ON MFA ‘TYPES’ OR BRIAN SOUSA’S ‘ALMOST GONE.’

July 24, 2013

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My two years at Emerson in Boston were most certainly fruitful. And interesting. And frightening. And enlightening:

Let me touch upon a few ‘types’ of people who get their Masters degrees in creative writing, literature & publishing:

1) The Ivy Leaguer: this person didn’t go into finance or law and might feel like they need to work a little harder to express just how hard they worked in the first place so they drop the name of that Ivy League school at any given moment in a conversation:
‘oh, really?’ My professor at Harvard thinks the same thing!’ or ‘When Junot Diaz visited Yale, he was so chill.’

2) The MFA tourist – these people aren’t interested in becoming better writers, they just like dropping the ‘I have my MFA’ line at cocktail parties. They usually end up getting another degree 2-3 years down the road. Yes. I’m guilty of this.

3) The ‘Joyce-ian’: this person has been spiritually married to James Joyce since his/her conception. While their social skills might be lacking, their immersion into the world of literature makes for riveting (and puzzling) classroom discussions.

5) Me and Brian. (And our friend from California: hey, Shaun Bond!).

Ok, there were many other awesome people (Hi, Steve Himmer! Hi, Sammy Baber!) but, for dramatic purposes, I’ll stick with those above.

I should mention that I wrote this post while in Boston last week and decided to ask Brian to edit it.

I liked his notes, so I left them in. They’re in italics.

This all starts with how I used to be a tabloid junkie: I would walk into my Southeast Asian lit. class with Us magazine and InStyle and relish the stares and inevitable eye-rolling that would ensue from the Literati.

The savoring of this eyeballing came from a deep, deep sense of immaturity – which, at the time, I mistook for rebellion.

If there is such a thing as rebellion in an MFA program.

Yep, I definitely rolled my eyes the second I spotted her.

What’s she doing in an MFA program those judgmental eyes asked?

I don’t think I shared this thought, since I was trying to figure out exactly what I was doing…in an MFA program.

I felt like a lonely island in the stream until, on the first day of Teaching Freshman Writing, some guy with red hair showed up sporting a skateboard, flip flops and a copy of Surfer magazine.

 

I believe it was Snowboarder Illustrated.

 

Interesting.

In a cramped literary world of people who I had trouble bonding with (Shaun excluded), I was duly interested in meeting the loud, witty girl who kept going on and on about Canadian writers and hockey and lamented the fact that nobody knew (or cared) which provinces were which.

We nodded at each other and proceeded to listen to the intricate, intimidating outline of the course.

As we went around the room in that painful moment when you have to introduce yourself to a class (making yourself seem funny, not too pretentious, smart, not too smart, etc.) – Shaun from California uttered a mellow “hello” and the redhead stated his name as Brian, from Rhode Island.

 

We were paired together for our first assignment – for which we had to read a book, analyze it, and compare notes (this seems a fair bet despite a clouded memory).

I put off the assignment until the last minute. So did Brian.

He waited until the last minute to send it to me for editing (the same thing I had done to him) so I asked him to call me in order to answer some questions I had:

“Hi, Andrea? It’s Brian.”
“Oh, hey.”
“So – “
“This assignment is the worst.”
“Right?”
“Yup.”

And so, a beautiful, sophisticated friendship was born.

My first impression of Brian:
He was a funny, charming, albeit slightly spaced out ‘dude’ who enjoyed snowboarding and surfing and beer and – surprise – the Red Sox. Typical American, I thought.

His impression of me:
An airhead who carried around an excessive amount of books, magazines, beverages and keys.

After class, we talked a little about writing. I nodded by head in sympathy. Of course he wrote short stories. Of course he loved Hemingway and Carver. Of course he was hoping to have his book published or championed by an agent.

So sweet.

A few months later, having both wanted to take summer classes, we signed up for a short fiction class with the inimitable Ben Brooks. I still hadn’t read anything Brian had written and I wasn’t exactly waiting to be blown away.

And then I read his work. And I was. Blown. Away.

Brian was working on a collection of linked short stories about a Portuguese immigrant family trying to find their place in New England.

Aside from its highly readable status, the stories had more soul, grace, descriptive power and tenderness than any other writing I had seen in the program so far.

 

Gotta love…grace.

 

The first impression I had of Brian in no way foreshadowed his brilliance as an artist. As a sincerely humble writer in the program (falsely humble people abounded), I was astonished at the precision with which he mastered the difficult form of the short story.

When Brian’s book Almost Gone (University Press of New England) came out this past March – I was genuinely thrilled that the whole world would now have access to what I had watched develop in those classes all those years ago.

Unwrapping a close friend’s book is really something: I was proud and excited and nostalgic and envious.

I only post books on Book Dumpling that I think are good for at least one reader out there.

I’m not plugging this book because Brian is an old friend and asked me to. I’m plugging it because it’s #$^%&# awesome.

The book is great for:

• Book clubs interested in immigrant fiction
• Readers of linked short stories
• Anyone interested in promoting wonderful literature published by small presses
• Reading on the beach, a cold beer (or water) in hand.

When Brian blows up the literary scene, just remember you read it on Book Dumpling first.

Hey, Buddy: did you tell them which one of us got hired to teach Freshman Writing in the end?

Yes, well, that was obviously because I was Canadian.

Comments

  1. A mellow hello from California, and sincere encouragement to read the book! Full disclosure: Yes, I was in that class Andrea writes about here; yes, I love these wonderful people (and this post makes me feel like I’m sitting on the couch with a glass of Andrea’s Liberty School wine listening to them actually talking); and yes, Almost Gone really is a magnetic kind of a book–it does possess a certain grace in the way it gives you soft brush strokes that slowly gather into a powerful, haunting story.

    But, no, I’m not any of those types that Andrea mentions in her intro–and I’m glad to see that I’m in that “other” category with Andrea and Brian. What I considered myself to be was what I’d call a migrant writer, someone on the road far from home with the purpose of learning about an utterly different place than my home while learning the craft of writing. Before I left San Francisco for Boston, a lot of my friends told me I didn’t need to go to school to learn to write, but I was sure that I did, and I’m glad that I did. It seemed to me that when I met Brian, who is several years younger than I, that he already understood something that I didn’t know how to put into my stories. He had then and still has now, as evidenced in Almost Gone, a generosity for his reader. He is very generous in what he provides through very sensual, textured description, and he is also generous in what he allows the reader to do in the process of creating the story. I think that’s why the story has stuck with me and has been such an inspiration–the author lets me own it, create it, and live it as I read it.

    When I think of that old Emerson MFA program, I think of one of the greatest discoveries I made at that time: Learning about life from a completely new place means learning from its people. This idea can also be a starting point for a larger discussion for one of the elements of Almost Gone, the immigrant fiction element. I’m also a Portuguese American, but I’m generations away from the first ones who came here–and they were the ones who decided that it would be best to leave the old world behind completely. Their insistence on dropping the “Portuguese-” from Portuguese-American, something they felt was a service to their children, has left my family with nothing but question marks about how we’re connected to our present-day Iberian people. I opened Brian’s book partly with the hope that I might learn something about the people in it so that I could understand more about how heritage can play a role in people’s lives, for better and for not-so-better. And, over the years, this has become something I open any book for–I want to find a link to other people via the empathy one gains through getting to know and understand all types of people. This, I believe, is the root of what Brian knew about as a writer that I didn’t when we first met.

    Don’t even get me started with Andrea…she had that empathy to the max, too…maybe I’ll post a separate comment about that later. Anyway, when I came to Emerson there was something missing from my writing that I feel is there now, after I worked with all of these types of folks, Ivy Leaguers, Bush Leaguers, the beleaguered, the wannabes, the freaky James Joyce paramours, the martini-drinking status hounds, and, yes, others who were workadays like me (three jobs while writing novel after novel, story after story), as well as true lovers and devourers of fiction like Sam and that quiet genius guy I had in a couple classes…

  2. I love the site, Andrea. Listened to the radio spot and it was great to hear your voice. I’m glad to know you’re teaching these days–your students are lucky to have you!

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