Writing Lessons: Steve Lewis

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Steve Lewis, a faculty member at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute. You can visit Steve’s website at www.stevelewiswriter.com—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor


Back in the 80s I’d sometimes find, in my battered rural mailbox, pressed between SASEs from Harper’s or The Atlantic, manila envelopes stuffed with short stories written by my sister’s son Pete, my brother’s son Jake, and my sister-in law’s daughter Isabel.

As I read those ripped notebook pages speckled with whiteout, I happily assumed the pose of the kindly uncle professional writer, enthusiastically pointing out moments of real resonance—and gently, ever so gently, making one or two standard issue suggestions about showing not telling.

Whereupon, having fallen prey to my own fiction as a successful writer, I would return to my own writing racked with guilt. I was a poser. Aside from a few chapbooks of poetry, one from New Erections Press (1969, of course) and a textbook on emergency care (a boring story), my so-called career as a writer meant supplementing my crummy wages in academia by composing cute pieces on fatherhood for parenting magazines.

I tried to beat back my self-editing self by taking some small comfort in the not unreasonable assumption that young relatives would never be harmed by my charade. They would graduate high school and college and head into careers with corner offices doing something, anything, other than being a part of the heartbreaking world of publishing—and be no wiser about their fraudulent Uncle Steve.

Now imagine, glancing over the screen in front of your eyes, it’s thirty years later and suddenly but not suddenly, my hair has mostly turned gray and gangly funny Pete is now Peter Steinfeld, screenwriter (Drowning Mona, Analyze That, Be Cool, 21); beautiful sultry Isabel is Isabel Burton (Executive Editor at Self Magazine); and sweet thoughtful Jake is Jacob Lewis (Vice President and Publishing Director for Crown, Hogarth and Broadway Books.).

Big Enchiladas.

And Uncle Steve? Still in the same creaky chair in the same dusty, seasonally frigid/muggy attic, James Lee Burke’s counsel dangling from a coffee stained Post-it tacked to the wall: “You do it a day at a time. You write as well as you can, you put it in the mail, you leave it under submission, you never leave it at home.” Still teaching. Still hustling up columns and articles, small and large. Still running writing workshops, north and south. Still writing books, small and smaller, small paydays and… what is smaller?

Well, this “office” where I sometimes lean back and imagine the impressive Manhattan suites where Jacob and Isabel put out their slick publications, or the posh L.A. studio where Pete develops scripts. Where I daily acknowledge Groucho Marx’s notion that “Home is where you hang your head.” Where, despite all humbling evidence to the contrary, the writing on the slanted wall as it were, I occasionally marvel at how I was an agent of the remarkable successes of my niece and nephews. However unintended. However misguided. However absurd the claim.

A damn good story.

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