What I’m reading this term

I’m in my second of four terms in The Bennington Writing Seminars (nonfiction track), and below is a list of what I’ve read so far and plan to read through December.

The reading list is devised by the student and the mentor for any given term. I was thrilled when my mentor, Susan Cheever, and I sat down in June in the living room of my dorm at Bennington, and she started reeling off questions, “Have you read this? Have you read that? I can’t force you to read anything, but if you’re getting a master’s degree, you really should know these books.” It was kind of embarrassing, because I was usually answering, “no.” Although I took a bunch of lit classes as an undergraduate, my major was psychology. Then, a few years later, I went on to grad school in urban planning, and for a long time, I only read public policy books. Imagine a life without novels and memoirs 😦 but that’s how it was.

The result of this conversation was an amazing list of classics and some newer books. I can also swap out for something new that comes along at any time, which is how I ended up reading Sophia, the biography of Tolstoy’s wife, which has only been out for a few months. I was going to read a biography of Tolstoy, but then I was like: let’s hear about the wife who nurtured him through his great works and then was totally dissed by his followers and him at the end of his life. Let’s hear her side of the story!

So, here you go!

June/July 2010

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Pevear & Volokhonsky edition)

Sophia Tolstoy, a biography – Alexandra Popoff


In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Capote: A Biography – Gerald Clarke

Shot in the Heart – Mikal Gilmore

The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer

[I don’t recommend reading all these in the same month. Really depressing insights into family dysfunction and how NOT to raise your sons.]


Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte [a romance! shake off those murderers! hooray!]

The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Charlotte Bronte biography – Lyndall Gordon

Jean Rhys Interview – Paris Review

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

October [some of these will be re-reads from a long-ago college course]

Emerson Essays

First We Read, Then We Write – Robert Richardson on Emerson

Walden – Henry David Thoreau

The Scarlet Letter & other stories – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne: A Life – Brenda Wineapple


The Invention of Solitude – Paul Auster

Self-Consciousness – John Updike

The Control of Nature – John McPhee

Waterfront – Phillip Lopate

December -?

Middlemarch – George Eliot

The Pine Barrens – John McPhee

Ward 6 and Other Stories – Anton Chekhov

Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey – Janet Malcolm

The Journalist & the Murderer – Janet Malcolm

Tolstoy – Henri Troyat [the bio. I temporarily ditched in favor of Sophia above]

Moving back into the present day… I’d like to read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, the latter of which is sitting on the floor right next to me as I type this…


Imperfection in the writer’s life

I read the passage below at Rosh Hashanah services last Thursday morning. For those of you who are wondering why I was observing the High Holidays: while I was raised as a Catholic, I married a nice Jewish man. I haven’t converted, but we did raise our sons in the Jewish faith and, truth be told, I go to more services than all of them! Anyway, the rabbi of our small Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in Princeton has begun a tradition of asking a few members to reflect on a theme for just a few minutes during High Holiday services. This year’s theme was perfection/imperfection, interpreted in any way we like. Here is my offering below.

Oh, I must add, it was especially moving and a total surprise when the poet Alicia Ostriker got up after me and read her poem, Prayer in Autumn from The Book of Seventy.

Imperfection in the writer’s life

This past January I began a low-residency MFA program in nonfiction at Bennington College.  I spend ten days in Jan. and June on-campus. The rest of the year, every month, I mail 25-30 pages of new work, a few book reports, and sometimes a critical paper to my mentor for that term. The experience of submitting these early drafts at the end of each month to someone I barely know, putting myself at the mercy of someone successful and well-published, can be an emotionally-harrowing experience.

The work isn’t ready. The ideas are half-baked, the transitions choppy. Not only is the writing not perfect, it’s deeply flawed. But if I want to become a better writer, this is the system I’ve chosen to get me there – this regular, voluntary humbling.

The thing is, it’s not like I haven’t been through this before – coming face-to-face with my writing’s imperfection. My writing has been rejected hundreds of time. For anyone who has tried to get their work published, whether it’s for the school newspaper or The New Yorker – rejection and revision are facts of the writing life.

I have two thick folders in the bottom of my desk drawer filled with rejections.  What that batch of correspondence says is: your work is not right for us. It doesn’t work for us. After receiving these letters, some no bigger than a scrap of paper, I have to accept that if I want that particular story or essay to be read somewhere, in some format, by people I’ve never met, then I am going to have to engage in a kind of teshuva and turn around, go back, examine it with fresh eyes, identify its flaws, admit my culpability in creating this flawed thing and try to set it right.

This is no easier now than fourteen years ago when I started writing in earnest. It’s one thing to acknowledge that my work doesn’t resonate with enough readers to put it on the best seller list. It’s another to go through this re-examination process, again and again, with less resistance, to embrace it as a way to move the work to a better place, a higher plane.

There is no such thing as perfection in a piece of writing. And yet there are times when the prose sings. We know it when we hear it. We feel it. A connection is made. Sometimes, because we’ve let our guard down, because we’ve let ourselves be vulnerable, in the presence of other imperfect creatures, we do receive the gift of a moment – it’s often just a moment – when we feel aligned again. Which is about as close to perfect as I think we ever get.

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