A genius for words

A prestigious (and lucrative) MacArthur grant opens unexpected doors for writer Lydia Davis

By Timothy Cahill, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, November 16, 2003 (I-1)

For the next few weeks, until the semester ends in December, Lydia Davis is a professor of creative writing at the University at Albany. When the last paper is graded, however, and the last student story critiqued, Davis will close the door to her small professor's office for something much bigger.

In October, the critically acclaimed fiction writer was among 24 artists and scientists, activists and academics, awarded the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, one of the world's most prestigious honors. The fellowships, given annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, were established "to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations." They foster a limitless variety of human creativity.

Known popularly as "genius grants" (a term the MacArthur Foundation discourages), the fellowships allow recipients to quit any and all day jobs they wish, to concentrate on their own particular genius. For Davis, who is a one-semester-a-year associate professor at UAlbany, it means she won't be teaching for a while. Whether she eventually returns to UAlbany is anybody's guess.

Just now, Davis, who lives outside Kingston with her husband, 15-year-old son, dog and an assortment of cats, is thinking about life full time as a writer. Nice work if you can get it, but the only way to get it is to do your work. You can't apply for a MacArthur; you have to be recommended by someone the foundation has invited to submit a nomination, and be chosen after a rigorous and secretive review process.

"I had daydreams about it," she says of the fellowship, "but had not expected it, by any means."

Getting the call

On the morning she officially became a genius, Davis was preparing to catch a bus to New York City. She rides the bus frequently, opting on the two days a week she's at UAlbany to take Trailways so that she can spend the travel time reading instead of driving. On this day, she was about to leave for a Manhattan appointment when the phone rang, around 9.

"When I learned it was the MacArthur Foundation, I thought they might be calling to ask if I would nominate someone for the award," she says. "But about a half a minute into the conversation I was pretty sure what was coming."

In the weeks since the call, however, Davis has learned she has very little idea of what's coming. Can anyone fully anticipate the sea changes created when a philanthropic organization hands you a half-million dollars? (The money will be paid over five years, with the first installment in January.)

The windfall immediately touched off an internal debate in the writer.

"In the city that first day, I went for lunch in a restaurant and ordered something cheaper than what I really wanted, out of habit. It was only after I gave the waitress the order that I thought, 'Well, I could have had the thing that cost $4 more.' But then the voice of caution came in and said, 'Well, if every meal you order from now on is half again as much as it used to be, you're going to start blowing this money. Any money you spend unnecessarily is money you don't have to live on.'

Old habits die hard for writers who've spent their lives being frugal. Especially for Davis, for whom frugality has been more than a necessity. It's an aesthetic.

Literary miniatures

Davis is master of the short story. Not the "short story" of traditional narrative definition, with its plot, characters and descriptive detail. Davis' stories are enigmatic, epigrammatic ruminations much closer to philosophy than drama. They often run just two or three pages, sometimes only two or three sentences. The MacArthur Foundation called them "literary miniatures" and praised the way they reveal "how all that one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader's interest."

Davis' writing has the texture of dreams, or fragments of dreams. She delivers her stories with an unsettling, almost dismaying declarative detachment, a deadpan mindfulness that misses nothing. She writes about the everyday things most of us forget to notice in our lives, the events and emotions that live in sidelong glances, fleeting thoughts, accidental comments and automatic gestures.

Like a great painter, Davis can say much in a few strokes:

"Two sisters, in black, shop for food together, husbands dead, sons dead in some war; their hatred is so familiar they are unaware of it. They are sometimes tender with one another, because they forget."

Davis' writing isn't stream-of-consciousness. It's stream-of-commentary.

"There is commentary, describing things to myself," she agrees. "I ask myself a lot of questions. There's a constant voice going on there."

Faith in her path

Each year, the announcement of the MacArthurs offers another opportunity to reflect on the qualities of "genius." The hundreds of fellows named since 1981, when the award was instituted, share particular traits -- intelligence, imagination, insight and an unwavering, courageous faith in their own path. In Davis' case, her genius is of the old "5 percent inspiration, 95 percent perspiration" kind. At age 56, she has been writing for nearly 40 years, having published six volumes of stories and a novel as well as several translations of French literature, including Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way."

Literature is in Davis' blood. Her father taught English at Columbia University and reviewed books for The New York Times, while her mother wrote and published short stories. Davis graduated from Barnard College in 1970, where she took just one writing workshop, with Grace Paley. Although she was around the Columbia campus during the '60s, Davis stayed "on the edges" of the counterculture. "I didn't smoke much pot, I didn't listen to much Bob Dylan." Instead, she was devoted to classical music (she studied both the violin and the piano) and committed herself to her calling as a writer.

Effect of the grant

Although literary intellectuals have long praised Davis' writing, she still has a relatively small readership. The acclaim of the fellowship is an opportunity to attract more people to her work. Among those just finding their way is William Kennedy, who was awarded the MacArthur in 1983.

"I'm still discovering her," Kennedy says. "I think she's a very strange and original writer."

The "Ironweed" author has some thoughts about what Davis faces as a new "genius."

"I don't think the MacArthur changed me," he says. "It changed the way people looked at me." With all the increased attention and respect comes the danger of believing too much of your own press.

Especially the tag "genius grant."

"If you believe that, you're in trouble," says Kennedy. "The important thing is not to feel you've arrived somewhere. I don't think it means you've arrived."

The MacArthur, he says, is "such a strong prize, it's capable of turning your head unless you pay attention to what you're doing. It's very liberating, but it's important not to feel you're liberated out of your talent or your imagination."

Kennedy knows Davis as a colleague at UAlbany and the New York State Writers Institute, where she is writer-in-residence. (Davis will read at the Writers Institute on Thursday). "She seems to me like a level-headed woman," he says. "I don't think she'll go off her trolley."

Indeed, as she prepares for her new life, Davis is still busy making plans. She intends to tackle a large project she's been "taking notes on for years." She's superstitious about talking too much about the new book, saying only it will combine fiction and nonfiction, and describing it only as "a grammar book in the form of a novel, or a novel in the form of a grammar book. It's the rantings of a wacky teacher."

Before that, however, the literary world's newest genius has more immediate plans.

"I'll do a lot of cleaning," she admits. "It's funny to me that that's something to look forward to, but in the course of my daily life, things just pile up. One of the delights (of the fellowship) is I'm going to be able to finally order my life."

Her words and others'

Lydia Davis will give a reading at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Recital Hall of the University at Albany's Performing Arts Center. At 4:15 p.m. that afternoon she will give an informal seminar in Room 375 of UAlbany's Campus Center. Both events are free and open to the public. A prolific author and translator, Davis is responsible for scores of books published since 1976. The following is a selected list:


"THE END OF THE STORY" (1995): Available at Amazon.com (area bookstores also may be able to order); Albany Public Library; Mohawk Valley Library System (Fulton, Montgomery, Schenectady and Schoharie county libraries); University at Albany Library



"SKETCHES FOR A LIFE OF WASSILLY" (1981): Amazon.com, UAlbany


"BREAK IT DOWN" (1986): Amazon.com, MVLS, UAlbany

"ALMOST NO MEMORY" (1997): Amazon.com, APL, MVLS, UAlbany

"SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT" (2001): Amazon.com, APL, MVLS, UAlbany

Selected translations

"DEATH SENTENCE," Maurice Blanchot (1978): Amazon.com

"THE LAST MAN," Maurice Blanchot (1987): Amazon.com

"SCRATCHES," Michel Leiris (1991): Amazon.com

"HELENE," Pierre Jean Jouve (1993): Amazon.com, MVLS

"SCRAPS," Michel Leiris (1997): Amazon.com

"SWANN'S WAY," Marcel Proust (2002): Amazon.com, APL, MVLS, UAlbany

A sample

Lydia Davis' specialty is the story stripped bare. "The Mother," from her 1986 collection "Break It Down," is just 102 words long and takes about 25 seconds to read. But like so many of her quick-but-not-easy tales, the piece lingers in your mind for days afterward. It is reprinted here with permission of the author:

The girl wrote a story. "But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel," said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. "But how much better if it were a real house," her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. "But wouldn't a quilt be more practical," said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. "But how much better if you dug a large hole," said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. "But how much better if you slept forever," said her mother. © Lydia Davis
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Lydia Davis