Monday, March 26, 2007

When Good Things Happen to Good People

My friend and writing pal Rufi Cole is all of 21 (her mother Kimberly is a great writer too, but that's another story), and already has a great prose style. Or perhaps I ought to say ‘styles’, since in one mood she’ll be full of startling images and icily precise sentences ala Nabokov, and in another she’ll be focused on bizarre philosophical conceits as though Borges has dropped in for a chat. More recently, though, she has forged a style that is all her own, and has been ninja-kicking her way through her first novel.

As you might have gathered, she’s more than a bit on the precocious side. She finished college almost a year ago at New York’s famous New School (philosophy, English, that sort of stuff). During her year out of school, she’s been waiting tables and writing like a fiend—and applying to a half-dozen of the best MFA writing programs.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the MFA. (I’ll post some other time on education and writing. Not sure if that’s a threat or promise.) I admit some unique voices have emerged from MFA programs over the years—John Irving (Iowa) and Michael Chabon (University of California at Irvine), for example—but I think MFA programs have their drawbacks as well. In general, I think they tend to inculcate preciousness at all levels, and rather than encouraging adventurous styles, they tend to produce very polished, very smooth, homogenous, bland, workshoppy prose. Most tend to steer writers away from anything that smacks of genre, storytelling, or powerful topics.

Rufi, however, is about as easy to steer as a train, so I wasn’t worried that any MFA program could hurt her much. What worried me was that she would be too original for them—too young, too distinctive in style, and too bold in subject matter. Though she was an ideal MFA candidate in principle, I’ve served on various admissions committees in academia, and I was all-too-aware that tall nails tend to get hammered down in that ugly little process. Add to this the fact that getting into a good MFA program is about as easy as getting your first novel published, and is often quite political (with the handful of spaces available already allocated to a few folks with inside tracks), and I was concerned that she might be in for a long series of rejections. (On the other hand, I told myself secretly that a long series of rejections isn’t the worst thing to prepare someone for a writing career, so the downside wasn’t huge.)

I wish I could string this out into an exciting story, with setbacks and struggles, but instead the school at the top of her list, the University of Virginia (Ann Beattie, John Casey, and Rita Dove teach there), accepted her before the others have even replied—and not only accepted her, but offered her full tuition and a living stipend. (She's had another acceptance today. This is getting ridiculous, and has a really poor narrative through-line. Don't expect this to be the next white-knuckle film script.)

Any writer can tell you that life isn’t fair. It ain't. But every so often, for no perceptible reason, life gets it exactly right.

That name again is Rufi Cole. Keep your eyes open for it. Her first book can’t be all that far off.


Jeremy James said...

The worst thing she could do is get an MFA. Just my opinion.

David Isaak said...

Well, MFAs certainly aren't for everybody. In her case I doubt it will hurt her (and might help her).

But think of it this way--at the minimum, she's being offered enough money to sit around for two years and write. Looks like a sweetheart deal to me...

Anonymous said...

Rufi says:

I'm not too worried that it's "the worst thing I could do." According to John Casey, there is excellent trout fishing out there. And since I intend to go fishing a couple times a week, and only have to be in class... wait a second, three hours a week, I am pretty sure they will balance each other out.

Trout as spiritual advisor. I think it could work.

Jake said...

So THAT explains who this mysterious "Rufi Cole" is. I'd been wondering for a while.