By Amy Phillips Penn

I love beautiful riding boots. Lace ‘em up, buckle them across, zip ‘em polo style, and you’ve got me…perhaps forever.

I worked at GQ magazine when it was owned by Esquire.

On an ordinary day, I went to Xerox (yes, we used to do things on paper back in the day) some “who cares” kind of information, when…boom. I spotted them: A pair of brown field boots on a man who was shuffling papers onto the machine.

“I love your boots,” I oozed.

We had drinks together a few hours later.

Gordon Lish will go down in New York history as the consummate New York literary challenge: A deliberately bewildering and complicated editor who left his students somewhere in between perplexed, tortured and published, or a blend of each.

In his glory days, Lish hung out with Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. As a literary editor, he championed Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and Amy Hempel among others. Need we say more?

He was Esquire’s fiction editor, and he asked me to be his secretary. I wasn’t interested in the role of “secretary,” but Lish stayed in my life regardless.

At Columbia, I enrolled in his infamous six-hour writing class, Tactics in Fiction.

At the end of class, Lish and I hustled across Columbia’s campus to hail or hop on transportation to take us home. Hanging out was our way of avoiding danger, according to him. This nurturing came, of course, after six hours during which we would-be writers—Lish’s students—were brought close to tears, or to tranquilizer popping, or to never wanting to write again.

Lish loved to torture us with the tale of one of his students bringing his psychiatrist to class. Power on.

The relationship between aspiring writer and editor is often on the edge. Passion is no stranger to the mix.

Ask my friend Janine, who engaged in more than a professional relationship with one of her Sarah Lawrence professors. He taught English or writing and had said “I do” and “undo” to several Sarah Lawrence students along the way.

When Janine asked me to drive up to her class at Sarah Lawrence so I could lay eyes on “the man,” I replied in psyched affirmation.

Hours later, she called to say it wasn’t a good day for me to come after all. I was utterly disappointed. Until I learned that Janine crashed her hot little Lotus into a truck on her way up to the Bronxville campus. The passenger seat was completely smooshed. Ahh, the danger of forbidden relationships!

Women liked Gordon Lish, and Lish liked them back. He was married, and photos of his very attractive wife adorned his office wall. But framed pictures are powerless in the face of  rumors.

In my first Lishian class, I felt borderline nauseated. Gordon asked us all to introduce ourselves, and to say a little something about our writing. When my turn came, I could have sworn my heart was palpitating so palpably that everyone in class could hear it.

“I remember how much I hate being called on in school,” I muttered.

“Penn, you’re going to be a writer,” Lish countered.

A compliment from Lish: Unusual and fleeting. But he didn’t let me own it for more than a nanosecond.

“Who was it that said they hated being called on at school? Was it you, Ross. Maybe it was you, Smith?” The theatrical power games played on, and on…

I leave you with one of my all-time favorite Lishian musings from a piece I did for Interview:

“I believe that we all want to stick out in the world, that the least of us has a profound impulse to distinguish himself from everyone else on earth, and I believe the doing of art—is the way we chiefly go about that kind of thing. The bulk of us are deprived of such opportunities… the price for doing so is exorbitant.”

Do you still want to be a writer???


Featured image courtesy of Wish You Would Hear

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