A Life in Literature

Sena Jeter Naslund - Louisville, Kentucky
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, July 25, 2014
Sena Jeter Naslund
Photo credit: Flora K Schildknecht

Sena Jeter Naslund knew at an early age that she loved literature. But when making a career choice, she felt she should do something good for humanity, not simply indulge her passions. One moment in a college classroom changed her perspective, though, and she realized that literature does bring good into the world.

Themes: creativity

Early on, by age nine perhaps, I discovered my passion for both reading and writing fiction. The discovery was sudden and unbidden: one very hot summer day in Birmingham (no air conditioning), while reading, I realized I was shivering with cold. I had become caught up in a Laura Ingalls Wilder description of a blizzard. How is this possible? I asked myself, and the answer came immediately. It’s these words. Just these words have made me feel cold. Full of wonder and admiration for Laura’s writing, I thought, I’d like to be able to do that someday.

Nonetheless, I found myself beginning college as a pre-med student with the intention of becoming a medical missionary. You see, I wanted to do good, or to be a good person, one devoted to the welfare of others. And what of my own love of reading and my interest in imaginative writing? Both still gave me immense pleasure, though I was failing chemistry. But what good is literature? I asked myself. And I asked my serious-minded student friends the same question. To spend my life merely doing what I loved seemed unacceptably self-indulgent.

One day in a literature class at my small, excellent liberal arts college, the erudite professor, who was also dean of the college, posed a question that none of us could answer: “In what way are Huck of Huckleberry Finn and Pip of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations alike?” While I did not know the answer, what I did know—in a strange flash of intuition—was that whatever the answer, it would be of crucial importance to the young man sitting across the aisle from me.

And who was he? A brilliant person, a troubled person for all his brilliance, someone I loved and admired.

The professor answered his own question. “Both are boys in search of a father.” And I knew my friend across the aisle, through literature, suddenly understood his own confusion. He knew in a visceral way something of vital importance. What was true of those fictive boys was also true of him: he needed to become a guiding father to himself.

The class was over. As my friend Dwight and I walked out the door together into the hall, he said without looking at me, “And how can you doubt, Sena, that literature can do good in the world?” Without looking at him, but sure both his eyes and my eyes were glazed with tears, I replied, “I know. I know.” I knew that literature could and does make ideas and feelings real, dramatic, and accessible in a way that enhances the quality of our lives.

And so I gave myself permission to embrace a literary life, both as reader and as writer. If something I might come to write offered one wonderful person a new and needed perspective, then I could justify choosing a life for myself in literature.

That was all a very long time ago, about half a century ago. My friend would die in an auto accident before he was twenty-one. And I would live to be extraordinarily happy in my choice of professions.

This I believe: that the arts must be a part of education at all levels, that the arts can and do offer us not only pleasure but also invaluable insights into ourselves and our world.

Sena Jeter Naslund is the author of nine works of fiction, including Ahab’s Wife; Four Spirits; Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette; Adam & Eve; and The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman. She was Kentucky Poet Laureate 2005–2006 and received the Alabama Governor’s Award in the Arts in 2011. Winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Distinguished Writing, she is program director and co-founder of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in writing and writer in residence at the University of Louisville.

Recorded live by Geoffrey Redick at Spalding University in Louisville and produced by Dan Gediman