Last night, at the new student orientation in the Low Library Rotunda at Columbia, all of us teaching in the university’s graduate writing program got up to introduce ourselves.
When I write “all of us,” it’s an awe-inspiring list: Deborah Eisenberg and Richard Ford were sitting next to each other, just to name two fiction writers.
We were all asked to respond to the prompt “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” and to keep our remarks under a minute; to accomplish that, we were urged to think about what we wanted to say in advance, or even to prepare some notes on paper.
Out of a few dozen writers, all lined up in a row, I went second. Here’s roughly what I said (and what I didn’t say):
My name is Tom Hopkins, and I’m teaching a seminar this fall that I’m calling “Faking It.”
I* spent a week this summer on an island off the coast of Maine. I stayed in a cottage on a lake. The cottage had a canoe. One day, I took the canoe out in the water until I came to an island—an island
smaller than**about exactly the same size as this room. I found a place to come ashore, and a tree branch where I could tie up the canoe. I walked on paths soft with pine needles up a slight hill. Then I came to a clearing , a small vale.*** At the bottom of the vale,[I]n the middle of the clearing, I saw a loon. I realized that it was nesting. It was facing away from me, but then it turned its neck, slowly and deliberately, until one bright, burning-coal red eye was aimed right at me.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been that close to a nesting loon, but she looked ready and able to take me out if she wanted to.
I got within ten feet of something as precious as new life, protected by love that fierce, a beautiful thing, protected by layer upon layer, hidden in a
valeclearing on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean.
And that**** is what I’m hoping my seminar this fall is like.*****
* It was actually my son and me, the first time I saw the loon. But I thought the story would sound better—more fairy tale-like—if I told it in the first person. (It’s not factually inaccurate in the first person, but it is not as true as it could be.)
** I’d never been to the Low Library Rotunda before. What an incredible room! And it seemed about exactly the same size as Rum Island, in the middle of the northwestern finger of Long Pond, on the western half of Mount Desert Island, which was where we found the loon.
*** When I wrote down my notes, I wasn’t anywhere near a dictionary, either electronic or hard copy. I wasn’t completely confident that I was using the word “vale” correctly, so although I wrote it down in my notes, I didn’t read it out loud. I think the clearing where we saw the loon was too small to be a vale, technically, so omitting the word in the reading was probably the right decision.
**** I tapped the podium when I said the word “that”; the microphone was either jostled by the tap, or picked up the sound of the tap. Either way, it was audible through the speakers.
***** This feels right—it feels intuitively true—although I don’t know if I’m able to articulate the connection in a completely rational way. Since the fiction we’ll be reading in the seminar is work that either makes use of not-fictional forms within a work of fiction, or that takes on another form entirely, it seems like it’s not wrong to say that the truth or the meaning of the work is thereby buried an additional layer deep than it would be in a work of fiction that does not costume itself that way—that takes on the form, rather, of conventional storytelling (which is itself a costume or mask, but one that strives to be invisible to contemporary readers).