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In a 2006 NPR interview, Paul Giamatti said that he read all of Macbeth aloud, to himself, because he wanted to. (In full disclosure, it might not have been Paul Giamatti, and it might not have been Macbeth, but let’s just say it was.)
I remember listening to this interview in the fall of 2006 because I was in the first semester of my MFA program at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. The idea of reading the entirety of something aloud sounded crazy, brilliant, and probably a thing you only did if you had the time and the energy. But isn’t that what MFAs are for? So I decided to read a book out loud. To myself. Like a crazy person with too much time and energy. I picked the next book on my reading list: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America.
I remember pacing my attic apartment, reading at high volume the twelve stories in Birds of America and feeling like I was doing something very alive. Thanks to thin walls and floors, I am sure my downstairs neighbor wished that I wasn’t. I remember explicitly going through all the emotions that Moore is so supreme at putting on the page in character and scene: humor, sadness, daily horror, and desire. And I remember coming to the realization that I’d never read any book like it before.
I could go on about the images I still recall from certain stories, or about her biting and bewitching dialogue, or about the two full pages in one story (“Real Estate”) that are simply “Ha!” over and over and over again. But what really sticks with me about Birds of America is how much it plumbs the depths of Midwestern solitude and, in turn, loneliness. And when you’re in your first semester of your MFA program (and in the Midwest for the first time), you are very alone.
Birds of America was a salve to the ever-opening wound that was my loneliness, the kind that isolation tends to pry open on a daily basis. Reading aloud meant there was simply another voice filling my living room, which was comforting to 22-year-old me. I began to better understand not only my surroundings, but also what I was feeling in this strange new place. It wasn’t that I identified exactly with Moore’s characters or their situations, but rather with the spirit of their interactions through the vehicle of humor and loss. As Moore says in her Paris Review interview: “Most of the humor I’m interested in has to do with awkwardness, the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation.”
Moore cuts through the niceties and superficial layers of living, cuts right through to the bone of conscious (and unconscious) motives:
“But who on earth would want to be in this boat? the Mother thinks. This boat is a nightmare boat. Look where it goes: to a silver-and-white room, where, just before your eyesight and hearing and your ability to touch or be touched disappear entirely, you must watch your child die. Rope! Bring on the rope. ‘Let’s make our own way,’ says the Mother, ‘and not in this boat.’” (from “People Like That Are the Only People Here”)
I felt—and still feel—very lucky to have discovered Birds of America when I did. It allowed me to grasp my loneliness not as a terrible thing, but as a feeling to embrace, to harness, to use as fuel in my own work. In other words, I finally understood what Faulkner means when he says, “I think there is a difference between loneliness and solitude.”
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Alexander Lumans was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. He spent part of Summer 2015 in the Arctic as a fellow on The Arctic Circle Residency. He will be teaching Understanding Comics: Writing the Graphic Novel at Lighthouse starting November 18.