Needless to say, her signature dishes were delicious. Yet it became strange and almost uncomfortable to see her bent over the stove, night after night, in a way that it never was in the past when I’d seen her, bent over the stove, night after night. One dinner, she stood in the kitchen for what seemed like hours, searing small batches of sweet and salty bulgogi beef. I wanted to tell her to sit down, to relax, but instead, I just ate everything she put in front of me.
Even after I decided I wanted to be a writer—a career path that everyone, especially my parents, agreed was nebulous at best—I eventually saw how one could become a “successful” writer. Get into an MFA program, get published in a literary journal, get an agent, sell a novel, win a prize maybe, and, obviously get writing. I don’t think I’m alone in this way of thinking. I think we all, generally, have some idea of the signifiers of success.
It has been a full decade since I’ve read a book of my own, singular choosing. What I mean is that every book I’ve cracked open and read in the past ten years has been read because of some friend, colleague, teacher; some review, prize, or list; some class, job, or writing goal dictated that the book was a must-read. The last book I read was a Man Booker finalist, the one before that was written by an old professor of mine, and the one before that had been both on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks and adapted into a movie. The books on my to-read list are just as semi-known, semi-vetted. Don’t misunderstand — I still read widely (in fiction, at least), and I don’t feel constricted by the focus recommended reading gives me. But I also can’t stop thinking of how I used to read. Wildly, haphazardly, with no safety net.
It can be hard, coming out of a three-year MFA program, to look around and realize it was all temporary. Even as I’ve decided to commit to Ann Arbor for one more year, to the apartment I’ve been in for two years, to teaching at the university that bequeathed me my degree, all around me my people are deciding to leave. I don’t feel left behind so much as I feel that my landscape is evaporating, the Ann Arbor I’d signed up for no longer the Ann Arbor that remains.
I had forgotten that I was allowed to talk about my feelings when recommending a book. Not just allowed, but encouraged. Not that I wasn’t “allowed” to talk about how a book made me feel when surrounded by other writers or students; it just seemed that one’s feelings were beside the point. Yes, yes, this book made you feel happy, the characters made you feel like you knew them, but why did it make you feel that way? My further education was always trying to break me out of this mold of feeling without thinking.