Gabrielle Hamilton (Blood, Bones and Butter) on Writing vs. Doing, Lit Talk vs. Literature.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The other day, I asked my industrious screenplay-writing son whether he thought it might be helpful to get a handbook on the art form, to help with the next leg of his journey.  He has been too much like me, perhaps—trusting his own instincts, going his own way, paying little attention to the known "shoulds" of crafting stories for big and little screens.  He's been at work as a writer for more than half his life now, and that work has become remarkably good—cleverly plotted, well-paced, full of dialogue zing.  But what are the next steps?  How best to take them?

I was thinking about this again yesterday as I read Gabrielle Hamilton's bestselling, nothing-if-not-vivid account of accidental chefdom, Blood, Bones & Butter.  Hamilton had not set out to open a restaurant (the beloved Prune).  Nor had she set out to become a writer.  Both things happened, and her memoir tells us how.  It reflects, most profoundly, on what education is—how it finds us, when it matters, what to do with the taught and the merely surmised.

A third of the way through the book, Hamilton tells of the time she spent enrolled in the master's program for fiction at the University of Michigan.  She had drawn the conclusion (prematurely, as it turns out) that a writer's life might yield greater meaning than the life of a cook.  She had made her way into the program based on talent, as opposed to provable familiarity with literary theory.  But that master's program was, she discovered, a foreign, alien world, where the talk centered around, in Hamilton's words, "second person static point of view," "indirect interior discourse," "narrative strategy," "chiaroscuro," and "diction."  It all threw Hamilton back onto her heels until she tipped forward and discovered (again) how much meaning there is in preparing food with one's hands, in doing, rather than theorizing.

I have never gone to graduate school and my education is rooted in the History and Sociology of Science, not literature.  I empathize, then, with the marginalizing nature of lit theory talk, have had my share of being purposefully shamed by those who bandy about terms in my presence, just for the sake, it has often seemed to me, of bandying, elevating, and hopefully (their hope) dismissing others in the room.  Yes, I have thought, you are right.  I don't know what whatever it is that you just said means, and thus and therefore, you are smarter and more valuable than moi. 

I have thought that, then shrugged and gone back to writing my books.

Hamilton, though, refuses to kowtow at all, as she fearlessly expresses here.  I plan to share this passage with the many writing students who ask me whether graduate school is the next right step for them.  I don't know the answer, because there is no single answer, because I will never pretend to know such things for absolute sure.  Hamilton's experience is her experience, her stridency is, too.  Still, it is worth listening to:

In the university program where I was supposed to be emancipating myself from the kitchen, preparing myself to go back to New York having at least answered the question of my own potential, the novelty and thrill had thoroughly worn off.  I could not find the fun or the urgency in the eventless and physically idle academic life.  It was so lethargic and impractical and luxurious.  I adored reading and writing and having my brain crushed; but those soft ghostly people lounging around the lounge in agony over there "texts," endlessly theorizing over experiences they would never have, made me ache to get out of the leather chairs, to put my shoes and socks back on, and get back into the kitchen, which I increasingly found practical and satisfying.  The work may not have held much meaning and purpose, but I was gunning the motor of my car to get off campus and get to it each day.

... This is not to suggest that I accepted this understanding about myself gladly, with just a sneering dismissal of the pursuit in the first place.  Human condition.  It's a blow to have to admit to yourself that you are not quite cut out for something that matters so much to you. More than a blow—it's a knockout.  I had to lie down on the floor of my apartment for a very long time letting that one sink in.  Did I have something more to offer, any other talent than a strong work ethic?  Did I have something in me other than dishwasher?

As it turns out, I did not.


Serena said...

I still struggle with this question of whether I "need" an MFA to be a published poet or a good one for that matter.

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