3.12.2009

Vermont is Colder, but I Applied to Bennington Anyway

(<-- colder than today, but not by much)

When you live in a place like Portland, you stop everything when the sun starts to shine. It's one of those days: blue sky and sunshiny day. Even with the puddles in front of my condo still frozen, everybody and their dogs are out today.

I'm put off by the huge trees across the street blowin' their tops off. If freezing puddles are one obstacle to overcome, wind makes it three. I'd rather have rain. No, I'd rather have blue skies, sun, and no wind. Ten degrees warmer, too, if I can completely get my way.

I'll wait to go outside. In the meantime, I got accepted into Bennington MFA for Writing and I have to tell them yes or no. If I say yes, I have to send them money to prove I'm not waiting for the other programs to make me an offer. I don't like this part. I'm not good with making decisions as it is. I've changed the date when we move to San Francisco about a hundred times since yesterday. I'm starting to drive myself crazy on that one.

One of the requirements for the Bennington application was to write an essay about what literature means to me. Since just looking out the window today is hard work, that's what I'm sharing now. My laziness is my best quality. Here it is:


It begins with something small and easily missed: a conversation, a story in the news, something overheard: “Anthony Bourdain is a better writer than you’d think,” someone comments at an adjacent restaurant table. “Better than anyone else on the Travel Channel.” This innocent, useless passing thought, shared by someone I don’t know to someone else I’ve never met, sticks in my head. It grows until I can’t contain the tension. Soon I’m at the library, or at the bookstore register buying everything written by Anthony Bourdain. Is it true? Is he really a good writer?

Once I’ve read everything by Anthony Bourdain and can satisfactorily state that yes, he is a wonderfully descriptive writer, I wonder if other food writers write as well. Is M.F.K. Fisher still the gastronomical best? Why did restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold win the Pulitzer prize? Back to the bookstore I go. I single out Ruth Reichl, MFK Fisher and Sallie Tisdale. I read them all. I read so much about cooking I don’t have time to cook. I’m eating plenty, though, with passion and appreciation. I imagine myself as a food critic or restaurant reviewer. I’m sensitive and I’m aware and I’m not the same as before.

During the past few months my obsessions in literature ranged from Paul Krugman and Keynesian economics to Mark Haddon and Asperger’s disorder. I read four or five hours a day, primarily but not exclusively non-fiction. I read because I need to know: I’m on a constant quest. Please don’t ask me what’s next. It could be anything.

Ever since sneaking Nancy Drew or Laura Ingalls Wilder and a flashlight into bed with me, I’ve lived through the written word. I would have failed fifth grade were it not for extra credit book reports. While my classmates were writing a single, short report, once a month, I wrote two or three booklet-sized reports a week. I would have done much better throughout my academic life if reading were rewarded as much as it was during my fifth grade year.

I believe writing naturally follows so much time with text. I wrote little articles for little magazines during college about the music I liked at the time. I became a features writer, book reviewer, head writer, then editor-in-chief for college newspapers and medium-sized music and art publications. I wrote technical manuals for high-level database software products and I wrote two award-winning screenplays, as well as an Oregonian-featured blog. Words captivate me: reading them, writing them, living them.

Words become subsistence and subsume into life. Literature leads me to places far beyond the library or the bookstore. I once moved to Montana simply after reading a sublime fishing story in an old Outside magazine. I read everything I could find about fishing and Montana, eventually enrolling at Montana State University. I attended writing classes from the author of that little fishing story, as well as from other gifted professors. From an old magazine to a new location, from ignorance to the unimaginable, words promulgate life itself. My kids often tell me they remember the experience of living in Montana with fondness. My obsession with literature has made their lives richer, too.