Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Rich, the Vivid, and the Beautiful: Priorities in Reading and MFAs

A friend of mine recently made his Facebook status something like, "You know you're a nerd if, once you've finished your semester, your first thought is, 'what books can I read now?" I laughed because that was exactly what thought I when I was walking away from my last final this semester. I have a long list of novels and short story collections that await my attention.

I started getting back into The Best American Short Stories of the Century before the semester actually ended. I'm still dedicated to reading through in order, and I've only just hit the 1940s. I enjoy getting samples of some of the best authors of the 20th Century in such a quick succession. Somehow it satisfies my truncated 21st Century attention span. You'd think the short story would be more popular these days, but I guess no matter how much you shorten a story it's still not a video game.

Another book I've given a second shot is Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. I bought it last year at the Trinity Arts Conference because I enjoyed Gilead, but for some reason I got bogged down early with Housekeeping. It fell by the wayside and I moved on to other things.

Later, as readers of this blog are well aware, I began sorting through MFA programs. The list has changed repeatedly, but an early entry was the University of Iowa, where Marilynne Robinson teaches. Like Housekeeping, though, Iowa fell by the wayside. I wasn't sure about funding, so I took it off my list.

Recently, however, a couple of factors combined to put Iowa back on my list. First, I reread The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, and the ever-helpful Seth Abramson wrote that at Iowa they do whatever they can to make sure their students have the funding they need. That doesn't guarantee fully paid tuition and a stipend, but it means that there's at least a chance. So the money question was answered.

The other factor was a brief conversation I had with Jerram Barrs about MFA programs after class one day this past semester. It wasn't a momentous thing; he just pointed out that Marilyn Robinson was the head of the program there and that she was a Christian. I realized I that in the quest for funding I had lost sight of something important: A place for connection. I don't reckon Marilynne Robinson is in the PCA or anything, but there is a definite worldview connection there. I felt it when I read Gilead. I happily added Iowa back to my list.

My renewed interest in Iowa and Marilyn Robinson lead me to a renewed interest in Housekeeping (the book, not the activity). I began reading, and I have had a much different experience this time. I think I must have been impatient with it last year. Most of the fiction I enjoy conjures vivid images in my imagination, but Housekeeping does that less often. I am on chapter five and the images of the characters are still developing in my head. That is usually not the case for me, and it would normally drive me away from a book, but the treasure in Robinson's writing does not lie in the vivid image as much as the beautiful sentence. The story is compelling, but the joy of staying with Robinson is the unusually lovely turns of phrase she uses. It's makes for a slow read, but it's worth the time. Why run through the forest when you can stroll, touch the trees, and smell the growing greenness around you?

So thanks to Marilynne Robinson, for reminding me that there's more to an MFA than funding. And thanks for helping me understand that there's more to reading than the vivid image. Thanks from the bottom of my slightly-less-truncated 21st Century attention span.

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