Self-conscious Narrators

L took the picture of me above and it didn't seem to look like me. It reminded me of young Leonard Michaels (1933-2003), whom I talked about in class on Thursday. He was known for reading student stories aloud and then stopping when they ceased to hold his interest. Then he'd ask the class to explain why.

I always get him mixed up with Leslie Epstein, who is alive and well and heading the MA-turned-MFA program at Boston U. They don't look alike, though, do they?

I was writing stories in little pieces when I was a grad student writing by instinct. At Iowa I was like an outsider artist with no training in fiction. I had a bachelor's degree, a GRE score but I didn't have any of the basics that everyone else had. I didn't know that a story should have suspense at the beginning, I didn't think about whose story it was, or if the ending was "earned." My friend E read my story in little pieces and said I would like Leonard Michaels' collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, which had stories in pieces. Was I even thinking I might learn from him? Was I looking for a kindred spirit? I don't remember.

I don't remember when I read Leslie Epstein. Maybe it was before I went to grad school. I read The Steinway Quintet plus four. I still remember a line from it, more or less: "Gentlemen, I believe that these are not Jews," said by an elderly member of the quintet when they're about to be robbed. Maybe I read it because I was reading books by faculty at the schools I was applying to. I didn't apply to Boston, though, because it required the literature GRE, and the deadline was late, so I figured I'd wait to see if I heard from any others, and I was accepted by others before the BU deadline. I was successful at applying to grad schools, which in my day was a simple enough thing, once you got your transcripts and test scores sent in, and got the recommenders to send their letters, and all you had to write about yourself was maybe a line or two. Plus of course you sent two stories. Nowadays, you have to write a personal statement and there are dozens upon dozens of MA and MFA programs, and all around the country kids are wringing their hands and worrying and asking each other teeny tiny questions on the MFA blog. They make the Kremlinologists of old look like pikers. There you can also find aceptance rates, so you can figure out if you want to apply to a selective school or very selective school. It is all quite scientific. (Whenever I talk about the olden days, I remember this from a high school play, rendered in a shaky old voice: "I can remember when there were Indians in this very territory. We had to put boards across the street to walk across."--Long Christmas Dinner, Thornton Wilder). And I wasn't even in the play.

There are at least three MFA guidebooks around and several blogs. If we'd had the technology back then in the olden days, would we have asked the same questions and worried as much as these young'uns worry now? I don't know. I do have to say that I don't like the sample personal statement provided on the MFA blog. In case anyone wants to know what I think, after having participated in more than 25 admissions committee meetings, I will tell you: Tell me what you read and what you've learned from what you've read. Tell me what you admire. Tell me how your work has grown up to this point, and tell me how you want your work to grow in our program. Be specific. Do you want to work on point of view, for example? If you're trying to brown-nose us by mentioning our faculty, please be sure to spell their names correctly.

I saw Leslie Epstein on a panel about bad Jews (I think; or did the panelists all claim they were bad Jews?) at a Tikkun conference in Boston in 1990 or 1991. I think it was Epstein. It could have been Michaels. You can read about "Lenny" in Wendy Lesser's book Room for Doubt. Also on the panel was E, my Iowa grad school friend.

I think I got into MFA program(s) because I submitted a story in second person. This was years before Jay McInerny's whole novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was published. It was told completely in the second person. I was influenced by Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps, which is one of my favorite books. It's a collection of autobiographical short stories and is clever and brilliant and features a self-conscious narrator. One story,
"The Genial Host," is in second person ("When he telephoned to ask you to do something he never said baldly, 'Can you come to dinner a week from Thursday?' First he let you know who else was going to be there..."). I discovered the book in a neighborhood library in Paris in 1976 or 1977 when I also fell in love with another self-conscious narrator, Christopher Isherwood.

Mary McCarthy

Epstein grew up around LA and his father and uncle wrote the screenplays forCasablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace. Leonard Michaels is the other one, the one who went from East to West, not the other way around.