Talking to Laura and Kan last night on break from class, the story came up of how I came to be doing an MFA at the ripe age of 50. Laura seemed to think it bore writing down.
Here’s what I have learned, or aim painfully learning: writers need people. We need each other; we need readers. It might seem like we don’t, that our art takes place in a noble, austere solitude, but I think that’s not true. But, for some of us at least, it’s a circuitous path to find these people that we need.
One day a few years ago, I was on my lunch break at work. I’ve found making a living to be an unsolvable problem, and I have been variously a poet, then novelist working odd jobs; a professional Jewish educator; and for more than a dozen years now, a construction worker in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, local 595.
I was working on a crew changing over streetlights to the new LED fixtures for the city of Berkeley—about 8,000 lights over a year and half, all day long up and down in the bucket truck, getting coated with exhaust grime and pigeon shit, dodging wasps (they like to nest in the old “cobra head” fixtures), power lines and irate citizens. Each truck had to change at least 30 fixtures a day for the company to make a profit. As always by lunch I was sore, weary, and grumpy. This was a pretty good job. I was lying on the grass in some city park where there was a bathroom, in my safety vest and hard hat. I was looking, as quietly desperate people do everywhere, at Facebook on my phone. And who pops up on my feed, but Marcello Hernandez.
I had met Marcello at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, one of my favorite places in the world, a few years before. He was a sweet young man, just out of college, and the poem I read of his there was lovely. He had since gone to the MFA program at Michigan, where he had bravely begun to be a visible leader as a poet who was an undocumented American. Marcello posted that day he had gotten a personal, detailed rejection letter for his manuscript from Copper Canyon Press. He said, “I count that as a win.”
As soon as I started writing poetry in high school, my dearest ambition was to be a working poet. I chose a college that had an undergraduate creative writing program—not so common in the eighties. I studied writing there, albeit with much turmoil and doubt—I found then the marriage of academia to the making of literary art to be an uncomforatable one. (I still do.) I kept thinking that all my poet heroes had not “studied creative writing.” Nor did I see myself becoming an academic, the paying job the academic degree led to. So when I graduated college, I was resolved to make my way as a writer outside the MFA system. From this distance, I appreciate my independent younger spirit, but I also see how I was setting off on a lonely course.
With the thought that at least fiction writers could get paid for their work, I tried my hand at writing fiction. I doggedly marched through a set of stories, then two plus drafts of a novel. I learned the craft of fiction as I went. I also learned, the hard way, that I wasn’t suited to the marathon distances of that kind of work. By the time I emerged from the two-year battle with the novel, I was drained and disheartened and more or less wandered away from writing altogether. I turned my attention to figuring out how to make a living, and build a family.
About fifteen years later, I was married and a few years into my career as an electrician, and I started writing poems again, feverishly. I had at least fifteen years to make up for, and I voraciously read, wrote, went to readings. Now, slowly, I started to do what I hadn’t been able to do in my twenties, to find those other people. I discovered writers’ conferences, about the time my daughter was born. I love these. There have been a few years since where my only vacation was one of these weeks writing and basking in community with other writers like a pig in mud. I formed a writers’ group. I sent my poems out and gradually built up skill and stamina for that aspect of poetry. I made friends with established poets wherever I could, looking for informal mentorship, as Ginsberg had with Williams, or Eliot with Pound. Many of the poets I met were kind and generous, but were overwhelmingly too busy mentoring poets for a living to do this extramurally.
Awkwardly, it became clear I was obsessed with the MFA. I studied anthologies and writer bios to see if anyone was making it without one. I discussed the topic ad naseum with my writer, musician and artist friends. I read a spellbinding book-length study of this by Mark McGurl, The Program, and got my friends to read it. This very thoughtful exploration of the impact of the MFA on U.S. fiction provided more fuel for my faintly horrified fascination with the institution in which, whether I liked it or not, the community of creative writing was housed. My story started to change from “I will never sully myself with that” to “I wish I had done it but now it’s too late.” I had a young child, I was the main breadwinner, it was not practical to pick up my family and move to a program that offered funding, and so on. Meanwhile I was getting poems published, slowly but surely, in journals, and was trying to put together a manuscript, a level of craft that seemed beyond me.
There I was, dirty and weary in the grass, reading Marcello’s post. Damn right you count that as a win, getting personal feedback and encouragement for your manuscript from one of the best poetry presses in the U.S. All day long I fumed with jealousy for a poet more than twenty years my junior, so much closer than me to the entry point to establishing himself.
Then I realized: of course Marcello was farther along than I was. He had just spent the last two years working on his writing full time. I had been squeezing in a few hours of writing a week between my job, the dishes, and dozens of hours of childcare. He had just had the professional support of established poets who had great incentive to help him get to this point. (Does it need to be stated that aside from innate generosity of the older artist to the younger, the faculty of programs have an institutional motivation to see their students succeed?) I had been fruitlessly pursuing local poets I admired just to have a cup of tea, to say nothing of having them read my manuscript.
As I digested my jealousy, I realized: I wanted this too. Could I rewrite my story from “I wish, but can’t” to “it’s crazy, but I’m doing it?”
So that’s how I got here.
The other night I was talking with Sara in the hall after struggling, excruciatingly, with the prompt about “going home and letting it loose” involving letting “mother-tongue” and the sounds of speech at “home” come into the poem. Now it happens that when I write, almost all the time, I have a lot of noise in my head that amounts to ongoing criticism of myself, my process, my progress, the particular words or lines I’m penning on the page. The intensity of this interior noise can make it hard, to put it mildly, to hear negative feedback on a poem. Particularly if it doesn’t seem to come from a place of appreciation for the effort.
So I had been thinking about letting this inner critic “go” (as if it were that simple), which is probably different than letting it loose, but oh well. Now, when I tried to “go home” with that, all I could hear was the sounds of my mom screaming at me, her tongue seeming to try to take me apart, to tear out by force the fault she had found in me. So getting that voice, or tongue, into a poem wasn’t helping me let anything go, or loose–I couldn’t/can’t get far enough away from those sounds.
Anyway I was talking to Sara and Ross and probably others about this in the hall, and I noticed that when I can’t find my way through a poem, can’t really land inside the process of writing, I fall back on my moves, my bag of tricks. I can feel myself phoning it in as the expression goes, trying from the outside, from a distance, to make a poem happen. Now, I don’t need a prompt to have this problem–I can have it on any day of the week, just give me a pen, my notebook, and an hour to try to write. But prompts, with their awkward, imposed set of parameters for the writing to start from, make the bag of tricks particularly tempting. Maybe it’s all that training from the umpteen years of schooling, being in the workforce etc: to generate, to get a product out, regardless of how tired, cranky, or sick one is… There you are, in unfamiliar terrain, with someone else’s constraints pushing you out of your comfort zone, and feeling a need to make it happen–and voila, there’s the bag of tricks, the familiar moves that give some vague sense that maybe a poem is taking place out there somewhere.
Silence, patience, waiting; these would seem to be the correctives. I strive for them, but it doesn’t seem likely I will anytime soon be able to write without resorting, without knowing it or without knowing how to not do it, to such fallbacks. Which brings me to the issue of revision, but that will be for another post.