What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I wasn’t mature enough to go to college, but you have to start somewhere. I’d also seen Animal House way too many times and learned the wrong lesson: I should have been idolizing John Belushi as an artist, not John Blutarsky as a role model. Like I said, immature, which was also reflected in my not knowing, or not being willing to commit to, what I wanted to be. My parents had been saying, “Be a doctor,” since I was 6, so I started pre-med; the first class I took during the shopping period was chemistry, I believe. The professor had barely introduced himself when the student next to me raised his hand. The professor stops.
“Can you recommend any additional texts besides the required?” asks the student.
I knew in that moment that was my last day of pre-med. I enjoy hard work and I enjoy competition, but only when it’s for something I want.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived on the eighth floor of McBain and I’m still friends with quite a few of the people who lived there — lot of big personalities. My roommate, Craig, and I shared a room throughout college, and since he met Lisa, who became his wife, in the first two weeks of freshman year, she and I did as well. We still do — I stay with them all of the time; Craig calls me his artist-in-residence. They both became doctors, but their kids are into theater and I’ll help from time to time with an audition or something. The other day Craig told me how much they’d learned from seeing me on stage, about being honest and vulnerable and how important an experience that is for the audience. I’m still profoundly moved by that, so clearly I had a really good first-year living situation.
What class do you most remember and why?
I majored in Russian language and literature for all the wrong reasons. The first was that my girlfriend told me I wasn’t smart enough to do it. The second was that when I came home for winter break freshman year I told my dad I’d decided to be a writer. Wondering what the hell happened to his pre-med son at that Ivy League school, my dad responded, “If you think you’re going to be an English major, you can pay your own damn tuition.”
I decided my best option was to become an English major in another language. Fortunately for my younger, more impetuous self, some of the writers you study in Russian lit were pretty good storytellers. The payoff came in the class “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” It sank in as I read Anna Karenina in Russian that I’d built up to it, had to earn it and what I learned opened a window. There’s an efficiency and nuance in storytelling in Russian because of the way verbs are formed though combinations of root meanings with prefixes or suffixes. A single word can describe the nature of an entire action and that produces incredible dimensionality. We don’t have that in English, and it altered my understanding of what a story can do. Combined with what for me was a fleeting moment of academic achievement, that remains one of my most vivid memories.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
St. Paul’s Chapel, the vaulting in particular. Our Art Hum teacher introduced us to that and I kept going back. That all those individual tiles could lean into each other to produce the strength that supports a form that borders on fluid, as if how they came together birthed their shape organically. That thinking has influenced my work as a writer and as a creative director for years, even if it didn’t occur to me until now. I’ve continually played with the development that comes from allowing different pieces to grow together into what they will. Aside from that, I’d have to say Low Steps on a beautiful day. I spent a lot of time there and can prove it — I’m one of those students on that New York Times Magazine cover.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
It would have been nice to have had the confidence back then to take more risks, but I suppose some of us just develop at a slower rate than others. In my case, really, really slow, although I do expect to come into my own by 2090 or so, assuming the planet is still inhabitable and civilization hasn’t collapsed. Although if the collapse of civilization leads us back to a foraging culture huddled around campfires at night, we’ll need storytellers, and I’ll be ready for that.
Otherwise, I would have spent more time seeking out professionals on the staff and in the College community who had succeeded in areas that interested me, learning what I could from their experience. It’s hard to beat that kind of mentorship when you’re figuring things out for yourself.