Tag Archives: Master of Fine Arts

A Tale of Two Cities (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Writing)

It was the worst of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was incontrovertibly, without a doubt, the absolute worst of times.  And yet my former student—we will call her Mary Sue—still had the presence of mind to ask me how I was before she broke down in tears.  She’d gotten rejected by 7 MFA programs for creative writing and zero acceptances.  This is not because she is not an excellent and talented story writer.  I’m not the only one who thinks she is a very good, very talented writer.  I worked with her through the process of submitting her stories to magazines, stories which eventually got published.  And she taught me as well in the way that every good student teaches his or her teacher.  Still, she hasn’t written a line since the first MFA rejection came in the mail.  I think she took a month to mourn each one before finally Skyping me a few days ago with the ultimate question: Why?

I get a lot of questions and comments about writing on this blog, most of which I respond to via email.  However, now and again, I’ll hear from a student I taught at a previous school or online at the Gotham Writers Workshop.  Sometimes these messages will be positive and cheerful.  But, more often, they will be full of bitterness and frustration.  Before you laugh—haha those silly little writers and their silly little angst—I suggest you try it.  If you have, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t and still want to make fun, I suggest you fuck right off.

Anyway, I did my best to respond to her in a reasonably useful manner.  But it is worth noting—as I did in our Skype conversation—that there is no real way for me to divine why she was so consistently rejected.  I was tempted to respond with something long the lines of: harden up.  If you want to last in this business, you’d better make friends with rejection.  But a comeback like that solves nothing and would only serve as a way for me to avoid sincerely answering her question, a tactic I encountered all too often as a student.

In truth, I have been there.  I have felt sad and kicked around by the writing world.  I’ve been scoffed at by fellow graduate students, had my stories panned in workshop.  I’ve felt like a fraud many times.  I’ve been told not to give up my day job (or to get a day job or, post-911, to put a fireman in my novel / write some urban fantasy because that’s where it’s at right now, Davis—an office hour conversation that put me into a week of depression because a professor who talks like that has never said an honest thing in his life).  In fact, there were long, long stretches of time where I got absolutely no encouragement from anyone other than my immediate family and sometimes not even that.  So I felt for Mary Sue.  Being a creative artist is hard—hard in many hidden, difficult, often deeply painful ways.  Brutal, elemental rejection, when a young writer first experiences it, is something that lasts, that must be dealt with and overcome.  If we’re serious, we ask why over and over.*

She wanted to tell me that she felt like this was it.  Her writing career was over before it could begin.  And I don’t think it would be unfair for me to add that there was a subtle degree of accusatory shading there, to wit, why did you encourage me when this proves that I am clearly a loser?  Her mother wants her to go into nursing.  Her father hasn’t spoken to her since she told him she’s always liked girls more than boys.  All of this fits together in the nasty, if stereotypical, jigsaw experience of young people trying to develop themselves in unique ways after college.  So, with her permission and (I’m relieved to say) amusement, I am writing this in the hope that it will inspire others who may be in similar circumstances.  I know a lot of writers visit this blog.

Most of my initial response to Mary Sue came from my experiences working closely with professors in creative writing programs—at two different MFAs and then a PhD.  Here, I’m not speaking about any of those programs in particular.  I’m offering a general picture of the graduate creative writing admissions process as I’ve come to understand it.  I know some readers will have a hard time with this, but I will neither whitewash nor condemn what I think goes on based on some very vivid firsthand observations.  Instead, I’ll try to be fair when answering the question: how, if I’m so great, could they possibly reject me?

Let’s start with who’s reading your application.  No, I don’t mean the drones at the graduate college who only look to see if all the components are in place and you’ve actually taken the GRE / Single Subject Exam.  I mean the actual professors who sit around a table reading applications.

There might be anywhere from 50 to 150 applications in manila folders, stacked in the middle of the table.  150?  Aren’t you exaggerating, Davis?  Really.  150.  I’ve never heard of that many applications for, say, 2-4 PhD or 8-10 MFA acceptances.  You must have mistyped.  No, actually, I did not mistype.  There will typically be 3 or 4 professors who—in addition to all their usual teaching, writing, conference attending, committee participating, student advising, recommendation writing, colleague slandering, cat brushing, and therapist meeting—will be expected to make thoughtful decisions about a lot of people they’ve never met in a very limited period of time.

Most of these professors, reasonably or unreasonably, will quietly resent having to read these applications year after year.  Again, I recommend that we do not criticize them too harshly for this.  Yes, it is part of the job.  But reading those application packets is not easy or fun.  In fact, I have seen professors get incredibly exhausted when all of the duties and expectations they normally have converge with the application deadline(s).

What are they looking for?  Oh, you mean the paragraph of meaningless rhetoric on the department website where it says they’re looking for talented hardworking individuals who show unique promise and dedication to the field?  Set that aside for a moment and consider the existential state of an English department.  You have a collection of more or less gifted individuals who have dedicated their lives to an aspect of their field.  They, like you, majored in English because there was something about it they came to love.  In fact, they loved it so much they kept on with it year after year, even when good judgment and the economy told them they’d be better off working in a nail salon.

Many of these people have spent their entire lives in academia, got their degrees from an R1 institution, and deeply, religiously believe in the mission of their discipline.  Given the way the humanities degrees are generally treated by society at large, English professors also tend to exist in a perpetual state of consternation—exasperated by having to justify the relevance of their field to those who cannot or will not stop questioning whether it’s cost effective to offer anything beyond “Communication for Business Majors.”

Moreover, most of the English professors I’ve met have been fundamentally decent people.  Unfortunately, a university is not built to encourage fundamental decency.  It is, at heart, a relic from the old world—a patchwork of highly distorted medieval, renaissance, and Enlightenment thought-styles and power dynamics.  Its circulatory system is patronage (funding, awards, other less mentionable bonbons).  Machiavellian feuding exists on all levels.  And the outer covering of any given thing is nearly always a façade.

When you live in a world like that for a few decades, when your emotional life distributes itself along those channels, you tend to see people in terms of career opportunities; you tend to see career opportunities in terms of survival and self-protection, tenure notwithstanding.

With this in mind, the people reading your writing program application tend to be interested in one or more of the following: (1) your existing connections / prestige—will your existing status make them / the department look good if they accept you (Iowa / A-list magazine publications / famous daddy / already have a book contract)?  (2) your staying power—will they be wasting their time on you because you’re going to leave for law school next year?  (3) your potential level of compliance—will you be a problem, will you show up at their house in your underwear at 2AM in the middle of a nervous breakdown sometime in spring semester?   (4) your work ethic—how much of their busywork do you seem like you might take on for free if they told you it would look good on your resume?  And (5) sadly, mostly for the young-ish female applicants who have made a visit ahead of time, do you seem datable?

But what about the writing sample?  What about the letters of recommendation?  What about them?  How long does it take to briefly skim the top page in a packet when there are 49 more to read by tomorrow night?

Davis, you’re so cynical.

No.  Back up.  Think for a moment.  Getting an advanced degree and a tenure-track professorship does not automatically confer a “Good Guy” badge.  It is a mark of professional and academic achievement.  It shows that you have rhetorical savvy, that you’re gifted, that you care about something besides just turning a buck.  And it strongly suggests that you have willpower, that you still have some idealism, and that you may also care about at least part of the world—the part that involves your field of study.  It does not make you ready for canonization.

If you want to believe that everyone reading your application is a perfect and impartial judge of quality, sitting in a clean room, saying a decade of the rosary to the Blessed Virgin between those piles of dismal prevarication and puffery known as MFA applications, go ahead.  I’d also like to interest you in some beachfront real estate.

Most professors reading MFA apps do their best, which is to say, they try hard to balance all the above considerations against what they think might be good for the department in terms of the funding and other resources at hand.  It’s very hard.  And I have been present during such a process on three separate occasions.  Unprofessional, you say?  Don’t start.

Goes like this:

Professor 1 and Professor 2 are sitting in a conference room.  The obscene pile of applications in manila folders is on the table between them.  It is late morning on a Friday.  Neither of them are smiling.

P1: “Who’s this now?  Okay.  Thomas Anderson . . . from . . . Upper Hoboken State College.  Hmm.”

P2, who has been given to understand in no uncertain terms by her cousin, Thomas Anderson’s mother, that if he doesn’t get accepted, there will be hell to pay: “Yes.  Yes, that is a very fine school, I hear.  Yes.  Really.  And look, he’s published in two journals.”

P1: “Is that so.”  He removes his glasses and massages the bridge of his nose.  “Lost Nose Quarterly and Foetid Goat.  Have you ever read anything in Foetid Goat?”  He glances at the top page of Thomas Anderson’s writing sample, then moves the entire application packet to the side with the blade of his hand.  “Now how about this other one.  Sarah Prim.  She went to NILU, I understand.”**

P2: “Sure.  NILU.  But did you read her writing sample?  She hasn’t published anything.  I mean, given the number of applications—”

P1: “But she went to NILU.”

P2, seeing her cousin’s face: “Sure.  Right.  But I really think it’s important to give extra weight to publication—”

P1 puts his glasses back on, peers across the pile of application packets at P2: “Did you read their writing samples?”

P2 hesitates, then: “Of course I did.”  She takes a long drink of coffee.

P3 enters the room, visibly, wretchedly hung over.  “Hello.  Everyone.”  He sits way down at the end of the table, realizes that he will have to come closer to the pile of application packets, and moves two seats away from P2.  He clears his throat, massages the back of his neck, sighs.

P1 and P2 wait in silence for P3 to read both applications.  P3 skims Thomas Anderson’s CV, then takes a deep breath and excuses himself.  He can be heard running toward the men’s room at the end of the hall.

The professors break for lunch.  Three hours later, they reconvene and P3 looks healthier after a massive infusion of coffee and five cigarettes.  They sit back down in their places, everything right where they’d left it.  There’s no question that they’re now ready to work.  They’re going to get the day’s application reading done.

P3 scans Anderson’s CV again.  He takes Sara Prim’s CV out and sets it down beside Anderson’s, murmurs to himself, “NILU.  How about that,” thinking about the two-story Victorian just off the NILU campus where visiting writers and other dignitaries live for a semester.  All that stained glass.  NILU is one of the places he’s wanted to teach for a semester.  Who’s the chair there?  Dr. Smith?  Look at this.  Dr. Smith wrote Sarah Prim a letter of rec.  Good for you, Sarah Prim.

I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad or to point my finger at the unfairness of the process.  I can’t.  I was selected by good programs where I was an exception to this sort of nonsense because there were professors who refused to behave like this.  Unfortunately, I have been present, physically present multiple times, while this sort of thing went on.  And I have not forgotten it.

This is not to say that P1, P2, and P3 are bad people.  It’s to say that they are people.  And that they are forced to make judgment calls in an unforgiving system where an enormous amount of stress stays hidden under the surface of daily work.  I think it’s important for us to stay aware of this.  And admissions decisions become inherently absurd when based on overheated letters of recommendation, CVs, dreadful cover letters, and careful writing samples that may or may not reveal actual talent.

So let’s take out our writer’s crystal ball and do some projecting.

A few months after the scene in the conference room, Sarah Prim receives her acceptance letter and a similarly worded yet somehow heartfelt boilerplate acceptance email from the department’s graduate advisor.  It begins, Dear Sarah, I am delighted to inform you . . . and ends, to welcome you to the department!  Sarah is overjoyed.  It was her first choice.  She takes a stroll in the park with her writing journal but is too overwhelmed to write anything today.  She just sits on a warm bench and watches kids play on the jungle gym.  She smiles at the world and says to herself, Maybe I do have some talent.  Dad was right.  I just have to work hard and apply myself.  I think I’ve learned something hopeful about the world.  I’m going to be a writer.  When I publish my first book, I’ll dedicate it to mom and dad.

At that same moment, somewhere in Jersey, Thomas Anderson takes a smoke break behind the coffee shop where he’s working a double shift because his dick of a manager, Trevor, can’t be bothered to get up off his ass and hire another barista.  When Anderson checks email on his phone, he drops his cigarette.  The email begins, Dear Mr. Anderson, I regret to inform you . . . and ends, that there have been many qualified applicants this year.  We wish you success in your future endeavors.  He feels crushed.  This was his first, and only, choice.  He says to himself, Dad was right.  I just don’t have what it takes.  What can you do with a fucking degree like this anyway?  I’m not going to even tell him.  I was crazy to think I could do this.  I never get picked.  Story of my life.

Thomas Anderson will apply again next year and will probably get in to a state college MFA program that’s less prestigious than the one that just rejected him.  He’ll go through his 2 or 3 years and produce a book-length manuscript of short stories, some of which he’ll publish in magazines with names like Burning Trout, Load, and Catscratch Fiction Review.  He’ll also secretly produce a novel fragment that won’t work and that he’ll abandon around page 70.  He’ll give a thesis reading, go to the AWP Conference a few times and walk around aimlessly, worrying about money.  Then he’ll get a job as a dispatcher for a garbage truck company.

At that point, all bets are off.  He could go back to academia and get another degree.  He could join the Foreign Service.  He could settle in and keep dispatching them garbage trucks.  Whether or not he continues to write and publish in foetid magazines is entirely up to him.  And that’s the purity of a situation like his.  His entire education, his entire preparation, what he’s acquired as an artist will resonate more with the concept of the “Invisible College” than with the cottage industry of creative writing.

Meanwhile, Sarah Prim begins her program.  While there, she makes a lot of friends from Brown, Vassar, Mills, Middlebury, and Bennington.  She produces very few short stories and takes the bare minimum of workshops.  This is because, she is told early on that novels are where it’s at.  And that is correct, from a career-advancement standpoint.  The year before she is set to graduate with her MFA, she will have completed the first draft of a novel.  It will be about a wealthy yet sensitive 20-something, with an advertising job in Manhattan, who comes to terms with her identity through a series of colorful romantic entanglements.

While skiing in Vail over Christmas break with a few friends, Sarah will meet an older, newly single art history professor from NYU.  He’ll invite her to the city.  Shortly thereafter, she’ll be living in two places.  She will also have an entire new circle of friends, one of whom is a well-known literary agent.  After her MFA, she will move to New York City and get a small job as a copy editor for a fashion magazine.  Her novel will come out as part of a 2-book deal and she will be featured in a Writer’s Chronicle piece alongside Wally Lamb, Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Eggers.

At this point, she will decide that teaching might be interesting.  She’ll be offered an assistant professorship at a small liberal arts college the same way she was accepted to her first choice MFA program.  (If Thomas Anderson ever met Sarah, he would somehow realize that Sarah has never dropped a cigarette due to shock and dismay.  She would find being in his presence extremely uncomfortable—maybe that look in his eyes.  Maybe he’s just an awkward, hostile person by nature?)

So who’s the success?  Who worked harder?  Who “made it”?  These are stupid questions.  Both of them are writers.  Both have something to say in their work.  Both will speak a completely different language, will live in completely different worlds, will think of themselves in completely different ways.  And both of them deserve the best future they can make for themselves as artists—as long as they don’t forget one essential thing: art is not about any of this.  Art is what creative writers do at home at their desks.  Art doesn’t care about your CV or how much you can stroke the world or how the world might stroke you back.  Your only obligation is to your art.

So.  The bottom line:  if you say you want to go to a graduate creative writing program, by all means go.  But remember: keep your head straight.  Understand that the university is, has, and always will be a patronage system at heart.  It’s misunderstood by society at large and generally loved and hated by everyone in equal parts—especially by those who spend their lives inside it.

We can argue that things should be otherwise, but that would be a waste of our precious energy and attention.  Instead, let’s go skiing in Vail.  Let’s dispatch the garbage trucks (if we don’t, who will—no job should be beneath us just because we went to grad school).  And let’s get all of it over with so tomorrow we can get up at dawn and sit at the desk and write a story.

* Incidentally, this is the reason every writer should make friends with a dog if possible—a dog will always have the most sublime optimism, the deepest solicitousness for our struggle.  I once knew a miniature German Shepherd, named Molly, who would growl at bad paragraphs in our story workshop.  She would never growl at the writer.  That dog understood things.

** Near Ivy League University.


The Year of the Bastard: A True Life Story from the MFA Underground

1. Bad Juju

My eyes were opened and I understood.

Higgins Street Bridge

“I can tell you one thing,” said Louie, taking a drag on his cigarette and leaning back in his chair, “he steps over the line again and we’ll have words.”

“You won’t do anything of the sort. Don’t be ridiculous,” said Burt.

“I’ll kill the motherfucker. Got an ice-pick right in my trunk.”

“Kill a professor and you’ll go straight to the chair,” I said. “They’ll pump you so full of voltage you’ll be shitting the Bozeman power grid.”

Louie smiled at that, catlike, squinting at me through his smoke cloud. He was wiry, not an ounce of fat on him, with a working-outside-everyday tan, veins and muscles in clear relief.

“There’s no escaping it,” Burt said. “Our program’s sick. We have no future. If people are killing themselves—I mean we’re all killing ourselves if you really think about it. But this whole thing with Theresa Miles. I can’t get over the thought that Jason’s somehow behind it.”

“We shouldn’t blame Jason for all the evil in the world,” I said, checking my pulse under the table. “He’s an asshole. But he didn’t tell her to cut her wrists. She did that on her own.”

“He’s an asshole on the meter. You’ll see if I take his shit much longer.” Louie frowned and stubbed out his cigarette. Louie had dreads that he tucked into his collar. In the spring, he taught composition in a T-shirt and one eventually saw that his torso was completely covered with Chinese dragons, stars, portraits of his family, words in Greek cursive, clouds, Fraktur lines from Rilke. Louie didn’t look like a graduate student. And I believed he had probably done some deeply perverse things in his short life. But killing somebody? Louie wrote poetry.

Shelly, the Wiccan priestess, would have been able to read my ham sandwich like a palm. She’d open up the bread, squint, and tell me all about how my ordering it stemmed from a long line of causes, magnetic thoughts, manifestations, astral translocations. “You don’t care about yourself,” she’d say. “Look at this ham. You have a death wish. There’s a shadow in your aura.” Then she’d adjust her polkadotted doo-rag and smile at me across the manicure table.

2. Midnight in Paris

Bad ham and ice-picks: you don’t look into a sandwich you’ve bought in a bar when having a life-changing nervous breakdown. And you don’t then ask creative writers to explain the realization to you—even if you are also a creative writer and already possess their unique lexicon of neurotic self-obsessions, vanities, and cynicisms—especially writers with MFAs, especially graduate students trying to get MFAs, especially Burt and Louie.

The shadow in my aura must have been embarassingly obvious. I had already made 2 mistakes in this sad life. Transfigured by a radical shift in consciousness brought on by low-quality pork and an acceptance of the transcendent metaphysical principle binding all things together, I violated the Sandwich Rule and the Don’t Ask Creative Writers Anything Important Rule almost simultaneously. I said: “I think I’m to blame for every single bad thing in my life. What do you think about that? It’s called the Law of Attraction.” Burt probably already believed this about himself due to what he often referred to as his “destructive Jewish upbringing.” But making it overt and tangible, dragging it into the light of immediate consciousness, had crossed into his and Louie’s sense of the forbidden in a very bad way.

Burt flashed me a sideways look and then spoke into his beer. “You’ve been hanging out with that new age girl at the nail place, right?”

“Shelly has nothing to do with this,” I lied. “This is straight metaphysics.”

“What if the Wiccans have the answer?” said Louie. “What if gods and goddesses live in trees and the garden gnome on my front lawn has feelings?”

“I’m a non-practicing Catholic,” I said. “You’re pretty intolerant for someone with dreadlocks.”

“Yep. And I’m a vegetarian. And I will now take a leak.”

Louie got up and made for the restroom. When he was out of earshot, Burt put his hand on my arm and said, “Mike, I really do think you need to get some help before things get worse.”

“I need to go home and write,” I lied.

Angry dread. Burt looked at me as if I’d said I planned to find him later and cut his throat. When did writing fiction become so terrifying? Burt couldn’t write anymore and neither could I. Two years of MFA vitriol had stopped most of us in the program from doing anything but recycling old work. And drugs, both legal and otherwise, were how most of us got through. Only Louie seemed to be going strong, publishing poems and stories on a regular basis.

“Don’t push it,” Burt said. “Remember the hotline.”

I said I’d keep it in mind as if the idea were ridiculous, even though, to be honest, I’d had certain thoughts of my own lately, certain pleasing fantasies of self-destruction, bombs going off, being instantly vaporized in an electrical field, o.d.ing on something gentle and mothersweet, gas leaks, getting struck by an errant cement mixer—one minute my old wretched self, the next free and clear forever.

Everyone in my graduate program was having these thoughts; though most would only admit it while in the depths of a drunk in the wee hours on someone else’s sofa or to the person with whom they were was sleeping, who’d then spread the knowledge of it around as much as possible after the inevitable breakup. Such was graduate school. Most of it originated in the almost universal belief that there were no academic jobs forthcoming after graduation; in the prospect of being broke forever; and in a fat position as a UPS driver if you were lucky. Maybe I’d only just begun to have these thoughts now, at the end of my program, because I’d had other jobs before graduate school and wasn’t afraid of UPS heaven. I wasn’t delicate. I could rake coals in hell if I had to. What scared me was the feeling that raking coals in hell was something I wanted on some level in order to prove I was different from my fragile, neurotic colleagues.  Maybe.

Louie came back and we walked out front. I said good-bye and we went in separate directions. Half a block away, I looked back at Burt. He was hugging himself in the street light, staring at the snow. I’d been so immersed in my thoughts that all I’d wanted was not letting Burt intrude. He’d been saying something to us earlier about an editing job, but I hadn’t cared to listen. A few blocks later, I threw the sandwich into a snow bank. In May, it would emerge, a thawed and monstrous ham-thing in the sun. And Burt would likely emerge the same way a few days hence, expecting me to know all about what he’d been saying, expecting me to be ready for something, and wounded when I had no idea what he was talking about.

Then again, I thought about all the metaphysical discussions I’d had with Priestess Shelly those nights I’d visited her at Christine’s, maintaining rigid and neigh-flawless eye discipline when she’d lean toward me over her coffee and say something extra deep about the goddess. I wondered if I would forget to think of Burt and therefore temporarily negate his existence. Or the sandwich—blinking straight out of creation when the only mind holding its manifestation ceased to be mindful. Lord knows, I wouldn’t forget Shelly. I beat the cold out of my hands and sighed.

Midnight in Missoula with too much snow, sudden and unkind on the head of the nocturnal graduate student outside his natural habitat. Somber and half-blind from flurries, he makes his way slowly toward the safety of his hole, where he can curl up beside his ancient space heater until morning. He is an odd, fitful creature. And perhaps, we can sympathize with the rare quality of his suffering, bumped up the academic chain of being like some proto-sloth in need of mutation—not quite ready for the tree branch, but not quite capable of slumming it any longer with the other sloths back in California who’d gone straight from high school to Marines to sales. Now they all owned Escalades. And our sad friend slishing his way home has had trouble with the bus—his ability to teach a wicked freshman comp class and his grasp of ageless metaphysical wisdom notwithstanding.

While I walked, I considered my power to unthink Burt, the tragedy of the short-necked giraffe, and all the good things Hemingway said about being broke and hungry in Paris. As long as one didn’t indulge in too much natural selection with an extension cord out the window of one’s attic room, one might actually come to think of Missoula as the Paris of the northwest. Life was beautiful. These were the best of times.

3. Hair & Nails: the Clergy Holds Forth

“I need to make a confession,” I said to her.

“The Goddess don’t care about confessing.”

“Yeah, but I’m a former Catholic.”

“What about all that ‘I want to be a Wiccan stuff?’ The Goddess don’t care about Catholics.”

“I think of myself as a post-Catholic pre-Wiccan.”

“No such thing.”

“Yes such thing. You said it yourself: the Goddess doesn’t care. So the field’s wide open.”

“I never heard of a post-Catholic Wiccan.”

“Well, I’d like some tolerance, please.”

4. An Occurrence at Higgins Street Bridge

In the second year of our MFA, everyone started to write their own eulogies.  We did it reflexively.  Because I didn’t own a car, I did it while walking across town.  Despair kept me warm.

Snowflakes as thick as feathers, falling the way feathers fall, thick bright globes of them around headlights.  They came down in silent brocades over the yellow window panes of houses, black branches shadow-to-shadow across the light.  The hiss of passing cars faded up Higgins Street and over the iron bridge that was slick black during the day, the sides of its enormous bolts brushed with orange rust.  At night, Higgins Street Bridge was little more than an isthmus of ice over darkness, translucent stalactites fanged from its hanger cables.  Below it, the Clark had turned a solid murky green and held deformed bicycles and grocery carts, driftwood, bags of trash.  During the day, you could see the spokes and edges sticking up from the ice or slightly below the surface, all frozen in stasis until the spring.

I stopped halfway across.  My heart began beating fast and wouldn’t stop.  I tried breathing deeply.  Melatonin, whiskey, Valerian root for ease-downs in the middle of the day—none of it was working the way it used to.  My hands shook almost all the time now.  I couldn’t hold them flat in the air without my whole body vibrating.  And I’d begun to stutter at times, missing the right word, struggling to find it in the middle of a conversation.  There were moments of extreme paranoia.  I wasn’t sleeping.  Instead of writing, I read obsessively about nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, depression, chronic insomnia.  I fit all the criteria.  It was possible that I was either bipolar with multiple personalities and recurring psychotic breaks or I was just stressed out.  Spending time with Burt and Louie didn’t help.

Burt and Louie had been thinking bad. So had I. And the Universal Law of Attraction had brought it to me without exception, relief, exit, or temporary refuge. I realized I was responsible for the deficiencies of my sandwiches. And I took such responsibility with a deep and terrible gravity that made me feel horrible about myself. I was responsible for the snow that had seeped into my shoes and wet my socks, for Burt and Louie, for stinking Amvets, for the semester left of my stinking MFA, for my perpetual lusts that went perpetually unsatisfied, for my mediocre thesis, for my general inability to write and for the particular exceptions when I did. The Universal Law of Attraction. I was even responsible for that. Or, at least, for my present understanding of it, which amounted to the same thing as far as I was concerned.

Not doing yourself in was key. The city and the greater Bitterroot Valley area now had a suicide hotline staffed around the clock. Many of them were MFAs trying to make enough money to supplement their miniature teaching stipends, and it was a job that allowed one to read books while on duty. Perfect. A few months after Theresa Miles drank too much one night and cut her wrists in her bathtub, Burt passed out business cards with Don’t Do Something You’ll Regret on one side, and the hotline number on the other. His way of dealing.

While she was in the hospital, open sarcasm became unfashionable for a time. But as soon as everyone heard she hadn’t died, the snide jokes began. The whole thing seemed to please her fellow poetry students the most. She’d come from an ivy background, was highly talented, already published, and attractive—a recipe for instant resentment if ever there was one. Burt might have had a shrine to Theresa Miles in his basement. I didn’t really want to know. But, of course, I reminded myself, if I did someday go in there and see her picture on a saffron-shrouded altar strewn with garlands and incense, I would have been the one who’d manifested that into my own experience. Along with the basement. Along with Theresa—and Burt.

5. The Theological Discourse Continueth, Selah

“The Catholics are the ones who burned witches at the stake.”

“Nope. Those were the Calvinists. Name one witch-burning Catholic. The Pope wouldn’t burn a witch.”

“How do you know? Have you seen him? Have you actually looked at the Pope? He scares the living shit out of me.”

“He’s got a lot on his plate.”

“People said that about George W. Bush, if you remember. People said, ‘Bush is kind of stupid,’ and then somebody would be, like, ‘Yeah, but he’s got a lot on his plate.’ Still fucked up the country though, didn’t he.”

“Bad comparison. The Pope is goddamn smart. He speaks about 10 languages.”

“If all I had to do was bless gold crosses and ride around in the Vatican all day, I’d know ten languages, too.”

“Shelly, I need to make a confession.”

“I have my doubts about you. You eat too much red meat. And you’re a fucking Catholic.”

“Maybe so, but you’re a priestess, and I’m in need of the clergy.”

“Bitch please.”

6. Brokeback Burton

I stood on the bridge so long, that Burt left Amvets to find me.

“Shit,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I think I need some air.”

I hadn’t seen him walk up to me through the snow.  “Jesus fucking Christ,” I said.  I must have seemed feverish at that point. I might have spoken too forcefully. “I’m the constant. Everything else is the variable, Burt. If I’ve got a problem, it’s me. But don’t go fucking sneaking up on me.”

Amvets_Missoula

Burt had brought me another poison sandwich from the bar.  He handed it to me wrapped in a greasy piece of cellophane.  Then he took out his inhaler, but there was nothing left in it. “I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I can’t breathe.” He did the calming exercise he’d learned in therapy, his palms pressed against his chest.

I took a bite of the sandwich, immediately regretting it but reminding myself that there was no use for regret when everything in life, positive, negative, animal, vegetable, mineral, had, according to universal law, been drawn to me by my wanting it nor not wanting it on some level. This was the teaching of my foil and muse: 23-year-old Wiccan priestess Shelly Montgomery, anthropology major and part-time beautician at Christine’s Hair and Nails. And this could be the story of a certain kind of wanting. Me of her. Her of an unnamed female deity. And of the big, whirling empty we’d all unearthed at the center of MFA wasteland. Such was my curious state, one in which I would become mewed up in these wants—living a nocturnal existence for 2 years in Missoula, Montana, Big Sky Country, where the sky would come to seem entirely too big, wholly my creation, hostile, and unwilling to let me go.

“I’m allergic to this place,” said Burt.

To the place, I wanted to say, or to the thought that perhaps the universe was not, after all, conspiring to bury us under a pile of misery; that perhaps Burt was the sole origin of his own angst, his own impending unemployability after grad. school, his own inability to hold a conversation with a member of the opposite sex even though he was almost 34 and neither an amputee nor diseased. I wanted to shake him like the child you suddenly hate for being sickly, hating yourself at the same time for being so small. I wanted to tell him that if he was allergic, he was to blame. But I just stared at his gasping and swallowing while I took bites of chemical sandwich. The snow came down around us as walked back to Amvets.

Warmth and a Pabst can fix anything.  After a few minutes of silence and worried looks from the mute bartender across the room, Burt’s calming breaths began to help. He could suddenly breathe without wheezing, mucus draining, anaphylaxis creeping back into the oracular murk of his extremely thin, pale body. He hawked into a napkin and gave me a weak smile.

“Maybe I should leave Montana,” I said. “I’m not learning anything. I’m not doing anything of value whatsoever. And it is my fault. I’m responsible.”

Burt shook his head, coughed. “We’ve got one semester to go. Don’t be in such a hurry to get back into retail.”

But I had no real intention of working some shit job after my MFA, which was precisely what Burt couldn’t understand. After 30 minutes of listening to Patsy Cline on the sound system, we walked back out so Burt could breathe air that didn’t smell like cigarettes and old beer. It was a cold night, snow in the streets, Christmas break in a week.

I’d brought the sandwich with me, which was absurd—the sandwich itself, of course, but standing there, gesturing with it more so. And I didn’t notice because I felt I had realigned my perceptions, had come stumbling painfully, maybe even mistakenly, into what might have been a perfect understanding of this impossible life. I was wrong. But, at the time, I began to feel like I might be a genius.

Burt hugged himself, shin-deep in  snow. “We should go somewhere else, get drunk.”

By “somewhere else,” he meant we should go to Missoula’s other gay bar, Lilac. When Amvets wasn’t a gay bar, it was empty or, very occasionally, filled with tuque-wearing, geriatric vets still so pissed off at society for permitting WWII and Vietnam that they’d trot out the Gadsden flag, the rainbow flag, the old Soviet flag, the FARC flag of Subcomandante Marcos and red posters of Che and Mao in response to any public event whatsoever. In their anger, they were one of the few tolerant groups in town, despising everyone equally.

As far as I knew, none of them were gay. And as far as I knew, neither Burt nor I was gay. But gay was okay at Amvets and Lilac, where cowboys, bat-wielding fundamentalists, angry Flathead Indians down from the rez, Klansmen, and hormonal fraternity brothers generally feared to tread—the only bars where Burt wouldn’t immediately have anxiety-fueled bouts of anaphylaxis urticaria with hypotension and bronchospasms.

“I think I want to go home,” I said, envisioning electron magnets and asteroid fields, weird gravitational anomalies pulling all the space junk of creation to me with every manifesting thought. The snow pressed beneath my shoes contained worlds within worlds, blindly drawn to me by my wanting, on some level, for them to exist. I had to guard my mind.

Ethically, I felt responsible for controlling all possible manifestations of thought in order to prevent, say, an Astraeus 757 from falling out of the sky and atomizing downtown, epidemics of flesh-eating bacilli, fiery mushroom clouds, all the awful things regularly in my head. These thoughts terrified me because they seemed so much more likely now that I understood how the Universal Law of Attraction made me universally accountable.

I looked at Burt, who was clearly disappointed that we wouldn’t be sitting in the corner of Lilac for 2 more hours, bitching about our graduate program and drinking whiskey. I wanted to apologize for manifesting him in my reality as such a morose, narcissistic fuck. But then who was worse? I was the one seriously considering that I could make planes fall from the sky with my thoughts.

7. The Reports of My Death have been Appropriately Exaggerated

Why in the world would I manifest all that when all I really wanted to manifest was employment, sun, and a Wiccan priestess to share it with? I had a headache (for which I knew I was responsible) that would probably last the whole long, cold walk back to my room above the garage.

For people like Burt and me, there might not have been a lonelier place in the world than Missoula in winter—his family mostly dead except for a distant uncle and a maternal grandmother he never saw, and mine mostly away in California with no money to go see them and an awkward call every couple weeks. If everyone must pass through a period of estrangement from the light, life, and love of childhood, my graduate degree had become the far promontory of that experience for me—an estrangement into ice and the persistent sense of being involved with a group of people focused solely on fear of the future and distrust of the present.

A few days before I left Burt in front of Amvets, the director of my thesis, who I will call Jason, told me that the best thing about my stories were that he’d been able to get through them quickly.

“I know you want this life, Davis,” he’d said, my story manuscripts in a pile on the floor by his desk, “but you’re not gonna get it.”

Wanting. Not wanting. Jason’s knowing smile.

He’d been harder on Burt, whose chain smoking, drinking, and oxytocin use increased exponentially after Jason threw his thesis down the hallway. Apparently, Burt had argued with him about the validity of magical realism, feeling brave because he’d just published a story in which a man became a cloud. Now Burt was becoming a cloud, dissipating, layer-by-layer, into progressively more vaporous forms.

I, too, began a descent of sorts, a series of self-transformations dedicated to the possibility that moving back to California and getting a service job—which, according to Jason, made sense, given my level of writing talent—was not my only option.

I became adversarial in everything I did. I joined a boxing gym for a few months and convinced everyone there that I had severe emotional problems when I’d stay late 3 times a week to hit the heavy bag like I was trying to kill it. No one wanted to train with me after I accidentally broke my partner’s ribs and put him in St. Patrick’s for a week. When I finally blew my left rotator cuff, I couldn’t lift my arm for a while and I didn’t bother going back. I was looking for answers, to what I wasn’t sure—to the meaning of life, to the key to my predicament.

My self-eulogizing grew progressively melodramatic and resentful.  I stood outside in lightning storms and took fifteen-hour walks through heavy snowfalls in which I could barely see, the sound of my breath in my ears. I tried Buddhism for a few days. I tried going back to the Catholicism I’d abandoned as a kid and wound up writing angry letters to Sister Carmel, my second grade teacher. I got a lot of mileage from Aurelius’ Meditations, Boethius, Nietzsche, and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, but there weren’t any true answers—only fragments of answers, entertaining ideas, temporary escapes.

By the time Burt, in our late night Amvets bitch sessions, got around to talking about “the sheer meaningless shit of life,” I’d usually had enough liquor to start agreeing with him. It was as if by convincing me, he could convince himself. And, by convincing himself, he could finally abandon all hope, which was freeing.

But you don’t get free for long by abandoning all hope. Something brings you back. And you don’t get free from Wiccan fu or the Universal Law of Attraction, despite how much or how little of it you might have felt for a certain anthropology student who knew magic and manicures. She’d said she wanted to paint my nails purple.  Ah, purple nails.  What might have happened had I gone along with that?