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Knowing John Cheever Part Two

"Literature has been the salvation of the damned, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair and can perhaps in this case save the world." John Cheever


"Yes, Chris…" a rich, weathered, New England-accented voice began…"This is John Cheever."

And with that, I was introduced to one of the greatest fiction writers in American literary history.

He asked me a few questions about what I liked to write (short stories, I said--he said, "So do I.") and then asked if I might be able to come over to his home for a visit. (I remember thinking that, because Little League All Stars was just under way, that it would be tough to get a visit in during
practices.) But he spoke to my mom for a minute or so and when she hung up, we had a plan. In just a couple of days, I was to be dropped off at his house after school for a visit. And I was to bring some writing samples.

John Cheever lived in a beautiful colonial-type home off of Cedar Lane in Ossining, New York. You drove back a long, wooded, cul de sac driveway, and as I recall, a big Golden Retriever (or maybe it was an Irish Setter) ran up to greet visitors as they arrived. My mom dropped me off, watching as Mr. Cheever met me at the door and invited me in.

John Cheever was a very distinctive looking man. His long, draw face had lots of lines and crevices in it. He seemed a bit tired, aloof but also relaxed as he ambled into a very well-oiled den sort-of room. He motioned for me to sit down (after getting me a Coke) and didn’t say much of anything at first. He had gone across the room and started looking through record albums until finally he found what he had been looking for. He held it up and said, "This is a remarkable album. Have you ever heard it?"

It was "Rubber Soul" by the Beatles. I told him that yes, I was quite familiar with it, and seconds later, "I’ve Just Seen A Face" was coming out of his small stereo speakers. (Later, when "Michelle" came on, he said he thought that it was "Absolutely incredible" or something to that effect. "In My Life" he liked, too.)

Then finally, he sat down. Before paying me too much attention he lit up a filterless cigarette. But before doing so, he lined up a bunch of other filterless cigarettes on the antique table next to him. For the next hour or so, as he finished one cigarette, he’d light another one off of it. Literally, one match made it through the entire pack of smokes.

Cheever started with basic teacher/student questions. He asked me why I liked writing, what else I liked in life, how I liked school, etc. I showed him some stories I’d brought along and he said he’d hold on to them, read them, and then offer his critique when he was finished.

(Throughout the course of the meeting, Cheever’s wife had also come in for a moment to say hello. She also reminded him he was going to be on the "Dick Cavett" show in a couple of days and that Cavett wanted to speak to him before the appearance.)

Cheever listened thoughtfully to me as took deep hits on his cigarettes, releasing ungodly amounts of smoke. After hearing about how much I liked playing baseball and that we were in our "Post Season" as all stars, he got very interested and I remember thinking, "Good, he’s a baseball fan. We have a bit in common."

As we neared what seemed like the end of our discussion, he said he had a bit of advice. He said he didn’t think people could be taught to write or led to write. He said real writers write, period. If it’s in you, you do it. So go home he told me, and begin keeping a journal. Cheever said that journals force you to write, and that’s what separates writers from people "Who simply say they want to write." He said journals are where you develop your own style and point of view. How you start creating a discipline for yourself. So I said I’d start soon. He said, "Start today. There’s no point in waiting. Go home and start a journal. If you really want to write, then go home and write. And then when you write something you think is important, I will look at it for you. We can meet like this from time to time… but you have to really want to write. It’s a great deal of work and you must be serious."

(I remember this incident well because I did in fact start a journal that day and the first entry was a description of my first meeting with John Cheever.)

Mr. Cheever (as I always addressed him from that point on) drove me home then in his red Volkswagen Rabbit. As he pulled up our long driveway I noticed my mom looking out the door off the breakfast room. Getting out of the car. I asked, "Would you please get out and say hi to my mom? My folks are both huge fans of yours."

He smiled, I think for the first time that day, even laughed a bit and said, "My pleasure."

I left the two of them chatting in the driveway and went to find a blank pad of paper so I could start my journal.

Then, in just a few weeks when Mr. Cheever would call to invite me back over to review my work.

PART III to follow soon…


"The Journals of John Cheever"
"Heartrending...Can be read as a writer's notebook, a family chronicle, a brutally honest autobiography, and almost as an unfinished novel...A daring contribution to American letters."--New York Times


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