Paul Steinberg, JMM Seminar Alum, Publishes A Salamander’s Tale

Jenny McKean Moore seminar
alum and author Paul Steinberg

A Salamander’s Tale is about Drugs, Sex, Lust, Rock ‘N Roll, Time, and Death”

Paul Steinberg, a longtime psychiatrist in Washington, graduated from GW’s Jenny McKean Moore seminar.  His book, A Salamander’s Tale: Regeneration and Redemption in Facing Prostate Cancer, comes out next April.  We talked to him about his time at GW, his work life, his relationship to literature, and his forthcoming book.

You were a student of Tilar Mazzeo by way of our department’s Jenny McKean Moore seminar, whose focus your semester was creative non-fiction.  What was that experience like?  Had you taken any literature/creative writing courses before this?

 I found the creative non-fiction course extraordinarily helpful, especially in learning the “craft” of writing, also in figuring out timing, the most succinct way to put in a punch-line.  I had never taken a creative writing course previously, although I had taken plenty of English courses in college.  I had wanted to be an English major, but at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960’s, the rigidity of the English Department was striking.  Although I had six years of Latin under my belt, the department chair insisted I had to take six semesters of a modern language.  Fo’get about it!  I ended up majoring in Political Science since it had the least demanding requirements; and it allowed me to take plenty of English courses and also complete the pre-med requirements. 

The seminar with Tilar Mazzeo was fascinating in terms of the dynamics of the group: As a psychiatrist I was struck by the not surprising shame and embarrassment of several of the younger members of the seminar as they read their work.  As a person in his 60’s, I didn’t give a damn about being revelatory.  Let it all literally hang out and give it a shot.  I have nothing to lose.  The shame component – and some tough critiques from some of the members – made several people run away.  All the more time for my work, I say unashamedly selfishly.

You’re a psychiatrist here in Washington.  In what ways did a career spent hearing other people’s stories prepare you for intensive reading in creative non-fiction?  Were there particular writers you found especially useful, inspiring?

Every human being has a story; and each of my patients over the years has inspired me with their resilience, their efforts to survive despite significant traumas, severe depression and anxiety, and other conditions created by the environment or one’s biology and genetics.  I was fortunate to have been trained as a psychiatrist in what some people have called “the golden age” of psychiatry.  My colleagues and I learned techniques for doing excellent psychotherapy, whether from a psychodynamic and psychoanalytic point of view or from a cognitive-behavioral point of view.  We were not just medication pushers, in the way that many psychiatrists are practicing now.  In the early 1990’s, with the advent of managed care, psychiatrists essentially priced themselves out of the psychotherapy market and began to focus on pharmacological treatments.  I was fortunate to have an eclectic and well-rounded training that has allowed me to see all the nuances in most of my patients.
Writers whom I found especially useful and inspiring: I came of age with the great Jewish writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s – Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, even relatively unknown writers like Myron Kaufmann (Remember Me to God), with a little John Updike thrown in for the WASPy point of view.    Although I mostly try to read non-fiction these days, I loved the remarkable writers of the first half of the 20th century – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos.
As a student-health psychiatrist, before I developed prostate cancer diagnosed in 1984, I taught an Honors course at the University of Maryland in College Park in the early 1980’s – a course entitled “The Inner Life: The Nature of Dreams and Passions.”  More than anything, it was a great excuse to teach some early Philip Roth novels including Portnoy’s Complaint (Students loved it – and I still can’t get over the punch-line at the end from the previously silent Viennese psychoanalyst, “So now ve may begin”).  Also I included Roth’s The Professor of Desire, plenty of Kafka, with a few John Updike stories thrown in. These writers did not hold back – they pushed the envelope at the time.  And I’ve tried to do the same.

Your book, A Salamander’s Tale: Regeneration and Redemption in Facing Prostate Cancer, came out of that seminar experience.  In what ways (creatively and pragmatically) did that seminar help in the writing of the book?

As I noted above, I wanted to learn the craft of writing, and the seminar provided all the stuff I was lacking.  I had previously written a number of pieces in the Op-Ed section and the Science section of the New York Times, as well as pieces for the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.  But making non-fiction into something creative that reads like a novel was a skill I did not have.  Kudos to Tilar Mazzeo for helping me with this skill.

From the summary I’ve read, you use the salamander’s regenerative capacity as a way to talk about human beings and their capacities to overcome injury – physical and emotional.  Can you say something more about that?

 As much as I love the salamander for its regenerative capacities, I love the fact that evolution has taken us from cold-blooded animals like the salamander to warm-blooded animals like ourselves – with the remarkable evolutionary development of the human brain.  A salamander can survive for months while its tail or even part of its heart regenerates; but we human beings, warm-blooded, would have all sorts of bacteria growing in the wound site, and we would not survive.

So, we now have huge brains and enormous cognitive abilities – most of which we do not use as productively as we could.  We lose something special in going from cold-blooded to warm blooded; but we gain something even more remarkable.  The second half of the book, in fact, takes a look at how we can bust and debunk myths about sex and sexuality, about the gods, about time and death.  It may be a bit pretentious, but I often tell friends that A Salamander’s Tale is about Drugs, Sex, Lust, Rock ‘N Roll, Time, and Death.

Do you have any advice for would-be writers among our students?

Advice for would-be writers: Again, everyone has a story.  Something happens in everyone’s life.  After all, none of us get out of here alive.  We’re all busy living and busy dying.  There’s a story in all of that, whether it’s presented in the form of fiction or non-fiction. Life is full of crazy events; and truth can be stranger than any fiction.  Take advantage of the crazy bounces of life; and use them, instead of suppressing and dismissing them.  Then learn the craft, and tell your stories in as entertaining and creative way as you can.

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