'Is the salad tasty?'

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dec. 11, 2008

Dear Leslie,

My first semester as a college instructor is ending. Finals are next week. Some of the students look a bit worried as the classes they missed and assignments they didn't turn in lurk in their rearview mirrors.

Students who haven't been to class in a month or more suddenly reappear without an excuse or explanation. Sorry about the grade, Mom and Dad. I'd have done better if I'd shown up.

I made one F in my college career. The class was on the American novel. Novels written during the 19th and early 20th centuries. "The Deerslayer," "The Scarlet Letter," "Moby-Dick" and the like. The best novelists of the era were European and Russian, I suspected, but what did I know? I hardly made eye contact with any of the assigned novels and stopped going to class. I got the grade I deserved.

One of my friends flunked out of college, changed majors and earned a doctorate. Flunking is one way of knowing you're going in the wrong direction.

In "Spencer's Mountain," one of the formative movies of my youth, the beauteous Claris returns home from her first year of college spouting the word "fiction" because all the women at school think it sounds dirty. My, Claris, how did Clayboy's back get so sunburned?

I feel defective saying so, but fiction rarely speaks to me like it did to Clayboy. The truth has always seemed more interesting.

Emmanuelle, our friend Robyn's publisher friend, scoffed when I told her so. "What is the truth?" she asked.

That is a good question many have tried to throw a rope around.

Some people contend the Bible is the truth. But then, others say, not literally. People who like Stephen King's novels probably don't read them looking for the truth, but King says fiction is the truth inside the lie. He is one prolific liar.

Perhaps the truth isn't what I'm after so much as honesty and through it self-knowledge. Rumi says, "My heart, do not take pride in every thought, do not flutter like a moth around every light. Until you know yourself you will be distant from God."

Novelists mold the truth into unrecognizable shapes to tell a story that will keep readers reading. Stories that hold my interest really happened to real people. Knowing a story is made up, I might be entertained by the imagination required, but can I learn about myself and about life? Maybe I just don't understand.

On my night stand are "The Jewel Tree of Tibet" and "What I Think About When I Think About Running." Ironically, the latter was written by a novelist.

DC's book club has its annual Christmas dinner tonight. I always feel a bit out of place because they are celebrating another year of doing something that is foreign to me. It's sort of like a cannibal joining his vegetarian wife and her friends for dinner. "Is the salad tasty?"

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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