FEBRUARY 8, 2017
HENRY DAVID THOREAU might say that the mass of creative writing students lead lives of quiet desperation, though it is worth noting that his retreat in the Concord woods lasted roughly as long as an MFA program. The irascible visionary might have sensed that for aspiring artists, two years was just the right length of time for a self-imposed exile from the wider world. Marc Nieson, author of a memoir, Schoolhouse, called a “modern-day Walden” by its publisher, entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop determined to live rustically: “goddamn it, if I’d come to the Midwest, I was going to live in the corn.” Nieson doesn’t go full Thoreau, but he does find a suitably remote dwelling and lead a suitably hermetic life on a “hilltop aerie” 15 miles west of town. Frustrated by his reclusiveness, his friends eventually foist an answering machine upon him, leaving it on his doorstep with a note that reads, “Use This or Lose Us.” Nieson relents, but has to record the away-message five times “until no hint of resentment could be discerned.”
I generally read MFA memoirs for the gossipy anecdotes about boozy faculty; the satirical portraits of offbeat, boozy classmates; and the wistful reconstructions of a time when young boozy writers burned with a hard, gem-like flame. (For anyone who shares these interests, John Skoyles’s supremely enjoyable A Moveable Famine won’t disappoint.) Nieson’s memoir is of a different sort, an “elegy for a hilltop, an homage to what once was. A cautionary tale regarding what may or may not be sustainable in love or landscapes.” Set almost entirely during his period in the Workshop, the book has little interest in the conventions of the genre or the particulars of MFA culture. Schoolhouse is an idiosyncratic account, uneven but gripping, about an idiosyncratic artist: a Long Island kid who lives in the boonies, drives around with a dead owl in his trunk and invites a young woman over to his house to watch bats stream out from the rafters and into the night air. (She declines.)
After a brief introduction, the book takes us to New York in the ’80s, where a 20-year-old Nieson meets Sybil, the 39-year-old mother of three separated, though not divorced, from her husband. For years, they carry on a relationship “freed from the banalities of bills and laundries, the complexities of future tense.” After a decade of this casually serious arrangement, Nieson is admitted into the Writers’ Workshop. He speeds to Iowa — “a place to grow” reads one promising sign — or rather speeds away from New York, hoping to distance himself from the long-term affair neither he nor his partner had the will to end.
So it goes with Nieson: a Prufrockian persona mired in a “slough of avoidance,” he repeatedly bemoans his failure to force things to a crisis. Just as he resists breaking things off definitely with Sybil, so he is reluctant to open himself up to a new woman, Beth (his future wife), or even to revise his work, afraid to “let go of what I’d written in previous drafts.” As he puts it in one of the text’s too frequent oxymoronic formulations, he is “careless by way of being too careful.” A frustrated Beth, in one of her scathingly blunt assessments, tells him that “[i]t’s not that you’re immature, it’s that you’ve already grown old.”
But if he’s indecisive in some respects, Nieson is firm on his real estate preferences: the farmier the better. Finding a Thoreauvian dwelling, however, proves difficult, and after a couple weeks of sleeping in his car, he rents a place in Iowa City. The next year, however, he locates his dream property: a former schoolhouse perched atop a hilltop on the sprawling Redbird Farm, 15 miles west of town:
And all around flowed a staggering expanse of rolling meadows and woodland, a flickering green carpet of cornstalks on the far horizons. Acre after acre, miles of perspective.
Perspective is what the young man needs, forever “stumbling towards hindsight,” on the lookout for some visible grand plan to emerge from “all [his] veering detours and varied pitstops. Transition after transition after transition.”
As if to allay his anxiety about his life’s structure, or lack thereof, Nieson chronologically orders his memoir into 15 scholastic headings, “lesson plans” (Orientation, Geography, Lost & Found, Commencement, et cetera). “Homework” describes a voyage to Long Island, accompanied by a clunky riff on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space; “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” a visit to Venice to say goodbye to a dying friend; “History” a trip to the library to learn about the schoolhouse, which operated from 1912 to 1956 (he likens the expedition to being in a detective story, then falls asleep while examining the documents); and “Pre-School” his New York life with Sybil (“…and I recognized we were more than just passing trains in the night. It was as if we were destined to meet, to save one another.”) Generally, the closer he stays to the schoolhouse and its woodsy environs, the better. When he strays from his minute, near obsessive love affair with Redbird Farm, the prose slackens. On the whole, though, this playful thematic organization provides a loose but not overly rigid framework for the occasionally inchoate material, allowing Nieson the latitude to explore his indecision within bounds.
And if paralyzed by his own velleities, Nieson is enamored of decisiveness in others. One of the more perplexing texts he encounters during his time at the Workshop is the instruction manual for a chainsaw. He reads it cover to cover, seeing as he will have to cut a winter’s worth of firewood to heat his house. Yet when the time comes to convert theory to practice, he chokes, so to speak, and surrenders the chainsaw to a more accomplished Iowan woodsman:
There was no fat on any of his movements, no extra energy expended, no time wasted. He didn’t bother with thinking about what he was doing, he just acted. He cut things apart, quickly and cleanly.
Papa couldn’t have said it better. The next scene shifts to the writing program, where the pressure to produce a serviceable story for a Frank Conroy–led workshop is mounting: “One evening a classmate literally fainted, mostly due to two anxious days prior without sleep or food.” One takeaway from this juxtaposition is: Do not operate dangerous machinery while composing under deadline. But the contrast between efficient woodcutter and tortured artist also effectively demonstrates the despairing mental state that causes creative types to romanticize a finite, well-executed task.
Nieson repeatedly rhapsodizes over those who act or decide rather than reflect or dither. He witnesses several volunteer members of the sheriff’s office examine the site of a marsh fire and quickly rule out arson: “In comparison, there I was, after all these months on Redbird taking notes and reflecting, still more or less in the woods.” Seeing a blacksmith shod a horse inspires another paean, as well as a small crisis of masculinity: “Here was someone practicing a real trade with cast iron tools, not some ‘fiction writer’ with a flimsy pencil point.” The blacksmith’s name, as fitting in this context as the horseshoe he crafts, is Dick.
The sound of the blacksmith’s noble work has “the ring of authenticity, crisp and echoing.” He is a real forger, unlike Nieson, who in the above passage feels compelled to put “fiction writer” in quotation marks, indicating both his embarrassment about his vocation — its apparent frivolousness — and his doubts that the frivolous vocation suits him. The memoir worships at the altar of authenticity precisely because its author is genuinely skeptical of his own. Consider Nieson’s anxiety about his decision to live where he does and how he does; whether his “hermit’s pose” is just that: “perhaps all this woodstalking and role-playing was mere appropriation on my part. Or worse still, an arrogant masquerade.” Maybe so — and the schoolhouse no more than a “safe little sanctum” in which to wall himself off from obligations — but the hardships are real, as is Nieson’s love of the land.
And lest I paint Nieson as exclusively devoted to manly Iowans, consider his thralldom to the women in his life. First and foremost is Sybil,
the first woman who’d ever taken any real interest in me, who sensed something beyond my reserve even worth approaching. So no wonder I fell into her waiting arms and spell.
That spell, it must be said, affects Nieson’s writing, at its most purple when describing her:
Sybil, my prophetess and soothsayer. Part sylph and symphony. Music and muse. Hearth and island.
(Sybil is best off-screen, as in one bittersweet scene when, unable to get in touch with Nieson on his birthday, she sends a check to his friends to cover the cost of a cake.)
Nieson’s landlady, Tina, inspires similar devotion:
Perhaps it was the steel and silver of her hair, or her skin so thick and lined, or those ardent eyes, set deep and blue as any prairie sky […] In any event, for an instant I caught a glimpse of something if not necessarily royal, then certainly stately. A first inkling that this landscape of mud and marsh grass into which I’d stumbled was in its own way groomed and stewarded by a breed of quiet, solid nobility.
And we can’t forget Nieson’s chosen spiritual guardian — Saint Lucia, patron saint of the blind — yet another female figure for the “groping myopic” to worship.
For writers, however, myopia can be a gift, allowing us to focus on the up-close and overlooked. Though Nieson’s Redbird “woodswalks” — mapping the terrain, tracking animals, listening to their sounds — don’t clarify his romantic or artistic situation, they do teach him how, quite literally, to gather material. He collects finds from his solitary rambles until the schoolhouse resembles a “taxonomist’s nightmare”:
Antlers and eggshells, sumac and loam. A series of unearthed paw prints padded across one windowsill like a tiny parade. My walls, haphazardly adorned with dried cattails and teasel, shed snakeskins and the spent husks of dragonfly nymphs. Somewhere in all those objects there had to be some ulterior design. Some natural explanation beneath what remained and what didn’t.
But that explanation eludes him. In frustration, Nieson turns to one of his professors, the recently deceased James Alan McPherson, who tells his pack-rat ephebe: “There’s documenting and then there’s interpreting. The difference between what you find, and what you make of it.”
In the most effective of his lesson plans, “Anatomy,” Nieson triumphantly follows his mentor’s advice. It opens with the death of an infant brother and concludes with the burial of a skinned owl. Nieson finds the bird, already dead, on the road and puts it in a cooler. Learning that possessing an owl “or any part thereof” in the US of A incurs a $1,000 fine, he hides the corpse in his car for three days while awaiting help to skin it: “It lay quietly and unseen, waiting in parking lots outside the English department.” The scene of him cutting into the creature — “the skinning [growing] more difficult and intricate, more grotesque” — is the book’s most vivid; nowhere does his voice sound so alive as when preserving the dead. The chapter moves gracefully from a memory of his grandfather, a butcher, to a reflection on Nieson’s mania for the “unnatural act” of preservation — “I’m living in a museum […] a morbid shrine” — to his desire to preserve, or rather unnaturally prolong, his and Sybil’s relationship, then to the realization that though his house brims with relics of the forest, he has no memento of his brother — “not a lock of hair, a photograph, barely even a story.”
Class, as they say, is in session. For any student looking to understand the difference between documenting and interpreting, how to thematically tame wild content, Nieson has produced an invaluable lesson in the trade. His pencil point wasn’t so flimsy after all. Now to figure out how to start up that chainsaw.