Life-Changing Art: Carol Shields

This photo shows a pile of stones in all different sizes and colors

In December 2012, I finished grad school and, months later, was still astonished at my newfound free time. Evenings and weekends were now mine; gone were the days of syllabi and required reading, papers, and the dreaded thesis.

By June, my student loans had kicked in. The bills were anticipated, but it was still a shock to my early-twenties salary. Budgeting was essential. So reading–as entertainment, as community, as mental stimulation in the absence of regular classes–became more important than ever.

After years as a student, I now had the freedom to read books of my own choosing. So I eagerly re-entered the “reading as pleasure” world, taking time with each new book, feeling a bit stunned on reading each one for its own sake, and not being required to dissect each one for a grade or presentation.

At my non-taxing day job, I often had NPR’s “Fresh Air” on in the background. On July 18, they re-aired an interview with writer Carol Shields from the previous year. The occasion? Shields’s passing, the day before.

Shields’s voice grabbed me first–her assured timbre, her authoritative eloquence. Within a minute, I had stopped working and was completely under her spell for the entire half hour.

I had found a new subject for independent study.

That evening, I went to the library and took out The Stone Diaries, and tried not to devour it. It was more than I could have hoped for, a quiet yet sweeping whole-life story with exquisite prose. The interview had been just a prequel to Shields’ fierce intelligence and insightful perspective–and I now had a whole stack of Shields’ books to get to know her better.

Thirteen years later, I’m still working my way through her canon, slowly and deliberately, knowing it’s finite.

And yet, I always and repeatedly go back to the “Fresh Air” interview. Perhaps the enduring appeal lies in Shields’ vulnerable and honest answers throughout the conversation; perhaps it’s the warm and engaging match of intelligence between Shields and interviewer Terry Gross. But it’s not an exaggeration to say I consider this conversation my master class in writing, work, and a well-lived life. I listen to it several times a year–whenever I need inspiration, feel discouraged with my own writing, or just need to be grounded.

I don’t have many regrets, but one is that I discovered Shields after she died, and never got to attend a reading.  And so with that, this interview (and her books) will have to do.

Listen to the full interview here:  https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1340226/1340227

Photo courtesy Carol Van Canon via Flickr Creative Commons

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