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Becoming the Killjoy: Confronting Academic Spaces

Finishing up my final semester at University of Wyoming’s MFA felt tumultuous, though I suppose it couldn’t have ended any other way. Many faculty seemed to be leaving UW amidst the school’s large-scale budgeting overhaul due to the collapse of Wyoming’s coal industry last year, nothing new for the state considering its legacy of booms and busts. A new drama was rising afresh within the program as students learned of the manner in which beloved faculty member, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, had been terminated. Further, this was all happening against the backdrop of macro and micro struggles. Each week was some new round of messy political theatre, and meanwhile my friends and I were going through own crises, doing what we could to find moments together to fight through the gloom.

After my thesis defense, one of my committee members gave me a letter that contained everything I needed to hear at the end of this stricken road. Even now, I’m holding the letter, reading through it again and finding myself wrecked with the sharp joy of being seen, tears coming down my face. Surviving not only the environment of the program, specifically last year, as well as academia’s generally fraught and, at times, dangerous geography, I found myself wondering if I could enter academia again, despite how much it holds and keeps the things about which I’m most passionate. Before I would go on to leave that school, that town, so very soon after semester’s end (since my apartment’s lease would be up by the end of May), I sat down with this mentor one last time, told them how much their letter and their mentorship has meant to me, but also to declare a conclusion: if I did wind up pursuing another degree, I would take some time in deciding, I would make sure it was the right choice, the right place to be for what I intellectually wanted. But also, I conceded that I was thinking that, perhaps, what I had experienced at UW was some of the worst of what could happen to a minority student. Not the absolute worst, of course, I don’t mean to sound self-indulgent. But rather, it had been bad enough, scarring enough, that it wasn’t likely I would encounter such a set of cultural and institutional conditions quite like it again. They agreed.

Nonetheless, at the end of those two years, real damage had been done. In that final semester, I could palpably feel the harm in moments when I wanted to assert myself, to unapologetically deliver my messages onto the world, but I couldn’t. Every time I felt that way, a stronger feeling rose up to counter it, to make a ruin of what willpower I had, an inner conflict magnified to the point of harm. I don’t totally know how to describe it except to say that it made me feel like I couldn’t hold my own presence in the world. I could be cavalier with naming it, call it internalized silencing or self-negation, but an ideological foothold for understanding it won’t make it go away.

Cut to a different scene, earlier in the semester: I’m sitting next to a good friend of mine in the house of a UW faculty member who had supported our political organizing efforts. We have snacks, play with her children, and talk with her and her husband, also UW faculty, through a dappling of various but connected issues—common dynamics within English departments, faculty that are leaving, UW’s general culture. I remember one of our hosts described UW as a place in which many faculty seem to believe, in her eyes, that they themselves embody the most progressive politics that’s out there, a phenomenon that held no weight with anyone at the table. Most memorably, she went on to claim a general culture amongst faculty, though perhaps administration as well, as being something akin to one big still face experiment: students trying to communicate observations, needs, and even calls to action to faculty members, only to be met with a decidedly unmoved audience. It was then that I was struck with a wondering—in what ways and to what degree are faculty members incentivized to not care for their students? Was this a result of old world academic values combining with the contemporary neoliberalization of the university? Was there something specific to UW and UW alone at work? A regional underpinning that infiltrated the culture of academics who, for the most part, aren’t from this state to begin with?

Cut to the present, to the current state of my desk: post-it notes stacked neatly by my many list-makings, a couple binders devoted to upcoming work, and then the reading materials—Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included sits in a stack of books, only a couple away from The University in Ruins by Bill Readings. I’ve bookmarked an issue of the journal Wagadu that’s devoted to articles on the institutional work of diversity and diversity management (which is free for anyone to read as Wagadu is an open access journal). A friend recently recommended a newly published book, A Third University Is Possible by la paperson (a name under which the scholar K. Wayne Yang writes sometimes, or so I’ve just discovered), which I’m eager to get my hands on as well. Maybe I’m going a bit overboard, maybe this is the beginning of incidental research toward some other project I’ve yet to realize, but I’m determined to make sure that, should I decide to return to academia, I’m going to be prepared.

I say all this as a kind of cautionary tale. For people of color, for sexual and gender minorities, for those who live with a physical or mental dis/ability or chronic illness, for staunch political leftists, activists and organizers, and for all those whose alterity renders them vulnerable in academic spaces for whatever reason—there will be times when your experiences, your bodies, your methods and pace of work, and your political visions will not only be unwelcomed but will be actively countered by those with institutional power over you. Your views and your actions, depending on circumstance and setting, will leave you exposed. You will be erased save what you might bring to the institution’s diversity politics, or else you will be made hypervisible through harm. You will encounter situations and people who will make focusing on your intellectual and creative pursuits much more difficult, and, in some cases, nearly impossible. In a torrent of unmoved faces, you will be treated as an obstacle.

I say all this not to discourage you, but rather to share my realistic vision for hope. To turn this essay toward the manifesto, because the manifesto is about exhaustively writing out one’s difficult, ideal vision for the future as shaped out of the wrongs of the present. It’s easy to romanticize both academia and the program you may enter, for whatever conscious or more psychically-embedded reasons and rationales you may have. And of course, I wish that idealism could be unbridled because that idealism is indicative of an excitement for one’s opportunity to create, for possibility—what can and could be for one’s pursuits and existence, but for many, it cannot be so. Or rather, it can be but only with a guidebook in hand to prepare one as best as possible. For many of us, there is a need to account for harm by devising strategic survival measures, or at least learning how to anticipate for the making of them as we go along.

This isn’t to say that I regret going to UW. I won’t lie that there had been a handful of bad things that got thrown at me, both inside and outside of the program, but somehow good things eventually came to counter it all, to make it all worth it. I’m starting to verge on an insulting and false hope narrative, and I don’t mean to. What I’m trying to say is that while the negatives have irrevocably re-structured my sense of reality, so, too, have the positives.

At the end of my mentor’s letter, they remind me that being open to the world is the key to staying alive yet also the greatest point of danger, and I couldn’t agree more. Those moments when oppression comes for you in the small-scale, daily moments of living will foster bitterness in you, make you needlessly possessive of your vision for change, compel you to create binary framings in which you hold your enemy away at an arm’s length against the better knowledge that you’re both socially, culturally, and politically proximate subjects. I urge you to work against this, but to also remember that, at least to some extent, you’re the one who chooses how to navigate your surroundings, how to choose who or what to keep out—how to survive. “It’s a life’s work,” they tell me, “surviving the bullshit, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise.” I wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise for you as well.

 

Salutations & Pre-MFA Nerves

 

Hello, dear MFA applicants, candidates, and curious others. By some lovely miracle, I’ll be joining the poetry cohort at the University of Virginia next week. I want to use this first post to reflect on my fears about beginning the program—to write them down before they are either confirmed or dispelled.

Of course, I’m still dazed with delight about UVA. I feel like I’ve won the cosmic lottery, or gotten a late Hogwarts letter. I got into three different types of programs (Philosophy PhD programs and Divinity Schools) but the University of Virginia MFA is the one I pined over. They also notified last, so I had plenty of time to get my hopes up, then get blue about my inevitable rejection, then find myself looking up rentals in Charlottesville, then remind myself of the odds, and secretly hold feelings of inadequacy when friends got into incredible programs, and on, and on, and on. The feeling of being accepted was amazing—it almost hurt to feel so suddenly drained of worry and filled with wonder.

Romano-6968

It’s been a good summer.

This summer, I’m lucky to have a cool job—I’m a River Ranger for the Forest Service in Utah. It’s less bad-ass and more janitorial than it sounds, but I get to row dories on the Green River. It’s lonely out here, but the only real problem is that I’m too fixated on the Fall to feel present here. I’m amazed by the fact that however slowly the hours ooze by, time does, in fact, continue to move along at the same pace; I will actually be my future self soon, arriving in Charlottesville. I privately felt that by fixating on this fact, I might trick myself into making the summer disappear behind me.

Whether by my will or not, the summer has flown by. Now, all of a sudden, I’m hoping for it all to slow down. How could I ever be prepared to start this program?

Because my heart was so set on UVA, it didn’t seem real to me, emotionally, that there would be challenges after being accepted. It felt like acceptance was both peak and plateau: there’s the anxiety of waiting, and then – [heavenly choir, golden light] –the good thing! But of course, there’s no plateau. the terrain will be strange & difficult.

Here are some of my fears, confessed. Maybe I’m not the only one working through these:

Fear that I have become stupider during time away from school

This feels true, at least. I’ve been working in the desert, and haven’t had much in the way of intellectual community over the last year. I’ve been reading madly since I graduated, but I’m reading the wrong things: like, all the Harry Potter books again, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett…books of short stories, novels…my books on craft are, after months, still half-finished. I’m not reading much poetry, which seems like almost criminal negligence, some kind of damning ingratitude.

Irrational fear that I was accepted by mistake

 Imposter syndrome keeps sneaking up on me. I even feel it about being picked to write for this blog. Everyone else has an impressive bio and is clearly a real poet. I have a nagging nightmare that everyone in the program will share a quiet understanding that I don’t actually belong. That I haven’t been serious enough, that my work (mostly documentary prose poetry) isn’t the kind of thing they do there, that there must have been some mistake.

Fear that poetry might lose its magic when it’s my total focus

As an undergraduate, my focus was history of philosophy. Hampshire College devotes the fourth year to a major project, and I was consumed by researching, drafting, and revising a 200 page philosophy paper. That year, I wrote my poetry manuscript over the course of about one poem a week, and those writing sessions felt like stolen, joyful moments. It seems strange now that the poetry manuscript has been more successful, that it has now held greater influence over my life, since the poems were written with much less effort. I worry that in an MFA program, poetry will no longer be a private magical sanctuary, that it will become stressful. Maybe this is exactly what my writing needs, but I would feel this loss all the same. And what if, under those stresses, I won’t be able to write in the same way?

Fear that my writing voice will change

 My writing voice changes from time to time, from project to project. This sort of shift seems out of my control, and I’m a concerned that whatever mysterious aspects there are to being able to write well will fly away. I’m not worried about writer’s block, just worried that I won’t be able to write anything good.

Fear of Twitter, of having to promote myself

I discovered recently that if you google “Emily Lawson poet” the first hit is a completely different Emily Lawson with a poetry blog. This is probably a bad thing for me and a problem I am completely unprepared to try to solve. In our 5-person cohort, there will be another poet with the same first name, and nearly the same last name, as mine. This seems like a fateful reminder of my non-special-ness, and also a reminder that I’ll have to do something to be recognized. I’m not sure what that is, but I think it probably involves doing something with SquareSpace. Also, Twitter frightens me.

One thing about entering the MFA world, which I haven’t heard talked about much, is that trying to be recognized seems like part of the deal. It seems like recognition is the thing—your program wants to produce a published, known poet. My acceptance letter notes that, “Relative to our size, the graduates of no other MFA program in the country have had more success than ours in publishing their work in topnotch venues and winning significant prizes.” What if I don’t? I can write poetry any time, but once I’m in an MFA program, it seems like, suddenly, poetry is something I could fail at. This is strange, and I’m not sure how to navigate this pressure, or how strongly I will feel it.

Fear of the publishing game

I haven’t been trying to get my finished manuscript or new poems published since being accepted to UVA, even though I know that’s unwise. It just felt so nice to be accepted that it seemed silly to try to prove anything—but of course, I’ll have to submit again, pay all those fees, wait for verdicts. I’m going to have to steel myself for many more rejections to come.

Fear of being cut down in workshop for real this time

Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I’m worried that I grew too used to, as an undergraduate, being the one in the poetry workshop whose work was generally admired and touched lightly by professors and peers. I know MFA workshops will likely be different, and though that’s pretty much the whole point, I hope I’ll be able to cultivate the right mix of self-assurance and humility to make the best use of tough criticism.

There are other worries: that my cohort won’t click, that the house I’ve signed a lease for sight-unseen will end up being lousy, that I’ll fall into depression, that I won’t figure out how to write about this presidency in my poems, that I’ll miss philosophy. But in the end, I feel I couldn’t be luckier, and I can’t wait to explore the years ahead.

Photo: Coconino National Forest

 

First Year MFA Survival Guide

Photo Credit: Brenna Daughtery

It’s the middle of summer and time is flashing before our very eyes. Let me the one to tell you that someone can constantly beat you over the head about how precious and short your time is during your MFA experience. Even after your entire first year you can still be blown away by this very fact. And yet, after being attending workshops and classes you can feel like you’re still at the tip of the iceberg in regards to the literary community as to what it has to offer. It’s a growing/learning process. When reflecting on my year, I have compiled a survival list that can be paired with the many other survival lists that will help those who are approaching their first year at an MFA program. It’s a crazy, but exciting literary world out there (almost as crazy as a zombie infested world). You can never have too many tips and trips to keep your body afloat.

  1. Read/Reread Past MFA Years Blog Posts

Why? Or should I say, Why not? Just like how you can never have too many survival lists, you can never read too many blog posts from those who have attended or are attending an MFA program. There are posts coming from writers in separate genres/schools, who are in different stages in their MFA, and those who are recently graduated. Of course not one experience is the same as someone else’s, but it’s interesting to see instances where thoughts and opinions overlap. Take note of them. You will most likely face them yourself in the near future.

  1. Update Your CV

CV–the dreaded piece of writing where people consciously procrastinate, but yet something that has to be done. Especially if you are thinking about applying for positions in literary magazines, fellowships, or applying to other programs. Aim to add at least one thing to your CV every month, whether that may be getting a new publication or helping out an organization at the school you are attending. This will detract stress and will maybe even boost your confidence in applying for things you never thought of doing.

  1. Be Present in the Literary Community

Even during my undergraduate career, the one thing my advisor chimed time and again was connections, connections, connections. It overwhelmed me in the way she said it, because it sounded more like a boss at a business corporation telling me to sell myself to complete strangers. I’ve now realized to look at it in the lens of just being an all around good human being in a world full of writers. There are easy ways to stand out, for instance if you’re active on social media, don’t be afraid to give a writer/literary magazine a shout out of a poem or story you’ve read of theirs that you absolutely love. It doesn’t go unnoticed. Once people can put a name to a face, it’s hard to get rid of it.

  1. Be Present in Your Program

This is more than actually showing up. Relish in the fact that you are attending classes among those who are pursuing the same degree as you, trying to write the best work they can. Your program supplies a mini literary community in itself (which can be training wheels for point number 3), but it’s only temporary. Or at least, it appears to be temporary. The relationships among those can last past the graduation ceremony. And ho doesn’t want more BWFFL’s (Best Writing Friends For Life)?

  1. Take Notes

There will always be the reminder to keep on writing, despite the potential writer’s block or the upcoming deadline for an assignment that is keeping you away from your writerly duties, but you should be writing more than just your thesis in mind. Take notes of writing prompts professors give you. If you are teaching, keep a record of activities and assignments you have done and when attending readings and craft talks, jot down the things that inspire you. All of these notes will come in handy come time you do have the writer’s block that was just mentioned and for when you are trying to remember that one activity that sparked your past students to be active in class discussions. This saves extra time and energy.

  1. Ask Questions

There are not enough MFA/writing survival guides out there that can answer every possible question that you may have. It’s okay to ask them. Other people are probably thinking or even asking the questions you have in mind, especially for the fact that the literary world is fluid and expands alongside technology. This means certain tips associated to publishing, ways to market oneself, etc. can change slightly or even drastically.

You may have already known or heard all of these things, the things listed should be addressed just like when someone reminds you that time is valuable over and over again. This will help you even past the first year of an MFA program or even past your program itself. Be ever present as can be. If you can’t seem to write, do something that inspires you to write. You can even write your own survival list and follow them yourself. Maybe even share it and help a literary sister out.

 

What Is a Mentor, Exactly?

On Father’s Day, a former creative writing professor of mine from college (let’s call him B) wrote a long and eloquent post about his thankfulness not only for his father but also for a dear mentor of his. This mentor had been B’s professor when he was an undergraduate many years ago. He had given B advice and guidance when B was rejected from graduate school, had continued to read B’s stories after B had had said mentor for workshop, and had introduced B to his literary agent. I acknowledge that this was a Facebook post and thus I certainly don’t know the full context of this mentorship. What I do know is that when I read that post, I felt a little jealous, although it was hard to parse out the exact nature of that jealousy.

B’s post made me wonder, how common is it for writers to have mentors in this day and age, and what is the nature of those mentorships? How do different people interpret the idea of mentorship? On the one hand, it seems like the demands placed on writers are greater than they’ve ever been, that time is a valuable and dwindling resource. Writers are professors or copywriters or lawyers or temp workers. They are friends. They have family members. They have myriad obligations. On the other hand, if a person is in the position of having achieved writerly success, likely that person has had some help along the way, and wouldn’t the magnanimous action to take be to pay it forward, specifically to emerging writers who would stand to benefit the most?

A friend of mine who completed her MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at Tisch described to me her experience with the mentorship of two graduate professors of hers, both women working as composers, lyricists and/or book writers in the New York musical theater scene. In my friend’s own words (with names changed) “…R encouraged me to create impossible worlds and call them musical theatre…” and “K helped me gain faith in myself as a composer, and inspired me as a woman of color to believe in my own vision and to assert that vision in white spaces.” When I asked my friend if she imagined these professors would continue reading her work in the future, her response was valuable to me in examining my own notions of mentorship; she answered that she already knows what her work is, what she wants to achieve with it, and so these mentorships are significant more so in providing advice on how to navigate the industry and the world of New York musical theatre. This was a good point. I know, for the most part, what I want my writing to be, and if I do want feedback on my writing, I have networks of peers both in Tuscaloosa and in Los Angeles who can be that community for me, who can offer their insights and notes.

One reason I’ve been contemplating the idea of mentorship lately is that in fall, I’ll be starting my third and final year of my MFA program. I’m definitely a planner, and while I know that I’ll move back to Los Angeles after I finish the program, I don’t know much beyond. I would prefer not to move back without further education and/or a job already lined up (because, y’know, everything costs money). I’m going to apply to a few PhD programs and teaching positions, and I’m looking into the possibilities of working in nonprofit management, ghostwriting, copywriting, etc. Who knows? All of this uncertainty about the future makes me wish someone would just swoop in and say, “Hey, let me introduce you to so-and-so!” or “I know about this job opening up that I think would make a great fit, let me make a phone call.” So maybe that’s where my slight jealousy of B stems from–that he had someone looking out for him, that he had someone who seemed invested in his future.

I’ll admit, I’ve spent a significant amount of time and energy cultivating relationships with people who are somewhat further in their writing careers than I am. If I knew that not a single one of those people would ever offer to do more than grab a coffee with me once a year, I like to imagine that I would still maintain those relationships, that I don’t keep up correspondence with anyone who I don’t genuinely find interesting in his/her/their own right such that their company wouldn’t be worthwhile in and of itself. Still, it would be nice to have mentorship, the definition of which I’m revising, for myself, to mean somebody who’s looking out for me, someone I know I can go to for advice or with concerns and count on for a response, who will help me out to the best of their capabilities. It’s both emotional, the satisfaction of being validated, and practical, the desire not for nepotism, per se, but to be able to access opportunities to prove myself as a writer, opportunities to which I would not have access without the connections of another.

That having been said, as far as I can tell, most of the writers I know don’t have a “mentor” in their lives. They may have at times in the past, especially as undergraduate or graduate students, where they received the attention of their professors, and they may have people who would be willing to write a letter of recommendation or a blurb for a book or who will answer a question every once in awhile. But these writers’ close, sustained relationships are with fellow writers or friends who have offered support in various ways, a generation of folks providing scaffolding towards success to one another. There is also value in the relationships that have nothing to do with writing at all, that allow us to take a break, to consider everything else that constitutes our lives. I’ll be curious to see what I’m doing a year from now and how my current ideas of mentorship and community are sure to evolve.

P.S.–I’m rekindling my “Currently…” section from my first year, so here ya go!

Currently Cooking/Preparing: Homemade sushi and margaritas with fresh strawberry and lime juice

Currently Watching: Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (check out this Netflix documentary if you get a chance!)

Currently Listening: Explosions in the Sky (good background music for writing)

Currently Reading: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird (definitely worth checking out if you have any interest in Oppenheimer and/or the Manhattan Project)

It’s gonna be…oh wait, May’s over!

Photo Credit: Photos Public Domain

Well, clearly time got the better of me this year. And now I am met with the task of summing up months of the MFA experience in a single blog post. Here goes!

Compared to the fall, the spring semester was pretty calm from a personal standpoint – no houses were flooded, no childhood pets died on me, mid-term assignments did not coincide with working at a costume shop at Halloween time (though there was another move involved – we moved the store right before finals, so that was wonderful timing.) I managed to explore Orlando some more (well, really just the thrift stores between Sanford and Orlando and also spent a lot of time tracking down the Beyond Burger and my favorite Philly beer, Victory Kirsch Gose, at stores in Altamonte Springs.) Oh, and I saw my two favorite musicians/humans in the world, Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde (the Pretenders), play together at the Amway Center. One of my courses had us taking friend trips in the area and reporting back on them. My favorite trip involved people-watching at Fun Spot, an Orlando theme park with free admission (rides are individually ticketed) and stiff, super-salty margaritas that enhanced the people-watching experience. It was no Disney World, but from the looks of it, everyone was having a blast there. I wound up reading the piece for Parcels, UCF’s graduate reading series, which takes place one Sunday a month. I spend the entire day picking at my piece and was subsequently a nervous wreck for the entire time I stood onstage, but I felt totally proud of myself afterwards (and also everyone laughed at all the right points in it so yay.) It also helped  (helped me, at least) that it was Superbowl Sunday, so the turnout for the event wasn’t as large as most months. And I made it home to see the end of the game before I had to scramble to do the homework I’d put off while I fixated on the reading.

Those “field trip” assignments were for a Hybrid Forms course taught by Terry Thaxton, the MFA Program Director. We read a selection of books that blurred the lines between fiction, CNF, and poetry, while conducting an independent study of an aspect of hybridity that interested us, that became first an annotated bibliography and then a craft essay. Being a screenwriter, I examined the ways in which prose and poetry have intersected with film (works that either took the form of a screenplay or incorporated/emulated the cinematic experience.) The piece was grounded in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the different adaptations that have come out of it (Did you know that there’s even a graphic novel depicting Capote’s time in Kansas? It’s called…Capote in Kansas.) I wound up finding way too many good sources for the essay and had to scramble to both read them and squeeze them into my essay, but I was super successful in the end! Our other big project involved us creating a Hybrid work of our own. Mine revolved around the character of Sam (the piano player) in Casablanca and how he’s sort of dropped from the film’s narrative partway through. It’s still a work in progress, but it combines personal essay, cultural criticism, and fictive screenwriting (as I imagine where Sam wound up when everyone else left Morocco.)

That class entailed reading a book a week, and writing a reaction/imitation each week. My Contemporary Nonfiction course also entailed a book a week, as well as a reaction and an imitation. So I was balancing working 32 hours a week with two books and lots of lots of writing, which was super-fun. But the books we read in Contemporary Nonfiction were all great, and between the two classes, I got so much more actual writing done than I had the semester before. We had to pinpoint an element of craft that stood out to us in each nonfiction book for our annotations, and having that aspect of craft as a jumping-off point made it much easier to write successful imitations. My final project for that course revolved around Sister Rosetta Tharpe (an early influence on rock music and all around fascinating person,) and I’m really excited to see how the piece shapes up in the future! This piece and the Casablanca one were also very research intensive, but that’s always been my favorite part of nonfiction writing (at least once I pinpoint some good sources…it took me ages to find anything on Dooley Wilson, who portrayed Sam. The Schomburg Center in New York pretty much saved my project.)

Rounding out my semester, I returned to Journeys Academy up in Sanford (there was super-fun construction on the surface road up to the school, but it still beat paying astronomical tolls each week, and I got to find aforementioned thrift stores!) I led the students in lessons on topics such as travel writing, their relationship with technology, and how to write effective descriptions. My teaching partner was a poetry student, and since I probably hadn’t written a poem since I was in middle school, I was grateful to have her there to get the students interested in poetry. There was one day that I was almost at the school when I discovered that she was still by UCF, locked out of her car. Backtracking to pick her up would have meant missing out on first period at Journeys, so I continued up north to teach the lesson alone. It was a poetry lesson that she’d planned, that I felt totally unequipped to teach on my own, so the lesson took some improvisation, but I had the students jump in and name objects in the classroom and what they might symbolize in a poem before they wrote poems about school, and some great works came out of it. On the last day of class, a student remarked to us that she’d always hated writing until we’d come into her classroom, but now writing excited her. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the semester.

This summer, I’ll be working full-time, trying to flesh out a few screenplay Ideas I have, and trying to piece together an early version of my thesis before the fall semester starts. I’m currently finishing up a collection of Wayne Kostenbaum’s essays before I move on to the next book on my list (probably some Chuck Klosterman essays.) Hopefully I get to see more of the city, too (well, I’ve already found more thrift stores and record shops, much to my wallet’s chagrin.) And then, bring on the second year!

 

 

 

Finding My Discomfort Zone

Image: Trung Bui Viet

In my first class on creative nonfiction this past April, I sat down in the workshop, excited, a little nervous, but fundamentally reassured by one thought: I wasn’t going to be any good at the class anyway, so I didn’t have to worry too much about mastering the finer points of the memoir or essay. I was taking nonfiction because in my MA program, we are required to take one class outside of our genre. Since I’m a fiction writer, that meant choosing between poetry and nonfiction.

 When I was in undergrad, I took one fateful poetry workshop. It was actually my first workshop experience. I wasn’t much of a poet, or at least I didn’t consider myself to be one, but it was easier to get accepted into a poetry workshop than a fiction workshop, so I took the chance to be in it when it was offered, knowing that I wasn’t going to be the star of the class. I brought in my painful clichéd breakup poems every week and cringed whenever it was the class’s turn to discuss my poetry. I marveled at the ability of other students to conjure dazzling images that spoke to my soul. I received an A-, which in an undergrad workshop, usually conveys the sentiment of “good effort, but you don’t have what it takes to do this for a living.” Or at least, that’s how I interpreted the grade at the time. I decided I would never be that good at poetry, especially since I didn’t really “get” poetry at the end of the day, so it was better for me to quit while I was ahead.

In grad school, I was certain that I would be paralyzed by my own inadequacy in a grad school poetry workshop. So I opted for nonfiction.

Still, I didn’t go into nonfiction intending to become good at it. I took it thinking I might write some fun and interesting things, but I approached the course with the comforting knowledge that next term I would go back to my relatively safe bubble of fiction writing.

As someone who always approached academic achievement way too seriously, I never learned how to fail gracefully. It’s a common feeling among young adults, like me, who are extremely insecure. If we start something new, something difficult, something we won’t be good at immediately, we get discouraged. We view initial failure as a sign that we’re not talented at a particular thing, and we don’t remember that it takes a long time and lots of practice to show results.

The first day of my nonfiction class, our professor had us do a writing exercise using “glimmers” from our memories as launching points for narrative. My first reaction to this somewhat daunting exercise: Self-sabotage. I declared to everyone around me that I was no good at remembering details and used this as an excuse for why I couldn’t come up with interesting memories, instead of actually trying to do what the professor was asking.

Then, for the next class, she asked us to take the glimmers we had come up with and weave them together into an essay. Part of me wanted to rebel against the unfairness of the writing prompt. The three “glimmers” we had come up with in class had nothing to do with one another. How was I supposed to force them into a narrative? I struggled, and managed to cobble them together. It was an overbearing essay, one in which I showed too much of my own thought process on the page. Handing it in the next week, I felt embarrassed, while also vindicated. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at the class. Here was proof.

The second week, we were given another tricky assignment. At this point, I was panicking, wondering how I would get words down on a page when I couldn’t seem to censor my own thoughts as I wrote. I didn’t want to actually be bad at nonfiction; I just wanted the expectations to be set low for me. At this point, I had heard some samples of writing from classmates and read some essays assigned for class, so I knew what potential existed in nonfiction. Before this class, I had never really experienced the pleasure of reading nonfiction essays that flow from one idea to the next like water falling down a smooth stone, or the satisfaction of reading pieces that clash one violent idea against the next like a discordant symphony that merges to create something greater, something volatile and marvelous. I didn’t know how I would make something similar, but I knew I at least wanted to try.

I turned in the next two assignments, knowing they were not perfect, but excited to show them to my professors and classmates. One of them I loved so much that I read it aloud at a reading for creative writing grad students.

Once I started writing essays fiercely and joyfully, I couldn’t understand what I had been so afraid of that first week. Nonfiction overtook my writing life; it’s been over a month since I’ve entered into a fictional world in my writing. I almost don’t want to go back, but I can’t tell how much my newfound infatuation with the essay is genuine and how much stems from the relief of breaking out of my genre and stretching my arms for the first time in what feels like ages.

Now that my first year of grad school is coming to a close, and my creative nonfiction workshop is almost over, I’ve felt the anxiety of what-comes-next creeping up on me. In my second year I’ll be teaching an introductory creative writing course that I don’t yet feel prepared to teach. How can I teach a course on writing fiction, when I still know so little about it? And then I’ll also start writing my thesis. When I think about the challenges ahead, I waver back and forth between eagerness— let’s just get on with this already— and fear— am I setting myself up for failure?

This quarter, all of my classes have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Not only am I taking creative nonfiction, but I am also taking a literary seminar focusing on avant-garde poetry, a subject that I never thought I would remotely understand. I still don’t really “get” it, but at least now I can say I’ve tried to puzzle through language poetry and conceptualism, even if it left me feeling disoriented and frustrated. These courses, by challenging me to go outside of the boundaries of what I know, have  reminded me why I write in the first place: writing refuses to be confined to a straightforward hierarchy of GPA (apart from the grades you receive in workshop, but as everyone knows, grad school grades are mostly immaterial).

Writing does not conform to a binary; it’s not something I can just succeed at or fail at. In fact, it doesn’t even have a strict set of rules. Like the Pirate’s Code in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film, not its horrific spawn currently out in theaters, rules for writing are more like guidelines anyway. And because writing is tricky, because it’s hard to pin down, hard to improve at, I can keep working on it indefinitely and never feel like my work is done. Writing is a challenge worth taking on, in grad school and in life, a quantum game of buried treasure in which the X that marks the spot is constantly disappearing and reappearing in unlikely places so that you can never find it with complete certainty. After one year in grad school, I’ve finally started to get my bearings, to know which way is north and which way is east, but I’ve still got a long journey ahead of me in search of gold.

Unlike most of my peers, I still have a couple weeks ahead of me before the school year wraps up. The quarter system makes it so that my school year will end really late, in mid-June, and then only pick up again in late September. But I’ve got a full plate between now and the start of the next school year. I’m heading off to Europe on a personal and academic venture: I’ll be studying at the Prague Summer Program run through Western Michigan University for a month in July. Then when I come back, I’ll hopefully have a job teaching ESL courses through UC Davis extension for the month of August. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have a poetry paper and a nonfiction piece to write between now and summer.

Letter to Myself a Year Ago

Photo by Gray Malin. 

Do you remember the ancient summers of your childhood? Our fingers would search the dirt between tree roots for acorns. We found so many with their shells cracked open, waiting to unfurl itself deep into the dirt.

This is how it feels to be you.

You might find this hard to believe: the other night, I had a dream about our parents that was completely mundane. There was no chase, no violence, no public nudity. Our mother was looking for an apartment in Florida. Our father and I were building a new cage for small animals. We could not find the parts needed to complete it.

You are tired of the grey concrete, the spires of corporate towers, the achingly long commutes on red and blue trains. You are tired of the same lakes as big as seas. More than anything, you are tired of what you remember about this city, all the people you used to love it still holds.

I am tired of writing about how my street is filled with green light, the soft beige of beach sand, the steadiness of warm air wrapped around me. I search Netflix for John Hughes and blast Chance the Rapper in the car.

Last week, I swam in the Atlantic. It was dusk, and all the lifeguards were off-duty. Treading into the water, I looked Southeast: nothing between me and the infinite expanse of deep blue. The waves were taller than me. I tumbled beneath them again and again. They stung my eyes, flooded my ears. I would begin to laugh, and another wave would come pounding down my throat.

I think, now, of the undertow. How easy it could have been, to walk a few more steps and disappear forever.

Our first hurricane is named Matthew, which is also the name of a boy from your after school program. You will spend the summer saying goodbye to him, and Jackie, and Trenton, and all the others you’ve come to know through your years of teaching poetry at their school. This year, Matthew won a poetry slam and I was not there to see it.

And Desmond died. When I look at the ocean, when I look at the sky, I look for him. When I remember him, I feel my heart bang so hard in my chest it nearly climbs up my throat, and maybe that’s a sort of finding, too.

Hurricane Matthew destroys villages in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. With your hurricane shutters over the doors, the sliding glass of your porch partially boarded up, the thin grey palm trees in the parking lot bowing in the wind, and the impotent drizzle speckling the ground outside, you will feel the most still you ever have.

A friend in Chicago asks for videos of the destruction of your street. You keep your phone charged, the gas tank full. You’ve prepared with the naive and gratuitous fear of a midwesterner. But Matthew never makes landfall in Miami.

Your friends up north talk about the early autumn weather, the price drop in flights to the Caribbean.

Miami is in the corner of the continental United States, and on that day, you see exactly where the angular edges meet.

In May 2016, you are not thinking about hurricanes, or drowning, or all the ways “goodbyes” can be said. You are thinking about the poems, and how you want to stop writing about your past. You think you have told your story already, said all that needs to be said. Death to the self–you want to write about other things.

Here’s what will happen: you will write more and better than you ever have. The way you tell stories will change a lot, but its subject matter will widen and evolve, rather than change entirely. Despite spending so much time trying to convince yourself that you’ve said all you can, you will learn so quickly that you have not come close at all to confronting all of your worst and most buried memories.

You will make friends with the lyric essay. You will write contrapuntals again and again. You will invent new forms, by which I mean, new boxes to stuff your words inside. You will amaze yourself and feel embarrassed about the drafts that lined your suitcase on the journey here.

You are going to learn things you never even thought of yourself doing. You have electives to take; you will register for an interactive media course, and then another. You will learn about microcomputers, and analog distance sensors, and build a box with a screen that plays a poem when you are near. The poem is about Desmond.

Last night, I had another dream. I found a book in an antique bookshop, on its cover was the name of a demon I learned about in catechism. Its pages were made of mirrors. Every time I turned the page, I found myself looking back at myself.

In your first year as an Miamian, you will swim in the swimming pool of your apartment complex twice. You will pierce your nose and, a few weeks later, accidentally lose the ring in a tissue. Your arms will get very tan, your face will stay very pale, and you will somehow manage to never get sunburned.

You will learn the names of the lizards that shoot into the shadows of leaves when you walk by: constant anoles, occasional geckos. A quadrant of blue macaws will fly by your window, so close you feel the air pushing away from their wings like breath. Once, there were peacocks in the parking lot, next to the dumpsters.

You will learn how all of this is quickly descending into the Atlantic. Miami-Dade is another name for hubris. Thank the Biscayne Aquifer and a tectonic promise as old as the earth itself.

Some things will never change. For example, you still wear almost exclusively black.

It is May 2017. I counted the poems I wrote this year. There are fifty-two. They languish in the submission queues of a hundred different journals. A few weeks ago, we got our first acceptance. A few days ago, there were royalties deposited into our bank account.

Toward the end of this past semester, I got very sick. I missed my final week of classes, the year end celebrations, the cap and gown ceremony. I did not say goodbye to Savonna, and graduating poet who has become my friend. She has moved back to the Rustbelt, the homeland we share. In a text message, I promise to see her again.

And then there’s Marion, the phone client that was serendipitously assigned to you at the beginning of the year, who calls you from an apartment from New York to ask for your help with poems. Marion writes as if she has lived a hundred years, and from what you know, she might have. You’ve read half a dozen of her poems, spent weeks editing and re-editing the same prepositions, ranted against the advice of her peers in workshop, and learned her secrets.

When it comes time for your final session, you cannot bring yourself to say “goodbye,” even though you are leaving the writing center and will be teaching classes full of students next year. So you promise her you will call her again this summer, to speak again soon.

Today, I am waiting to hear from her again.