Her life was “good enough” was the answer the young woman told the genie as she declined his offer of three wishes for freeing him from his bottle. As I sat in the audience listening to Neil Gaiman read his short story, I was still on a high after being accepted into West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative writing.
This past couple of weeks I’ve been mulling over the idea of going back to school for an intensive two-year program focused on writing non-fiction. Flipping back and forth in Joe Biden-style, I reminded myself at this time in my life that I was supposed to be reducing stress, not adding to it. My life was “good enough” as it is so why jump into this deep pond? Then I would start to entertain the idea of how neat it would be, despite knowing that the program would probably take up nearly all my attention and energy, not to mention put a big dent in my checkbook.
I came down on the side of going for it. In my mind, I had been dithering over the old “ready, aim, aim, aim” conundrum. I was beginning to feel the way Lincoln did over McClellan, his general in charge of all Union forces, who was a great planner but could never commit to action. Finally, I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger to shoot for the goal. I had convinced myself that the program would be the crucible where I could improve my writing by getting rigorous professional and objective feedback.
All that agonizing was fine, but really not the main reason I applied. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m a frustrated academic who feels comfortable on the campus in a classroom. Since we’re all on journeys that frequently take us on side trips where we have to make friends with life in general, we often never get back on whatever yellow-brick road we originally thought would take us to Oz. But if we’re lucky, opportunities can still come if we are open to them. I think this moment came to me at this time because I was ready to reach out to embrace it.
When I visited the campus this week just to get a feel for it, I was charmed by its general setting in the mountains of the central West Virginia rural town of Buckhannon. The school, which is a private institution founded in 1890, is highly regarded academically (in 2014, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as fourteenth on the list of Best Colleges in the South). The campus has a park-like setting with many mature trees on over one-hundred acres. The Georgian-style architecture of the two to three story red brick building adds an elegance and lightness of touch in proportion and balance. As I wandered the campus, I almost walked over a small sign stenciled on one of the many paths. I was amused that it was pointed toward an athletic building and announced the “road to nowhere.” As I continued my walk, I looked for a similar sign proclaiming “The road to ‘know’-where.”
In the next two months before I show up for my first of five intensive ten-day on-campus sessions wedged in amongst two years of assignments and e-mail contact with advisers, I will be busy putting together a number of books that I will propose to read as part of my own personalized program. In gathering what I think will benefit me most, I believe I’ll include one of Fran Lebowitz’s books, either Metropolitan Life or Social Studies. They’re both serious looks at life in the 1980s, a period I remember fondly but with relief that I never have to live through those days again. Her take is amusing while also trenchant as she dissects the noble passions that propel us forward as well as the foibles that often sidetrack us. As for writing, I trust one of her observations will remain firmly in my focus: “Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to sit down and write.”
As I put together my list of books, I invite you to tell me which choices of non-fiction you would take on such a journey with me. These books should be examples where the author’s excellent writing style and command of structure and craft are exemplary. A few already on my list include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia; Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind; Peter Korn’s Why We Make Things And Why It Matters: The Education Of A Craftsman; Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; David Howarth’s 1066—The Year Of The Conquest; Verlyn Klinkenborg’s More Scenes From The Rural Life; Roger Lipsey’s An Art Of Our Own: The Spiritual In Twentieth Century Art; John McPhee’s Annals Of The Former World; William Zinsser’s The Writer Who Stayed; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power Of Thinking; Jim Corder’s Yonder: Life On The Far Side Of Change; and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
While I am packing for my journey, I will keep the genie’s tale in my head. After giving up trying to get the lady to accept his offer of three wishes, he settles into a life with her. At first, he runs errands, mows the lawn, cooks some meals. And at a certain point, he moves from his own room into hers. As the story ends, they are curled up together when she says she’s never asked him what wish he would like fulfilled. After some silence, he simply smiles and says “Life is good enough.”
After much wavering, I feel the same way about my decision to enroll in this MFA program. Events have in fact turned out to be more than just good enough. I embrace the woman’s satisfaction with her own choice. No wishful thinking needed.