While in college, my friend Pat Berry planned to be a writer until a post-graduation opportunity led her down the editing path. She became a specialist in children's magazines, her name appearing on the mastheads of Sports Illustrated for Kids, 3-2-1 Contact, and Muppet Magazine, among others. Fifteen years later, Pat left full-time editing to freelance and be around her own children more. She contributed to several essay collections including Over the Hill and Between the Sheets: Sex, Love and Lust in Middle Age, and Unbuttoned – Women Open up About the Pain, Pleasures and Politics of Breastfeeding. Now, at 50, her kids closing in on college, Pat's gone back to school to put writing first. Here, she shares a discovery made early in the program.
Please welcome Pat Berry.
Lately, I’ve been buying novels, memoirs, and biographies like a fiend and not leaving them on the nightstand to catch dust indefinitely. What inspired this reconnection with my bookish, 13-year-old self? Last fall I entered Columbia University’s MFA program in writing. The 50 or so books I’ve purchased since September are homework.
As you can imagine, we grad students are asked to churn out a substantial amount of original work on a regular basis. But the writing—my concentration is creative nonfiction—is on top of as many as 1,000 pages of published fiction and nonfiction reading we’re assigned—each week!
Of course, the authors are the really good ones—Woolf, McEwan, Didion, Orwell, Mailer, and Austen, among them—and the obvious objective is that some of their skill will rub off on us. Although I can’t speak to the transfer of creativity (what, and jinx myself?), I am almost up to date on the reading list. (Alas, the bookmark in last semester’s Low Life, Luc Sante’s dense study of New York City’s more sordid history, is wedged—likely for good—between pages 72 and 73.)
There’s plenty about this grad school experience that I could not have accomplished on my own. For one, the structure keeps me honest, and for another, a research internship offered by the university has opened new doors. But the epiphany happened when I realized that for years, inspiration had greeted me every morning, lined up neatly in a basket next to my clock radio, all but holding up the sign: “Read good stuff and your writing will benefit.”
Words all writers can live—and work—by.
Here’s a partial list of assigned reading that has filled my book bag and blown me away:
- Persuasion by Jane Austen (fiction)— Austen’s last novel and a standout for its older, less-maiden-like protagonist and appreciation for self-made men
- One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (nonfiction)— Assembled talks about creativity by a writer known for her novels and short stories about the South
- Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (nonfiction)— Coming of age told through an English boy’s cataloguing of Arsenal football games
- A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr (nonfiction)— A Massachusetts town’s legal fight against an industry whose toxic dumping has had deadly consequences
- Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (fiction)— Sharp take on a Cold War-era housewife’s discomfort with her mundane suburban life
- King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (nonfiction)— Fast-moving narrative, alive with heroes and villains, about a tyrant’s exploitation of the Congo Free State
- Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (nonfiction)— An unusual approach to writing biography, in this case about a homeless man
- Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (nonfiction)— Matter-of-fact account of a young Italian’s year in a concentration camp
- Saturday by Ian McEwan (fiction)— Quite a bad day in the life of a London-based neurosurgeon
- Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (nonfiction)— Dreamlike recollections of a pre-Revolution childhood in Russia and the émigré years that followed
Pat is happy to answer readers’ questions about her MFA experience, and can be reached here.