The Gift

One of my favorite books is Lewis Hyde's The Gift, with its provocatively obscure subtitle, Imagination and The Erotic Life of Property. Cruising from economic theory to anthropology to literary criticism, it is one of those works that seem to explain everything, from the nature of artistic inspiration to usury to why Ezra Pound's poetry went south. One of its major theses, expressed a little too reductively here, is that a gift, to stay alive, needs to stay in motion. You give me the sacred Kula armshell and after a month I pass it on to someone else and after another month, they pass it on again. This is Hyde's model for how communities are formed, how social bonds take hold.

The Michener MFA program will be ten years old this fall. It was created by a twenty million dollar gift by James Michener. He was a complex man, both generous and impatient to see results. His goal was for the Michener Center to be the finest writing program in the country and he wanted it to happen fast. I remember him saying at a gathering at La Zona Rosa at the end of our very first year of existence, "I always wanted to support a talented writer, but I never could find one."

A decade later, things look very different. Browsing through Dutton's Bookstore in L.A. recently, I noticed that the books of our students now outnumber the books of Michener's on those shelves. Plays by the young writers who have passed through the Center are being produced in New York, Strasberg, and the warehouses of Austin. Films have been shot in Montana and Nova Scotia. The awards being won are the serious ones.

But even ten years isn't really long enough to gauge what the real impact of Michener's gift will be. I'd like to set aside for a moment the shower of accomplishments listed elsewhere in this newsletter and salute everyone who didn't win a major award this year, didn't get their novel published or haul in a major award. The work of some of the most gifted writers I've taught here has yet to see the light of day. It can be tortuous, working on without a glimmer of recognition in sight, and it can go for years. It takes a lot of guts to see these books through. I do know, however, speaking from very personal experience, that the most important writing you will do nearly always happens when no one is looking.

Let me end with two quotes, the first from Larry Kasdan, speaking to our students one afternoon. "The only ones in the game are the ones who didn't quit." The second is from Henry James, courtesy of Denis Johnson, who has it taped up over the doorway of his office at the Michener Center. " We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion. Our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."