I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during my second year of grad school at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which had granted me a coveted Teaching/Writing Fellowship. Up until that point, my future looked promising. I had only two sources of discomfort; the numbness and tingling in my legs, and the notion that my novel was a sham.
My friend Iqbal Pittalwala and I put our work up together. Iqbal’s piece was destined to become the title story of the delightful Dear Paramount Pictures. My piece was an excerpt from a novel destined to remain unpublished and untitled.
Our class had barely settled in our seats when workshop director Frank Conroy declared that Iqbal and I had presented “an embarrassment of riches.” I had never heard the phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ before. I felt embarrassment, all right. Iqbal’s story was flawless. But my piece?
One of my classmates wondered aloud if the central figure in my novel was merely a MacGuffin. I had never heard the term ‘MacGuffin’ before, either. Back then we turned to Frank for definitions. We have since lost him. I turn now to Wikipedia.
A MacGuffin…is “an element that … drives the plot of a work of fiction”…The MacGuffin is the central focus … in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. Sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end.
My classmate had nailed it. The central figure in my novel was a missing person. I had no idea of how to leverage that character’s disappearance. I had no sense of the plot. I had been hoping that if I focused on the remaining characters, the story would suggest its own resolution. I allowed each sentence to suggest the one that would follow. Chapter after chapter, my missing person receded deeper into the background. Like a MacGuffin, my missing person seemed likely to be forgotten by the end.
Frank bristled at my classmate’s suggestion. MacGuffins were flim-flam. My novel was the real thing. “I think we’ll find that every word in this novel is necessary for its inevitable conclusion.”
After class, I considered asking Frank some leading questions, so I could coax out his notion of my novel’s inevitable conclusion. I didn’t have the moxie. I feared he would catch on.
Instead of discussing my anxieties about my novel with Frank, I discussed my anxieties about my numbness and tingling with a neurologist. The symptoms I described made sense to the neurologist, even the most bizarre. Especially the most bizarre.
The neurologist told me I had multiple sclerosis. I’d never heard the term, ‘multiple sclerosis’ before. The disease he described was ruthless. Bit by bit, my central nervous system would self-destruct. My life would be foreshortened. That was it. The end.
I wore my Workshop mask, listening to the nightmare prognosis as though it were just another critique. Surely this was someone else’s story, this prognosis of a horrific decline? I didn’t ask the neurologist any questions. I didn’t have the moxie. I accepted his “literature.” I think I even thanked him. I walked off, and waited until I was far beyond his sight line before I allowed a tear to fall.
I went directly from there to the Workshop. It was on my way home.
Secretary Deb West and Program Associate Connie Brothers were the first to console me. Connie assured me that plenty of writers persisted through chronic illness; both men on the faculty— Frank Conroy and James Alan McPherson—had diabetes, as did visiting writer Thom Jones.
On hearing the news, Frank ushered me into his office. He trembled with indignation at the audacity of this as-yet untested diagnosis. I later learned that Frank would telephone his good buddy, Antonio Demasio, then the head of University of Iowa Neurology. My neurologist would get in deep trouble. Don’t feel too sorry for him. He would retaliate with my lumbar puncture. My spinal fluid would leak out through the puncture, leaving my unsupported brain to scrape against my brainpan. The resulting spinal headache made me want to die.
If Frank Conroy played the role of father, or perhaps Godfather, my classmates Karen Leh and Janet Roach played the role of sisters. Karen held my hand as I heard the tests results that confirmed the diagnosis. Karen and Janet convinced Frank, Jim, Connie and Marilynne Robinson to pitch in with them to buy me a used TV.
Marilynne, the mother figure, invited my husband and I to her home for dinner. She assured us that watching television was an acceptable pastime. I had no interest in television. I had no interest in finishing my novel, either. My diagnosis prompted an epiphany of what I really wanted out of life. I wanted a child.
As the year came to close, Marilynne took me out to eat, on Paul Newman’s dime, to urge me not to give up on my novel. “Finish your novel to support your child.” I smiled politely. I understood it could be difficult for the author of Housekeeping to imagine that not everyone’s novel could make enough money to actually support a child. The success of Housekeeping had enabled her to support two children.
I had one last chance to come clean with Frank Conroy. I went to his office for his advice on grading. The most talented student in my undergraduate writing class was a Brit with a cockney accent and a Billy Idol haircut. The boy had written a gorgeous short story I had praised to the sky. After that, he quit going to class. I didn’t want to flunk such a talented writer.
“Maybe I put too much pressure on him,” I suggested.
There was no pregnant pause.
“Nonsense,” Frank snapped. “The boy deserves F.”
At the end of the year, I handed in a novel with a pseudo-ending. The gig was up. I’d written a MacGuffin. Frank did not follow his own advice; he was more of a softie than he let on. I didn’t get an “F.” I got an MFA.
In the years that followed, my classmates produced an embarrassment of riches. I added each new gem to my bookshelf. My own writing receded deeper into the background. I focused on raising my child. That child has turned out fine. I have finally returned to writing. In my blog, http://www.mslabratcom/, I examine my life with multiple sclerosis. I have a real story to tell, after all. I have located that missing girl in my novel.
I am the MacGuffin…no longer.
author’s note: I recently attended the 75th Anniversary Reunion at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It took me three solid days to recover from leaving my loved ones in Iowa City all over again. One of the very many nice surprises of the weekend was the discovery that this essay appears, in a slightly modified form, in the Workshop’s anniversary anthology, Word by Word. I was tickled to be anthologized with so many writers I’ve admired for years.
Here are but a few of the gems from that embarrassment of riches that was my class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I recommend all of them without reservation:
A Better Angel: Stories by Chris Adrian
Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
Gob’s Grief: A Novel by Chris Adrian
The Testament of Yves Gundron by Emily Barton
Brookland: A Novel by Emily Barton
Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long
Living With Saints by Mary O’Connell
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Dear Paramount Pictures by Iqbal Pittalwala
The Mysterious Benedict Society Series by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Lonely Polygamist by Bradley Udall
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Bradley Udall
It looks like the very talented Lisa Taggert, who helped my edit my fellowship application, wrote a book I ought to read: Women Who Win: Female Athletes on Being the Best
Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption by Jerald Walker
My review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/164030784
amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Street-Shadows-Memoir-Rebellion-Redemption/dp/0553807552/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304004405&sr=1-1
Am I missing any big publications from the authors to come out of our year? Workshop collegues, let me know. I am always eager to read and recommend yet another great book.