Although writing can help decipher history, it’s our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Dollar in the Jar: Tribute to Leonard Bishop

Beginnings

When I rang the door bell in the summer of 2000, a plump man in his late seventies answered. He looked similar to Rodney Dangerfield, especially in the nose. We had never met before, and I wasn’t certain if my friend, who had initially invited me, informed him about my arrival. The writer’s meeting was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m. every Thursday. It had been a ritual for nearly a decade. He tilted a half smile anyway, eyes beaming at a pretty girl, and invited me in. His white T-shirt and dark, crinkly slacks was not the style I had envisioned. Also, it was evident he needed a hair cut because the length reached over his ears. I had envisioned a distinguished beard or pipe or even a brown sweater with leather patches at the elbows. After all, wasn’t that a standard for aging writers?

I followed him into his dining room, a short distance from the front door. He had a slight limp, which later I learned about his club foot, one of the many difficulties he overcame in his long life. In the middle of the room stretched a lengthy table. He sat at the head of it and I was amazed to see his walls camouflaged in replicated paintings, from top to bottom like an incomplete Rubik's Cube. Picasso was the only one I had recognized, much to my ignorance at that time. Another wall supported shelves and shelves of books. The mismatched coloring of the book covers mirrored Picasso's wild designs. In a corner, a baby grand piano faced a large window, opposite from the fireplace.

Leonard had been famous in his time. He was a published writer since the 1950's and knew other legendary authors like Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller, Thomas Berger, and James T. Farrell. He left a trail of other writing groups from coast to coast. I didn’t know what to expect from him, whether he would be harsh or boring, arrogant or humble. After all, I sat in his dining room instead of a classroom, and yet, a fragment of people in my Kansas hometown knew about his presence. He used to write for my local newspaper, The Manhattan Mercury, but since then, he was forgotten as if a misplaced trophy inside a crowded closet. My hometown took him for granted, not appreciating an accomplished writer who dwelled among us.

While Leonard chatted about the hot weather, his fat dog, a Cocker Spaniel with a lovable personality, wobbled into the room. I began stroking the panting, hairy pet.

“That’s Mugsy. Abbreviation for an overweight sausage,” Leonard joked, speaking with a New York, Jewish accent. “You think he looks like one? Yeah? He wouldn’t look like one if I didn’t look like one. That’s the problem!”

I liked him without delay. Despite his rough exterior, pitted face, and thick fingers, he had a simple humor about him. During the two years I knew Leonard, I learned of the obstacles and misfortunes he underwent to gain his success. He emerged out of the ghetto, far from a modest origin unlike mine, a middle class upbringing. It was at that point I realized writing could also be a means of survival. His beginnings weren't as graceful as mine, to say in the least.

"Grass, Milk, and Children"

Leonard Bishop, born October 17, 1922, grew up in New York City in severe poverty. His father, Edward, was a criminal, heroine addict, and wife beater who exhausted time in every prison in the state of New York and parts of New Jersey. Once, Leonard and his older brother, Bernard, spent a year in a Catholic orphanage because, while his father stooped in jail, his mother, Esther, had no other means to feed or clothe her children. He told a story of sitting in a long, tin bath tub with ten or fifteen other children as the nuns splashed scolding water on their heads and scrubbed their fingers with wire brushes. 

In addition, he was born with a club foot and dyslexia. His nickname was “Feets.” Often, teachers branded him as either lazy or stupid, and often he sat in a corner with the pointed “Dunce” hat. At one point in his young life, he became a hobo and traveled all over the country on trains. It would seem fate had dismissed his life at the bottom of a bucket. Yet, ironically, a hobo woman gave Leonard a thick book she carried in her tattered bag and taught him to read. This woman, whom he’d forgotten her name but the title, Beau Geste, inspired him to achieve more in his life. That and “feeling jinxed.” He had been nearly killed on a few occasions, details he never spoke of. “If you believe in luck,” he argued, “you know she’s and ill-dispositioned lover.” So he returned home and enrolled in college, The New School of Social Research.

Leonard attended a creative writing class, along with people like Mario Puzo. Feeling intimidated by them because they were better educated, he wrote anyway. “[I] wanted to write. To slam the words on paper and make them scream. One word would start it. A word ripped out of [my] guts to start the pool of blood. Then fill it up. With tissue and vein and muscle and thought. Then give it to people. And let them see [a] man.”


One professor, Dr. Glicksberg, who didn’t judge his writings strictly as obscene, detected a gift. With a limited vocabulary, Leonard wrote simply and wrote with aggressive realism, repeatedly using foul language. His professor used a series of asterisks in replacement of the obscenities when he passed other copies to the class. In his introduction from his book, Dare to be a Great Writer, he noted: “The instructor said, ‘Crude, yes. You might even say they [your characters] were ill-mannered, and vulgar. But they stink with power!’. . . It was the dynamic that came from the Great Depression starvation and the scrabble to stay alive. The other students wanted to hear what I wrote.”

In one of his short stories, “Grass, Milk, and Children,” an account about children of the slums, he wrote: “When I was four years old, I spoke to God. I begged him to pay the rent for us . . . It was cold and dirty sleeping in the street . . . [but] God put his oily tongue in his fat cheek and watched me. When I cried, he didn’t dry my tears . . . And I knew that God was a lie . . . God is the cold and the dirt and the cement and the shadows and the rains. . . God is a dirty cellar without music.” The bitter tones that repeatedly excelled in his writings likewise excelled in compassion. “The word . . . that replaces hate is humanity . . . A voice that tells humanity. Living until the skin of your soul is filled to the last pore. Until every sift and sound and touch and smell and taste opens its arms and pulls you in. To be alive. That is holy, that is sacred.”

A Gift

The second time I arrived on time for class, I again spent a few moments alone with Leonard before the others would materialized. I enjoyed the personal attention. His kindness and wisdom made me feel unique. He had a special gift for that. Reaching in his bookcase, he removed one that he had written, Dare to be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction.

Handing it to me, he humorously said, "This isn't a bad book. You might want to consider it for future references."

In the chapters, which are outlined like a study guide, a list of "Don'ts" appear in the back. "Don't Fear the Novel's Size." "Don't Postpone Your Novel." "Don't Marry Another Writer." And my favorite, "Don't Quit Your (Day) Job." There is no particular order of his book, and the convenience is comparable to a recipe album. If there is something you need offhand, rather than reading an entire chapter to seek advice, you search the index for development of characters, dialogue, flashbacks, and so forth, then the specific element under that listing.

"Why do you want to write?" he once asked me.

I shrugged and replied, "Because I just do." I felt silly with that answer. It offered no illumination to the meaning of life, as writers are supposed to inherit, or so I've read. But above all, it felt more of a childish response compared to his life experiences.

Leonard lifted his brows and proceeded, "You don't even have to be a talented writer to write. Did you know that? You just need the will to write. The more you do it, the better you become." He beamed a cocky smile. "Now that's good advice. You better write it down!"

The Overfed Butcher


Three months into his classes, and after a harsh disagreement with another professor, he left college. Of course his departure didn’t stop him from writing. With the help from Dr. Glicksberg, Leonard entered a writer’s contest and won $500. It was a proud day. That same day, he received a phone call from Bernard, his brother. Their father had been pacing in an apartment’s hallway, with a loaded gun, waiting for their mother to return home. When Leonard arrived at the top of the staircase, his check still stashed in his coat’s pocket, he watched his father pace like a rabid dog, high on heroine. Leonard’s anger overwhelmed him. He lunged for his father, punching him until his father bled and whimpered. Bernard pulled him away and slammed him against the wall, telling him the importance of Jewish traditions, that sons should never hit fathers, despite the numerous times their father and hit them.

“I was deeply shocked,” Leonard wrote. “Not because he [my father] was trying to kill my mother (he had tried it several times before) but because I could see myself ten years from now, standing inside my father’s skin . . . I was against the wall, clawing for an opening to hide in. I could hear the shovels of hell clattering at me, feel the opened oven searing my soul, and I was terrified. It was then that I decided to use my typewriter to become an author."

Two years later in 1952, he published his first novel, Down All Your Streets. The writing contest caught the attention of Dial Press and offered him a contract. He saw opportunity. “I was a dummy, but I was not stupid.” He continued to write about his life experiences. About violence. Poverty. Drug addiction. Lost loves.

Shortly after his first publication, he ran into a childhood classmate while on the subway. “Feets! Hey Feets!” his classmate cried out. “You’re not gonna believe this! There’s some guy usin’ your name on a book! Maybe you oughta sue the guy and get some money, huh?”

Leonard didn’t tell his former classmate that the “guy” was really him. He laughed it off as if a coincidence. For a man, who grew up in a tough environment, to admit he was a writer would be as if admitting he were “weak,” a “sissy,” or even a “homosexual.”

Despite the stereotypes, his career catapulted him out from the ghetto. The confidence that followed slowly transformed into teaching. He started at Columbia University in the mid 50's. He never finished college, but his gift superseded his academic credentials. Working with James T. Farrell as part of “team teaching,” Leonard learned the skills of a teacher as well as a writer. Farrell, who was best known for his Studs Lonigan trilogy, taught the value of naturalism. Raised in a poverty himself in Chicago, Farrell and Leonard developed a strong admiration and friendship, no matter how heated their arguments became at times. Their friendship lasted for twenty years until Farrell’s death.

Leonard’s style of writing was recognized by the Gold Medal Author in the early 60's. Twice. Make My Bed in Hell and The Desire Years dealt with youth and misery. His voice differed greatly from Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. His tone erupted during period when American culture began seeking for radical impulses. It was fresh like that of Pollack and disturbing like that of Picasso. It entertained and shocked just like “The Blackboard Jungle,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” and “The Wild One.” His need to write in cafeterias at night inspired him because people of all lifestyles crawled out of their hiding places. And he liked the darkness. No only that, but he confessed, “If I didn’t write in cafeterias, how else would people know I’m a writer? I don’t look like one; I look like an overfed butcher.”

In the late 60's, his career shifted to the West Coast when one of his books, Against Heaven’s Hand, was to be made into a movie. The producers changed the title to “Seven In Darkness.” It sounded more compelling. Granted the movie was designed for television, but Leonard stuck around in California anyway and re-established his friendship with Mario Puzo. In that sunny state, he found several teaching jobs, ranging from University of San Francisco, Haywood, and his last stop, Berkeley. At Berkeley he taught Anne Rice, Donna Gillespie, Donna Levin, Katherine Endicott, and Carolyn Doty: a new breed of writers. He is also one out of seven writing teachers whose name resides in Who’s Who of American Authors.

During the early 80's, he married his second wife, Celia, and followed her to her home state of Kansas. He continued teaching private groups until his death in late December of 2002. After thirty years of achieving a distinguished legacy, he finally felt satisfied with his life. “I was no longer a low bum, a hobo, a loser,” he wrote. “I had faced the challenge of Opportunity and dared to claim it for my life. ‘Hey, God, look at me, I’m gonna live, I’m an author!’ I was an author. I would dare to become a great writer . . . You get what you dare, baby, and if you want it big, you dare big . . .”

To Hell with Talent



By the end of the year of 2000, I knew I found a teacher who could tutor my meek abilities as a writer and advance my own voice. Granted, the entire process actually took two years before I understood much of what he advised. About prose. About creating your characters into human beings. About locating stiffness in your writing and bending it to flow smoothly. Writing is not easy. Nor is it natural. It takes stubbornness and the sensibility to endure criticism. To improve and keep improving.

Out of all the lessons I had learned, Leonard emphasized on the misconceptions of inspiration and writer's block, (that to write well one must have divine inspiration, and if one lacks inspiration, then it must be writer's block.) He stressed on motivation instead of inspiration. He claimed that "[m]any of the problems that writers have do not arise from what they cannot do in writing, but what they do not realize a writer must experience if he is to survive society, and himself."

This "experience" is not just based from one's personal history, it's also built from one's training in writing. The more years an author gathers onto his/ her pages, the skill flourishes into art. After two years working with Leonard, and his Thursday night Writer's Group, he gave me the best compliment I had yet welcomed. He told me, as he pointed his finger, "You no longer have the privilege of being lazy!"

Leonard finished an unpublished sequel to Dare to be a Great Writer that same year, titled To Hell with Talent. Taking his ideology and extending it like sprouting tree branches, his goal continued to expose the myths about writing and even writers. Myths that author's imagination takes control over his/ her writing process. That author's led exciting lives. That only "talented" people can become writers. As in his first book, his bluntness defied many traditional stereotypes. The fact is an author has complete control in his/ her characters. That most authors have little, if any, social skills. That anyone with ambition and years of patience can become writers. In his preface to Dare, he wrote, "I have not diluted or compromised any of what I know and believed should be written about writing. I have avoided the fluff and cutie-pie meanderings that are useless to the inexperienced writer . . ."

The Invisible Jar

During the autumn of 2002, Leonard was diagnosed with lung cancer. With both radiation and chemotherapy, even at moderate doses, it still forced his immune system to greatly weaken when he then caught pneumonia. Within days he died. It was a shock. Just months after his birthday. Even at the age of 80, his bull-like build and determination seemed to guarantee at least another decade. He had such an energetic and witty presence it seemed absurd to foresee his mortality. He was the Parthenon. With a New Yorkian flair of course.

"You can't do that," he used to joke. "You know you can't say, 'It's in the next chapter!' If you do than it's a dollar in the jar, baby!"

The philosophy behind it ensured a symbolic awareness towards students' excuses. Whenever something would be missing, (usually an important piece of information to explain the story, or when a scene dragged and needed excitement to keep a reader's interest,) often students, myself included, exclaimed that it would be coming soon. Leonard's point being that it should be in the chapter now.

His writing groups still exist. In New York. In California. And yes, Toto, even in Kansas. The University of Boston dedicated a section with Leonard's books, notes, film, and tape recordings in its library. To let these groups die would seem insulting. For decades he worked strenuously to teach efficient techniques. If we were smart, we listened and hopefully to restore his wisdom. He cared so much about writing that there was a period in my life I could no longer pay the modest fee of $25. He told me not to worry about it. The purpose of the fee, he explained, was really intended to motivate students to write. "If they feel obligated to pay," he grinned, tapping his forehead, "then they'll feel obliged to write."

No one from The Manhattan Mercury wrote a featured article about him, just the usually small, typical announcement of his death. As if he hadn't worked for the newspaper. As if his voice had never existed. Part of the problem existed from an old, petty dispute with the editor about an article he wrote concerning the definition of rape, whether it was a violent crime or a sexual one. I remembered he once warned me about the pettiness of people in the writing world.

I have a box full of the books he collected in half a life-time. And it's only a fraction of what he stored. His taste ranged from literature to biographies, from world history to other "how to write" books, from dictionaries to thesauruses. I even have one of his coffee mugs with classical French etching. Much like the prints in his house, his love for all forms of art could only be admired. As I understood it, through the people who knew Leonard best, he mellowed through the years, no longer writing in cafeterias at night. He grew more patient and less aggressive. Yet, every morning for 25 years, he arose at six o'clock to punch on his keyboard. Every morning.

I'm honored to say I knew a great writer. And a teacher of writing. As he inscribed in one of his prefaces: "I believe that if a writer can return to the world more than what the world has given him, then he has earned his keep, not only as a writer, but also as a human being. I also believe that whatever saves my life must be good. I have lived a God-blessed life, and I want to pass it on." Okay Leonard, here's the dollar I owe you. I always pay my debts.


LEONARD ON TWITTER & FACEBOOK
Find Leonard on Goodreads
Blogging about Leonard Bishop
Bumper Stickers by Bishop Part I
Bumper Stickers by Bishop Part II
Notes from Leonard Bishop class 1977-78
More Notes from Leonard Bishop class
Obituary

Bibliography

Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988.
Bishop, Leonard. Down All Your Streets. New York, New York: The Dial Press, 1952.
New Voices: American Writing Today. Garden City, New York: Permabooks, 1953.
Rogers, Mark. Interview by author. 4 November 2003.

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Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. In addition to studying cultures, I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

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