Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Personal Strength of Excellence - My Friendship with John Cheever

In 1972, while in graduate school at Duke University. I decided to write my dissertation on John Cheever, who in his own lifetime was considered America’s most celebrated storyteller. The author agreed to an interview, and we became friends. After I moved to West Point to teach English, it was easy to visit him once a month at his home in Ossining, New York. During our talks, he revealed far more to me than I could use in my dissertation.

One day, he came down the stairs with a manuscript in his hand. He had a broad smile. “I have written a story,” he said. This surprised me, because he was near the end of his career and he hadn’t published a story in quite a while. “Would you like to hear it?”

We sat at his dining room table while he put his hand on mine and read the story. It was “The Leaves, The Lion-fish and the Bear,” which was published in Esquire in 1974. It was a wonderful story, and I was the first person to enjoy it. What a gift!

Afterwards, John wanted to go for a walk. It was a cold, blustery day, and when we reached the top of the hill above his property, he said, “I’m freezing. Will you hold me?” Cheever was like a surrogate father to me, so I quickly agreed. To my surprise, he also wanted sex. I dealt with that uncomfortable situation as tactfully as I could, and we returned to his house. But my mind was connecting the dots. His bisexuality was evident in most of his fiction, and I hadn’t noticed it. When I pointed this out, he agreed and said it would be fine with him if I treated the theme in my dissertation.

To do the topic justice, I decided to rewrite my entire dissertation. And something else—in the rewriting I would discard the academic tone and adopt a more straightforward storytelling style. The story was important, and I wanted people to know about it.

It was hard to rewrite my dissertation, but my decision to reach for something better paid off. My committee thought it was the most readable dissertation they had ever seen, and I got my Ph.D. More significantly, the facts surrounding Cheever’s sexual orientation became more widely known. After he died in 1982, all three of his biographers treated his sexuality as the central theme of his life, and they described my relationship with him as the catalyst for his “coming out of the closet.” My comprehensive bibliography was published and remains a standard reference for Cheever scholars to this day. So I became a minor footnote to literary history, which is a more satisfying result than what usually issues from a dissertation.

But achieving high quality makes a difference in ordinary life, too. In those days I often felt overwhelmed by my work. I’d come home to my family exhausted, and sometimes when my sons wanted me to read a story, I’d go through the motions just to get through it. And when friends gathered, I half-stepped my way through conversations. I had a full plate, and sometimes I handled other obligations by phoning them in.

So when I remember what my life was like then, I feel a mixture of pride and regret. From the perspective of 40 years of experience, I wish I had tried harder to do even the small, everyday things so well that something wonderful happened—even when I was tired. It was a hard lesson to learn, and the lesson was about excellence.

A Fortune Cookie...

Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way, and people will wonder how you did it.

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[Photo courtesy of Wkimedia Commons. Used with permision.]

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . Photo of John Cheever from Wikipedia Commons. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just fine.