Champions of the Mind

It was particularly exciting this year, Nobel-Genius Season.

Of course, it’s thrilling every year, when we take a break from the grinding horrors of the news—mass shootings and civil wars—to watch the Nobel Prizes handed out, one a day, for six days, not long after the MacArthur Foundation awards its so-called “genius” fellowships.

It’s a time for thinking happily about what human beings can do.  And it’s inspiring, because the Nobel and MacArthur foundations reward achievement, yes, but also ideas. This year’s winners include teachers delivering better education to low-income adults, and scientists eradicating roundworm parasites. They build democracies, and better furniture for disabled children.

Also, they write. Novelist Ben Lerner and nonfiction writer Ta-Nehisi Coates each won Genius grants; the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Svetlana Alexievich, a nonfiction writer from Belarus.

Sure, these are accomplished writers, but what’s extra exciting is seeing them take the same stage as scientists who discovered neutrino oscillations. It’s exciting because we see they belong there. Nobel-Genius season is when writers get recognized not just for their words, but their vision.

Coates, for example, was honored for writing about race relations in America with nuance and depth, for never settling for tired, knee-jerk refrains. Alexievich is honored for what one admirer described as “consistently chronicling that which has been intentionally forgotten.”

In class, we often hear writers say, “I’ll never write like                       .  I should just give up now.” It’s a common side effect of awards season, as prize after prize is handed out to this year’s Great American Novel, or Sweeping Epic Drama.

But in Nobel-Genius season, we should take heart. Because these writers aren’t only writing about grand theories—each of them turns their unique vision to the most commonplace of subjects. Alexievich writes oral histories about families and loss. Lerner writes about young men searching for meaning. Coates writes about being a son, and a father.

It reminds me of a story from Patricia Hampl’s essay “The Dark Art of Description.” One of her college students tells her, panicked, that he cannot write the short autobiography she’s assigned him.  She presumes the worst—he’s afraid to confront a trauma, reveal a secret. But, no:

“See, I come from Fridley,” he said, naming one of the nowhere-suburbs sprawling drearily beyond the freeway north of Minneapolis. … Being from Fridley meant, surely, that he had nothing worth writing about.

“I have good news for you, Tommy,” I said. ‘The field’s wide open. Nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet.”

This, ultimately, is what makes Nobel-Genius season so thrilling: We meet writers who change minds, influence policy, move hearts, by simply exploring their own Fridley. Get busy now, writers, exploring yours.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.