Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

The world according to John Irving in Jerusalem

The author with John Irving in Jerusalem. Photo by Stephen Daniel Arnoff. Used by permission.
The author with John Irving in Jerusalem. Photo by Stephen Daniel Arnoff. Used by permission.

Last night I met the man who made me a reader, and on a good day, a writer: John Irving. He’s in Jerusalem to complete the final chapter of his next novel, and shared anecdotes from a life of reading, writing, wrestling (actual wrestling, not just as a metaphor, but as an athlete and coach), and loving family and friends as colorful as those who animate his books. As an almost peerless public artist, he has woven narratives of humor and empathy for the misunderstood, the hurt, and the underdogs as the real heroes in this thing we call life.

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Irving, snooping around in my parents’ bookshelf for a book for grown-ups. “The World According to Garp” and “The Hotel New Hampshire” were first, and as the rabbis say of sacred text, “all the rest is commentary.” When asked about what made him want to write, Irving described a similar meeting with Charles Dickens at the age of 15. He found words and never looked back. What he would write about took a minute or two to figure out.

“I have had a very uneventful life,” Irving said – and that is truly fiction, my friends – “but I have made the most out of the one interesting thing that happened to me.”

That one thing was Irving being born to an unmarried mother, and coming of age without a biological father, only knowing faintly about a man who remained in the shadows of his son’s life. Subsequent longings powered the better part of 15 novels about writing, sexuality, family, liberty, and choosing radical hope and connection despite loss and bad timing.

I was sure I would be a writer in the years after I gobbled up all of Irving’s first harvest of novels, and made some real progress in my writing. But then rock and roll grabbed me and wouldn’t let go when I should have been banging out my first book.

An early mentor, the writer Blanche Boyd told me when I was choosing between leaving college to play music and sticking with her to write that I would need to make a choice: I could write and play music for fun as much as I liked, but only one of the arts could be my calling. I harbor a few regrets about the creative path I chose, but I know full well why music swept me away. I’ve talked about it here for years. Music has been my best friend on many days both good and bad, and sometimes only Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, B.B. King, or some other master of music could help me break through all the noise to find the song of my soul.

Eventually I did write a book – about music, of course – and I’m starting a new one in August. It’s not my novel just yet; the novel will come next, and that novel is not about wrestling, but rather, football.

Now that I make music only for fun, I know that in different ways, it was music that made me. But so did writers like Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and the great, ever-beloved, mensch of mensches John Irving.

I know that it looks dark out there for many of us. The losses, the corruption, the small-mindedness, and the hostages. There’s no denying the pain. It is unbearable. But we’re not here to complain, we’re here to make something out of all that we know and feel. We find the words, we sing, we do our part to lift up spirits and voices wherever and however we can. As John Irving says in “The World According to Garp,” sometimes “imagining something is better than remembering something.”

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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