Thanks Gerry

October 18, 2011

     My friend and teacher, Gerry Shapiro, would have laughed at my last blog, a recounting of a near-death experience with a vacuum that was as pathetic as it was unspectacular. Ezra Pound might have waxed tragic about life slipping by like a field mouse not shaking the grass (before we meet our end in a stupid and embarrassing fashion), but that’s precisely what Gerry would find funny about our time here on earth.

When I heard Gerry had died, I was reminded again of how he delighted in exploiting those neuroses in fiction, creating characters who worried so much about everything that they inevitably pitched headlong into horribly awkward situations entirely of their own making, the theory being that the best way to excise fears is by making their worst nightmares come true.

I also thought of how much I learned from Gerry and how productive I was under his tutelage—in Gerry’s classes I wrote what became the first chapter of My Brief History of Sex Education as well as several short stories that will become the basis for my next book once I put this first one behind me. One reason I flourished was because Gerry recognized in me another anxious, uptight soul, but more important was that he taught me—in class and with his writing—how essential it is to create the imperfect person.

My early stories were full of naïve and helpless characters—people who rode the waves of life in a near-constant state of befuddled surprise—and Gerry was remarkably patient with them and with me. But soon I learned—from Gerry the teacher and Gerry the writer—that it’s also important to show the dark side of your characters.

The characters in Gerry’s stories—my favorite creation of his was Leo Spivak—can be charming and ingratiating and funny, but then the page turns, the mood shifts, and that other side comes out. The vindictive side, the vengeful side, the side that makes a reader catch her breath and say, “Did Leo really just do that?” (And I won’t tell you what Leo does—just read Bad Jews or watch The King of the Corner and you’ll quickly see what I mean.)

One question we often try to answer—in fiction or memoir or life—is why bad things happen to good people. And that’s probably the question I began with when I wrote my first stories for Gerry’s classes—but the trickier and more interesting questions Gerry forced me to tackle are why good people do bad things to other good people and why on earth they’re forgiven after they do. They’re certainly questions I had to face in My Brief History of Sex Education because despite my early fondness for the befuddled ingénue, I have certainly been responsible for more than a few moral failings myself. It would be disingenuous if not outright deceitful to pretend that I had been an innocent, and the book is far better for it.

What I also learned from Gerry is that the reason we are so often granted forgiveness—and the reason we grant it ourselves—is because our lives are left unfinished. There’s always another chapter, there’s always another edition, there’s always another revision. So we grant others the chance we want ourselves—the chance to finally get it right. Gerry told me he used to agonize over his stories that had been published in literary magazines—he’d read them over and over and beat himself up over typos or mistakes or stilted dialogue or endings he wished he’d rewritten—until he realized that the publication was just one more stage in the process. “I can fix it before the book comes out,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.” And he was right. We can endlessly revise our stories and our lives.

And I don’t think death ends that process of revision, that chance for redemption. Gerry won’t be continuing Leo Spivak’s story here on earth, but Leo’s story—like Gerry’s, like mine and yours—will continue because there’s an infinite chance for another story, another chapter, another chance for forgiveness. (And yes, Gerry often commented on my habit of repetition—“Kate, you have a way of repeating words and phrases over and over—it works sometimes, but sometimes it really doesn’t. Keep an eye on that.”)

So Gerry’s friends will continue his work—his fellow writers, his students, and of course the wonderful writer and teacher Judith Slater, his wife—and we will write that next chapter, we will write that next story. And others will follow us when we leave our own work unfinished. And all of us—and the characters we create—will continue to make mistakes and do bad things to good people and hope to forgive and be forgiven for our imperfections. But for now we will miss you Gerry. . . thank you.

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4 Responses to “Thanks Gerry”

  1. Gerry was such a sweet soul. I will miss seeing him and his wry smile.

  2. Tim said

    Thanks for writing this. Gerry was a wonderful teacher.

  3. I think Gerry would like this one, Kate. Repetitions and all.

  4. Rex Walton said

    In the Era of Reality TV, and the 24 Hour Newz Cycle – you brought sly humorous magicalism … grateful, we are, Gerry

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