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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

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Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

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Entries in Shahirah Majumdar (12)


In Which Edna St. Vincent Millay Stares Into The Abyss

Worn Out


Dec. 31, 1940 
Awoke 7:30, after untroubled night. Pain less than previous day. 
7:35- Urinated- no difficulty or distress 
7:40- 3/8 gr. M.S. {morphine shot} hypodermically, self-administered in left upper arm... 
7:45-8- smoked cigarette (Egyptian) mouth burns from excessive smoking 
8:15- Thirsty, went to the ice box for a glass of water, but no water there. Take can of beer instead which do not want. Headache, lassitude... 
8:20- cigarette (Egyptian) 
9:00- " 
9:30- Gin Rickey (cigarette) 
11:15- Gin Rickey 
12:15- Martini (4 cigarettes) 
12:45- 1/4 grain M.S. & cigarette 
1.- Pain bad and also in lumbar region. no relief from M.S.

At age 48 – looks fading, youth fading, genius (she thought) also fading — the extravagant American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay found herself staring blankly into the abyss that had moved with her all her life.

Once she had written ecstatically of that “conscious void” (her first encounter: a passage of poetry from Romeo & Juliet when she was five years old), of both “the tangible radiance in which I stood” and “the edge of nausea” that bordered it. Once it had left her thrilled, transcendent, outside herself; the “radiance” and the “nausea” had been intertwined. But, at 48, interred at the farmhouse she and her husband had converted near the Berkshires, worn out by her lifelong hungers, that abyss was now dark to her — and it took it took two gin rickeys, a martini, eight cigarettes and several morphine shots, all before 1 p.m., to be able to face it.

All her life Millay sought wild moments of ecstasy to which she could submit herself fully and come undone. Her childhood in turn-of-the-century Camden, Maine had been provincial, but Millay — called “Vincent” by her mother and two sisters — was the product of a clan of fiercely independent, literary women who nourished the wildness and the ambition within her. Her mother Cora was a woman who had “dazed all her people” by divorcing her charming loafer of a husband and taking work as a nurse to support her daughters.

Cora loved music, books, poetry and — despite the family’s constant, visible poverty — fed her girls on the riches of her organ and her attic library. “Vincent” herself wrote poetry from a young age, gifting her mother with a handwritten collection of 61 poems titled The Poetical Works of Vincent Millay when she was 16.

In school, she was similarly extravagant, always a performer. She acted in all the school plays, gave piano recitals, edited the school newspaper. She was larger than life but not very popular: the girls thought “she was the type… to make a lot of almost nothing” (yesterday’s high school parlance, I suppose, for, she’s so fake!), and the boys actively made fun of her. She longed for escape, and she longed for a bigger stage.

For a while, she thought it was a man who would provide it. Her limits of her world seemed so small, even while eternity gaped within her, and the only rescue she could conceive took the shape of a man.  In the end, however, she made her escape with her own hands.

At age 20, her poem “Renascence” (“The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,—/No higher than the soul is high.”) was selected as a finalist in the The Lyric Year, a significant contest of American poetry. She became a star, a bit of a cause célèbre since — as many people said, even in the pages of the New York Times and the Chicago Evening Post — her poem was far superior to the poems that had actually won.

She had been flirting madly, purposefully (via post) with the editor of The Lyric Year for the months leading up to the announcement of the winners, and her own sense of injustice at having been denied the prize was confirmed and amplified by the reaction of the public. But, like an American Idol runner up, she discovered that the real first prize wasn’t the putative one; it was celebrity itself — adulation, recognition, an adoring public. This hunger, once awakened, was to stay with her the rest of her life.

Things moved quickly, gloriously after that. A coterie of wealthy ladies took “Vincent” in hand. Deciding that it would be a good thing to educate her, they removed her from the rambles of the Maine coast and off to New York. They gave her cash, gifts (including shopping trips to Lord & Taylor, but also boxes of cast-off clothing), lots of life advice to temper their praise, and sent her to Vassar. Her patrons adored her, but they also wanted a piece of her. Nancy Milford, author of the Millay biography Savage Beauty, writes: “They wanted to assist her in any way they could, perhaps because in the careful structure of their lives, they felt diminished. Her life would be grand, sweeping, urgent. Incapable of this themselves, they would help her.”

And her life was to be “grant, sweeping, urgent”: a life that one could dream upon, that she herself could dream and feed upon. At Vassar, Millay’s persona was as carefully constructed as her poetry. Her poverty — and the fact that she was there on charity — was known, but she was determined to be an entity.

Her years there were a performance, a practice for the wider stage that lay ahead. She dazzled her classmates, who fell in love with her, and her teachers, who allowed her unimaginable leniencies. She took regular trips to the city, and leisurely country weekends — which gave men, also, the chance to fall in love with her, and gave her the chance to play, at least, at falling in love with them.

For Millay, love (& lovers, both men and women) were as much a substance as food. She burst with hunger for love, just as she did for poetry, freedom, beauty, adoration… and, later drugs, sex and alcohol. Her desire gave shape and momentum to her life, and the “radiance” and the “nausea” that haunted her were two halves of the same whole. She was wild for the thrill of standing on the edge of the abyss and for the radiant colors moving within; it fed her sense of self and her creativity, and her poetry was to be the means and the remains.

Desire and the performance of desire are Millay’s subjects, particularly of the sonnets. Her work, as Mitchell Kennerley, publisher of her first book of poems (black binding, gold letters, creamy Japanese vellum paper), blurbed, dealt “as poetry should, primarily with emotion; with the sense of tears and of laughter, with mortal things; with beauty and passion; with having and losing.” Her themes were always what was personal to her: love, death, nature, longing, sex and self.

In terms of form, her meter is light, lilting, iambic; it hardly strays; and her rhymes are always clean and sweet, often sharp and witty. She writes in a voice that is direct, intimate, sometimes coy but never shy. Her imagery is infused with a sensuality that is both pure and coarse: the well from which it spring from is deep, irreducible, pure unto itself — but the substance itself has a thick grain, is fat with pathos and groans under its own gorgeous, aching weight.

When I encountered my first Millay sonnet (#41 from her 1923 Pulitzer Prize winning collection The Harp Weaver & Other Poems), I was 14. Years later, I can still recite it from memory:

I, being born a woman and distressed  
By all the needs and notions of my kind, 
Am urged by your propinquity to find 
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest 
To bear your body's weight upon my breast: 
So subtly is the fume of life designed, 
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind, 
And leave me once again undone, possessed. 
Think not for this, however, the poor treason 
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain, 
I shall remember you with love, or season 
My scorn with pity – let me make it plain: 
I find this frenzy insufficient reason 
For conversation when we meet again. 

It was such a fun sonnet, so not like Shakespeare, so unambiguous and good to read out loud. There were shades of it that I didn’t get until I was older and had been myself “undone, possessed,”  but I have come back to it again and again over the years and, though I no longer find the rhyme of “breast” and “possessed”  as inventive as I once did, it still arrests me with its play of high purity of form with unapologetic coarseness of sentiment. It’s a dirty poem fashioned with skill and grace, and to make the exalted sonnet disturb the way this sonnet does is in itself enough to give you pause. During Millay’s time, in the heat of a Jazz Age, for a woman to be writing sonnets of such rigorous craft and bold content made her a kind of literary rock star.

It didn’t hurt that Millay was one of those poets who used her life as practice for her art. The mythos that she invented — the starry-eyed creature of enormous appetite left incandescent (in all senses) by its own hungers — was both for her poetry and her daily bread. Her poems were always a portrait of herself: as she was or had been or wanted to be.

If the speakers in her sonnets come undone, they pose first; they vogue a little, they protest too much. Everything they do is mannered, meant to be observed. For Millay, the poem itself is a performance — a series of stylized acts — and the form itself carries meaning: every foot of iambic verse is a coy gesture, every rhyme a teasing glance, every image of birds and songs and lips and breasts a signal flag that says come hither, says love me, adore me, leave me dispossessed.

In a short scholarly piece in Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, Stacy Hubbard Carson writes that Millay’s sonnets demonstrate how “sexed bodies attach themselves to poetic forms, tropes and narrative structures.” Read this way, Millay’s [sexed] body is the poem’s body, and that she shoves herself into such a series of conventions and constraints — like a person in drag — is the very point of the endeavor. The fun lies in witnessing how she throbs against them, how the sensual charge of her poetry is defined, finessed and magnified by the conservative prettiness of the tropes and narratives that cloak them. Thus Millay’s genius is exercised not in double vision, but in double play: the way she uses her skilled formalism to trick the mind — leave it dazzled, “undone” — while simultaneously flooding and exhausting the senses.

The contradictions in Millay are what people worry over. She adopts masculine and feminine masks, is masked and unmasked, is consumed and consuming. She is her own double: burning herself (“my candle”) from “both ends,” eating from the inside what she has begged others to eat. In life, she was a tiny creature, often described in terms of the startling intensity of her coloring: all pale limbs, bright eyes, fiery hair and lips. In imagination — her own of herself, her public’s of her — she was magical and godlike, an unquenchable Amazon who gave wholly of herself to everyone but remained undiminished.

She thrived in her own duality. Often, she managed to perform the imaginary into reality but even “Vincent” sometimes had her heart broken. As Milford writes, the headlong satiating of the senses in which she routinely indulged could leave her both “stunned by beauty” and “sickened by loss.” The sonnet that follows #41 in The Harp Weaver & Other Poems is this one:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

The tone is different here, though the formal methods and manners recognizably the same. We observe the same hungers — perhaps even the same encounter — but through the lens of a quieter emotion. The speaker aches from the void within her and lacks distance from it; here, however, she also lacks the earlier sense of triumph or thrill. It’s a lovely poem, simple, as elegant as the one that came before, and also just as childlike in its helplessness before its own unknowable feelings. There is such sadness in the imagery, in the spareness of the language and its slow slide into memory, but the sentiment pools without deepening or expanding. It exists as an emotion bottled in time, wallowing in its own moodiness, dazzled by its own dignified, moody splendor. On the surface, sonnets #41 and #42 might appear to differ in terms of purpose, but the truth might be that they differ simply in terms of the way that they achieve a very similar purpose — which, in Millay, is nearly always to seduce us with the figure of her exquisitely unraveling self.

In her bohemian New York years, post-Vassar, Millay was a star. She gave readings, acted, published often and created a ferocious one-act anti-war play called Aria da Capo that was a runaway success. She became involved in both political and poetical causes, championing poets that she cared about who had less celebrity than she did, and loved and drank and partied to legendary lengths.

In 1923, the year of her Pulitzer, she married a man 12 years older whose only ambitions seemed to be to bask in her bright flame and to husband her writing. They bought a farmhouse in the mountains and began a town & country life. In 1931, she published Fatal Interview, her best and most popular volume of poetry, a collection of 52 sonnets written about a love affair with a much younger poet, a handsome but weak man about whom — after the affair went cold — the gossips said she had simply worn out, or that he had always been homosexual.

Millay’s husband Eugen gave her space to conduct the affair, letting her run about Paris with her lover on a Guggenheim she had helped secure for him while Eugen wrote her effusive, pining letters from home. Fatal Interview sold 50,000 copies in its first few months. This was the peak of her fame and her acclaim. Afterwards, she would be famous, even notorious, but something had begun to shift: her poetry, for all its skill and vigor, began to fall out of sync with the fashion of the age.

And the less control Millay had over others — her adoring public, whether near or far — the less control she had over herself. She began to drink more, take drugs, turn up naked in the rooms of female houseguests, asking them for “good old Elizabethan lovemaking.” Her hungers grew larger, and her ability to fulfill them less and less certain.

She was exhausted by her own performances, by the myths she made and played for herself and others. Millay — the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the most famous poet in the world for a while, a woman who thrilled adoring audiences by radio, who jam-packed readings across America, who was acclaimed as the lyric voice of the Jazz Age, whose voice was described as “the most beautiful voice in the world,” “the sound of the ax on fresh wood” – lacked the same thing her poetry lacked: distance, the ability to step away from the grand emotion, away from the “edge of the nausea,” to drop the act and undouble herself. She was unable see things plainly, without the dulling glaze of lyricism or romance, nor to accept that certain things were outside the make of her own hands and not be destroyed by that knowledge.

In 1949, Millay’s husband Eugen — a man who had loved her selflessly, nearly unconditionally since their first encounter — died and she immediately suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. She was to follow him just a year later, emblematically, epigrammatically, just as she had written, just as she had lived. One night, overcome with the “tangible radiance” of cigarettes, wine, Seconal and a new poem, she finally tumbled over the “edge of nausea” and down the length of her staircase. Her head, on its broken birdlike neck, came to rest on a pile of books and papers, including the draft of the new poem.

It’s funny how Millay, once adored as a luminary, has so definitely had her star fall. Though she is still ranked as a major American poet, she is no longer discussed as a great one. Millay is too much the whirling dervish, the Delphic oracle, too self-conscious and theatrical to suit our modern sensibility. Her poetry is the poetry of the young, the very romantic, those who long to make and remake their own innocence. We know too well what happens when you burn the candle at “both ends.” It may “give a lovely light” but, as anyone who has ever taken a drink before noon knows, nothing ends well when you come undone.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.


In Which It Is Not The Most Beautiful Word In The World

Night Film: A Review


Night Film
by Marisha Pessl
624 pp.

Witness the novel as a madcap scavenger hunt, a magpie’s nest, a Chinese puzzle box with selected pieces missing, a video game in 3D unfolding in 2D dimension… It is a novel that speaks exuberantly — like a mash-up of Sorkin characters talking at once with great purpose and urgency. And Pessl herself, the author as tripmaster, hovers at its center, a slender figure with candy-hued hair melting softly down her shoulders like an L.A. sunset, the lilting kind that dissolves slowly as Sara Bareilles “Love Story” floats over the final credits. The characters are archetypes for the ages, a masquerade puppet show, a revolving door of doomed or romantic figures that shimmer for a moment — or sometimes, for that moment only, blot out all stars, snuff out all light — and then disappear, leaving only a whiff of something achingly human in their wake. 

And the narrative itself? A cipher, a sewer, a cut & sew spectacle of metaphor and IMDB facts and alternative radio references. The tics and tricks that make the cool kids tick.  In fact, you might have lost your virginity on just this sort of fractal fun-filled quilt. Not unlike Scott McGrath, our hero, our dear, disgraced ace investigative reporter for whom everything is at stake. Everything, including the love, the universe, Perry Street and more.

But, after all this, is it possible to remember what life itself, what narrative experience—which, after all, is nothing if not a scintillating synecdoche for the crystalline container of life itself — was like before you clicked through to that 624th page, one mind-melting sentence at a time?

Well. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”


Let’s start at the beginning, although that’s not where Scott McGrath — a fine man, doomed by his own crack instincts to keep itching a scratch that just won’t crust — would begin, nor where Cordova — the shadowy auteur, “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” — would probably begin either. But we’ll begin there, because the beginning has a way of creeping up on you, like dandruff off that inescapable party guest who spends the whole evening soft-shoeing at your heels.

Everyone has an adverb story; whether they like it or not.

Maybe your roommate used three in a sentence, got an C on her essay, and never used one again. Maybe your boyfriend made you a DIY Valentine’s card full of fervid adverbial expressions, and you never talked to him again.

Remember what Steven King and Elmore Leonard have to say about the use of adverbs and adjectives? Adverbs, my assNight Film asks you to ponder the question: what it is like to be sucked you into a vortex of adverbs and similes and adjectives and syntactical constructions so twisted and tortured as to resemble Duchamp’s staircase no. 2?

There are lessons here. There are traps, which Pessl, our nimble tripmaster, has left visible for our own contemplation and, perhaps — if we can stare long enough without the light — even our eventual education.

Oh yes… Yes! (“The most beautiful word in the world.”) This is what it is really like to step into the darkness, to dive deep into a churning southern sea where “no mermaids sing,” where ye olde rules of good writing are just murky runes, spindrift on the wind, Navajo sand paintings drifting on a salty sea…

Clearly, your humble reviewer should have held off her fourth Scotch.

ms. pesslIt’s possible that Pessl considered presenting the book with no narrative at all, that, instead, she had the brilliant light-bulb-flash of the idea to tell the story as merely a mixed media collection of clippings from sources as varied as newspaper obituaries, blog posts, twitter feeds, text message exchanges, online messages boards — a veritable potpourri of materials as rich and varied as the detritus of modern life itself. It would be up the reader to the string the story together based on the clues contained between the twin wings of Random House pasteboard.  One can imagine Pessl’s conversation with her agent, the legendary Binky Urban.
Transcript of Phone Conversation –
Author Marisha Pessl
Agent Amanda “Binky” Urban
May 11, 2011. 11: 06 - 11: 11 P.M.

There is a long silence. Her voice is older, a little I’ll-take-Manhattan-grande-dame, with an undertow of New Jersey.

BU:     You know the book is dying.

Agent “Binky” is sighing strangely, apparently having regrets about this conversation.

BU:     Do you remember that I rejected you about 90 times before you were declared a wunderkind by the New York literati?

MP:     Yes.

BU:     There was nothing I could say. They sat, they read, they highlighted. They found you clever. The Times put your first book on their list of best books of 2006. You remember this? Or am I repeating things that you ought to already know?

MP:     Please refresh my memory, Binky. You know how I love it when you explain this inscrutable industry to me. You always reveal new layers, unspool underpasses to new dimensions.

BU:     James Wood thought he had vanquished hysterical lyricism to its lair with his review of White Teeth in the New Republic. He thought he had bearded the dragon and restored the old order of things.

A pause.

BU:     But he never reckoned on you.
MP:     So you liked the antepenultimate, penultimate, ultimate endings that I sent you?
BU:     They were a signal to me to break out of my lockjaw, real or imagined. Marisha—
MP:     That’s thrilling, Binky! That’s exactly the reaction I wanted! Listen, I want to run an idea by you.
BU:     What kind of idea? What, like a real estate investment idea or a narrative idea?
     Binky, what you said before is so true. The book is dead. There’s a revolution happening. It’s spot on. So here’s what we do. We give’em the Pessl special.
BU:     The Pessl special?
     The Pessl special is like a one-two punch.
BU:     Marisha?
MP:     What?
BU:     There’s something you do to metaphor.
MP:     Oh…

I wait for her to elaborate, but there is only silence.

MP:     Thanks, Binky. You don’t know how much that means to me. Now what did you want to talk to me about.
BU:     Stay the course.

The line goes dead.


Let us marvel at Pessl’s knowledge of pop culture; her love affair with noir tropes; her fondness for pastiche and palimpsest and parataxis; her lusty way with comma, italic, em dash, and (oh, that old favorite), the ellipsis … It’s a stormy orgy with which she gifts us. We sink, we sail, we swim into the darkness.

And, “just when you think you've hit rock bottom, you realize you're on another trapdoor.”

Then finally, with a hiss and a plash and a mermaid moan, the tripmaster finally brings this party back to the harbor, you are left with the sense of something unrequited. All goes black, and you are alone with the noise, the fierce and frantic static which you now realize — perhaps for the very first time — is only absence. Only nothingness. Only tricks that mask the blinding emptiness. 

And Binky Urban's quiet breathing. Nothing more.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Lorrie Moore.



In Which Lorrie Moore Returns To Self-Help

Down Here


This is what life’s done so far down here, this is all and what and everything it’s managed — this body, these bodies, that body. So what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

—Lorrie Moore, “Dance in America”

When Lorrie Moore read at the NYU Creative Writing Reading Series last week to a room that was packed and adoring, she announced, “I’m going to read a story that was rejected by The New Yorker.” And in her sly, dark, conspiratorial way, she added, “Now that Alice isn’t there anymore, I’m not having so much luck.”

It was that kind of evening. Even before Moore called out The New Yorker (she enjoys coming to these things and reading stories that have been rejected by The New Yorker, she explained; once she’d even read one at The New Yorker Festival), Gawker had already been called out by Darin Strauss over this article. It was all ugly for a moment — we were in stitches but also holding our breaths — but, in the end, it was funny and beautiful.

Because writers can be nasty and sometimes it’s a certain nastiness that makes us writers. The nastiness of saying exactly what you want to say even when polite society dictates that you shouldn’t. The nastiness of getting your own back on your parents or an old school bully or Mr. Henry Huggins (okay, Eliza wasn’t a writer, but Shaw was). The nastiness of self-hatred or self-pity or self-destruction, and all the dark things contained therein. And because, like all human beings, we writers feel vile, dumb, arrogant, despairing things from time to time possess us— and the fact that we can find exactly the words to convey just how vile or dumb or arrogant or despairing is exactly what gives a writer pleasure.

{And sometimes we write about feelings of love or hope or happiness, but to read or to write exclusively of those things is boring, is what a child does.}

The story that Lorrie Moore read that evening was called, “Thank You For Having Me.” It was set a wedding and had moments of deep absurdity as well as sadness. There were some sly turns of phrase — “moose-limbed” is one that stood out, though perhaps she said “loose-limbed” and I misheard — and observations of the ordinary that were not so ordinary when hewed from the right words, which she did. There were characters that we knew only through brief gestures or dialogue but somehow we felt we understood. And there was dancing too, which meant what dancing always does: an erasure, a submission, both an escape from and the most ecstatic expression of what it means to be human.

Afterwards, she took questions. First, there was silence and she remarked that she’d told the organizers that Q & A session wasn’t necessary because her readers were so polite and so well behaved (she didn’t say this exactly as if it were a good thing). When someone in the audience finally raised his hand, she laughed to herself. “Oh,” she said, “perhaps this person is not a reader.”

And up they marched to the mic, earnest students from NYU and elsewhere looking for writing advice from the great and inimitable Lorrie Moore. She was terrifying to them all. “Forget the idea of being successful,” she told the first. The second she answered in bits and pieces and then complimented extravagantly on her sweater. Another, she congratulated on her good sense of choosing to live in Queens because writers, she told us, ought to start by living cheaply. She used words like “creepy” and “crazy” (“so crazzzy,” is how she described her younger self’s notion that it was possible to make money writing reviews) and “stupid,” as in, she had “stupidly” thought that she would give up on the writing thing if she didn’t “make it” by the age of 30. By “make it,” she means, be published — which is something, of course, that she achieved well in advance of the age of 30 when Knopf put out Self-Help in 1985.


Late last summer, I ran into a beloved former writing teacher of mine, Jessica Hagedorn, in the subterranean caverns of Jay-Metrotech station. We had drinks & dinner at Café Loup later that fall and she — who had come of age in New York in the ‘70s alongside Patti Smith with experimental work that mixed song, poetry, images, and spoken dialogue — gently poured her martini until the cocktail shaker was tepid and talked to me about how this writing life has changed. The kids are so different now. The industry is so different now. Even the audience is different now.

I repeated what a friend of mine had told me upon my return to New York earlier in the year — that to try to be a writer in this democratic, digital-media age means to hustle, to brand yourself, to dedicate yourself to readings and page views and “followers” and panels — and she listened with her hand on her glass, without saying a word. Finally, she said what she had always said before: write what you love, do what you feel like doing, and screw the rest. How should such a person pay the bills? I wondered. “Well,” she said, rolling her beautifully expressive eyes in a gesture so familiar that a full semester of workshop critiques came crashing back upon me… “Go work in a shoe store or something.”

Expect to be poor. Live in Queens. Go work in a shoe store. Eager MFA candidates, do take note. You could always be less earnest. You could always do something else.


Lorrie Moore (to get back to the subject at hand) had this to say about the function of writers programs: that they are there to thicken your skin, to make you tougher, to serve as an “inoculation” or “vaccination” for all the rejections and the heavy indifference and the lack of page views or book sales or the gentle or not-so-gentle criticism with which you will (inevitably) collide at some point in your future “career” as a “writer.”

All over the Midwest,” she confided, there exist “survivors groups” for those still traumatized from the experience of being workshopped at Iowa. The Iowa Writers Workshop is the “worst,” she told us, “they are famous for the way they tear each other apart at Iowa.” We loved this. We found this profound and wonderful, possibly because many of us in the room had not been admitted into Iowa…

What she didn’t say however is that MFA programs, despite the thousands of dollars we spend on them, are there to teach you how to write. And I’m glad she didn’t because I’m not sure that they do; though certainly they can catalyze that, especially when they admit writers who are brilliant and brave in the first place. Writing programs serve many purposes — networking, incubating, star-fucking among them — but they cannot produce stronger, finer, more terrifying and original writers when the finely-tuned ear and the terrifying heart aren’t there to begin with.

Moore, when asked if she’d had any vital moments of encouragement early in her career, laughed darkly and brought up her classmates from Cornell, where she studied under Alison Lurie. They “hated” her work but her teachers would tell her privately that she had talent. Her classmates were all so “smart” the way MFA candidates, she remarked, pretty much always are. As for herself, she claims didn’t have much to say in workshops. What always interested her was something dumb like “that line on page 2 about the tomato.” She wasn’t smart like the other kids, she said. But, then anyone who has read her reviews knows that what she really means is that she was smarter.

About the others: “They had so much to say about my work but then, when it came to their own work —“ and this she said sotto voice, with all the riotous pleasure of a wink, “it just wasn’t very good.”


There are two things that I credit for teaching me how to write. One is reading: one’s faculty for language is like a muscle, trained daily, exhaustively, immersively from childhood. The other is teaching: there is no better crucible for forging an understanding of a sentence or a story works that having to explain to a class of eyes-wide 19 year-olds how syntax inflects meaning, how repetition works as literary architecture, how red is not just a color but a mood and a symbol and a revelation of character or emotion or motive or a premonition of destiny; or how every mark of punctuation, paragraph break, word and image (or lack there of) is a choice that a writer makes with a weight and a purpose of its own…

The nature of what it is “to write” is what I failed to glean during my MFA years — that writing is a craft, a technology as fine and unrelenting and purposeful as any that thrums in metal or bone or delicately spun silicone. I learned this only later, when my mind was cleaner, my pulse more clarified, and I had fewer and fewer things that I needed to slop onto the page. What I thought was important then was to be smart. To style sentences that sounded good and to run literary theory around people’s ears. It’s only in retrospect, as I try to piece everything together, that I gather the more sustaining thing.

I remember once that I wrote a critique of a friend’s short story during a first year (or was it a second year?) fiction workshop. “I call bullshit,” I think was my opening line, and then went on for several paragraphs to explain in what I thought was a very smart and unassailable way. Months later, over Solo cups of wine at a grad student party, my friend recounted how he had read my critique and laughed and laughed and laughed. Who the fuck did I think I was, he found himself asking. And, 8 years later, once again over wine in plastic cups at an earnest literary gathering, I ask myself that same exact question, who the fuck did I think I was?

Actually, I asked it then. My second year of grad school, I took a seminar with Ben Marcus called “Technologies of Heartbreak.” The class was a cult but it, together with my master classes with James Wood, is where I first began to have a notion of writing as a craft, though that notion was very raw indeed. One afternoon, concerned about the lack of “muscularity” of my prose or perhaps the unremarkable place my work occupied on the “storytelling vs language” continuum, I went to his office hours, hunger in my heart, to be reassured that I would “make it.” I can’t remember what he said, only that it was unsatisfying and that I persisted in my hunger.

I keep hungering, and I keep writing. Even though I now realize that the question I asked him is a question that, in truth, you must only ever ask or answer for yourself. Even though all questions of what it means to “make it” have stolen away from me, have gently slipped the turnstile while I was busy tending my bags at the station.


Later, my friend Julia and I walked east to a bar on Prince Street and met up with people we knew. We crowded the bar and talked to strangers (because talking to strangers can sometimes be more clarifying than talking to one’s friends) and Julia quoted from one of her favorite Lorrie Moore stories, “Dance in America.” How funny the characters were, how sad and how beautiful. How utterly, indefensibly themselves. How dark. How true. How radiant with the resinous strangeness of being human… As is Moore herself in her way.

And, as the night wound on and the stars spun, I thought to myself that I have not worked hard enough. I have not believed in myself enough. I have not been honest enough about all the dumb, humiliating, astonishing things that are a part of me. And because I haven’t been honest enough, clarity has failed me; grace had failed me; humor has failed me; beauty has failed me —

We fail ourselves, daily. What a great Lorrie Moore story reminds us is that failing is why we dance, is how we fly. That sometimes it’s all about the tomato on page 2. That this is all there is to being fucking alive.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Vertigo.