Category Archives: MFA

I No Longer Say I’m a Writer

47cdbc1e7d2aa37dac054a2258d6a939Back when Big Chief tablets reigned, I only had to make my pencil rise and fall between the blue horizontal lines to call myself a writer, and what letters described hardly mattered—a boy, a girl, a dog, a hat, some short verbs. Words were unsure of themselves. They carried little inherent meaning. They sat slack-jawed, evidential.

At each stage of education, however, I burdened words more and more. When they started to disappear beneath their loads of thoughts, my teachers called me a “writer.” At first, the label must have been aspirational, designed to puff up my ambition and flatter my “potential.” But what passed for thought was still often evidential, the mental equivalent of “See?”

There’s no defining what happened next because some of it—like the poetry and hand-wringing prose of middle and high school “journals”—happened during. Along the way, words asserted themselves again, insisting on their beauty, crying to be arranged. I began to call myself a writer, and thoughts became my thoughts, which only the right words could describe. Compositions meant to evidence the voice and mind behind them. Foolishly or selfishly or both, I needed to write and, intermittently, believed the world needed to read me.

You write, writers are told, because you can’t not. It’s a compulsion to be heard, and you go on shouting, speaking, or whispering because you must. You wouldn’t be yourself without something auxiliary to yourself, an outrigger of words built just so. The siren of art calls you onto the rocks, and you give yourself to a doom worth embracing. You get an MFA.

But I wonder lately if I’m over that vision of writing. Like walking or breathing, writing is something we do, and, like walking and breathing, the quality of the act appears only at extremes. For writers like me who reside between failure and success, as much energy goes into convincing ourselves we’re special as goes into craft. Reading others’ work, I see some craft is clearly virtuous, is clearly real. And some writers’ faith is redeemed whether the craft is real or not. Outside those two states, though, writers endure. My endurance has run down.

John Berryman famously said no writer will ever know if he or she is any good or not. It’s true you’ll never be certain because you occupy only your own mind, but not-knowing seems more critical now than good or bad. Ambitious writers cling to hope, dreaming of wordless poems or a finally ideal expression of personal truths. “Who knows?” they think.

Not-knowing is a talent I’ve never possessed for long. Because, most of the time now, whether I’m accurate or not, I think I do know. At least, I’ve read enough great writing that pausing between conception and execution usually assures execution never occurs. Generally, I’m okay with that. I’m working on not-caring. Let others want to be authors.

The urge remains—I’m here now, after all—but it’s an urge, not a compulsion. The reason I write, when I write at all, is that I like to. I’m more at peace with putting my pencil down.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Education, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, life, Memory, MFA, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.


Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Desire, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, MFA, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Summer, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Walker Percy, Work

The Credentialed Artist

Meeting another academic often means revealing degrees, but I feel sheepish telling them I have an MA and an MFA. Somewhere, I have the framed diplomas, but my MA is 30 years old—I can barely picture my girlfriend from that time, so how can I be expected to remember “Interstitial Transcendence in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam“?

My MFA grows irrelevant even faster. Though it decorates my vita, the job it professed to prepare me for—artist—doesn’t require a degree. Anyone can be an artist because it only requires experience, and some would argue this experience shouldn’t be academic. “Artists don’t need no shoolin’,” they might say, or, “MFAs interfere with the development of a true artist.”

I have a more complicated response. My MFA is in writing poetry, and one of the books I read during my program was Written in Water, Written in Stone, (University of Michigan Press, 1996) a collection of essays about the practice of poetry. While it offers an invaluable window into the creative process, it also contains considerable ire about the MFA industry. In an interview with Wayne Dodd, Robert Bly says, “MFA students are winning because they are receiving the knowledge that you have received in fifteen years of writing poetry and you are giving it to them and they are accepting it.” Then Wayne Dodd gets in his own licks, asking, “You would agree, then, the system is a system of avoidance of pain? It seems to me that is the exact opposite way of going about discovering how to write profound poetry.”

Donald Hall, in “Poetry and Ambition,” shouts the battle cry, “Abolish the MFA!” He says MFA programs create “‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit.” Studying how to write poetry contributes to what Hall calls the “McPoem,” a barely passable work that bears a striking resemblance to hundreds of other passable poems manufactured that year.

The criticisms of Bly and Hall are particularly hard for me to take, as they were both associated with the MFA program that granted me my degree. I attended their lectures and seminars. If they reject MFAs, where does that put me?

Consider Hall’s description of the staple of creative writing programs, the workshop:

The poetry workshop resembles a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair. Here is the homemade airplane for which the crazed inventor forgot to provide wings; here is the internal combustion engine all finished except that it lacks a carburetor; here is the rowboat without oarlocks, the ladder without rungs, the motorcycle without wheels. We advance our nonfunctioning machine into a circle of other apprentice inventors and one or two senior Edisons. ‘Very good’ they say, ‘it almost flies . . . how about, uh . . . How about wings?’ or ‘Let me show you how to build a carburetor.'”

I can identify. I’ve participated in excellent workshops, but I’ve also been confused about whether my machines function or not. I presented “constructions” in hopes that they would “work”—for if they didn’t work, I was so ignorant I feared I couldn’t repair them. As my shelf grew heavy with owners’ manuals, practice and theory split more and more. It occurred to me that theory and practice may only contaminate one another.

Every workshop participant probably feels similarly confused, paralyzed by all of the intellectual choices you’ve been offered. So studying for an MFA doesn’t take away pain. Your confusion is a measure of your desperation. You accept help, hoping—perhaps unrealistically—that someday you will no longer need to ask, that you will know without asking…because you want to say what you feel and want your writing to reach someone. These teachers have achieved that. They must know something.

I’m still not sure I know what a carburetor really is, where it belongs, or what it does, but I’m grateful I had the chance to ask. Now, I’m trying to forget the manual and just fix stuff, but I’m glad I’ve looked at the book.

In his interview with Dodd, Robert Bly waxes nostalgic for the teachings of Ch’an Buddhism. “Their method doesn’t resemble a workshop,” Bly says, “They didn’t teach politeness or the smooth surface . . . [The teacher’s] plan would involve something entirely outside the building.” Bly imagines a teacher telling the student:

“After you have built your hut, translate twenty-five poems from a Rumanian Poet.”
“But I don’t know Rumanian.”
“Well then, that’s your first job. You learn Rumanian, translate the twenty-five poems, and then come back to see me, and I’ll tell you what I think about ‘the deep image.'”

As a teacher myself, I appreciate Bly’s desire to get students more lost before they receive help, but there’s a snide and perverse superiority here that doesn’t help students or teachers and actually makes MFA candidates more beholden instead of less. I’m not sure how much students can learn when a teacher communicates students aren’t worthy of attention. Rather than spend years meditating on my inadequacy (compared to my teacher), I’d prefer relevant practice, please.

Maybe the MFA isn’t the best solution to learning how to write, but it is A way, and as long as you know not to expect THE answer, it’s worth doing.  True, if students simply seek guidance at every turn, they shouldn’t expect progress. But their basic desire to get better is a good thing, isn’t it? What student isn’t naive–isn’t that why they’re in school?

Another essay in Written in Water, Written in Stone is a funny piece by Robert Francis called “Four Pots Shots at Poetry.” One “pot shot” describes teaching as a pie of six slices. The first two are “What I told them that they already knew,” and “what I told them they could have found out just as well or better from books.” The third slice is, “What I told them that they refused to accept.” The fourth is, “What I told them that they were willing to accept and may have thought they accepted but couldn’t accept since they couldn’t fully understand,” and the last is “what I didn’t tell them, for I didn’t try to tell them all I knew.”

I spent the two years getting my MFA eating the first few pieces of that pie. I’ve spent all the years since trying to find the rest. I’m glad I’ve eaten…and happy more pie remains.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, MFA, Poetry, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Cold Mountain

hanshan.jpeg It’s been some years since I’ve attended a poetry reading. I enjoy them, but I also struggle with my cynical side. I’ve been to too many readings that ape religious rites—the priest or priestess intones prayer-poems until the final moment when the audience ohs like a flock of smiling pilgrims, their eyes half-lidded in ecstasy.

Okay, I exaggerate—and maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant—but I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths approaching revelation. Sometimes simple statements on the human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical and still revealing. One of my favorite poets is Han-shan of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor in failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, ludicrous and self-deprecating but also bitter. Those hawks had better watch out.

Here’s another:

A crowd of girls playing in the dusk,
And a wind-blown fragrance that fills the road!
Golden butterflies are sewn into the hems of their skirts;
Their chignons are pinned with mandarin ducks of jade.
Their maids wear cloaks of sheer crimson silk;
Purple brocade for the eunuchs who attend them.
Will they give a glance to one who’s lost the way,
With hair turned white and a restless hear

Largely descriptive—and, at times, seemingly gratuitously so, almost wedding page so—this poem doesn’t demonize these girls but engages in the devoted attention that accounts for its final moments. Their finery is genuinely fine, and his meticulous observation of particulars suggests a sort of reverence for youthful innocence—the girls are playing, though servants attend them—and the butterflies, the ducks are the playthings of a child. The sincere longing erupts in the final question, and it seems important it is a question. A statement might turn all that preceded it into ammunition for resentment. Instead, the speaker asks, and in asking, might set off some spark in a reader. Oh to be young…oh to be noticed…

I picture Han-shan at a poetry reading and wonder what the crowd might do at the end of this poem. They could “oh,” but Han-Shan’s poems don’t aim for that response. Walt Whitman said he was “No stander above men.” Though I love Walt Whitman, his phrasing belies its sentiment. In Han-shan, the sentiment is never too grave or ponderous and nearly always fundamentally amused. Instead of a priest, he presents a person.

When I read Han-shan I think about a poet I heard read once in MFA school. He would stop periodically and say “Did you catch that?” and reread the phrase. Sometimes he would even read the poem again…more than once.

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. Han-Shan tells you to pause and listen to how silly you sound.

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Filed under Buddhism, Ego, Essays, Han-shan, MFA, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing

Pencils and Poems

pencils.gif A reprise from my old blog…

At the bidding of one of my MFA teachers, I once read a 400 plus page book on pencils, Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I remember writing a snarky introduction when I responded to the book. It amounted to, “What the hell was that for?”

But I knew. He meant to set me thinking about art and engineering, creativity and inventiveness, poetry and… pencils. Petroski’s thesis is that art desires “a sense of unity…evoking an emotional or aesthetic response,” whereas technology seeks to improve earlier forms. New pencils, Petroski notes ad nauseum, supersede old ones as literary works never do. “Ulysses” did not supplant The Odyssey, Petroski said, nor did anyone fix “On Reading Chapman’s Homer” because Keats said Cortez instead of Balboa first viewed the Pacific. Though, actually, wasn’t Balboa the first white man…?

Pencil makers do make aesthetic decisions—the book includes a long discussion of the failed attempt to replace wood with plastic in pencils, which “violated the aesthetic and psychological sensibilities of its intended users.” I just thought plastic pencils felt funny. However, no method of pencil making is ever intended to be the last statement. No poet could think he or she is writing the last poem either, but the poet might write as if this poem was the omega. It’s supposed to be complete in itself and not a stage to a better way of writing poems.

Maybe, but writing poetry isn’t always about the poem you’re presently engineering. Sometimes it’s about writing this poem so you might write a more expressive or effective one later. That later poem won’t arrive without a best effort to make this poem all it might be, but trying to write the omega seems, to me, a death wish. What if you succeeded? What would you do next?

According to Petroski, the biggest difference between poems and pencils is the motive of the maker. Artists seek self-expression in the abstract. An engineer’s job is to solve an existing problem. He or she is not a theorist endowed with “for its own sake” motivation, the way an artist might create to create. Petroski makes a careful distinction between scientists and engineers and favors engineers’ pragmatic and creative approaches. He observes that “drugs predate medicine, belief religion, conflict law, artifacts formal engineering.” “Applied science,” to Petroski, is a misnomer because it reverses what actually happens—scientists spend most of their time trying to explain why new technology works. Petroski says the reverse process—finding a way to use discoveries—is far less common. He calls science “thinking after the artifact.”

Do poems solve an existing problem? In content certainly. Personally perhaps. I suspect most poets write to resolve something, even if they are working it out subconsciously. In practice, however, poets can also be like engineers, looking for a form, style, or approach that gets them closer to what they wish to express. Sometimes artists seem to be inventing new schools or new art forms out of a perverse desire to be novel, but I wonder if, like the misnamed “applied science,” starting with something abstract is the exception or the rule. How often do artists come up with whole new ways of painting, writing, or composing they are just itching to try?

In The Shape of Content Ben Shahn writes, “Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.” Novelty and art seem inextricably wed. A good measure of poetry’s authority arises from the feeling that we’ve never seen or heard this before, at least not in quite the same way. But Shahn also recognizes art may “take its form from something closer to provocation…it may not just turn to life, but . . . at certain times be compelled by life.”

An artist can respond to “provocation” in just the way an engineer does, and provocation can be to solve a problem. It could be a problem no one else recognizes yet, but in that sense too, art isn’t that different from engineering. Shahn tells the story of an art show in Paris in 1925. When officials suggested the Salon of the Independents was no longer necessary, a critic cited 25 artists in that Salon who had not won the overall show’s prize but who became major names in art—Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh among them—while prize winners had fallen into obscurity.

With this allusion, Shahn means to assert artists’ need to define themselves apart from contemporaries—to offer a vision unavailable elsewhere—but isn’t their nonconformity also a reaction to circumstances, to a perceived need?

In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says that the usual stance for a poet is “believing you are the wrong thing in a right world.” Not all artists embrace being vanguards. Some may have an uneasy feeling about being iconoclasts or outcasts. The vision of artists as the mad fringe of society—the anti-engineer—is limited and limiting. Though artists may seem “out there,” they are a part of the world, not apart from it.

I think about an exceptionally innovative poet, John Berryman. Far from being a gift, Berryman’s creativity was a heavy burden. His innovations in form arose from a kind of “engineer’s necessity.” His primary purpose was not to revolutionize poetry so much as to stay alive. Certainly he needs the ampersand and minstrel voice and the “all problem, no solution” modified sonnet he invented in The Dream Songs to reproduce the workings his mind. His numerous, structurally uniform poems helped represent a single chaotic life, a struggle with his own suicidal thoughts.

But he distrusted other’s praise for his innovation. In “Dream Song #340” he sees that with praise, “an element of incredulity / enters and dominates.” What he really wanted was not to be known as trail blazer, but to accurately represent his agony, period. Berryman worked very hard at his idiosyncratic form. He created artifice—he used “Henry,” not John—but what made Berryman brilliant was his earnestness—granted, his humor too—but mostly the way he had of making us feel these poems were, ultimately, no game.

The Dream Songs put Berryman near a waterfall, swimming hard to keep from being sucked down. “Dream Song #137” focuses on his daughter’s reluctance to fall asleep. His argument is that in sleeping she will be “Little Baby” again, “while I pursue my path of sorrow / & bodies, bodies to be carried a mile / & dropt.”

Perhaps poets should be reluctant engineers—just as Berryman was a reluctant poet—but, to me, they seem engineers nonetheless. The part of poets and artists that makes them create a new world comes from this world. No less than the engineer, they respond to life and our common destiny.

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, Meditations, MFA, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing


I think every poem I write could begin with the words, “Well yes and…” and, in fact, those words may make a good title if I can ever get a book together.

They suggest that what follows will acknowledge, affirm, and supplement what a reader already knows, which seems to be all I can hope for. I rarely manage so much.

In Poetry and the Body, John Vernon says, “I think I am choosing, selecting my words, but words just as often choose me.” Sometimes I feel like a medium—at my most fluent, I don’t feel I’m doing anything special, simply condensing what’s already in the air or divining what’s just under the surface. This sense of the experience leads Vernon to call poetry “a dance of words in the mouth” and to assert writing is finally “gestural,” more revealing in pattern than content…more revealing, even, than it intends.

I know how shamanistic—or loony—these statements may sound, but they arise from a concrete observation: the words writers take such pride in choosing and arranging are ultimately limited.

According to Vernon, our consciousness “wakes up” with language and, as we’ve never really known a time without it, we grow used to words’ power to organize the world, to classify and categorize and order. We forget that language also extricates us from the world. We can come to believe words are the world when they only really describe it. We seek control through language as if it could remake what it depicts.

Vernon asserts poetry exists because the world ultimately resists naming. “Language” he says, “sifts everything through its categories and types, and the world is the deposit left over when language is finished.”

While even a poem needs some measure of rationality, I’m skeptical when I know exactly what I’m doing. It sounds eyes-rolled-into-the-back-of-my-head crazy to say so, but a rhythm often occurs to me before the words. I might write a line in blankity blanks blank blanken and then substitute actual words for my place-holding nonsense. Which makes me wonder which comes first. Are the words the real placeholders, something to fit dim music I hear? I prefer not being sure. I’m not out to write nonsense, but I’d rather suit words to a feeling than the other way around. I want to be no more clever than necessary.

Vernon says, “We need poetry because names die, because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

And if you can’t name anything—for long—wouldn’t it be nice to communicate that we share that state and still try to say what we mean anyway?

In light of Vernon’s observations, acknowledging, affirming, supplementing an unnamed and unnameable world seems a good dream. Nothing is as satisfying to a poet as a nod. It declares, “You’ve said something I almost knew. You’ve made some music audible at last.”

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Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Twenty years ago this summer I went to Vermont for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I heard some literary luminaries speak and read—Philip Levine, Francine Prose, William Matthews, John Irving, Nancy Willard, and many others. The setting was beautiful, and I made good friends there. I enjoyed just about every lecture and reading despite the hard benches and forced silence. I was thrilled to listen to authors whose work I’d taught. Tim O’Brien, fresh off the success of The Things They Carried, led my workshop.

But, for all that, the moment I recall best is a low point in my writing life.

I understand Bread Loaf is very different now, but, oddly, I did no writing when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The “Writers’” in the name of the conference weren’t me. They were stars I saw eating lunch or standing in a circle of fans between talks. I said seven actual sentences to Tim O’Brien. He signed my book. The only you-time was the half-hour participants spent with writers assigned the task of reading their work, and every late afternoon I sat in those famous Adirondack chairs anticipating the thirty minutes a writer would look at me and not the other way around.

I was writing short stories then, just starting my second writing career having given up creative writing since college. I’d written poetry before but decided I needed to hitch my out-sized aspirations to something more likely to make a living.

The trouble was, I was terrible.

I have a habit of taking myself too seriously, adopting avocations with secret assurance I’ll instantly become great. Soon, I’m laboring at an impossible pace and speaking without self-consciousness about my “process” and “work.”

The summer of ’91 I was especially frenetic because my wife was pregnant, and I was running out of time to take my rightful place in Literature. For six months I produced story after story I was sure were equal to anything I taught. Tragically, I couldn’t see the difference. My readers were my wife, my boss, and another beginner, a colleague’s wife—no one predisposed to criticize an amateur. Had I been more honest with myself, however, I might have heard their saying, “Make it simpler “ as “Make it less pretentious.” I wanted to believe I’d be famous.

I try to be the pessimistic realist who lowers his expectations when he sees his anticipation can’t be met, but the day of my appointed conversation, I didn’t. I walked in to find my reader most of the way through my story and frowning.

There must have been a polite greeting I can’t recall. She complained I’d given her too much to read, meeting the page limit by changing the margins and spacing and reducing the font by one point.

“Even if it had been the proper length though,” she said, “I couldn’t have finished it.”

The catalog of basic errors took most of our time—my language was imprecise and stale, my characters were flat, my plot was cumbersome and unlikely, the story was nothing I could know anything about, and my resolution was derivative and insincere. Along the way, she paused to ask, “You see that, right?” and each criticism twisted her voice a little higher. By the time she reached the story as a whole, she was shrill, half laughing. “You know what it reminds me of?” she said, “pornography written by a young adult author.”

That’s when my eyes flooded. I did see how very bad the story was. Her criticism cooled my work, made it someone else’s, an ugly object. But I wasn’t crying about that. I thought about the years I’d lost. On the brink of being a father, I figured my chance had passed.

I said so, and she looked at me indulgently. Only the accomplished can deliver the perhaps-this-is-not-for-you-speech with such conviction and impact. You can’t even hate them.

Those stories are upstairs somewhere. I still move them from house to house but don’t read them. When I returned to poetry a few years later, I put aside greatness. Accepted into a low-residency MFA program at Bennington a few years after that, I left every expectation behind, determined simply to get better.  I’m still at it.

But my third semester at Bennington, my appointed reader joined the faculty, and I remember my heart sliding a little seeing her across the cafeteria. A classmate said I should introduce myself and tell my story, show her she hadn’t crushed me after all thank-you-very-much, but I didn’t want to.

Low moments groan in memory like ship horns in fog. They shake you without being seen and, though their warning can seem distant, they still speak to you particularly. You can’t always know what course changes these encounters create, but the course continues. And maybe you’re moving in a better direction. No circling fans, not a writer the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference refers to, maybe somewhere better, locked in another pursuit.

In any case, when I passed my appointed reader on Bennington sidewalks or stairways, in gatherings or lectures, she didn’t know me.

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A Strange House

Reading writers’ journals can be like looking around the house of an absent host.  He or she left you alone, and nothing prohibits your pulling books from shelves, checking addresses on envelopes, scrutinizing photos, or reading notes affixed to the refrigerator. Yet those moments have strange—sometimes off-putting—intimacy.  Worse, you may discover something you recognize.

I’ve been skimming Edward Abbey’s Confessions of a Barbarian on Google Books. Included in Abbey’s journals is this description of a South African named Penelope, whom, Abbey says, he “fell in ‘love’ with for a few days” during a trip in Austria:

Interested in everything, all facets of human experience, she was not always interesting herself.  Mildly talented in a variety of ways but with no genuine ability in any one field, she was like me, the perennial hapless self-amused dilettante, half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.

Encountering this passage was finding myself between two mirrors looking down a corridor of reflections.  Being interested without being interesting is familiar, as is being a “perennial hapless self-amused dilettante.”  I am both, and, since Penelope is like Abbey and I am like her, by the transitive property… I know what Abbey is saying.

Though fascination is the weather in my life, it never seems to settle into any season or climate.  I paint a little.  I write a little.  I find music, watch documentaries, monitor current events, go to museums, surf blogs, do crosswords, follow professional journals, and periodically read people like Edward Abbey—a little.  Any one, pursued exclusively, might be something, but together they add up to just about zero. They make me a dilettante.  As for the adjectives—“perennial” in this context means “persistent or enduring,” check. As few good things happen to a “hapless” person, yes.

“Self-amused,” duh.

Abbey is disingenuous when he says he is like Penelope—or me.  He was much more than “mildly talented in a number of ways,” as the existence of these journals (this is #20) attest.  Devoted and single-minded, he made himself a writer.  In an interview at the end of Confessions of a Barbarian, he said, “An MFA in creative writing makes a lousy union card” because “thousands of such degrees are conferred annually.”  I have an MFA, and I wonder, as he does, if writing can be taught. He preferred, “A stimulus for students to write on a regular and frequent basis.”  “The most important thing in learning to write,” he said, was “simply writing.”  Not dabbling, writing.

I write and maybe Penelope did too, but the difference lies in the last phrase, “Half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.”  On the evidence of his prolific career, Abbey didn’t abide passing time or enjoy failure.  That perspective falls to Abbey’s lover.  And me?  Maybe you have to worry about dying to be ambitious. It can’t spur you much to make peace with screwing up.

Penelope might console herself as I do, by saying we’re not as bad as some.  In Abbey’s journal, he attaches himself to Penelope because he’s rejected by the English in his tour party and she, being “on an intellectual par with me,” he finds “delightful and refreshing company.”  It’s nice to be found delightful and refreshing, but it’s hard to miss Abbey’s hinted condemnation.  He isn’t Penelope, and some part of him knows that.

In another response during his interview, Abbey said:

If you have talent and something to say, something that people will enjoy reading, then your work will eventually be published.  In my case, the measure of success I’ve had in being accepted by readers and gaining a fairly high degree of assurance that whatever I’m working on will be published, makes it both easier to go on writing and provides an additional incentive to try harder to do even better.  I haven’t felt any slacking off in my efforts simply because it has gotten easier to get published.

Abbey made it sound as if the only difference between himself and Penelope was that he was hap-ful where she was hapless. If you have something to say, you will be published, eventually.  Yet, he also acknowledged hunger, an “incentive to try harder,” born of approval.  Far from being “determined to enjoy failure,” he embraced its opposite, trying harder knowing he would not, could not, fail.

Perhaps Abbey forgot the drive that delivered him to that status.  The everything-will-be-alright perspective did not serve Penelope so well.  It hasn’t done much for me either.

As you’re wandering around that strange living room, you may pick up a framed photograph of your host that shows him beaming, his beautiful wife beside him, his perfect children around him.  He looks fit and trim despite his age and smart in the just the right clothes for his build and color.

Here, you may think, is being right with the world.  Here, you may think, is something I recognize I’m not.

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Filed under Blogging, Doubt, Edward Abbey, Essays, Genius, Hope, Laments, life, MFA, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

Carrying Suitcases

Look on the web and you’ll find many versions of what happened to Ernest Hemingway’s suitcase.  They agree, however, on the essential fact—in 1922 most of his fiction and poetry disappeared.

The longer story is that Hemingway was covering the Lausanne Peace Conference for the Toronto Daily Star. After reading Hemingway’s accounts of the event, the editor Lincoln Steffens asked to see more writing, and Hemingway sent word to his first wife, Hadley, to bring his collected work—including carbons—from Paris to Switzerland.  As the train sat in the station, she left the suitcase behind to get something to drink. When she returned, it had vanished.

Writers have created novels out of Hemingway’s misfortune, and I have nothing new to add to their conjecture.  It must have been hell.  But it’s easy to say so and easy to say, as conventional wisdom does endlessly, that this event made Hemingway.  Forced to start again, he heeded the advice of Gertrude Stein and refashioned his prose in the characteristically spare style now famously imitated and parodied.  Losing the suitcase was a good thing.

Hemingway later wrote Fitzgerald, “We are all bitched from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it.”

I suppose so.  The literary lesson isn’t lost on me.  I know the moral—we go on loving what we’ve done until something shakes us from complacency and forces us to revise ourselves.

Yet, to me, seeing the theft as fortuitous suggests darker implications.  What about writers whose early work evolves unnoticed into their later work, the ones who make steady and sure progress toward an unanticipated result?  What about writers who lose nothing, who haven’t had the good fortune to experience a tragic catalyst?  Shall we all put our work in suitcases and leave them in train stations all over the country?  What will Homeland Security say?

When I was getting my MFA at Bennington and worked with Susan Cheever, she suggested something like a “suitcase cure”: take what you’ve written and put it in a drawer, then try rewriting it.  She believed what you repeated, what you lost, and what you added might be the best revision possible.

I use her method sometimes and, sure, it works.  But I can’t help wondering: is there any other way?  Elsewhere on the web you’ll find 365 posts I wrote under an alias.  I know how to delete it—Wordpress gives very specific and helpful instructions—should I go now and irreversibly scramble its zeros and ones?

I can’t do it.

Hemingway isn’t the only one to have lost his work.  Dylan Thomas lost Under Milk Wood three times—in pubs, naturally—and John Stuart Mill’s maid accidentally burnt the only copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.  T. E. Lawrence lost the first version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in another train station.  In the Oakland fires of 1991, Maxine Hong Kingston lost a computer disk containing the only draft of a novel.

Many of these writers responded nobly.  Carlyle wrote his brother that he’d been a “schoolboy” seeking the approval of his master only to have his work returned torn, with the message, “No, boy, thou must go and write it better.”  He concluded, “What could I do but sorrowing go and try to obey?”

Having no other choice, these writers did what they had to—but would they have deliberately destroyed the work to achieve same effect?  How confident would they be of success—defining success, in this case, as creating something better than what they’d already done?

When I was complaining about starting over as a blogger, one of my friends said deleting the old blog would be the only way to stop comparing my new self to my old.  Honestly, I meant to delete it months ago.  Yet something has stopped me.  I know nothing is as devastating to art as imitating yourself, and in the end that may have been what killed Hemingway.  However, here’s another case where I pause on the brink of doing what some would say is required of a writer.  I’m thinking “Can’t I  be a real writer without throwing my suitcase off the train?”

Just after the loss of his manuscripts, Hemingway wrote Ezra Pound:

I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenelia [sic]? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left, and found …all that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem, which was later scrapped, some correspondence … and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.

The other blog is a giant museum that throws this blog into deep shadow, but I’m not ready for the wrecking ball yet.  Perhaps I can resort to Hemingway’s answer for a while and say I’m waiting for the right moment.

The truth may not be so complicated, however—maybe I’m just worried I’ll never write anything as good.


Filed under Blogging, Essays, Hemingway, Meditations, MFA, Suitcases, Writing

Setting Out Again

Growing up across the street from an empty field, I never watched television sports long without feeling the pull to go outside and play.  I wanted to participate instead of observe, to answer instead of listen.

But I didn’t say I was good at football or baseball or whatever games were underway, and so, when I ran from the TV, I only found another sort of escape, fleeing into another fantasy world.  The color commentator kept talking in my head, praising my puny moves and replaying them moment by moment in loving analysis. He placed me very near the top of the greats, and, in my imagination, my name rung like the tolling of time immemorial.

Yet, even if I’d had the self-discipline, unassailable confidence, and drive of athletes I admired, I could never equal them physically. I had no reasonable hope of being 6’5” and 250.  My body would never cover 100 meters under nine seconds or a mile under four minutes.  No crusty coach would ever curse me to the top of the boxing world.

Some years ago, on the first day of my MFA program, the director asked us why we were there.  I answered that I was tired of listening without speaking.  My classmates nodded approvingly—they understood—but I wonder if they did really.  I wonder if, then, they knew the burden of needing to play, of drawing on a dwindling battery of patience as you leaf through collections of poetry, turn another page of a novel…or scroll through someone else’s post.

Turns out, MFA school, like all school, relies on paying attention. If you aren’t interested in watching, watch you must, for what hope do you have of being anyone’s equal if you haven’t the perseverance to listen? Without input, there is no output, and being a writer means standing on whatever parts of giants offer footholds.  It means exploiting every anxiety of influence until you find yourself in uninfluenced territory.

And the need to speak, it turns out, is more curse than blessing, an urge you’d gladly outgrow or exhaust…because no one ever promises you’ll be good at it.  You might never know if you have the skills to excel or ever hear your name outside your own imagination.

“Signals to Attend” is my fourth blog, another resolution for another year. I start it with the same familiar questions, wondering why listening is never enough, why watching even the best grows old, why silence doesn’t become me more.

I guess I can’t help thinking I have something to say.

Dear reader, I hope you’ll find I’m right.


Filed under Blogging, MFA, Writing