Writing Lessons

Life Is Too Short

By Sarah Manguso | February 2, 2015


I was the only first-year student in Dean Young’s inaugural poetry workshop at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was also the least practiced and the worst-read, having come to Iowa straight from a series of failures—beginning with flunking out of pre-med chemistry and ending with a halfhearted attempt to apply to doctoral programs in classical philology. So to distinguish myself on the first day of class, I wrote a poem about something in Wittgenstein I hadn’t read. I thought it would be easier to pose as an intellectual than as a decent poet.

I read my poem aloud, and Dean listened as I intoned what I hoped sounded like an implicit apology for the poem that wasn’t a poem.

He pretended not to understand. He was visiting just for the semester and, to deflect this very sort of bullshittery, had been posing as something less than an intellectual. I forgave him. And I forgave him for not really listening to my poem.

“The thing is, Sarah,” he quietly said, “I only have about 40 more years to live.”

I can’t say that that Wittgenstein nonsense was my final pretentious inanity, but Dean’s reminder improved my average. Why did it work? It worked because he was kind.

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