My father believes in the idea that there is one, unifying human story. "An Eskimo," he's always saying, "would understand 'Hamlet'"

26th May 2006 at 01:00
;My best teacher;Interview;Naomi Wolf;Features Arts When I turned 40 in 2002, circumstances combined to make me retreat to the country, away from bustling NYC. First, I had a mini mid-life crisis. I found myself asking: is this it? Second, there was the continuing echo of 911. I'd been two blocks away when the planes hit. Since then the world had seemed full of conflicting ideologies: the West versus Islam, right versus left, women versus men. I ended up escaping to a dilapidated house in upstate New York, and I sat in the empty front room that first night, cherishing the silence.

Alone in the house, I realised I could hear a voice speaking to me, one I hadn't listened to much for the past 20 years: my father's. Leonard Wolf is 82 now, and for more than 50 years he taught English literature all over the world, from Israel to Iran. He believes passionately in the humanist idea that there is one, unifying human story. "An Eskimo," he's always saying, "would understand Hamlet."

During my childhood, my father's insistence that we are all creative people who must find our own voice had a huge influence on me. But at college I'd become involved in a theoretical feminism that said the canon of English literature - so beloved by my father - was the creation of a white, male power structure, and had nothing to say to women. I stopped asking my father for advice, and lost touch with his humanist message. Turning 40, I realised I'd been spiritually depleted by the world of newspaper bylines, and two-minute television debates. I called Leonard, and asked him to help me build a treehouse for my daughter Rosa, at the new place upstate. But really, I had remembered that my father is my best teacher. I wanted to hear, again, the wisdom he'd imparted when I was a child.

Growing up in San Francisco, my brother and I were encouraged to inhabit a world of pure imagination. My father quoted poetry to us constantly, and as I got older I began to write my own. Thanks to him, I started life as a poet. I guess I became an activist only when I discovered the real world, at Yale and Oxford.

Leonard's message to all his students is that we must seek out our true voice. Voice is, he says, every person's unique, and so most valuable, attribute. He writes "cliche" endlessly on student essays, but praises lavishly when he hears students speak in their own voices.

But Dad doesn't believe in unbridled imagination; he also prizes discipline. "Writing," he told me, "is not romantic. It's like making shoes." As a teenager I'd bring him my free-verse poems, and he'd say, "Naomi, you can break the form when you've mastered it," then he'd talk about iambs and anapests and encourage me to rewrite. When I wrote my first book, The Beauty Myth, in my early twenties, those lessons in structure and revision were what enabled me to finish. Now I teach at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, which aims to let young women fulfil their potential as leaders. I can always recognise the real writers among my students by their willingness to rewrite a first draft.

My own teaching has shown me just what a great teacher Leonard is. At first, I thought it my mission to clone the next generation of Naomi Wolfs.

My father would say this is the opposite of what teaching is about: he guides students to their interests and his only agenda is that they go free. That's why so many of them say things like: "I was studying medicine like my parents had hoped, then I took Leonard's course, and now I'm an ornithologist just like I always wanted." His explanation is simple: "A great teacher will see to the heart of your matter."

Listening to him again in that old house upstate, I realised that if I learned to become a teacher, one day a student of mine might look back and say I helped her to find her true voice. If so, that would be thanks to Leonard.

Portrait by Neil Turner

The story so far

1962 Born in San Francisco, California

1966-71 Grattan elementary, San Francisco

1971-73 Herbert Hoover junior high, San Francisco

1973-80 Lowell high school, San Francisco

1980-83 Yale University, BA in English Literature

1983-86 Fulbright Scholar at New College, Oxford University

1991 Shoots to fame with international bestseller The Beauty Myth

1993 Publishes Fire with Fire, on politics and female empowerment

1997 Co-founds the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership

2006 Latest book The Treehouse: eccentric wisdom from my father on how to live, love, and see (Virago, pound;12.99)

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