Saturday, August 4, 2007

Tolerance for Genius: An open letter from the Brown Trout to the fine students at FSU on methods of coping in the shadow of Literary Greatness

Dearest students:

Put your coffee down.

My fine writerlings, genius is messy. Brilliance can burn you if you stand too close. When the shit hits the literary fan, I know it can sometimes cause disillusionment. When one of us devolves to the Neolithic, it is no less disturbing for being so expected.

But I urge you, given recent events, not to lose faith in our noble pursuit or it’s fine practitioners. We Literary Lions are all in truth little boys trembling in the night. We are children lost in the woods. Despite our laurels, our involved and intricate narratives, our sparkling and unassailable prose, we are all flawed and broken creatures. I’ve failed thrice at marriage, and each time it was my own (damn) fault, though it took years for me to admit that to the world or even myself. You all know the Buffett song. What's more, I have a faulty ticker, an underzealous metabolism, an empty savings account, troubles with the sauce and a strong lecherous streak yet none of this has led me to prudence or the tempering of my appetites. I haven’t published a brilliant novel since the mid-seventies. My memoirs were recently rejected by several major houses despite its excellence, and I know this is largely due to my personality issues, though I am truly gregarious and likable in person. Still, I am a selfish man and a mediocre teacher sucking on the teat of academia, resting on the laurels of novels long since forgotten. Thank God for the MFA! Unlike my dear friend Bob, I never took the Big Prize. I've failed to remain a productive writer. I would never put myself in his league. I’ve been crushed by critics. I’ve pissed off agents, offended editors, destroyed friendships and quashed budding literary careers. Most of this has been accidental. At heart I am a good person. An old-fashioned liberal Democrat who loves and admires his students (some more than others) and who truly cares about our nation, its people and its letters. But enough about me. On behalf of my good friend Bob, I ask not for your understanding, your compassion or your sympathy in his recent meltdown. I ask only for your tolerance.

To that effect, let me offer some advice for those standing in the shadow of literary greatness. I've often considered adding these points to every syllabus at the beginning of the semester, but then perhaps that would ruin some of the fun for my eager young proteges.

Recommendation the First: Read your Master's work. All of it, even the dreck. You need not charge into his office breathlessly citing passages, though there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But it's best to simply drop hints in conversation over lunch or dinner: "Oh, I see what you're mean to draw characters sharply and succinctly as you did in the second chapter of The Wind in the Petunias..."

Recommendation the First Part 1.b: There is no reason for you not to pick up the tab for above mentioned lunch or dinner. Your master is likely a struggling artist, and unlike you he has no access to low interest loans. He will not find it offensive in the least.

Recommendation the Second: Always return the Master's books. When he loans you an edition from his own shelf, keep it for a short time and then promptly return it. There is no reason for you to actually read it, though it wouldn't hurt. He mainly enjoys the process of loaning the book and also telling you a brief anecdote about his relationship with its author. As it is typically an autographed first edition, and because it is probably an out-of-print volume written by an obscure writer you've never heard of but who is now teaching at another MFA program, it is imperative to keep it in excellent condition.

Recommendation the Third: Return your Master's affections. If he were to make advances on you after the latest department wine and cheese mixer, it is usually a clumsy expression of his respect for your abilities as a writer. It may seem that the more provocatively you dress, the greater his admiration, but that is merely coincidental. I have found, anecdotally, that women in their mid to late twenties experience a burst of inspired creativity. It may be biological, I'm not sure, but if it seems that attention is directed from the Master in this direction this may be a partial cause.

Recommendation the Fourth: Ignore the Master's contradictions. A great writer is not so much an individual but a process. His thought and keen insight are constantly evolving as our world changes. If he should proclaim one day that New York is a (shallow) cess pool that has produced nothing but hackneyed upper-middle-class suburban parlor drama but then praises ____________ the following class, please do not point this out. New novels are being published every day, and perhaps he had just subconsciously absorbed more information requiring an addendum to his initial comment. A Master is anyway granted license in making sweeping statements. Many of these are true, such as, "There have never been any decent Republican writers." But others are subject to changing circumstance and the Great Mind's evolution.

Recommendation the Fifth: If the Master dismisses a writer of whom you are particularly fond. For example, if he says, "Jonathan Franzen is a clever but cynical turd writing fake prose who won't survive his own generation and may well drop from the radar faster than David Foster Wallace," don't take it to heart if you admire these particular writers. It's probably just that your literary sensibilities aren't sufficiently developed for you to read their work the way that he does.

Recommendation the Sixth: If your Master asks you to drive him to the airport, or if he asks you to help him pick up fifteen bags of humus and haul them around back to his herb garden, do not think that he is using his elevated stature to secure free labor. He is probably just seeking an excuse to be near your budding talent.

Recommendation the Seventh: Any passages appearing in his published work that seem strikingly familiar to an assignment you turned in last semester should be considered an homage, not plagiarism. This may be as close as you ever fact, consider it the same as being published yourself, though tell no one. It will be your very own lifelong secret.

Recommendation the Eighth: Be gentle to your dear Master. His is a heavy burden and he needs your support. So is ever genius.

I could, of course, continue, but I have set aside the balance of this evening for Writing and will be hard at work on a new novel for which there is much expectation among the literary establishment despite my reputation as a former literary bad boy. As ever, I wish you writerlings well. All of you have a home in my heart, and your respect and admiration are ever appreciated.