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Confronting Talent

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October 15, 2006

George Sanders, Guest Fiction Editor, on Young Writers Just Starting Out

One of the best things about teaching in an MFA program as good as the one we have at Syracuse is that you’re confronted with a seemingly endless stream of talented young people who are passionate about writing. Working with these writers is amazing, if only because it reminds the teacher of the many forms in which human brilliance can manifest itself.

With writers as good as the ones we get, you see that talent is only the beginning —the essential thing is having a talent for having talent. You have certain abilities, certain defects as a writer: how do you accommodate these? There are certain things you can’t seem to do—what form can you invent to circumvent these things? You have certain fears, obsessions, neuroses, patterns of thought and speech—can you let these into the work, accepting them as part of the wonder that is you, and accepting the wonder that is you as part of the greater wonder that is the world? Or do you lunge back to the shore, taking comfort in the conventional?

The essential thing is having a talent for having talent.

The young writer is called upon, in other words, through work and craft and persistence, to take the raw talent he or she has, and force it into some deep, dark corners. . . to try to wrest from “mere” talent a kind of iconic originality…to confront the parts of himself or herself that, in the early days of a career, one thinks can be ignored, or overcome, or hidden under a mattress somewhere.

But no. Turns out, everything must be used.

So it’s interesting to watch this process unfold. Some can do it, some can’t. Some are satisfied to be good, and others push through, into that scary space where the writer has to start claiming his or her defects as well as virtues, where the writer’s “personality” becomes the salient feature of the story, as reflected in style and form and language and content.

The three writers represented here belong to this last and highest group – writers who, while they were at Syracuse, and since, have pushed themselves to achieve this enviable melding of self and art.

I’m very happy to be able to introduce these writers to you, and grateful to Guernica for the opportunity to do so.

After we accepted Adam Levin into our program, I got what I remember as a 25-page email from him. It was a kind of e-masterpiece, that presaged what we’d see from him during his time at Syracuse: manic, articulate, full of passion and self-effacing humor, courageous in its form, and very funny. Adam is a master of the comic/neurotic inner monologue, who uses this form (as in “Important Men”) to make an almost Beckettsian (if that is a word), surface, full of ennui and longing and righteousness-seeking. The main character in Adam’s work is often: Man, Thinking. And the stories show us the beauties and limitations of this activity. Reading Adam’s work always reminds me that, in fiction, form and velocity are not separable from moral power. A story is a voice talking to you, and the first order of business is to make that voice fast, clear, and undeniable. It’s also not bad, given the times we’re living in, if a story is dangerous, and makes you feel challenged and uncomfortable, and causes you to reexamine some basic assumptions. To me, Adam is a great example of someone who has learned to convert his personal attributes (Red Bull-level energy, great comedic timing, staccato thinking/ speaking skills) into his prose.

I first met Lisa Nold in Russia, in the summer of 2000, at the St. Petersburg Literary Seminar. She is a person of astonishing kindness, presence, and humor, and I remember being curious to see if these wonderful personal traits would be apparent in her fiction. They are. Her stories are as funny and kind-hearted, as hopeful and articulate as Lisa herself is, and they exemplify something I mentioned above: A story is, at its best, a prose repository for the wonders of a particular human being. A Lisa Nold story is, like Lisa, brimming with clarity and awareness. It (like her) is verbally brilliant, and curious about the world, and regards the world with love, but also righteous suspicion. Lisa’s prose seems to love the world for its foibles and shortcomings, but also has seen enough to veer away from too-easy sentimentality. I would also note, as is evident in this story (“A Field Guide to Birdsongs East of the Rockies”) Lisa’s enviable ability to mix high and low dictions, which makes for a strangely moving, comic, and virtuosic effect. The reader trusts Lisa, and why? Because we sense she knows things we don’t, but would like to know, and that she will tell us these secrets beautifully.

What I’ve always loved about Eric Rosenblum‘s work is the subtle, aching humor in it. Eric is able to make a flawed narrator (as he does in “Karate Kid”) and, even as the nature and extent of that flaw is revealed to us, a simultaneous love for the character blooms in us. For this to happen, the writer has to have a vast and automatic reserve of tenderness and compassion, which Eric does. A line like: “I promised myself that if I didn’t let her know I liked her by two fifty-two then I wouldn’t eat dinner,” constitutes a kind of mini-seminar in Psychology of Adolescent Male – makes us see the oddity and rigidity of the narrator even as we pity him for these things. Eric treats human quirks with great love in his stories; he creates these gently flawed beings and lavishes them with attention, observing them closely, with real affection, in beautifully edited prose that is heartbreaking in its precision. He is also, as you’ll see, brilliant with pacing and the odd, telling detail – witness the brilliant description of that lamp-dimming space heater. Ultimately, fiction is not about truth, but magic – the kind of inexplicable pleasure I felt when that space heater arrived in the story.

So, enough from me, so you can get on with reading these wonderful young writers. As Lisa says in her story: “A Yellow-Rumped Warbler is going to sing a distinctly different song than a Belted Kingfisher or an American Woodcock even though the three may work in the same office and drive similar minivans.” Amen to that. Here are three new voices, singing distinctly different songs. I hope you enjoy them.

- Karate Kid
By Eric Rosenblum
- Important Men
By Adam Levin
- Birdsongs East of the Rockies
By Lisa Nold

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