First year, MA
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Leaving the Smears

Image: Workshop Window by Graeme Tozer

At my program here in Mizzou, we have two large offices where we all have been assigned desks and nice chairs on wheels. We have card-swipe access to the building after hours and we have large keys for these offices downstairs. The place is normally a montage of clipped fingernails around travel coffee mugs, blazers thrown off and flats slipped on between classes, conferences with students, the occasional collapse of a stack of books and trip over a power cord. In the break room you will always find someone in front of the fridge, vying for space for another $8 Wal-mart zippered lunchbag among the wall of $8 Wal-mart zippered lunchbags. But on the weekends, the offices are empty, quiet, still. Somehow, I lucked into having a desk in front of a window that looks out behind the university’s flagship building and the flowers that spill over large ceramic urns. It is from here that I wrote this post.

I’m not sure where I’m headed and perhaps that is how I can consider myself, now, an essayist. Even typing that feels strange. Am I? An essayist? Am I really? But of course, essays are winding and delicate—the dusting cloths of our lives, lightly brushing on the pillars of the most important moments and picking up the ephemera between. I used to doubt my own pillars and scrutinized the granules of sentiment that lay between them, but after late-night conversations in these very offices where I sit now, I realize that this ephemera is what we all read for. It is what we search and hope for in non-fiction writing: the phrases, the words that even when only read in our minds still sound lovely on our lips, the moments in which we find ourselves in the text and the thoughts that we, as readers, have thought so many times but never had the balls to permanent in ink. Non-fiction is the cloth that picks it up, and the writer is the one who hands it to us.

I should be writing some final critical papers, and to be honest, its what I’ve been doing for days. I’ve been going through that familiar cycle of note-making, typing, misspelling, doubting, cursing, more note-making, erasing… This is the collective life of us all until the last final moment, when we place the headers and page numbers, before we can slam our laptops closed and head for a beer. My eye is on the beer, so much so that even the sun streaming in through this window can’t blind out that image for me. This work is hard.

I should be writing these critical papers, and I will, but one of my last posts as a First Year contributor on the MFA Years should really communicate what I’ve learned about these papers. They are only representative of that familiar cycle of note-making, typing, misspelling, doubting, cursing, more note-taking, erasing and even though I sometimes wish I could attach photos of my sitting here, agonizing, or that I could doodle little droplets on the pages and label each as “<– blood ,” “sweat ^,” and “tears –>,” I know that the clean pages in the end are representative of all of this. My training is that working through of that familiar process, not the typing of my words. To those of you looking forward to beginning degrees next year, I hope this does not dismay you and in way, I also hope that it does. Because this shit is hard. But (there’s always at least one), as I sit in these big offices downstairs, surrounded by so many other desks that represent the hours and the minds that have pored over too many library books to carry in one trip, I realize that I (and we all, every one of us) now appreciate those final, clean pages in a way that no one who hasn’t spent time in offices like these can. In the simplicity of them, we have imbued so much.

Now is about the time of evening when I notice that there is dust on my window sill and the sunlight is harsh, coming in through my window (I still think of the luck I had, to get this spot!), both blinding me and magnifying the water spots on the glass left by the sprinkler system and the just-recently-begun spring rains. Every time I sit here at this time of day, I have the strongest urge to walk outside with Windex and begin cleaning. But I refrain, partly because I don’t have Windex, partly because I don’t have time, and mostly because I am saving my dust cloths for my essays. Because essays do not end with clean lines and fresh margins, instead they are the texts with words that are different and dirty and repulsive and gorgeous and intoxicating and they can have smear marks. We hope they have smear marks. We read for the smear marks. I read mostly for the smear marks. The places that the author shows, most unselfconsciously, the portrait of herself, agonizing—the scene that I wish I could attach to my crisp, clean papers. And as writers, as essayists, we are granted the privilege to make these smear marks.

For those of you beginning degrees next year, I wish that you do make those marks and leave them on your page. I have learned this year that I am writer not because I am clean and organized, but because I spend hours noticing the watermarks on my windows and having the restraint to leave them this way.

This year, I have learned to leave my smear marks and I’ll start by leaving some here. I’ve worked this year to keep things messy. I’ve worked this year.

I’ve really worked.

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