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.