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Scott Korb

Lloyd’s Mattress

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Scott Korb | Longreads | May 2020 | 18 minutes (4,490 words)



Our time is nearly up, but we’ve been living in our building on East 19th Street, in New York City, for more than a decade. It’s six stories, 24 units, built in 1920. A walkup. To arrive home we walk up to the fifth floor. The stone stairs grow smoother and more slippery as you descend, because more people over the years have trod the lower steps; that is, fewer people have had to climb so high as us. On the way down one has felt inclined, landing-by-landing, to step more gingerly, to grip the bannister — until these days, when we try not to touch anything or anyone outside the apartment, or when we wipe those things down before we do. Our lives will be this way until we leave, because, again, our time is nearly up.

The roof is off limits and armed with an air-raid siren that would make the dog howl.

The paint in the stairwell, a light, creamy green, bubbles and sometimes flakes off in chunks, sometimes peels, exposing paint and plaster from decades ago. For most of the time we’ve lived here, on the wall just above the landing as you ascend between the third and fourth floors, the paint was cracked and had folded itself to form the shape of a woman, nude, from beneath the breasts to just below the hips, somehow including a navel. I suspected I was the only one in the building to see her, and I was too embarrassed to alert my wife.

Not long after we moved in, in 2009, before we were married, I painted the lower half of one wall in our kitchen a clean and deep red, which now matches several striped hand towels and the new teapot. (We’ve continued making improvements.) The same day I painted in the kitchen, I also covered a wall in the living room a bright, flat blue, though we could tell right away that was a mistake — to live in a lesser Mondrian — and I repainted the wall in white just as soon as the blue was dry. For now, there’s a pair of bright red paintings, the work of a friend, centered on that wall above the blue sleeper-sofa. We’ll soon take them down. The kitchen table we use today once belonged to a woman I briefly dated and was friends with off and on for years, though I don’t recall exactly why or when I came to own the table. (My memory is not what it once was.) I seem to remember its being offered, and then loading it into a U-Haul truck beneath her loft in SoHo the same day I helped another woman move to Inwood, in Manhattan’s northern reaches, before returning home to Brooklyn late that night. Together, that other woman and I must have carried the table up to my apartment before settling in for a few hours on my mattress. This is how we lived.

The kitchen table is an antique, and for a time, in several apartments (including this one on 19th Street), I used it as an office desk. Hanging above the table these days is a bookshelf that once belonged to a couple of radical publishers, relatives of a friend who, in 2016, organized an estate sale in the couple’s warreny West Village apartment, advertising “art, furniture, lamps, tableware, a multitude of unusual curios, loads of books (especially cookbooks).” The day we left with the bookshelf and hung it on our wall we also carried away cookbooks by Molly O’Neill and Joyce Chen. Our other kitchen bookshelf once belonged to two men whose apartment we rented on 29th Street, also on the East Side, near the hospital where our son was born. This apartment had deep blue carpeting and a balcony, a pass-through from the kitchen to where we ate, and when we lived there we also owned a guinea pig. When we arrived where we live now — with the dog who came with me, the cat who came with my wife, and before our son — we posted on Craigslist an advertisement putting the guinea pig up for adoption: “Free to a good home. Full set-up.” As it grew and ate more hay, the rodent had become too messy; my wife was allergic. So after some emails, one afternoon two girls came from the Upper West Side with their mother, who insisted we take her daughters’ twenty dollars before they carried him away with his cage, which I must have lugged down the stairs and loaded into their hatchback.

Most everything about Lloyd remained mysterious. He sometimes seemed very old and unkempt, but he also displayed occasional vigor.

Over the years, many people have come and gone from our building on 19th Street. During the pandemic, the building has more or less emptied out — some, no doubt, for good. Who knows who’ll return? And yet, throughout our tenure, mostly we’ve complained — to each other and the more durable neighbors — about the turnover, which for a spate about five years ago, involved renovations to apartments in the lower floors that turned one-bedrooms into two- and two-bedrooms into three-. More bedrooms make apartments easier to share with other college students, which has been at the root of our grumbling: Our landlord’s fostering of transience. Dorm-life. (How soon we forget.) Even so, we twice wandered into these renovations, always on the lookout in New York for a little more room, but it never made sense when we considered the deal we’ve always had: our overall space isn’t much and the bathroom’s a puzzle, but there are two bedrooms and our rent remains below what the market will bear, for now, in the neighborhood.
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Father’s Little Helper

Illustration by Eric Peterson

Scott Korb | Longreads | June 2019 | 14 minutes (3,467 words)


Some of what you’re reading I was writing a few hours after taking half a Valium, prescribed by my doctor, partly for anxiety and partly for general neck and shoulder pain, and also a tingle and numbness that I was then feeling down my left arm into my fingers. It began with a yoga pose. It’s hard to know now what exactly I wrote while under the drug’s influence, such as it was. When I took the Valium I was 39; now I’m 41.

These 40-odd years, if Schopenhauer is right, have given me the text of my life. “The next 30,” he says, will “supply the commentary,” of which this, I hope, is an early part.

The pharmacist, who was younger than me, with slick hair, and whom I’d gotten to know a little over the years since my wife was treated for breast cancer, used the word spasm when referring to the orders faxed over from my doctor’s office. I nodded, yes, muscle spasms, even though that didn’t seem right; maybe I don’t know what spasm means. I said nothing about the low-grade anxiety I’ve felt for much of my life, which has gotten worse since my wife’s treatments finished up. “Low and slow,” he recommended. So I took half a pill. I’d never taken one before, and I’m cautious.

While discussing the pain in my neck and shoulder, the facial tics I’ve had my whole life, I also told the doctor I’m reluctant to take drugs, even Ibuprofen, though my wife has told me Valium can be fun. She recalls a day just before Father’s Day, 2014, wandering through New York City’s West Village, buying me expensive t-shirts in the late-spring heat, a week after major surgery, without a worry in the world.

I decided to take the Valium in advance of an MRI my doctor had prescribed to capture images of my cervical spine, hunting for disease. The pill would help get me through the test.
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Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story: A Course on Empathy

Illustration by J.D. Reeves

Longreads is delighted to share this mini-course exploring empathy created by Scott Korb,
with contributions from Paul Bloom, William Gatewood, and Daniel Raeburn. In addition to Scott’s essay, “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story,” be sure to read the responses, delve into the questions for deeper discussion, and check out the suggested readings — featuring the work of Leslie Jamison, Vivian Gornick, J.M. Coetzee, Sheila Heti, and more.

* * *

I teach in Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. Twice a year — once in January, once in June — the faculty and students gather in Oregon for 10 days of lectures, workshops, and readings. My wife is not wrong when she jokes that this is like camp for grown-ups.

Still, I like to think that serious work gets done when we get together. While some of the best talks at the residencies deal with the nuts-and-bolts of writing, the talks I prepare tend to address topics related to the writer’s mindset, or the fine-ish line between factual writing and fiction, or the writer’s role in civic life. I developed one such talk, “The Courage to Sound Like Ourselves,” into semester-long courses at universities where I otherwise teach.

On June 16, 2017, in Forest Grove, Oregon, I delivered a talk called “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story.” The title comes from Nabokov. The subject is the place of empathy in the moment of writing. Rather than develop a semester-long class for a university based on the talk, we’ve decided to present a version of it here at Longreads as a mini-course on empathy with a reading list, discussion questions, useful links, and a few critical responses.

One of the early lines of thinking in what follows stresses that education is a constant reminder of all that one does not know and that at its best, learning with others requires a good-faith effort to puzzle over ideas together. You’ll see that, like many people, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy in recent years, especially where my writing and my teaching are concerned. “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story” is my best recent attempt to say what I think.

The course takes up a recent useful book where my thinking is concerned, Against Empathy by psychologist Paul Bloom, who offers his own response alongside memoirist Daniel Raeburn and Pacific MFA student William Gatewood. Like Bloom, I know that empathy is often taken “to refer to morality and kindness and love, to everything good.” And like Bloom, I can see empathy this way, and I’m not opposed to kindness, love, or goodness. Seeing empathy only this way is, however, I’ve come to believe, a problem morally and also limiting to our potential as artists. This course is mainly focused on the dubious place of empathy in art.

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Read the full course

Scott Korb directs the first-year writing program at The New School’s Eugene Lang College and is on the faculty at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. He is the author and editor of several books, including Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, now out in paperback.

Contributors: Paul Bloom, William Gatewood, and Daniel Raeburn.

Editor: Krista Stevens | Creative Director: Kjell Reigstad | Illustrator: J.D. Reeves

Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)


The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

* * *

I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…