Richard Ford referred to us as “young writers” throughout our hour-long discussion in CU 321. The term seemed apropos given the context of an MFA program, but also appropriate given Ford’s age of seventy-one. He spoke with the grizzled confidence of a man who has put in countless writing hours that have produced seven critically acclaimed novels and four short story collections. His best-known work, Independence Day, won the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1995. He was kind and generous with his advice, an attribute that, for “young writers,” resulted in a small amount of idolization. “His eyes literally sparkled,” said a friend. “When he smiled,” said one of my colleagues, “it looked like a comedic theatre mask.” And perhaps that grin, an angular, thin-lipped joviality that pressed against his cheeks, betrayed a satisfaction with the work he’d accomplished in his career. When describing an ongoing dispute with his editor at Knopf, he claimed that at this point in his life he didn't care if his new book got published. When we pressed him about possible solutions to the problem (his editor, he claimed, “didn't want to edit”), he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I've written enough books in my life. I don’t need this one.” This statement was, most likely, not entirely truthful—I imagine even Richard Ford longs to see his book in print after writing it—but it’s an interesting thing to explore. It’s a statement that seems to signal a comfort with his legacy. I wondered: what is it like to be a writer in the twilight of a career and have that sort of satisfaction? What does it feel like to look back and feel that you have written enough, that you've said what you wanted to say? What does it take?
The aspect of writing that Ford seemed most adamant about was the importance of taking the task seriously. He admitted that “marrying well” allowed him to stay at home and write (he suggested we all “marry as well” as he did), but it seems the seriousness with which he approached writing might be what separated him from other authors. He explained that he does not begin to write a word—“not a single word,” he emphasized—until he has done a year of research. This research included detailed notes on narrative structure and character and setting, notes which he said he would study as if he was taking the Bar exam. He was careful to include “thinking” as research, explaining how it was necessary for him to become completely engrossed in his project. The urgency with which he explained his research bolstered his overall message: “take you work seriously,” he told us. “No one else is going to. It’s your work.”
FAU has had a string of accomplished writers visit us this year: Jo Ann Beard, Phil Klay, Roxane Gay, and now Ford. All of them have spoken about writing with the same dogged determination. Jo Ann Beard explained that she might sit down to write for an eight-hour stretch and not compose a word. Phil Klay spoke about fighting with an editor about a word choice because, “a serious sentence” he said, “contained a syllable count of 3-3-4-3.” “It didn't really matter,” he admitted. “But it mattered to me.” Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard writing discussed in this way. On our own faculty Professor Bucak writes so carefully that she tends to finish just one story a year. Professor McKay wakes up each morning at five and commences to write. Writing hard and meticulously is something that, hopefully, most of us already do. But the MFA provides an atmosphere in which it is easier to take our writing seriously because there is always a deadline approaching. And at the end of that deadline there are peers and professors whose job it is to read our work with careful attention. By virtue of our program, FAU creates an atmosphere in which we are considered serious writers.
Which is why, after leaving my thesis defense last week, I had a strange mixture of accomplishment and foreboding. It felt wonderful to discuss my work confidently with professors that I have learned under for three years. I did not come into the program with that ability. But at the same time it felt as though I had been dropped from a very high ledge. The final deadline had been met. I passed. And there was no more work to turn in. I was on my own.
Of course, graduating does not mean that the professional and friendly ties that I've made at FAU are severed, but the end of an MFA does signal a new phase of my development as a writer. I am confident that I will continue to write, but am also wary that the vigor with which I wrote during the MFA will be tempered by life’s complications. I am wary about this because, to a certain extent, I feel the real writing has just begun—the true test lies ahead. The impetus to write hard and long and well must now come solely from within. There is no longer the benefit of artificial deadlines and a community of writers who support my endeavors. It is up to me. And at this moment in my life, the goal is not necessarily to publish eleven books, but I do want to be seventy-one years old and know I have written everything I am capable of writing, to have said what I could say.
This weekend I was on Highland Beach and saw, probably 100 yards away, a commotion on the shoreline. A crowd of beachgoers gathered and, through the swarm of legs and sea foam, I saw someone performing chest compressions on a motionless body. The tips of the waves flowed up the sand and stopped at the feet of the unconscious man. We all sat in our beach chairs and looked. We were too far away to do anything, but it seemed sacrilegious to smoke a cigarette while I watched someone die. I walked closer to the crowd and asked a woman what had happened. She told me that the man had been caught in the riptide and taken out to sea. Two girls saw him floating beyond the break and swam to retrieve him. “But he’s dead,” she said. “He’s gone.”
When the paramedics arrived they strapped a machine to his chest, a sort of jacket that performed chest compressions. Lifeguards from Delray came as well, riding down the beach in a four-wheeler. The paramedics lifted the man onto the vehicle and I watched them drive past. One of the paramedics held the man’s limp arm by the wrist, checking for a pulse. The drowned man was old, probably in his seventies: stocky, with a healthy, white beard. When his chest was compressed, his belly shook. And as I watched him being taken away, I couldn't help but wonder if he had said what he wanted to say. I wondered if he had written his books.
Donovan Ortega is graduating this semester with an MFA in fiction.