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Life, Altered

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

How often is a life, any life, truly altered by a single experience? Most lives, mine included, are altered slowly, by time and circumstances. If we’re even slightly profligate with the sentiment “life-altering” it could easily share the fate of words like “brilliant” and “genius”—diminished by overuse. I suspect I’m not alone when I say I’ve heard linguine alle vongole described as brilliant, and paint jobs in adventurous colors as genius. I prefer to live in a world in which a dramatic new haircut, or a weekend on the Pacific coast, might be wonderful but do not qualify as life-altering.

One wants to keep the ecstatic terms in reserve, stashed away, to be brought out into the light only when no lesser word will suffice. With that conviction in mind, I hereby spend my limited allowance of “life-altering” on Hilma Wolitzer, who was my writing teacher in graduate school. I may not have the chance to say that again. My life in the future is sure to be altered, but as to a singular transforming experience, unless that flea-market painting I bought for ten dollars turns out to be a Titian, or Godzilla rises up from the East River... I studied with Hilma at least 35 years ago. It seems to me that when you break into your miniscule allotment of the “life-altering,” and find that your life remains altered 35 years after the fact, you’ve made a good investment.

When I was a high school student, and then an undergraduate, I did not know that there was a person named Hilma Wolitzer, never mind that she was, in a sense, waiting for me years down the line.

After receiving my BA, I enrolled in the MFA program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Hilma came to teach for a semester. I signed up for her workshop, having loved her novel, In the Flesh.

Teaching fiction-writing is a slippery undertaking, in which no student writer is unambiguously “right” or “wrong,” in which every assessment means addressing whatever it is the young writer is trying to accomplish (assuming it can be identified at all), and which, ideally, involves seeing to it that every student whose work has been discussed leaves the room feeling engaged, challenged, and inspired to reach that much higher and wider the next time.

Hilma’s job wasn’t made any easier by the general atmosphere in the Writers Workshop. We were, let’s say, spirited competitors. The Workshop has changed since then, but 35 years ago we were a tough bunch. We’d made the considerable effort to get there, to that small college town in Iowa, and we hoped—most of us, at any rate—to blast off from there into the realm of the literati.

It was not a place for the unambitious. At the start of each semester, when we went to our first workshop session, we tended to look around the seminar table and size each other up, more or less like a gaggle of bantamweight boxers wondering with whom they were evenly matched, who’d be the easy knock-out, and who were the most serious threats.

Over the course of each semester, we’d storm out of workshops, sometimes in groups. We’d throw manuscripts to the floor. We’d call one another in the middle of the night, despondent, because we’d suddenly realized that the opening line of our new story might not be the piercing beauty we’d thought it to be.

Like so many aggressive, high-strung members of the population at large, our shows of combative confidence just barely concealed our deeper wells of pure terror. We knew most of us would not become actual, acknowledged writers.
There were about seventy of us in the program. No one imagined that the world had room to simultaneously acknowledge seventy new writers. Or seventeen. Or seven. Our proneness to verbal bloodshed was—no surprise—rendered all the fiercer by our worries, rarely expressed, that we were going to be among the lost and ignored. Pugnaciousness mixed with low-grade panic produced an aura around the otherwise tranquil University of Iowa campus that might have been visible to transcontinental jets flying overhead.

Confronted, then, with a classroom full of nervous young gladiators, Hilma took control, gracefully and effortlessly. She made it clear that she respected us—loved us, even—for wanting to write at all, and that respect and love, in this context especially, would involve discernment, high standards, and no hesitancy about distinguishing shit from Shinola.

She managed, at our first meeting and at every subsequent meeting, a rare and slightly mysterious admixture of faith and skepticism. We, her students, wouldn’t have been there at all if we weren’t promising in one way or another, which was all the more reason for her to question us about our work, and push us to produce more potent, magical, idiosyncratic versions of the stories we, each of us in our own way, were meant to write.

Writing fiction, the best fiction you were capable of writing, was, in Hilma’s workshop, an undertaking that mattered. It's impossible to underestimate the effects on aspiring writers when they’re simply taken seriously by a writer
they admire.

Thank you, Hilma, for that.

Within those life-altering months there was, however, a particularly life-altering moment. It occurred around the middle of the semester.

Hilma pulled me aside and said, essentially, this:

Michael, once you’ve finished a draft, I want you to go over it and give every line a grade of A or B. The A lines are the great ones, the B’s are the good-enough ones.

Okay, said I. Right. Time to up my game...

Then I want you to go back and rewrite all the A lines.

Really?

Really. Because for you, the A lines are demonstrations of your own precocity. They’re about your lyricism, they’re about your way with similes and metaphors
and your ability to write sentences with two parentheticals and three semicolons. They draw too much attention to themselves. They’re performances. They’re not there to serve the larger story.

I knew almost immediately that she was right. I was lyrical to the point of the ornate. If one simile was good, two were twice as good. Two adjectives often demanded a third. It was, I’d thought, my style. I was a highly inflected writer. I was vivid and dramatic.

After that conversation with Hilma, it would take me a little longer, but not too much longer, to fully understand that there’s a difference between powerful, original language, which serves to illuminate the world, and language so lavish that the world gets buried in an avalanche of words, descriptions, Baroque punctuation, and etc.

Readers need room for their own imaginations. If fiction can suffocate under the weight of too much writing, readers can as well.

Hilma’s advice was not only spot-on, it was transformative. Over time, the scales of my writing worked their way toward a balance between my attempts to render the world in language and respect for the world itself, which, as I’d come to understand, didn’t need me to improve upon it.

Hilma had aimed a laser eye at me. She’d delivered a diagnosis I’m not sure I’d have gotten from anybody else, and had done so with a mix of kindness and gravitas that commanded me to listen and believe.

I might say that, for me, it was childhood’s end. I knew I’d been told a truth, a truth that registered, intended only for me, and I knew, even then, that although uncertainty and a sporadic sense of discouragement were by no means at an end, I could go on with a different sense of seriousness.

I’ve been reconsidering my A sentences ever since. I still write them, I can’t help it, but I do my best to spot them and calm them down. I still ask myself, after all this time, how Hilma would respond when the occasional beloved but overfed, lumbering passage, wearing too much jewelry, gets through the sorting process.

I teach writing now, and do my best to practice with my students what I learned from Hilma, not only about writing itself but about teaching writing: that high on its list of demands is simply paying close attention to your students, combined with an ability to figure out what each individual student needs to be told. There’s no denying that some student writers are more promising than others, but even so, no two writers, whatever the current state of their gifts, need to hear exactly the same things. As I learned from Hilma, if you’re not willing, or able, to focus that degree of concentration on your students, you might want to consider another career or, at any rate, consider teaching a subject less fragile and persnickety than fiction-writing.

Thank you, Hilma, for that, as well.

If it were possible, I’d gather up a sampling of my excised A sentences, put them into a box, and send them to Hilma. Only the most lavish specimens, the ones with similes with similes of their own, parentheticals within parentheticals, two or three semicolons, and a shift from present to past and back again, at minimum.

Hilma would understand the gesture. She’d appreciate the effort required to produce the sentences in the first place, just as she’d appreciate the effort required to trim them down. She’d tuck the box away somewhere. It would, after all, be intended only for her.

Copyright © 2021 by Michael Cunningham
Cover image by Mary Norris

Michael Cunningham is the author of The Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize. His other books include the novels A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days, By Nightfall, and The Snow Queen; the collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales; and the nonfiction book Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown. He teaches at Yale University.

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