Suspend Your Disbelief

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Under the Influence… of Arnost Lustig


476px-Arnost_Lustig_smallI was the worst writer in my MFA program my first year.  I know this thought isn’t unique, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.  My confidence was shot.  I was lost as a writer and so concerned with impressing my teachers and fellow students that I had abandoned whatever it was that made me worth accepting into the program in the first place.

The following summer, I attended the Prague Summer Program, where Arnost Lustig was my workshop teacher.  We began each class with jokes.  We wrote a fable every day.  We read (after a fashion) Aristotle’s Poetics.  We discussed fairy tales and fables and Arnost’s favorite writers—Kafka, Borges, Mann, and others.  Our writing assignments were short, read and critiqued aloud.  Arnost would ask questions like “Is it interesting?” or “Was this funny?”  Interesting!  Funny!  These are workshop questions?

The only assignments we turned in were fifteen lines we’d write about the previous class.  Aside from assuring us that they wouldn’t be shared with the rest of the students, there was little guidance.  I believe he read them, but he never commented, never even returned them.  My first one started with something Arnost had said at our initial meeting—Suddenly and from out of nowhere there came a bad wolf.  This was how I felt: surprised, vulnerable, challenged.  Rereading those lines, I understand how badly I needed to hear the questions he’d asked—Why are you a writer?  What would you say to earn your way into heaven? I see how quickly even Arnost’s sentence rhythms infected my own.  I shared these assignments with a friend from that class, and she called them my love letters to Arnost.  Though I didn’t know it then, she’s right.  I hope Arnost saw that as well.

Lone Wolf

Arnost passed away in February.  He wasn’t the only great teacher I’ve had—I’ve been blessed in that department—but at a time when I was overly concerned with questions of form and point of view and style and finding my voice, he was there to remind me to tell a story.  When I teach Intro to Fiction, that’s the class I try to teach.  I know I come up short, but I can’t be the only one trying to pass on Arnost’s lessons.  Maybe between the lot of us, we can come close.


Join the Discussion

  • Thank you, Charlie, for this beautiful post and for bringing back some wonderful memories from those weeks in Prague.

  • Eireene Nealand

    Yes, thank you! Those were some wonderful “letters to the king.” I read them with pleasure, several times, a fiction version of Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet as it were. Am waiting to see them come out somewhere!

    To add a little memory: I remember the day that he put his arm around me and said–“Now, finally, Eireene, you’ve squeezed your soul. I was waiting for you to do it.” That’s a paraphrase, but it was always clear that he’d read all of our work and was hard at work understanding our souls. He is still so important to me too, and and much missed!

  • Charlie–I love this tribute. Those are great questions and they suggest someone who loved writing and who knew that that is where craft actually starts.

  • Brenna

    Thanks for the reminder of Arnost, Charlie.

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