What the flip am I doing with my life?I couldn't call. I could only pace, stare at my phone, read about people's babies on Facebook and scour help wanted ads on craigslist. I needed a change. So the next day we started making a list, my friend and I, of possible life-altering actions I could take so that I might be assured of a future free of Time Warner Cable phone trees. "You could write the quick and dirty young adult novel," she suggested. "Or a screenplay. Or you could go back to school..."
Fast forward through two months of rapid-fire application preparation. There were recommendations to hustle, a standardized test to take, personal essays to write, plus I had to figure out what excerpt from my novel I should send to each school. I even had to write a literary essay. But come April I had heard from all seven institutions to which I had offered myself in judgment. I accepted a position in the MFA Fiction program at Columbia.
The School of Arts has a lecture series, and they offered the last of the year as a welcome event for admitted students. James Wood, a critic and sometime novelist, was the speaker at the packed event. He read from his latest book, How Fiction Works, and referenced one after another after another pinnacle of western literature, which I knew by name and author, but had never read. It was sad, actually, sitting there on the campus of my future alma mater, seeking to further my career as a writer of literature, finding that my incoming knowledge of anything before 1950 was sadly lacking.
And then, as if reading my mind, another new student with whom I'd struck up acquaintance in the post-lecture bad-wine-and-cheese-and-question portion of the event, the shindig element, found a way to make me feel even more sheepish and undereducated.
"Let's play a game," she offered. I noticed that no one other myself had helped themselves to more wine. "What you do is, you use your hands to reenact the death of a writer, then the other people have to guess what it is." So she flattened out one hand, palm up, which functioned as a kind of stage. Using the index and middle fingers of her other hand, she "walked" across the stage a few steps, then coughed violently, and tipped the hand over. Dead.
I swished my plastic cup of wine, noticing that I had poured red over a half-full cup of white. The result was a kind of murky orange color, which I took down in a single gulp.
"It's Keats!" she said mirthfully. "Get it?"
Yeah. No, I didn't. I don't know one single thing about Keats. Still don't. Not how he died, where he lived, what he wrote. I know that Cary Grant did acid enough to see the future; I know that Eric Clapton kept a jar of brandy and lemonade on his nightstand; that someone is doing a remake of "Fame", but Keats? Yeah, no.
And I tell this story now, because the humiliation I suffered at the admitted students event has sent me on a rampage of classical literature consumption. I read Magic Mountain, for chrissake. And Henry Miller. Now I am on Henry James.
And I don't like it one bit. I will say that for the record. He's like Jane Austen but with none of the fun. If he were a woman writing about marriage proposals and fortune seekers and villas in Tuscany, he would be considered un-serious. But he isn't. He's a humorless white man with a strong distaste for ending paragraphs. Joke's on you, Western Literature.