by Dianne Aprile
My favorite French film star of the twentieth century, hands down, was Simone Signoret. She was a survivor, a fiercely independent advocate for her art, her politics, her life as a free thinker. She suffered losses, personal and professional, and wrote about them with clarity and grace in a novel and memoir. She was fearless and determined, and in the end, despite career obstacles and private challenges, she succeeded in leaving a legacy of characters whose defiant but heartfelt lives made a difference to their stories. And to those who witnessed them.
Her memoir, a beautifully crafted and wildly honest book, was titled La nostalgie n’est plus qu’elle était. When it was published in 1978, though I was still in my tender twenties, I fell hard for the translation of that title: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
Yes, I was drawn to the playfulness and irony of the phrase, but I also recognized its deeper truth. My mother, who had been a Simone fan since the Fifties and probably was the reason I had first heard of her, died the same year Signoret’s memoir came out. Indeed, for me, forever after that great loss, nostalgia would never again be what I thought it was.
So I’m here now to address nostalgia, head on. The word’s definition is clear—a wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. It’s a word that often carries a negative association, a link to sentimentality, another word that, rightly or wrongly, stirs up conflicting emotions.
And yet, I have no fear of indulging my nostalgia now. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of a period and place associated with my own happy personal experiences.
This fall, it will be twenty years since I walked into a classroom at Spalding University to co-lead my first MFA workshop with Roy Hoffman. I was entering the splendid fever dream of Sena Naslund, who, with Karen Mann, made her fantasy come true that October day in 2001. Two decades have passed since our motley crew of writers and teachers, freshly battered by the September 11 attack on the Word Trade Center’s twin towers, uncertain about our personal and collective futures, gathered together in the Lectorium to hear Sena welcome us and remind us—as always—that our competition was in the library, not within our own ranks. Our enduring spirit of cooperation and camaraderie was born that night.
I didn’t know Roy “from Adam,” as my mom would have put it. But we were both working journalists, steeped in decades of daily newspapering, so we had a common background. That first workshop was, I’m sure, a bit awkward. Yet what I remember most vividly are the faces around our table, the lively discussions of literature, the exhilaration of a new adventure— all of it seducing me into a job whose delights and surprises have never let me down, never ceased to inspire me to push myself further as a writer, a reader, a mentor, a colleague. Not that I don’t recall snafus: the time my PowerPoint self-destructed mid-lecture, or the en masse mad dash to a hotel basement during a surprise tornado alert. It’s just that the marvelous memories outweigh all the others. Like the nights we hosted Spalding writers at my monthly reading series at the Louisville jazz club my husband and I co-owned before we made the big move to Seattle in 2009. I remember Sena at the mic, a bass and a sax improvising behind her, riffing off her every image as she read.
In the early years, I interviewed many of our notable guest lecturers for freelance feature stories about them in The Courier-Journal, my alma mater. Terry Tempest Williams. Ernest J. Gaines. What a pleasure it was to share time with them. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to introduce several of our guests, including Williams and Pico Iyer, to one of my favorite spots on earth, the Abbey of Gethsemani in central Kentucky. Driving to and from the monastery with Iyer was a gift in itself. But later, stumbling onto the specifics of that visit while reading one of his travel essays was truly the glaçage on the gateau.
Themes of survival, so prevalent in Signoret’s memoir of wartime and Cold War culture, also bubble to the surface of my memories about our Spalding MFA in Writing residencies. I think the first brave step was Sena’s and Karen’s decision to go ahead with our initial residency as planned. Remember: all commercial flights had been cancelled after 9/11, and though most U.S. airports and airlines resumed operations within a week, there was massive concern and a host of cancellations, airport arrests, and anxious passengers in the weeks leading up to our first gathering. We survived that introductory test, and flourished. Anyone who was a part of that initiation process can remember the bonding that developed among faculty and students facing a challenge together, a process I’ve seen repeated again and again, right up to our most recent test —the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who would have thought we could pull off a Zoom residency, not just once but three times? Apparently Kathleen Driskell, Karen Mann, Katy Yocom, Ellyn Lichvar, Lynnell Edwards, Renée Culver and the administration of Spalding U never let the idea of a shutdown intimidate them. Three residencies without physical gatherings later, we’re now planning our first post-lockdown in-person residency back at The Brown Hotel. Yes, I’m certain there will be, in the future, an unshakeable nostalgia about our coming reunion this November. I can almost feel it—the joy of hugging hellos again, the maskless clinking of wine glasses, the face-to-face catching up that will no doubt fill our evenings in the Brown lobby.
While 9/11 and COVID are the bookends of our first 20 years, there were many other challenges met over the decades. The loss of colleagues and students is foremost in my own memory. The economic forces that threatened the ability of students to afford to realize their dreams of MFA degrees is another. The need to expand our offerings, add to our faculty, meet the diverse needs of an ever-growing student body, and to respond both spontaneously and methodically to the shifting emphasis in content and style that are what art is all about. It’s good from time to time to look back to beginnings and take stock of how it prepared us for the present, and hopefully for the future.
Personally, I admit to great affection for what has been accomplished and what is still to come. And with all that, I feel during this anniversary year a longing to return, in my imagination and memory, to those early residencies, especially the ones where new friendships were formed and bolstered. It’s clear from the strength of our flourishing alum group and its devoted leadership that it’s not only among faculty that strong bonds have been forged. For myself, I’m grateful for the students I met in workshops who have remained friends, who have stayed in touch, whose successes thrill me year after year.
One especially sweet bit of nostalgia is nestled in a time well before 2001. It is set in a Louisville establishment that no longer exists. I am sitting at a table in the Hawley-Cooke Bookstore on Shelbyville Road, with Sena across from me. She’s in the process of inviting me to teach creative nonfiction if she should ever realize, with Karen, the dream of establishing a low-residency MFA program in Louisville. I am flattered but also immediately excited by the idea. I say yes, yes, count me in, Sena. And she does. A year or more later, when it all comes together at Spalding in the wake of a national disaster, it still seems a dream. And to be honest, looking at the road from there to here, I shake my head at how it all happened. Sena’s and Karen’s foresight. Kathleen’s success in pushing us even further as a program and a community. My own good fortune in being a part of it.
So, oui oui, Simone, nostalgia may not be what it used to be. And certainly the present is a better place to be rooted than the past. Yet, I’m determined to enjoy every moment of recollection and reminiscence when we gather once again this November to write and read, analyze and interpret, celebrate and remember, what used to be and what is always becoming.
Dianne Aprile is the author and editor of nonfiction books, including two collaborations with fine-art photographer Julius Friedman. Her essay “Silence” appears in the anthology This I Believe, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies. Aprile was the recipient of the Al Smith artist fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is a recipient of a Hedgebrook Women Writers Residency and Washington State Artist Trust Writers Fellowship. As a journalist, she was on a team that won a staff Pulitzer Prize for the Louisville Courier-Journal and was an award-winning columnist. She is currently working on a family memoir. She holds an MFA from Spalding University.