People often ask me about my time in Columbia’s MFA program: what workshop was like, and what about all those incredible teachers. However, mostly I grumble about student loan debt, my addiction that overshadowed a great first year in the program, and how my return had been marred by a new crop of writers, who were obsessive about technique and line writing. In retrospect, I was far too young, at 24, to walk into a program and have my writing ripped to shreds by complete strangers. I had no formal training, no sense of technique; I didn’t “publish,” I majored in finance and marketing in college, and I had just left an investment bank where I told my managing director that MFA wasn’t an acronym for Masters in Finance.
That first year, in 2000, was exhilarating, and scary, and unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I got into the program by writing a series of stories about my mother, and as I sat through scores of classes taught by famous teachers, it suddenly occurred to me that I was rough around the edges. I thought a story wasn’t a story until someone suffered or died. I mostly read the dead because that’s what I’d been exposed to all my life. I had no inkling for anything in contemporary literature.
I do remember the writer who called me that night in Long Island. Her name was Judy Budnitz, and I asked her several times during the course of our conversation whether this was a practical joke. No, she assured me, she had been on the committee that decided who would be admitted to Columbia, and she called me personally because she thought my work, while raw, had promise.
When I arrived, I was exposed to so many names it was dizzying at first. Everyone read more than I did. Everyone had subscriptions to The New Yorker and everyone wanted to get into Harper’s, The Paris Review, and Granta. As I breathed through the sheer terror of it all, the fear that I would be “found out,” that Judy Budnitz was wrong after all, I soon discovered a host of writers whose stories would remain, even after all these years. Even after all this time.
Judy is an extraordinary, magical writer. She reminds of Kelly Link, Borges, Jeanette Winterson, Steven Millhauser, and Barthelme, in the way that she’s able to create worlds we couldn’t imagine. Her stories are a mix of the fantastic, the illogical made sense, and the sublime. If you want to be transported read Nice Big American Baby, If I Told You Once, Flying Leap.
It would be reductive to say that Beth Nugent and Thisbe Nissen write coming of age stories, because what they create, the texture of their landscape, is so much more. A friend introduced me to both writers, and I was blown away by Nugent’s City of Boys, and how she can write about sex, love and power so violently yet so quietly. And I remember reading Thisbe Nissen’s Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night when I first visited San Francisco, and fell in love with her voice, how she managed to navigate a world where bandaids were repeatedly ripped off, when young girls and women experienced first loves and hurts. These are two authors you’ll want to hold onto, and much like me, curious if they’re still writing.
I discovered Deborah Levy later, but her hypnotic and strange novel, Swimming Home, of a family unraveling in the presence of a beautiful and dangerous interloper, is one you’ll ravage.
Sometimes I wish I was that twenty-four-year-old kid rediscovering books all over again. Feeling overwhelmed and excited by all the possibility. I’m trying to recreate that for myself now by walking into a bookstore and thumbing through the stacks in hope of discovering someone new. For now, I’m content with ordering novels from Elisa Albert, and hoping that Nicole Krauss comes out with a new book sometime soon.