorify his brother. Gowen had to rethink the brother, invent a glorious brother . . .

I did not ask Gordon Lish whether I could introduce Gowen’s narrator’s fat brother to my narrator’s chunky sister. I sat there nodding. Agreeing with Lish. Yes, yes, it was. true, Gowen’s story had lost some power.

Afterward in the parking lot the resentment about what had occurred during the last 12 hours was fierce. The man is crazy, someone said. An egomaniac. Clinically insane.

Once I had been criticized, however, I found it very hard to criticize Lish.

I am not easily hypnotized. I don’t even use nitrous oxide for my dental anxiety; I want the option of bolting from the chair, awake and aware enough to consult a lawyer. But despite my experience in writing workshops, my distrust of gurus, my 11 published stories–despite how needlessly belligerent Lish had been toward me and others–as I drove south on the Edens I was working on a tender little imaginary scene with Lish, inserting it into the small melee as the workshop broke up. I accosted him with a second story. He somehow read it amid the dispersing crowd and liked it immensely. He’d changed his views on my first story, admitted he’d been a fat kid, had trouble controlling his weight, it distorted his responses, he was sorry if he’d confused me. He patted my arm.

This attraction to the source of power, regardless of how the power is manifested, was not restricted to my beaten down self. For Alice Berger, who had been trounced as severely, and more repeatedly, it took several days to discover the workshop’s value, but she’d finally come to it. Although “really hurt” the night of the workshop, after a few days she realized she was “really intrigued by the man.” What she had garnered from the workshop was motivation. “I’m determined to write,” she said. “I’m not going to let negative feedback stop me.”

By the time I talked to her I had enough perspective on the workshop to be disturbed by her magnanimity. I pressed her: “What about the way he hammered at you? He did that to me too, brought our names up again and again–didn’t that bother you?”

“We were foils for him. We were useful. I understand why he did it.” She went on, astutely, humbly: “I admire the man. I think he’s bright. He has something to offer and if that’s part of the package, I’m a big girl and I’ll take it.”

She had thought the afternoon through and in the end took responsibility for what had happened. She said, “Maybe I was a little whiny about it.”

Whiny? I thought but didn’t say. You get trashed for being a little whiny?

The only area in which she resisted Lish was in his specific evaluation of her opening sentence. And that was the one area where he had been concretely helpful. What we want from the strong man is not to be as strong as he is; it’s to have a good seat from which to view his strength–so that after the fight we can walk up and feel his sweaty bicep.

Of course not every participant who ended up a fan had to distort his own experience. “Worth the $350,” said Steve Gowen, who actually went home and threw out all his prior work.

And a good number of people who left the workshop upset, angry, or critical of Lish remained so. For several nights afterward Carol Dickson had trouble sleeping. “He had me quivering,” she said. “He was gratuitously cruel for his own deification.” Ed Finch (not his real name), a professional writer whose work was criticized only mildly, described Lish two weeks later as “pretty vicious.”

But despite the substantial hostility Lish generates every time he runs one of these workshops, he manages to find new people willing to pay for the gospel.

One could argue, like Gowen, that you get $350 worth of information or inspiration. And no one could deny you; there are no objective criteria. If you’re happy, you’re happy.

But when you look closely at exactly what transpires in these workshops, the power they continue to have is astonishing. For one, the theory on which Lish bases his critiques of the writers’ work is highly suspect. The idea that a first line is a generator of a story, that it contains in bud form all the power of the story is fascinating, but no more than that. It applies to some stories, but not to every story. “Heart of Darkness”: “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.” And Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” Many a shy, unassuming first line gains a force you can only appreciate as the story develops.

The theory is primarily useful for the leader of a large writing workshop. In a short period of time he can comment on a large number of stories, with an answer for those who say their work hasn’t been fully dealt with. His students go home knowing they’ve had at least a wee bit of his attention and he gets whatever part of $10,500 is left after he pays for the hall and the sponsors.

So, if it’s not Lish’s brilliance as a teacher and an editor, what accounts for the continuing attraction of his workshops?

Answer: The love/terror/mindlessness that gurus inspire, which, paradoxically, actually obfuscates whatever real benefits the workshop has to offer.

In the first place, Lish sets himself up as a kind of high priest to literature. His god is God, his taste isn’t taste but Judgment.

Any real flaws in the handling of the session are masked by the strong emotions evoked. The workshop’s EST-like format–12 hours (minus two half-hour meals) in a single room without toilet breaks–is designed to give people the feeling that they’ve just had a powerful and satisfying experience when the real lift is that it’s over and their legs work. The dissatisfied are confused by their own egos, unable to ascertain whether their unhappiness stems from Lish’s abuse or misapprehension, or their own disappointment that he wasn’t more encouraging to them. The official rankings he assigns are particularly befuddling: the mates get a nice feeling of petty power, and the deckhands can look down on the galley slaves.

Deconstructing the workshop we find the same schema Werner Erhardt of EST used to get people “clear”:

A closed environment putting you absolutely in the hands of someone who has what you want (fame, validation, understanding).

Message #1–You must and can get what you want (learn to write great literature).

Message #2–Right now you are unable to get what you want (you write crap).

Message #3–Some people can get what they want (these are their names; they work with me).

Message #4–You can too. I’ll show you how.

Message #5–If you don’t listen to me you will not get what you want (you’ll keep writing crap).

Missing only is the EST-ian final rebuilding of the personality. Lish leaves us instead with the dim hope that with his help, his method, we might work our way out of the muck. The picture is frightening, groups of proto-Lishies, knees scabbed from the long crawl from Chicago to Manhattan: “Is this right, Gordon? Have I got it now?” But if we take him at his word the only alternative seems worse: clasping our godforsaken manuscripts to our feeble chests, crying, “I’m right, I’m right, I’m right, I’m right. Keep away, Gordon!”

This is not to deny some real and important information he conveys on the art and craft of writing. His devotion to literature is admirable; he values greatness in an age where mediocrity gets the bucks. And there’s a kind of sincerity in the fierceness of his attitude toward both his teaching and his writing: “To be a great writer is to be a kind of priest. It’s my passion. It’s a way to save my life.”

But he has his own life to save. He can’t save yours and mine, even if he wanted to.

Six weeks after we arrived at the ashram my husband was ready to go home. Back to America for movies and irony and hamburgers and unadulterated silliness. Not sure that I was ready, not sure of anything in my life, embarrassed at the prospect of returning home “unenlightened,” I asked Baba Mukhtananda what I should do. He responded with a crisp rap on the shoulder, “Go with what you came with.”

As far as gurus go, Mukhtananda wasn’t such a bad guy. If there was an insight to be had into the illusory nature of desire, maybe he had it. At least he behaved as if he had no need for your money or your body or even your gratitude. Whatever Lish needs, it makes him brutal and nasty at times. But the point is, both gurus are to be avoided.

No more enlightened now than 18 years ago, for days after the workshop I’d pestered my husband and some of my friends by reciting, “‘My sister is not as pretty as I am.’ Well? Do you hate her?”

But whether or not I’m able to act on it, one thing is clear: If you want to write–if you want to do anything difficult and marvelous–you can’t settle down on the ashram. Or the ship. Or whatever metaphor stands for your way of quelling the fear that you’re not good enough to start yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.