Category Archives: MFA

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