Brian Morton Profile
Brian Morton is a novelist who quotes Mike Tyson: "They all have a plan until they get hit" (Mike Tyson on opponents with plans). Writers require the ability to bounce back from criticism, Morton tells his New York University fiction writing class. He has a lot to say about writing.
The room is cramped and small; Morton is wearing a suit and has outlined what he has to say on a notepad (after each topic, he crosses it out, goes to the next). Morton talks and his 10 students listen, because Morton has credentials. His first novel, The Dylanist, was widely acclaimed, reviewed in New York Review of Books ("A first novel of unusual merit"). His second novel, Starting Out in the Evening, was finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. But most of the students probably do not know this.
Morton spends this first class talking about his less critically-acclaimed novels, like his two unpublished novels (the first of which, he says, is probably the worst novel ever written). In class, there is no talk of PEN/Faulker, no talk of critical acclaim. Some teachers discourage students unconsciously, said Morton, in his office at NYU. He cites John Gardner, who, in his book On Becoming a Novelist, said that as a young writer he wrote 20 hours a day. This is physically impossible, says Morton. The only reason to make such a claim, he says, is to discourage young writers.
Morton makes no such claims. He has more humble, honest, and encouraging things to say. Like when he realized, as a young person, that he had made it as a writer. He was in a bar, wearing all black. A girl came up to him, identified his cigarette. She was correct in her identification, so Morton knew that he had made it as a writer. This was before he came to understand that "being a writer has nothing to do with being hip or looking a certain way," that a writer is simply someone who writes. The class laughs.
Morton learned how to teach by thinking about his past teachers that he found most helpful. E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, among others, was foremost, he said. "He managed to convince the students that their writing was as important as his, which I thought was remarkable."
Morton's first novel was published when he was in his mid-30's.
"After college, I took a succession of dumb jobs," said Morton. He was a night-shift proofreader, copy-edited historical romance novels, then took a part time job at Dissent (a quarterly journal of politics and cultures).
This was a good job, he says. It was interesting, left him time to write his own stuff, and it almost paid the rent. He eventually became an editor at Dissent, working there until 1999.
In 1991, The Dylanist was published.
Afterwards, Morton found a teaching job, having always wanted to teach. He has taught creative writing at New York University and Sarah Lawrence College.
"It was very exciting to be sitting in a room once a week with other people who really cared about fiction, and just kicking around, asking questions about the problems of fiction," said Morton. "That's what I still enjoy the most about teaching. Just sitting in a room with other people who care about fiction."
In class, Morton is quick to laugh. There is a perpetual smile on his face—an easy and sincere one. He has the gray and sage-like appearance of someone who is more intelligent, more patient, and more confident than you. Fortunately, he is also nicer and more humble than you—so instead of envying him, you like him.
He is extremely attentive. He takes notes blind, uses his eyes to focus on the students. If one student is talking, he will track the response of the person that the first student is addressing. He will look at other students too, even if they are not talking at the moment. If you are a student, he will look at you. A fine thing.
A writing workshop is a very delicate class, he said. It is important to track what is going on.
Morton's students appreciate his attentiveness: "He attempts to foster some sort of positive environment, instead of a class in which everyone tears each other apart like vicious animals," says Isaac Vanduyn, one of Morton's students.
Isaac adds: "He has a few odd quirks—he stares at everyone and seems to take great pleasure in kicking this one girl," he says. (The room is small and there's often action under the table.) "Other than that, he's a pretty great teacher."
"Morton is only the second creative writing professor I have ever trusted," said Tara Wray, another student (who has workshopped in Russia). "He's patient in class, even when things get very bad."
Morton is also patient with his words.
The words that come out of his mouth—sometimes, he'll stop talking and gaze off, like there's a swimming pool in his mind and he is dipping in for a little lap, to think over what it is that he wants to say, find the right words. Then he says what he wants to say. His voice is calm and soothing, like a down pillow. He'd put you to sleep if he weren't so funny (E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, he says, was translated into 50 million languages—50 million!).
He once excused himself, in class, for uttering a cliché. He doesn't take back words that come out of his mouth. He makes them right, then lets them out his mouth. "Respect the language," he once said.
He explained with a metaphor: "The ideal sentence is like the George Washington bridge," he says (okay, a simile). Like the George Washington Bridge, the ideal sentence gets you from here to there without your having to pay attention to the construction of it—but if you step back and look at it, you go 'wow.' He thought this up one day while looking out his apartment, admiring the beauty of the bridge over the Hudson River.
Morton is the acting director of the graduate writing program at New York University this year. He is working on a new novel. Ideally, he writes every day. ("The simple advice to 'keep writing' is the best advice I ever got from a teacher," he said.)
He has a metaphor for writing: He and his wife have two children, he says to his class. "Something my wife and I do each day is feed them. There isn't a night where we say, oh! We forgot to feed the kids." This is how to write, he says. Make it a habit, write every day.
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