My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sharon Guskin, author of the debut novel, The Forgetting Time, published by Flatiron Books/Macmillan and recently named an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick for February. In addition to writing fiction, Sharon has worked as a writer and producer of documentary films. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons. Click here to visit her website and learn more about her writing.
My First Mentor
When I was a young woman, my model of love came from Jane Eyre; I was looking for Mr. Rochester, that figure, craggy and charismatic, who could see into Jane and appreciate her when no one else could. I held on to this notion for years, despite the fact that the world seemed disinclined to hand over any Rochesters. High school and college boys, trembling and sardonic, yes, a few; but no larger-than-life, romantic figures on which to attach my passionate feelings.
Then came Mr. Matthiessen.
I was twenty-two by then, finishing my senior year at college after a year teaching at a refugee camp in Thailand, from which I had returned disoriented and adrift. My parents were splitting up. My class had graduated while I was away, and the friends I still had on campus were moving through their last year with alarming drive and ambition. I had loved teaching the Lao and Cambodian children at the camp, but it had not clarified anything for me regarding my own future. And I was unnerved by the contrast between my two locales: that unmoored city of dust and earth in which my classrooms were made up of bamboo and blue tarp versus the university’s gothic grandeur and solid, stone-cold belief in itself.
Peter Matthiessen was in his sixties then, and his face was weathered, but his handsomeness was intact. He was lean, high-cheekboned, erect of carriage, altogether remarkable-looking; you couldn’t separate his looks from his presence, or at least I couldn’t. His vitality was amazing and manifested as much in stillness as in motion. He came into the class and nodded formally at me, blue eyes bright, a faint smile on his face. It is possible that he nodded at everyone. Probably he did. But I couldn’t tell you for sure, because when he nodded at me I saw a spark of recognition leap from his eyes, and my breath caught in my chest. I didn’t breathe again for the duration of the semester.
The Snow Leopard, and though I didn’t understand very much of its Eastern mysticism, the feeling in it resonated through me like the sound of a bell.
I wasn’t foolish enough to think that anything might actually happen between us. Peter was married, and my teacher, and at least forty years older, and a Zen Buddhist priest besides. In our interactions in class there wasn’t a tinge of any inappropriate interest on his part; he seemed to regard me with fondness and mild amusement. Nor was I his favorite; there was another writer in the class, now one of my closest friends, whose brilliant prose style met his high standards for “boldness,” and she was the one he recommended for an award. I loved him anyway: fiercely, hopelessly, the way I loved then.
Even though he came into town only on the day he taught, the air seemed always imbued with his presence, as if he was watching me. I spent hours wondering if the connection was imagined and decided against it; for surely there was something there, surely he felt something, too? I walked around cupping this spark in my hands like a precious flame that might go out at any moment. I may have been obsessed, but I felt awake.
And I wrote. I was on fire. I began a novel about a girl who was working at a refugee camp and fell in love (impossibly) with a handsome Cambodian monk who just happened to have very high cheekbones and an erect carriage. I wrote pages and pages. I called the novel Samsara, which I vaguely understood as the Buddhist wheel of life and death; I thought it had a pretty sound. What did Peter think of my novel? I can’t imagine that my ardor escaped his notice, or the similarities between my Zen teacher and the monk in the plot. But he merely looked at me with that half-smile of his and wrote at the bottom of my pages in pencil: “I like the feel of it. Keep going!”
I visited him during office hours; he sat behind an empty desk, its only occupant the bottom half of a peeled orange.
“So. I was wondering if you had any more suggestions for my novel,” I said.
“No.” He looked at me calmly.
A moment of silence ensued that he apparently wasn’t interested in breaking.
There was nothing else to say, so I told him the truth.
“I want to be a writer. But I’m…insecure.” I mumbled the last word, wincing.
He laughed. “All writers are insecure.” He leaned across the desk. “I’m insecure.”
I sat there, stunned. I’d been fishing, of course; I’d wanted him to say something about my work (or me) that would put an end to my insecurity forever. Instead, I got a challenge. Of course, you’re insecure. Now what are you going to do?
I kept going. The girl and the monk ran off together and began a doomed, Jane Eyre-infused romance. The class finished. On the last day, walking out of the building towards the pizza place where Peter was taking us all as an end-of-semester treat, he mentioned that I could send him my novel when I had made it the best it could be, and that if he liked it he’d recommend it, but he’d be honest in his response, I had to be ready for that. “I am,” I said vehemently. Some knowledge passed across his face. “Yes, I see that about you.” I looked up at him, utterly dazzled, and he spontaneously leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll kiss all the girls,” he said afterward, and probably he did.
In the Matthiessen-less days and months that followed, a flame persisted, a sense of possibility onto which I affixed his name. I traveled to Spain and France with my sister and felt his presence as if he was watching me among the Pyrenees. I wrote about him in my diary: “Peter's like a bright place inside.”
I never sent him my work. Nothing ever seemed good enough to share with him. I kept writing, though, for over twenty years. I finished that novel and wrote another one, although I didn’t find a publisher for either. As I kept going, trying to get better despite my insecurity, I thought sometimes of his belief in making the effort to get it right; and when recently I began practicing Buddhism myself, at first a little, and then a bit more, and finally with a wholehearted feeling, an inner brightness, I realized something about my love for Peter and that wave of emotion I had assumed was both hopeless and romantic. It was neither.
Imagine you are a twenty-two year old woman experiencing a powerful sense of possibility, and the conduit for all this feeling is a handsome, renowned, extraordinary man: how could one not mistake this feeling for romantic love, which our society tells us is the most powerful emotion there is? Yet the difference matters.
Of course, there are teachers who might have taken advantage of this situation. And if Peter had been one of them, this might have been a sordid story, or it might have been a more exciting, heartbreaking one. But in either case it would have been less important. By Mr. Rochestering Peter Matthiessen I had perceived the link between us as fleeting, romantic, and disappointing, when in reality the influence of this brief connection turned out to be as lasting and as encouraging as I could imagine. This man was a high priest of literature and the first spiritually present person I’d ever met. He was committed fully to both paths in his own life, and in the darkness of mine he lit both sparks.
I visited him a couple years ago, with that friend from the class. He showed us the Zendo he’d built on his property; I told him I’d started to meditate, though I hadn’t yet found my teacher, and he laughed a little at the “softness” of the approach I described. I’d known by then that my third crack at writing a novel was going to be published, but it still didn’t seem ready to share with him. And besides, he was sick. He’d been traveling in Mongolia to research the wildlife there, staying in a yurt, and had realized with surprise that he felt tired, so when he returned he went to the doctor and discovered he had leukemia. He was 85. He was still writing, finishing his last novel.
He died a year later and appeared to me soon after in a dream, showing up abruptly, with a questioning look. “I didn’t send you anything because nothing seemed good enough,” I said to him. He nodded impatiently. “And I became a writer in your class,” I added. He laughed. “I’m not surprised,” he said.
And he was gone.