Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters
Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters
First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks
I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission. Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present. So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures. Because what else can I do? While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies. I imagine this blog post will do more of that.
Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted. I ruminate. I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes. Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more. Sometimes, it works. Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life. In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring. Usually, it brings another twist.
With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life. This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide. It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility. It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece. And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning. It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth. In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.
“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop. “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible. Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this. I saw this. This happened. At least, I think it happened.” Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:
Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.
This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods. Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing. But I am not so talented. And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day.
Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person. I have faith that I’m not even tactless. I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead. I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player. But I love chess. And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.
Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:
I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power. It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.
If we read this carefully, we have to smile. Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity.
Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch. As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”). It’s not about an objective truth process. It’s about rhetorical ethos.
That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode. After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains. In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos. And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch.
2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world. There are many years I’d relive if I could. 2010 is not one of them. But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration. As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.
You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice. For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.
The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers. She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally. Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class. But she needed me there. Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.
This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out. This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers. Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first. Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter. Classic medieval siege tactics.
However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud. I was half-blind with grief. All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her. Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence. But I was very responsible. I took everything seriously. I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction. And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail. I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life. I shouldn’t have been that sincere.
Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building. The conversation went something like this:
“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”
She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head. “No can do. You only have so much funding. Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”
“My mother is dying. She doesn’t have long. I’ve completed my course work. My dissertation only needs to be approved. I don’t even need any more credits.”
Another sigh. More contemplating the clouds. “Well, that’s really too bad. You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone. Good luck.”
I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.
The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time. Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes. Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.
The Tragedy of Not Dying
A hospice is a horrible place. It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound. You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly. It’s cherry. It’s got a smiley face. Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience. In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine. I was feeling bad for my mother. He was feeling bad for himself.
This was still 2009. My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar. The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university. I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask. And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once. I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present. This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.
In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other. Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things. I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation. And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left). He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck. To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother. But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.
So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality. After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom. He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body. As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.
I witnessed this. My wife witnessed this. But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak. Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room. Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk? Until you have, you won’t know the feeling. When you have, you’ll never forget it. It transcends description.
I focused completely on my mom. I waited for her moments of clarity. I told her I loved her. I told her the good things about my PhD program. I made jokes and she tried to laugh. One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife. She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face. Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.
It was a very difficult time. Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program. In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back. She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her. I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had. And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing. She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind. So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not. About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her. I told her I loved her. And I think she died shortly thereafter.
I miss her every day. But this isn’t about that, either. It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death. Some people are the linchpins of their families. When they go, everything goes. That was what happened. I flew back again for her funeral. She was buried holding a photo of my father and me. It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces. I was out of my mind.
As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person. I’d lost my happy thoughts. I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor. I stopped writing fiction. Most of what I did was perfunctory. But I knew I had to get my degree. Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.
The Reading Series
The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.” And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles.
Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me. But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.
One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement. Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.” The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male. The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage. The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member. These were some of the more endearing ones.
Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals. They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition. Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent. They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts. You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces. Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine. It wouldn’t get much better than that.
I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them. Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad. They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of. Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time. I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing. The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.
There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department. 2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.
The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester. My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang. I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line. He was panting hard. I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls. The caller ID came up with nothing.
When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up. I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition. Then he called back. It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series. He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help. He was drunk off his ass.
I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me. F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her. Neither of them were ever going to get over it. Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife. You don’t do that to a Navajo princess. Didn’t I fucking know that? What was wrong with my head?
“Princess? Really? I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”
He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd. Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network. Amazing. He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself.
Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript. I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.
The End, My Friend
Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness. But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude. Today, you’re not feeling good. Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed. The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration. Feeling alone is a big part of it.
I felt alone until I discovered Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through. I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else. While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.
Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on. I didn’t talk about my feelings. I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones. But I could read someone else talking about his. And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him. If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it. And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.
By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation. I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust. My father wouldn’t go near the place. When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways. Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom.
He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic. But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.
He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest. Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story. Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other. Lovely. I didn’t want to hear about it. I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man. I could hardly speak. It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me.
“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking. I don’t remember if he answered.
Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family. Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days. Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept. But we only had so much time. Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump. But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.
I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time. She couldn’t lie down straight in bed. So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning. According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently. She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her. That’s abuse. It’s horrible fucking abuse. And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.
My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof. It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined. I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me. It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the TV service that my mom had in her hospice room. I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy. He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”
I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast. I thought of her art destroyed through neglect. I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me. I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio. I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing.
I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me. My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger. We had it out. He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house. Within 48 hours, we were. I’ve never looked back.
Gone for Good
I got my PhD without fanfare. My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us. I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband. I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends. But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.
In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot. I still get depressed. But I can cope. I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia. And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter. It’s who you choose when you do.
I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day. As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written. I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries. I’m healthy. I really don’t have anything to complain about right now. And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy. Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.
I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*
I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.
Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.
Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.
So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.
The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.
Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.
To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.
However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.
Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.
She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.
The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.
It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.
* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).
** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.
I sat down today intending to write a piece critical of certain shrill MFA voices that seem to have gotten shriller since MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction hit the shelves last February. Is “shriller” actually a word? It is. But it only takes meaning as a comparative adjective once something that was brittle, high-pitched, piercing, and so exaggerated as to be deeply annoying gets intensified beyond the bounds of reason and tolerance.
In fact, this was going to be one of those, “I think yon highly privileged (shrill) MFA Child Of The Universe doth protest too much, Horatio” posts. In it, I would have been sure to impart a sense of having been there and done that, taking care to insinuate that I was a hard bitten veteran of the academic creative writing hustle. I might have added a touch of weary exasperation that the culture of many workshop-based programs is about everything but the work. And I might have tried for a some kind of brief reversal three-fourths of the way through so that I could have ended on a slightly hopeful note.
But come on. I’ve done all that. I’ve argued both sides: that MFA writing programs are excellent ways to focus on learning craft for two to three years without the distractions that would otherwise apply. I’ve also argued that the bloated culture of privilege and cynical, thinly veiled mediocrity in many of these programs short-changes students from the beginning. I still believe all of this. I also believe that if you go into it with open eyes, intending to use the program as a tool to facilitate your development as an artist, you will not regret your decision. If you go in and expect a big hug and Wonder Boys, your life will come to resemble a Muddy Waters song.
I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, on MFA programs—why I think we should still believe in them and the ways I think they utterly fail everyone involved. And by “everyone,” I actually mean anyone interested in the mission of creative writing, which I guess means everyone. The Big Everyone—like you, me, the kid on the big wheel down the block, President Obama, and Ray Kurzweil. Everyone. Because, in my opinion, the mission of art school is nothing less than cultural transformation. It’s founded on the assumption that the arts can and should have a place in society.
So I don’t know. Maybe I should recognize a certain degree of irony implicit in any post I write about gifted, neurotic, highly privileged 20-somethings in creative writing programs. I was one. In many ways, I still am. I feel at home with that crowd. And as a freelance writer and fiction instructor for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’m still connected to the academic MFA world. I guess the question is whether there is anything new to be said about it. The perspectives in MFA vs. NYC have not been very surprising or insightful. It seems like the same old array of objections and justifications we’ve been hearing for years. Now they’ve been collected in a book instead of appearing in The Atlantic or on websites.
Maybe an even better question is whether anyone sees MFAs clearly at all. What if I point out that there is a perceptual “distortion field” around MFA programs which encourages students to believe themselves at the center of the universe? What if I argue that, because of this world-view, many MFA students also believe that the universe is in a state of perpetual collapse—because its center has been revealed to contain semen, bent paper clips, and cotton candy instead of the fire of the gods? And what if I describe the almost universal malaise that seems to descend on these young lords and ladies of creation around the time they’re halfway through their programs? A certain melancholy made from dwelling on the absurdly large student loans they took out in order to be “student writers” and how this seems like a perverse existential joke considering their post-program job prospects?
Oh, don’t be sad. There’s enough cotton candy for everyone.
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.
* Note: this was written a few years ago, but I never submitted it to magazines. ~ M
My enormous, perfumed, fedora-wearing friend, Walter Kaminski, sits across the table from me outside a Starbucks in San Diego and tells me there is no god. I look at him like he’s crazy and he smiles as if nothing could be more predictable. In a way, he is probably right. We are both predictable. He sits there, heavily cologned, with his absurd hat and about 20 more pounds since the last time I saw him, looking as contemptuous and amused as ever. And then there’s me: unemployed, disenrolled, and back home with my folks at age 31. Somewhere, it is probably written that things should be this way. Walter smiles and sips his coffee. He is happy. Happy and content in the fact that he has a job and there is no god. He reminds me of Maitreya Buddha, the laughing Buddha, found on Chinese restaurant counters everywhere as a fancy donation box that one feeds a quarter for luck and wisdom.
“I can prove that shit,” he says.
I nod. I believe he can.
This happens on a weekday in the summer of 2005. A month earlier, I’d arrived back at the house in which I’d spent the first 18 years of my life, back home from the University of Missouri, with no PhD, no means of gainful employment, and my few worldly possessions packed into a small-sized U-Haul that lost its brakes in New Mexico and blew its front left tire in Arizona. And so I could care less about Walter’s atheist hypotheticals. What I need is a job. A job from good Walter, who, in our undergraduate creative writing workshops at SDSU used to furtively raise his hand when the instructor asked how many poets there were in the room.
I think of this while I look at him. He used to have long hair. Now he wears a fedora. Instead of transferring to UC Irvine and then going to graduate school like me, Walter has built a fine career for himself in information technology management with the Target Corporation. I must ask him for a job because I now have less than $100 left in my account and no direction—because, as I walked my bike out the front door this morning, like I did when I was in high school, my mom pushed a folded $20 into my shirt pocket. “In case you want a cup of coffee or something,” she said. I took the money, but I couldn’t look at her. And pure shame fueled my pedaling for the hour it took me to bike across San Diego to the Starbucks near Walter’s office.
“It’s like this.” He sets his grande latte down, smiling at it and turning it carefully on the table as if we’re in some kind of variant tea ceremony involving humiliation and loss of faith. “If everyone can make their own reality, if it’s all just subjective and relative, you could go jump out in front of a bus and believe there’s no bus, and there would be no bus.”
“When did you become a philosopher?”
He drops his smile and I ask myself how arguing with him is helping my job search.
“Of course, I can see where you might have a point,” I add.
“It’s the spiritual dimension. This world is the bus. God is believing there’s no bus. But you still get hit by the bus.” Walter looks at me, wanting a reaction, his eyes narrower than they were a moment ago.
So I nod.
We were friends in grade school, then in high school, then as freshmen at San Diego State University. But he never forgave me for transferring to a better school and then going after a masters degree in fiction writing. I never forgave him for not at least trying to be a grownup poet.
“How’s work?” I ask.
“Work’s work,” he says, pushing back his fedora in the way of an old movie detective. “50k a year ain’t much, but it pays the rent.”
You fucking fool, I want to tell him, and you don’t believe in god.
Actually, I don’t believe in god, either. I believe in Carl Sagan, which is to say, I believe that if one wants to make an apple pie, one must first create the universe. In fact, I have been trained to create universe after universe. My MFA in fiction writing didn’t give me permission to do that, but it did show me how others have done it, over and over in various literary traditions, while I wrote bad fiction that slowly got better.
The degree was time to think, to write, to worry a little less about the practical exigencies of life. Such was my training—not unlike the spiritual instruction a good friend of mine underwent in India. After giving away everything she owned and moving to Hyderabad, she found a guru, who told her to carry handfuls of dirt from one empty room to another all day long for a month. A few days into the program, she went to him in great frustration and said, “I’m miserable and I can’t help but feel that I was a lot happier in my old life back in the States.” “First lesson learned,” said the guru. Getting a MFA in creative writing was very much like that, only the “handfuls of dirt” are the misconceptions one has about being a writer. And the “life back in the States” is the love of writing one had before entering graduate school and being saturated by style and craft—a love to which I believe one must return in order to be a real artist.
The story Walter really wants to hear is what happened after the MFA, when I went on for a PhD, when the universe I’d created began to collapse. Sitting across from him outside Starbucks in the middle of San Diego, I feel that he is, in fact, as full of shit as ever. I would like to tell him that a bus may be a bus, but it may exist, just the same, in a world I create along with apple pies and fedora hats. And then a bus may be whatever I want it to be. I would like to say that I believe in unseen forces like inspiration and heightened states of consciousness and lust and honor and art and even love, and that I believe all these things might just approximate god, bus notwithstanding. And listening to the half-baked philosophy of my former friend, who I must now entreat for a lousy data entry position, I am clearly, painfully aware that I also believe in disgrace. And this is my profession of faith.
On some level, Walter knows all this. And that might be the saddest thing of all: he knows about his position and mine. He knows about art and writing. And I know that deep in an inner un-fedoraed hole of his being, Walter still believes that something exists beyond all his neat, flaming little shit—beyond data network and Starbucks and being comfortable with not trying. But here we sit: him enjoying every moment of our very American ritual of thirtysomething comeuppance while I suffer. Soon, we both know I’ll get around to the big question: are you going hook me up with a job or not, fucker,
for old times’ sake
for five creative writing workshops
for two attempts at dating my girlfriend when I wasn’t looking
and for an abundance of resentment, a multitude of beers—all of it being nevertheless okay up to the point at which I got serious about being a writer and left town. And even after that because we might, we just might, want to let these petty resentments go. So I ask, directly, with as much dignity as I can, and Walter shrugs.
“I think we can work something out for you in one of our stores,” he says. “I don’t know about data entry, though. Retail’s what I’m thinking. Weren’t you trying to get a masters or something?”
“I got that. Then I went on for my PhD.”
“Oh, right. Are you, like, Doctor Davis now? Is the doctor in?”
I understand that there might be a time and a place where this could be funny or, at least, cute. But I’m still hearing the word, retail.
“No,” I say and look straight at him. “I dropped out.”
“How come?” He wants to know mostly because he’s envisioned this scenario for a long, long time and he wants to enjoy it as much as possible. I should get on my ancient Schwinn and pedal away, but the kindness in my mother’s face comes back to me, and I don’t move. Instead, I begin to tell Walter the story of my return.
In May of 2003, I had created the universe, and my apple pie was baking nicely. Or so I thought in the deep pie days of an almost-finished MFA at the University of Montana. Missoula was glorious. I liked the snow. I liked the crazy cowboys fighting in the bars and the bikers and that lesbian separatists would come into town to pick fights with men after bar time. There was violence in Montana, but also great kindness in the way that violence and kindness often come together and feed off of each other. The university was only one small part of the experience, which included mountains right behind the campus, deer in the streets, and a sense of enough time to work and do the things one wanted to do while crazy things were taking place one block over.
Of course, there was also enormous talent in the writing program. I geared up for workshops as if I were about to be put to the question. In those fiction classes, the graduate students mixed equal parts of brilliance and hostility in an unheated narrow room beneath a picture of Richard Hugo holding a beer. It was the traditional Zen-Inquisition method of the Iowa Writers Workshop with an extra gladiatorial aesthetic. A friend of mine would read the Hagakure on days he was critiqued. I would listen to Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion Address”—as a joke at first but eventually paying attention to his voice, how he kept it steady. If one man could face down an entire country, I could handle a room of 12 people. It was never boring and the workshops made me capable of shrugging off the worst and best things said about my work. I wrote a lot of lousy stories, a few good ones, and I published some of both. I edited the literary journal. I drank and had more varied and interesting friends than I ever would again. I looked at the universe I’d created and saw that it was good.
Then we gave our final readings and submitted our theses. And things began to change. Those with trust funds went on one last ski trip together in Vail. The rest of us went to AWP, the world’s foremost book fair and trade convention for publishers and writers, which seemed then (and continues to seem) more like a human spawning pool. AWP was the first real sense I’d get that this flawless bubble world I’d created for myself might someday vanish, that art was not the great equalizer in which the privileged and the determined, the wealthy and the impoverished could come together in some kind of sincere community, and that after the end of the current academic term, I was just about fucked.
That year, AWP was held in Chicago. One must travel 1574.11 miles to get there from Missoula. Five of us covered the distance in one day of continuous driving in a brown 1962 Thunderbird Roadster with bald tires and ruined alignment. The car slid most of the way. Gas cost us about $160, which I remember because an hour into the trip, Jim, the owner of the car, told us he thought there might be a hole in the fuel line and so it would probably cost us “a little bit more” to get out to Illinois. The fact that we made the roundtrip just fine with each of us only having to pay for one tank of gas still amazes me.
We were all cautiously friendly with each other on the way out, but, as soon as we arrived at the hotel, it was over. A certain suspiciousness descended, casting all the feverish glad-handing and deal-cutting of the place in the worst possible light. Us became me, and me was just shorthand for what I’m not getting (employment, a break), for time to reevaluate my life choices (military? vocational training?), for what have I done? And the five of us failed the way one can only fail at AWP.
Mei, who often introduced herself by noting that she left med school to get a MFA, went to every possible event and lecture with a voice recorder and a spiral notebook. Esther, a sweet middle-aged mother of two, who’d beaten cancer and decided that a decade working for Wells Fargo was quite enough, spent her time in the hotel bar, striking up conversations with drunk writers. Bob, who already had three books of poems and said he planned to join the Peace Corps because art was dead, got depressed by the scene and left to explore the city. Jim introduced himself to every publisher present and handed out business cards until he was so exhausted that he had to take a nap in a folding chair.
I tried to do a little bit of everything but, mostly, I drifted through the crowd of writers and publishing industry people, looking at their faces. My people, I told myself, though I couldn’t believe it. Feverish. Desperate. Anxious. Aggressive. Aggressively cheerful. Starving. Put several hundred writers in two big rooms—over half of whom are out of work and in survival mode—and the energy generated can warp the space-time continuum. One begins to hallucinate. One begins to smell others—the fear, the wild estrus of migratory poets outside their natural habitat. One begins to ask hideous, existential, bridge-jumping questions: Why did I do this? What have I really accomplished? What does that magazine publication actually mean and do more than 10 people actually read it?
After my own exhaustion set in and to save money, I bought a cheap bottle of vodka a block from the hotel and went back to the room, intending to spend my first evening drinking and watching Chicago television. But Mei had beaten me to it. She was sitting in the middle of the bed, hugging a pillow. The Weather Channel was on T.V. She’d taken off her black-rimmed glasses and put on her faded CAL sweatshirt. I didn’t know Mei that well, but I had a feeling that exchanging glasses for faded undergraduate sweatshirt and pillow was a personal meteorology that foretold precipitation. The bottle of booze and a forced smile were my own: Creative Writing Industry Conference Job Search Rictus of Disillusionment, Mark I.
“I saw David Foster Wallace,” she said to footage of a twister going through Kansas.
“Yeah? How’d he look?”
I took a swig from the bottle and handed it to her.
She drank. “I don’t know if it was him.”
Silence. The twister had flattened two towns. People were getting treated in an emergency tent.
“Who else did you see?”
“I don’t know anybody.”
She drank again and handed it back.
The weather news reporter said five surrounding communities had pooled their resources. People had left work to drive vans and trailers of supplies. Whole families had already received canned goods and able-bodied volunteers were working nonstop with the fire department to remove rubble.
“We’ve got two more days.” I made my rictus as cheerful as possible.
“Give me the bottle,” Mei said.
I got very drunk that night, passed out on the floor, and didn’t fully recover for the rest of our time there. After three days, no one had any interviews or made any meaningful connections. Jim, who mostly wrote creative non-fiction, was the only one of us who’d thought to make business cards. On the long drive back to Missoula, he admitted that he’d brought 150 of them, handed out 50, and 40 of those were handed right back or thrown out while he was still speaking. I will never forget the silence that ensued after he said that. It was night and we were somewhere just past Rapid City, South Dakota. The five of us stared at tiny pinpoint lights far off in the dark reaches of the Mount Rushmore State.
“Well, you’ve got ten of them out there working for you,” Esther said. At that moment, Esther was probably the best human being within three counties. I don’t know what happened to her after we went our separate ways, but I hope she’s happy.
Ten business cards, I thought. Ten miniature, cardboard apostles doing Jim’s good work out in the writing world. They were very simple: Jim’s full name, then Writer and his cell and email in a nice tasteful burgundy-on-cream script. I still have one of them, even though I haven’t heard from Jim in six years. The last time we spoke, he was driving to an Indian reservation to work as a librarian, English teacher, and carpenter. I can recall wishing him well and making plans to get together sometime. Jim had been a carpenter before graduate school, and I imagine it was the deciding factor in him getting the job.
“But you wrote a book or something out there, right?” Walter’s eyes track a middle-aged woman coming out of the Whole Foods next to Starbucks. She sits at the table beside ours, her plastic grocery bags on the ground in two lines as if the caravan has now parked at the oasis. Her small dog barks and shivers in her lap. The slice of watermelon she’s trying to scoop with a green Starbucks spoon is the same size as the dog.
“Oh, I accomplished things, Walter.”
“So it wasn’t a total loss then.”
“I never said it was a loss.”
Walter plays with his now-empty coffee cup and stares past it to the place where the goddess of information technology dispenses all palliatives and anodynes. Somewhere, in a more systematic, calmer reality—perhaps in the antiseptic stasis of Target Corporation’s IT hive mind—men do not flirt with chaos and return. There are clear boundaries between the known and the unknown, and the artists, priests, and lunatics who inch over the line are expelled from the society of the right-minded. But here we are, sitting on the prow of our very own Nellie with me implying that this also has been one of the dark places of the earth—not Conrad’s image of the Thames, not the story of where I went, where Walter could have gone but chose not to go—but the story of my return in itself.
This, the return that brings knowledge of dark places on the map, beyond the whited sepulchers of good sense and steady income, is what the first century Greeks called mysterion, divine mystery, that which can only be expressed at the intersection of metaphor and silence, through art or trance. Conrad writes that “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. . . . for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.” And thus the divine mystery of the writing life appears to me through Walter’s eyes: by getting a MFA, by pausing at the crossroads of metaphor and silence, I might just have returned, steeped in mysterion, from my personal kryptos—that which is hidden, dark, not easily understood. And, all of a sudden, I don’t feel quite so ashamed, and I don’t envy Walter so much.
He has been neglecting his mistress. And his reality has now forked suddenly away from questions of loss and gain, cost and benefit. Something in my story, something about Mei or Jim or the experience of AWP, hooks into what he remembers about being an undergraduate writing student and having to argue with the binaries that writers must confront when they take their work seriously: success-failure, fiction-nonfiction, poetry-prose, truth-representation. The truth in writing and the truth in not writing. The lie of not writing when you’re a writer. And the absolute, objective verifiable truth that there are no absolute, objective verifiable truths—or even true standards—in creative writing as an industry or a vocation.
There is only mysterion. Or runa, the Norse rune-word for it. I wear that rune on a leather cord under my shirt, the scrimshaw of it done by a Flathead Indian woman one afternoon at the Black Creek Lodge outside Missoula. She told me the piece of bone was cut from the horn of an Iberian bull killed in the Coliseum de La Coruña, but I suspect it was from a local ranch or wasn’t even from a bull, which nevertheless fits into the runa. As Walter fiddles with his coffee cup, trying to think of something to say, I feel the bone pendant through my shirt and think about the old Starbucks goddess that the company simplified and de-paganized into a more abstract, inoffensive logo when the Christian Coalition got offended by her breasts. Such Victorian Will to Blandness is what set Conrad’s characters fleeing onto ships, the undeniable resonance of the mysterion, of the kryptos, in the sound of the sea. I tell myself that I would have left the Starbucks logo nipples-out. As my ego reinflates, I keep deciding what my story means—that it does mean something—moment-by-moment, justifying it as much to myself as to Walter, who’s growing more uncomfortable by the minute.
“Arête,” I say. “All things brought to the highest level of excellence. That’s what it all meant.” And I just manage to keep a straight face while I say it, even though I know that part of me really believes in things like ancient Greek mystery words, runic mysticism, and the possibility of excellence in graduate school. I suppose I would have gone for the MFA even if my bright future in retail had been assured. I tell myself that it was not necessarily assured.
“Okay. Arête. So the PhD was all different and miserable then? That’s why you’re back?”
Nice, Walter. Recalibrate. Try to resurrect the shame.
“Yeah. There was no arête in Missouri.”
The dog in the woman’s lap wiggles loose and manages a bite of watermelon before she shrieks and swats him off. He travels about two feet to the side and then the collar yanks him back.
“Not your pooch?” asks Walter.
“Not your business,” says the woman.
“Oh. Wow. Okay.” He looks at me and raises his eyebrows, adjusts the fedora, spins his coffee cup on the table.
The dog breathes heavily and, when the woman stands, she puts her arm underneath his body in a puppy come-along. With great suffering difficulty, she hooks her five bags of groceries on one finger and makes her way into the parking lot.
“I’d offer to help,” I say, “but I don’t think she wants any.”
“Dog should piss on her. That’s what I’d do. Dog arête.”
I nod. “Dogête. Like karate. Way of the Dog Hand.” This is something we can both smile at, something outward, beyond both of our egos. For a moment, it feels like old times—back when we’d both had a sense of humor that didn’t default to meanness. Then the moment goes.
“So what’s your thesis about? Montana?”
I watch the woman put the groceries in her trunk with one hand, the dog locked to her chest with the other.
“A lot of things. It’s got a Montana story in it.”
“Yeah? Where can I buy a copy, or will you be giving me one?”
There’s a Barnes & Noble just past Whole Foods. My thesis is not in it because my thesis is not published.
“Soon,” I say. “Maybe this year. I’ve gotten some very encouraging responses from publishers.” Actually, rejections. Actually, form rejections. Form rejections on little pieces of Xeroxed paper with fuck off and please don’t send us your lousy writing ever again phrased in the most artful yet unambiguous publishing euphemisms. This is not what we’re looking for right now. Thank you for your submission to Lost Loaf, but we are currently experiencing a backlog of manuscripts. Dear author, please excuse us for passing on this one. Dear _______, Lagniappe Press wishes you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere. We have recycled your manuscript.
“Oh,” says Walter.
“But I’ve published in numerous small magazines.”
“What about you? Writing at all?” My voice sounds high-pitched. I clear my throat. Walter smiles: my shame resurrected. Suddenly, I am pathetic once again, a pitiable ground rodent shaking my angry little claws at the heavens.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says.
We sit in silence again, and I’m about to depart and go nurse my weasel ego as I imagine that little dog is nursing his—lick my fur, yowl plaintively at the cold, unforgiving hardness of life—when Water decides he really wants to know.
“So what happened in Missouri? What? Did you bang some professor’s wife?”
“Yes. That’s a given, Walter. That’s what happens in graduate school. Wife banging. And the odd sex party with your students. You’ve heard of freshman composition?”
He doesn’t get the humor. Alright, maybe I don’t get the humor, either. Because my time in Missouri was no joke. And there wasn’t much sex taking place in the English department at the University of Missouri—that is, normal sex, sex between mature adults that doesn’t result in emotional fallout with a half-life of years, that doesn’t ruin careers or potential careers. Beneficial sex might have been the solution. Moreover, I wish whoever is there right now, suffering through that misery, great golden fornications—and not as the receiving end of UM’s graduate program in English, which had its nasty way with 15 of us in the Fall of 2004.
When I arrived, I’d been lifting a lot of weights. I may have been in the best shape of my life thus far. Very little body fat. I did about 300 sit-ups a day, practiced yoga, and performed the Soo Bahk Do hyung I’d studied since age ten—a very hard Korean martial art designed primarily for breaking joints and killing people as efficiently as possible. My tolerance for alcohol was also extremely high in spite of my constant training. And it is safe to say that I’d developed a drinking problem in Montana—a thrice-weekly habit of blackout drunks, alone in my apartment, on cheap Canadian whiskey and the occasional 40oz of malt liquor.
I missed Missoula. I’d become irritable without friends or future, having applied to PhD programs right out of my MFA because, as much as I loved living in Montana, I didn’t have many other options. Steady jobs don’t often come to MFAs, at least not the steady jobs MFAs grow to want. So, when I moved into a two-story duplex on a grassy hill just outside Laughton, MO, I put a weight bench in the living room, unfolded my futon, and hooked up some speakers. I owned about 10 books, which included The Riverside Shakespeare, The Complete Stories of Isaac Babel, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, books I found solace in when depressed, which was often. When I wasn’t in class or teaching composition (something I deeply and openly enjoyed—a sentiment the other grad students and even a few of the English professors viewed with abject suspicion), I was working out or wrestling with the whiskey.
On more nights than I can count (or remember), I found myself sitting at the card table in my kitchen, listening to talk radio and drinking towards oblivion. Other than on booze, I spent very little money. My food budget was less than $10 a day and gas ran me about $20 every two months because I only ever drove two miles to campus, store, and home. And, in a very short time, everything in my life changed. I found that interpersonally, emotionally, I was becoming a different person. My social life was different. The amount of people with whom I had contact on a daily basis rapidly decreased to classroom, grocery check-out line, and graduate students. I found myself looking forward to brief exchanges in the market above all else—unencumbered moments that didn’t involve mentoring freshmen or an emotional exchange with upset graduate students that would stick with me for days afterward. When all else is dystopia, the grocery store will be the bolt hole of sanity.
The Laughton nightlife, of course, was different. In Missoula, before the bartender (who probably knew you in some other way outside the bar) asked you how your week had been, he’d pour out two shots for you and two for himself. These shots would be free and you’d immediately order more of the same because that would be exactly what you liked to drink. Missoula was comfortable. Every drinking establishment had a card table or three and even the worst places had old timers who’d come in around noon to sit at the bar and bullshit over a Pabst. Not in Laughton. My first few outings were dismal, reminding me more of the southern California beach bars I’d snuck into as a kid: a lot of similarly dressed people who’d arrived together and who’d leave together. In the meantime, they didn’t want to talk to you. Surrounded by them, you could be standing in a packed room yet feel utterly desolate. So I stopped trying to recreate Missoula and spent more nights at home.
I eventually quit drinking and it was agony. Night sweats. Insomnia. Overwhelming anxiety and a lust for sugar so powerful that I quickly gained 10 pounds. I fought back by becoming even more irritable, more obsessive about working out and drinking gallons of water. My writing stopped because I couldn’t focus. But, slowly, I was taking charge of the parts of my life that I understood, trading enjoyment for control. It wasn’t pleasant in any way, and I asked myself more than once what had possessed me to undertake a Puritan upgrade.
My Montana friends would call sometimes, often from a bar. They’d say Hey man, say hello to Bill. You remember Bill? The guy with the white hat? He’s a funny motherfucker! as if I’d been away for years. What are you doing? they’d ask. Nothing, I’d say. And then there would be silence. Or rather, there would be the roar of music, bottles clinking, people laughing and ordering drinks. Then we would say good-bye and I’d pace around my apartment for an hour, depressed.
The only time I felt something akin to normal was when I was teaching my two classes: beginning fiction writing and freshman composition. The undergraduates at UM were bright, healthy, and optimistic. Nearly all of them sincerely worked hard, and I found myself preparing more thoroughly to teach them than for the classes I was taking. Some of those students have since become professional writers. And I do not flatter myself that they continued on because of my efforts. Though, if what we discussed somehow contributed to their progress as artists and thinkers, then I will be satisfied that my time in Missouri wasn’t a total loss.
Teaching aside, it sure felt like a total loss to me. I was beginning to appreciate many of the subtle facets of life-encompassing misery, the great variety of which could be experienced in graduate school while one is drying out in isolation. A brief overview will include a body of morose grad students sustained by psychotropics and alcohol; a faculty at war with itself in hallway screaming fights and decade-spanning feuds; a degree of marital infidelity that would make Lucrezia Borgia blush; and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, whose matrix of requirements kept students in for five years, eight years, and in the case of my cubicle-mate, Orrin, eleven years.
(Eleven years! Orrin, where are you now? You’d put in 11 years when I arrived and you should be writing this, but you disappeared that Fall and never came back. I like to think it was a positive change—a good life, a secret wife, maybe some nice AA meetings beyond the sunset—but I remember you and I worry. You once told me nothing good could come out of the graduate program apart from the good of getting away from it. And that escaping, in itself, was a feat. Did you accomplish this? Anguish and massive self-change did it for me—a commitment to my own well-being above all else and a healthy appreciation for mystery, for the beauty of the writing life that has nothing to do with institutional narcissism and everything to do with individuation. I wish something like that for you.)
In fact, we were not encouraged to look forward to graduation, reminded at all times in myriad ways that the job prospects in the humanities were more dreadful than the lives we were currently living. There were meetings. I liked to call them “Convocations of the Politburo,” but people didn’t laugh at that for long. Roll was taken, and we were given one academic credit for attending once a week. On paper, these meetings were meant to “facilitate communication between graduate students and faculty.” But, in reality, Josef Stalin would have felt right at home.
It was always the same. A random assortment of English professors would sit in folding chairs on the stage of a lecture hall, looking extremely uncomfortable, while trying not to make eye-contact with each other or with the grad student audience. And the grad students would stare forward with the thin-lipped intensity of adults about to be chastised like infants. Some wise souls learned how to sleep with their eyes open or how to seem like they were paying attention while surreptitiously grading student papers. I felt there was deep wisdom in there that I had missed. They were the bodhisattvas of the program. Like all enlightened beings, they were few and reclusive. No one taught the art of mental detachment or covert paper grading. It had to come intuitively from the heavens. I was not one of them. I couldn’t look away.
Graduate Director Robinson—who appeared and sounded very much like Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies—would stand at the podium and open each meeting with, “Questions?” There were never any questions. For a brief moment, his eyes would sweep over us. And then he’d nod, satisfied. There shouldn’t be questions. A guest speaker—someone who had been in the program or managed to graduate from the program—would come up and foretell the future. Then the guest speaker would ask if there were any questions. There would be none. Only silence.
Sometimes the speakers would have very cathartic experiences while presenting. I can recall one of them breaking down in tears when telling us about the life she’d had to lead after graduate school. She’d received a PhD in British Restoration literature. Now she was a hospice nurse. And she still couldn’t fully reconcile the years she’d spent (“sacrificed” was her term) with what she was doing now. But she said she was coping better these days. “These are the best years of your life,” she told us. Then there would be announcements, like at the end of church. In all the meetings I attended, the professors on stage never spoke once. And they gave off the distinct impression that they, too, were under some kind of edict, some kind of post-tenure sorcery that compelled their bodies, like stiff marionettes, onto the stage and into the chairs.
Off stage, some of them were well-meaning, very brilliant people, bewildered as much as anyone by the reversals and exigencies of the academic life. But, in my experience and that of the graduate students I knew, most of the faculty came in somewhere between Saruman and an angry raptor—spiteful and depressed, yet dependent on certain encompassing illusions about themselves and the world. And as the evolutionary midpoint between undergraduate and professor, the graduate students were drawn into such dream worlds, wrapped up in Machiavellian power games, competition, long-standing resentments, departmental politics.
Fortunately, I was careful. Others were less so. If Professor A’s cheating wife was getting together with Professor B, and you were studying with Professor B, you’d better know to avoid A or become A’s punching bag. This happened to Pete, a lit. student who’d been a middle manager for a multi-national beverage company. He was married and had two kids when he decided to go get the PhD he’d always wanted. This displeased his wife. After months of late nights and angst, they had their second divorce talk and she moved into the local Holiday Inn, where she remained with the kids, for the rest of the academic term. She was perhaps the most bitter and, unfortunately, the most clear-headed and honest human I encountered while in Missouri. When she took it upon herself to complain to Professor A for quadrupling her husband’s work load, A’s response was that if Pete didn’t like it, he could go study with Professor B, who seemed to have a lot of extra time on his hands.
For 15 weeks, Pete did not sleep. I would see him in the basement cubicle farm that served as the graduate student offices. He’d usually be standing, his desk covered with books, papers, Styrofoam coffee empties. Pete once explained to me that he automatically went to sleep whenever he sat down, no matter the conditions or the amount of caffeine. Though his wife was still at the Holiday Inn, she’d started driving him to school in the mornings. Such was life. I felt bad for Pete and for others like him, who’d blundered onto battlefields they didn’t understand. But I kept my head and did my best to avoid A and B, to teach my classes, to be a nondescript entity; though there were still problems, even for someone living as monosyllabic an existence as I was.
Winter came with sleet and ice. My apartment heater was broken and the management company kept saying they’d send someone out but never did. I bought a space heater that looked like an enormous toaster oven. It very effectively heated up the 6-foot block of air directly in front of it and nothing else. After melting the bottom of my polyester futon, I decided I couldn’t risk using the space heater while sleeping. Once, I left home with the kitchen window cracked open and found that ice had formed on the ceiling. So I slept in jeans, two sweatshirts, and a coat. At a local sporting goods store, I bought a green ski mask, which I also wore to bed in order to feel my face in the morning. I was a sight. But nobody had to know.
Directly behind my duplex, the electric company had a fenced lot of transformers and switches that gave off a high-pitched whine at all times, rain, sleet, or snow; though I hadn’t noticed it when I’d first visited the place. That Fall, I would lie in my clothes every night, looking as if I’d just gotten home from a bank heist, and listen to the sound of the electrical field. Some nights, I thought about the people I left behind in California, in Montana, in the other places I’ve lived. Most nights, I’d look at the bars of light on the ceiling, listen, and wonder what was going to become of me.
Getting an advanced degree has never been, nor should it be, a throw-away experience. It should push those who are already competent to become more of who they already are. It should open new areas of inquiry and recontextualize what has been taken for granted. And we can joke about arête, mysterion, and exploring the kryptos in our lives, but I believe it really is possible to experience such things through a course of graduate study—personally, transpersonally, transdiscursively. I’ve seen it in myself, in my MFA experience, in the PhD program (far away from the University of Missouri) to which I ultimately made my way. And, even when I was in Missouri, I saw it hidden in the individual bubble-worlds professors would create.
Dr. N taught an excellent Harlem Renaissance seminar in which he announced at the beginning that we would have to make a commitment to 50 pages of critical writing. On the second class meeting, only five of us remained. 4 of us lasted to the end. We produced the pages.
Dr. H, the rhet-comp expert, wanted us to understand the rhetoric of institutions, governments, universities—the hegemonic bureaucracies into which college graduates are knowingly and sometimes unknowingly interpolated. We analyzed the rhetoric of power relationships inherent in prisons, hospitals, corporations, the military, and even UM, stopping just short of a direct critique of the English department itself. We read poststructuralists alongside the ancient Sophists. And I came to think of Dr. H as perhaps the reincarnation of Quintilian when she sat at the end of the conference table, eyebrows raised, fingertips pressed together.
There were others, people like night-blooming flowers—beautiful but only for limited intervals that went mostly hidden in a general darkness. In November, Professor L refused to teach her graduate poetry workshop, fed up with her students arriving unprepared. Pissed off beyond all restraint, she told them they were worthless, that if they wanted to learn they could teach themselves, and she went home. This was related to me as I walked across campus with Alma, a woman who’d been in the shop and who seemed overjoyed at the recent developments.
“Was she right?” I asked. “You guys sound pretty worthless to me.”
“Don’t be stupid. Nobody ever does reading ahead of time.”
Ah, I thought. This is why there is screaming. This is why there is unrest. People who are reading do not have time to despise each other. Or, at least, they have less time. I considered the possibility that the entire department had stopped reading.
“She called us a bunch of no-talent assholes.”
“Maybe you’re a bunch of no-talent assholes,” I said.
Alma rolled her eyes. “Let’s get a sandwich.”
And so it went: with Professor L being forced to teach poetry writing to her beloved graduate students under pain of immediate suspension. This was not considered overly scandalous, as the wife-drama between Professors A and B had recently escalated to a parking lot fistfight. Faculty meetings were now being held via email.
As the term listed slowly into November, one of the grad students got diagnosed with a severe lung infection. Tests arranged by her attorney revealed that the mold in her lungs had come from the basement of the English department where the graduate cubicle farm was located. Water damage beneath the ancient mustard green carpet had gone long unaddressed. A suit was pending. Worried about the possibility of a multiple-plaintiff action (clusterfuck was the term I first heard), UM lawyers recommended that we all be issued paper air-filters, the common type that people wear in emergency rooms, when installing drywall, and in Shanghai to stave off black lung. Whenever we were officially holding office hours, we were instructed to wear the masks. We were also advised to wear them whenever we were down there and began to feel “queasy, dizzy, or overly anxious with burning in the lungs or other difficulty breathing”—symptoms which might have described the graduate experience at any point on any given day. There were two cardboard boxes of about 500 masks each at the bottom of the basement stairs. A few people wrote things or drew cat whiskers on theirs. I wore mine constantly.
“Could you take that off?” asked one of my students, who’d refused when I’d offered her one.
“There are spores in the air.”
“You’ve got a problem,” she said, looking around at the masked graduate students going about their breath-filtered business. “What’s wrong with you people?”
“Health comes first,” I said.
Spores were everywhere. That week, the no-talent assholes assembled the Comintern for a new guest speaker, a woman named Carol, who had received a MFA in fiction writing and had then gone directly to veterinary school. She brought her St. Bernard, Ramón, who sat happily on stage, radiating canine goodness at the feet of the uncomfortable-looking professors, while Dr. Carol spoke about the writing opportunities available in animal medicine.
I was the only no-talent asshole who’d worn my breath mask. I drew many amused stares and the twin death beams of Graduate Director Robinson, who seemed to be growing more Sarumanish by the day. He’d taken a sabbatical to Morocco the year before, and that day he was wearing the white kaftans he’d bought there. With the kaftans, his white beard, long white hair, peaked black eyebrows, and uncommon height (about 6’7”) he looked more like the Lord of Isengard than anyone, I imagine, in greater metropolitan Laughton.
After Dr. Carol’s presentation, there were no questions. But people did go up to pet the dog. I went with them, partly because I cannot pass up an opportunity to pet a dog and partly because Dr. Carol was 28 with long brown hair, green eyes, and a beautiful voice. To someone surrounded by graduate student DNA most of the time, Dr. Carol looked like a divine being. I took off the mask.
“Hello, Ramón,” I said. The dog raised his enormous head and smiled at me. Petting him was like touching a plush bowling ball.
“He likes you,” said Dr. Carol. “But why the mask? Allergic?”
“The whole department is. They issued us these.”
She nodded. “Sounds like a good policy. Especially in that basement.”
Dr. Carol understood. Of course she knew about the basement. She was beautiful and she had survived UM, which meant she had incredible hidden powers. Moreover, her dog liked me.
“Remember when you asked if there were questions, and there weren’t any questions? I might have some questions. About what you said. If you feel like getting a cup of coffee sometime.” I was proud of those sentences. In my estimation, I sounded no more awkward and ridiculous than I usually did when talking to anyone about anything.
She took my hand in both of hers and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Michael,” she said, “I’m a lesbian.” She kept smiling when she let go of my hand. Ramón kept smiling, too.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
When I turned, I noticed that Graduate Director Robinson had materialized directly behind me, frowning, his eyebeams focused. I looked up at him and put my mask back on. Then I walked deliberately, evenly out of the lecture hall.
That night, I watched The Legend of Dolemite and drank for the first time in 3 months. I smoked a pack of cigarettes, too. And the sudden repollution of my otherwise purified and filtered body cause a certain amount of vomiting. It was probably a necessary experience—a catharsis, a purgation of the bad mojo I’d internalized thus far. But I came out of it weakened, shaken in willpower and confidence. The next day, when someone mentioned that Orrin hadn’t been seen for three-and-a-half weeks, I felt a great deal of dread, a sensation that can only be described as an immediate upheaval, a moment in which I began to sincerely question my reasons for being at UM.
More ubiquitous even than the allergens and spores was the incredible sense of loss that permeated every gathering there—loss of youth, loss of employability, loss of comprehension (Graduate Director Robinson’s half-joking advice to us at the beginning of the semester: don’t get romantically involved with undergraduates. They’ll never understand you.), and loss of everything true, good, and beautiful in life. There was a pervasive feeling that even though those things still existed in the outside world, we’d forfeited them by seeking a higher academic status. And I began to see that the negative side to following the mysterion was not that one might find something hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce. Rather, it was the constant fear that there might be nothing, absolutely nothing, in our dark spaces but an endless void into which we might suddenly fall with regret as our only companion: the terror of a sailor who knows he can’t swim and still follows the sound of the sea.
The Vikings, when they crossed the North Atlantic, carved runa on their longboats as a ward and a guide because it’s one thing to see yourself dead on the battlefield (one can accept: these are my entrails; this is my enemy; that is his spear) but getting sucked into the bottomless depths entails a different and much more profound level of horror. Take my steaming entrails if you must, but leave me my soul. And there are still dark places on the map we would like to explore: the psyche, for example, and the all invisible presences that drive and condition our lives—family hatreds and loves and feats of great beauty and perhaps greater stupidity.
We would gladly venture out onto these oceans, just like the Vikings, as long as we felt securely tethered to the mundane world such that we could safely return and, over a cup of coffee, speak with confidence about what Conrad called “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” But we are, without a doubt, children staring down the hallway in the middle of the night at the half-open closet, daring ourselves to walk over and put one foot in.
It may not be surprising that “the mysterious life of the wilderness” had little to do with the mysterious life of being at UM. After yet another aborted fiction workshop in which our professor burned most of 45 minutes asking the submitting writers to read their work aloud (to cover the fact that he hadn’t looked at the material, but, then again, neither had we, the dry rot of apathy having assimilated our workshop), our entire class drifted back to the basement cubicle farm. Everyone put on their masks.
I sat at the desk I shared with Orrin, listening to myself breathe and staring at the one item of his that he’d left in the cubicle: a large pearl-and-gold framed photo of him holding his cat in one arm and his girlfriend in the other. He’d mentioned to me that she’d died years before from brain cancer. And it was a younger Orrin in the photo—without the pepper-gray beard, sunken eyes, and deep creases in his face. There was a light in his expression as if he liked whoever was holding the camera. Though, his girlfriend was not the sort you’d expect a poet to have. In the picture, she was brassy blonde, curvaceous, and slightly older than him with an air of appraising intelligence—the sort of woman who owns her own business and doesn’t suffer fools. But she’d suffered Orrin. And she’s suffered herself, dying that horrible death, which I imagine is a lot more like the void than the battlefield.
To this day, I hope that if Orrin’s disappearance meant he was going out to find her in the depths, he kept runa before him and his tether secure. But I fear that was not the case, as he’d seemed increasingly solemn and withdrawn in the times I’d seen him around the cubicle. I’d have given him my bone pendant had I known he was going. I liked Orrin. Maybe I liked him more than any of the other graduate students because he had an sense of pained honesty about him and they did not. Orrin gave me the feeling that he’d say exactly what he thought about anything no matter how awkward that might prove to be.
That afternoon, the cubicle farm looked more like ER receiving with all the intense eyes over white paper masks and the unhappy sounds emanating from beneath them. I heard angry talk of circulating a complaint petition about our professor and fearful questions about what good that would do. I heard the same old talk of ailments and molds, the crappiness of the student health insurance, and of people missing their Paxil. As usual, I also heard Prozac mentioned the way one refers to Arpanet, card catalogs, and the rhythm method: we’ve come so far since then. Yes, I thought, packing up my books. Soon we will succeed in completely erasing ourselves and all the anxiety will then subside. I walked up the stairs and out of the building into the iron light of a Missouri winter.
A block away from campus, I stuffed my breath mask into a snow-filled trash can. I wasn’t headed anywhere particular. I was simply walking and thinking about the future, about the writing life and, though I didn’t have the language for it then, about mysterion and all the things I’d thought I was pursuing when I came to UM. After about 15 blocks of snowy sidewalk, I had to admit that the things I’d been seeking were elsewhere, that I’d made another life-mistake, and that I would probably be taking a permanent hiatus from Laughton, Missouri, before long.
Somewhere on my way back to campus, I came upon one of my freshman composition students, laughing at his car engine. The hood was propped up and a thick column of oily smoke was coming out.
“Hey, Mike. Check it out. My car’s on fire,” he said. Tiny pieces of snow were stuck in his beard. We stood in front of the car, staring at the smoke as if it were some kind of oracle.
“You think it’ll blow?” I asked.
He grinned, shrugged. “Maybe.”
And I moved on, listening for the thump of the gas tank, back to my own soon-to-be-junked car, parked in the graduate lot under a pyramid of snow.
Maybe, I said to myself. Maybe it blows and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, maybe, maybe. And all our yesterdays and yestermaybes have lighted fools. And all our tomorrows may be limned with absurdity as we inch down hallways toward dark closets. But hand out the Paxil and we’ll be okay.
Walter sort of gets it. At least, he gets the part where I decide that Missouri is nowhere.
“Well,” he says, “you’re back in paradise now. It doesn’t get much better than America’s finest city.” He stands and a wave of his cologne passes like a semi-tangible ghost—an advance image of himself that he sends forward on the wind to check for reality buses and bottomless pits.
I’ve now decided that there will be no job forthcoming from his lordship, retail or otherwise. And, strangely enough, I’m alright with that. Walter is the first person to whom I’ve spoken honestly, without reservation, about why I left Missouri. I can tell by the depressed look on his face that he doesn’t know what it all means. I don’t know what it all means, either. But, having released some of that morose energy in Walter’s direction, I’ve come closer to figuring it out.
He tells me to call him, and I watch him move slowly, almost mournfully, through the parking lot to his truck: his bulk, his fanny pack, black fedora over giant white polo shirt. In two years, Walter will die of a heart attack. But, as I watch him walk away after our difficult conversation in 2005, I’m not thinking about his weight problem or my job problem or any problematic decisions I’ve made in the past. I’m wondering whether Walter has a folder of recent poems and whether, if I offer to send him my most recent story, he’ll reciprocate. And I realize that I must have arrived—not back where I was before I heard the sound of the sea and took it as a mistress—but to where I’ve been heading all along, the path that will lead across a great ocean and back and out again.
In a few days, I will have found a job teaching English and speech at a private high school in central California. Two years after that, I’ll be back in a PhD program—the right one this time—knowing a lot more, following the mysterion to the extent that I understand it. As I write this, I am at the end of that program with a published book of stories and few regrets, reasonably confident that when I get up to write in the dark hours of the morning and say runa to the page, the page may say nothing, or the page may say kryptos, or it may say follow. And I will.
1. Bad Juju
My eyes were opened and I understood.
“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.”
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.”
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?