By Mark Alpert
Thirty-one years ago I enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University. I don’t have anything useful to say about whether such writing programs are worth the money. I was writing poetry at the time, so the MFA degree didn’t help me launch my career as a novelist (which didn’t start until a quarter-century later). But at least I got one tangible thing in exchange for those two years of tuition fees: a lifelong writing buddy.
I met Neil Davison at the first poetry workshop that September. The professor asked each of us to read one of our poems to the rest of the class. It was excruciating. No one offered any criticism during that first workshop, but the air in the room was thick with intellectual condescension. The only poem I remember from that morning was Neil’s. It was a surrealistic piece about a moose that had the face of Neil’s grandmother. You see, it’s kind of memorable, right?
We went to lunch together after the workshop, and we’ve been friends ever since. We laughed our way through grad school, coining nicknames for all our odd classmates (The Captain of the Thunderbirds, The Second-Story Man, The Spanish-Jewish Girl Who Is Neither Spanish Nor Jewish). After we got our master’s degrees, I became a newspaper reporter while Neil went on to get a Ph.D. and become an English prof at Oregon State University. And over the decades we’ve continued to read and enjoy each other’s writing. Neil’s an expert on James Joyce, and in 2004 he was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Dublin that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, the pivotal day of Joyce’s Ulysses. He convinced me to come along, saying the conference was just an excuse for an epic pub-crawl. He was right.
This weekend I’m taking my family to Oregon to attend Neil’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. My kids asked me recently, “If you had to pick just one of your friends to be your companion in a post-apocalyptic zombie world, who would you choose?” (As you can see, the Alperts are mentally preparing themselves for the much-anticipated debut of Walking Dead season four.) The truth is, Neil wouldn’t be the best choice for a zombie-killing wingman. He’s too nice. But he’d feel right at home in a dystopia where the survivors dissect books instead of decapitating the undead.
Writing can be a lonely occupation. So it’s a true gift to have a literary pal, someone who’s eager to share his or her strong opinions about Philip Roth or Susan Sontag. I’m looking forward to seeing Neil again. Perhaps he’ll have another weird poem to show me.
So poetry actually does pay…in the form of a lifelong friend. Seems like a good occasion to revisit Longfellow’s The Arrow and the Song.
Interesting, unexpected outcome from an MFA program. Writing is lonely, and having a writing friend makes it easier. Charlie and I met in a memorable, one-day workshop with Mr. Gilstrap. Thank you for the reference to Longfellow. Great occasion.
Thanks for a great story! I have lots of non-writing friends but am going to have to cultivate at least one good writing buddy! I can think of one already…heading off to email! 🙂
I’d like to see that moose.
I’ve often thought that having a writing buddy would be nice–glad to see that someone pulled it off. I’ve even thought that extending beyond buddyhood to co-author status might be a lot of fun. Anyone have experience with that? I’m thinking of Preston & Child, Niven and Pournelle (SF writers), and…well, I can’t think of any others right now (I’m sure others will). I’m talking about an equal-status partnership, not those where a writer takes on an acolyte (e.g. Patterson). I think it would be fun to sit down at a tavern with some good Irish whiskey and hash out a new mystery/suspense/thriller novel, but maybe I’m wrong.
Don’t forget Moore and Sholes!
Taverns, whiskey and productivity — hmmm, which one of the three does not fit with the others? 😉
If you’re the bartender, they all fit. Cheers!
Nice post. I envy you for the Dublin conference, not for the pub hoping–well, that too–but for the subject. Joyce’s Ulysses boggles me. I’m not sure why I keep trying to understand the work. Maybe I just hope some of the genious will wear off. It hasn’t so far. I’d proabaly have understood but a bit at the conference, but then again, every little bit helps. I think.
Make that “hopping.” See what I mean?
That would make MFA worth it!