Form and Void

I finished the first draft of my novella last night. But I don’t feel anything except that same old sense of loss and emptiness. The only time I ever enjoy writing is when I’m in the middle of it. Once I finish–and I mean like 10 minutes after I write the last word of the first draft–I feel like I just got back from a friend’s funeral and all that’s left is some absurd memory of something they did.

The act of submitting my work for publication is a mechanical afterthought. It’s necessary, at least in how I choose to lead my life, but it’s not the reason I write. Put me in a box with all my manuscripts and drop me in the ocean. Never read a word I’ve written or speak of me again. Grind me into dust. Throw every trace of me into a furnace. And nothing will have changed. The process will still have mattered as much to me as it does right now. It’s the process, the act, the engagement, the work–always changing, always the same. And when it’s finished, I need it to start again. Immediately.

Reyn til Runa: Seek the Mysteries

There is an emotional truth or reality at the center of a story I may be writing.  I have a fleeting sense of it and then I start off by trying to explore it, trying to get to the center.  Then I always stop.  Sometimes it’s because I’ve forgotten that “fleeting sense” and consequently do not know how to proceed (a kind of amnesia in which I know that I had the emotion, but I can’t feel it or understand how to be guided by it anymore).  Sometimes, it’s because I can’t face what I’ve discovered–conditions in my life have made such an emotional realization too painful or too difficult in some way.  But if I can realize the truth of that emotional center deeply in myself, if I can come to terms with it in the deepest possible way, then I can move the story toward completion.  The end of the story is always a revelation because it remains hidden for most of the process.

In this sense, many of my “story fragments” are still waiting for me to come around to that place where I can recognize what they are and what they mean.  A fragment waiting to be finished is a piece of me waiting to be recognized and realized.

This goes further.  As with stories, so with certain themes in life, certain personal relationships, certain avenues of self-work.  Everything is ultimately and inherently a story, which is to say, an unfolding emotional self-realization.  This is mysterious.  This is why it takes endurance to write outside of outlines and formulas.  And this is the difference between making art and telling someone else’s story–which is something you haven’t lived and are not.  This is also why no one can tell you what your creative project should be.  No one can know what you need to realize.  No one can see that far into you.  Only you can seek this mystery.  And it begins in that painful moment when you are entirely alone before the blank page, which is to say, before the mirror, asking, “Who am I becoming?”

Nine Thoughts on Making Art

  1. You don’t need to be famous to be an artist. You just need to make art.
  2. You don’t need to make art in any particular style or volume or at any particular rate. These considerations come from industries interested in art as a product that can be sold, irrespective and ignorant of the creative process. Such considerations can often be destructive and should be understood by the artist, then carefully set aside.
  3. You do need to share your art with others because doing so magnifies it. Having an audience, no matter how limited, transforms your work in the minds of others. The art you make should grow beyond you, transcending the boundaries of your personal subjectivity. People are good for art. By offering your art to people, they become part of it and it becomes part of them. 
  4. You do need to have a day job. Engage with the world around you and do not allow yourself to stagnate. It’s good to have mundane concerns like employment, stability, friends, and family. What you do when you’re not making art is less important than the fact that you are out there, living, doing it. So find something you like and try getting good at it for a while. An artist needs to live a human life in order to understand human experience. You are human.  Come down from the attic.
  5. You do need to control time and space.  You are also divine.  Time could be as short as an hour a day as long as it is consistently available. Space could be a small as a closet as long as it is consistently available. Go back to the attic.
  6. You do need to keep learning and changing. Inspiration depends on it. Eschew formulaic thinking and comfortable templates. Give yourself increasingly ambitious assignments. Integrate everything you learn into new projects. This is how you develop.  Stagnation is death.
  7. You don’t need to make a living on your art in order to feel like you’re really an artist. Every artist has an identity problem and there will always be someone telling you to quit. People with the fortitude to develop themselves creatively often aggravate those too scared to take the first step. And there are always more of the latter than the former.
  8. You don’t need to talk about your ongoing project with friends and family. Doing so can make otherwise good people into passive-aggressive antagonists. Better to let them read the finished product and criticize you behind your back. Your life will be simpler and you will still be able to attend the family reunion without getting drunk first.
  9. You do need to realize that art is more than just cleverness and craftsmanship. Consider this statement and see how you feel about it: the creative process is the act of recognizing the limitlessness of the psyche in the sense that all is mind and that a work of art is an embodiment of that totality in space and time.

In Whitehall Garden

Whitehall Garden
Whitehall Garden

When you work online, putting on normal clothing and actually leaving the house is important. This is why I work so often in cafes. Spend all day at home in your pajamas and you start to feel (and eventually act) like a guest of the state. Today the weather was nice. So I thought I’d go sit in Whitehall Garden and work on a scene that’s been bothering me for a week—change of venue, change of energy, etc.

Being by a river always helps me think. And on a good day, the various cultures of inner London can create a certain momentum as you pass through them, an electric crackle that you can use when you finally sit down and get to work. But the emotional energy in big cities also comes in waves, which can be problematic. Get enough people in the same space having a bad day, emoting at others who enter their perceptual range, and it’s going to spread like a black tide from neighborhood to neighborhood. I find this sort of thing is usually at its most repugnant in high tourist areas and throughout financial districts—places where miserable people naturally converge. Unfortunately, those are some of the best places to find writer-friendly cafes and public gardens.

So Whitehall Garden. On most days, it’s like a tiny, secluded paradise by the Thames. Quiet. Victorian fountains. Everyone keeps to themselves. There’s even an authentic Egyptian obelisk with sphinxes. And it doesn’t get much better than sphinxes on a weekday. When I got there, I felt ready to dig in and get some real work done. The gardens were as gorgeous as always. I had coffee, headphones, steno pad, and a wooden bench in the shade. Perfect, right? What could go wrong?

I was actually making progress on the scene when my bench lurched. To my right, on the connecting bench, a chubby bald man with a beard and 1950s bifocals sat next to his tiny over-tanned wife. They both wore identical cameras and flamingo-pink windbreakers and they were talking to an extremely thin woman with big sunglasses. Everything about the woman said money: cream leather jacket, white blouse, white pants, and leather riding boots that had never, in their existence, been used for riding. Her platinum blond was sprayed up in the anti-gravity bob that well-off middle aged women sometimes get to prove that they go to a salon. The blond woman was standing right in front of them, listing a little to the side, expressionless, mumbling. I took my headphones off, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.

The man was repeating, “We don’t know. We don’t want any trouble.” And his tiny wrinkled wife was talking over him, calling the woman dear and saying it was going to be alright. It didn’t look like it was going to be alright. The three of them were still talking over each other a minute later when the blond woman lost her balance and fell forward into the man, who caught her in a stunned embrace. His wife stopped talking and blinked. The three of them froze that way for a moment. Whitehall park tableau. Then the blond woman pushed herself upright and they started apologizing to each other. Are you sure you’re alright? I’m terribly sorry. No, no, it’s fine, really. Then, as one, they looked at me. The man: embarrassed. His wife: bewildered with a little anger creeping into the corners of her frown. And the blond woman: expressionless again and, I could now see, higher than Keith Richards on the red eye to Tokyo.

I felt embarrassed for looking at their miniature drama. Then again, it was on the bench connected to mine, and this was the park. You can look in the park. It’s allowed, even encouraged. The blond woman came over and stood in front of me. “Have you seen my cell phone?”

I said I’d seen a phone sitting on a bench near the entrance when I came in.

She said, “Fantastic,” and drifted in that direction.

The bearded man, his wife, and I watched her go all the way down to the park gates, gliding between people with the grace that only comes to veteran drunks and pill-heads who know they must get home at all costs. Ghost ballet. I imagined her up in one of the elegant Second Empire hotels that front the Thames, standing at a window with a glass of scotch and a handful of Methaqualone, thinking, I’m going to go down and sit in Whitehall Garden. Or not even that. Maybe just: fuck him or nothing. Just pills and a long numb afternoon.

She came back and stood in front of me again: “Nothing, chap.” The first time in my life I’ve been called that. “But thanks anyway.”

I wished her good luck and she thanked me again before wandering off in the other direction. The bearded man and his wife stared at her, at me. Then the wife said, “If I was the one who found that phone and didn’t give it back, I’d be ashamed of myself.” She stared at me for a long moment until I looked at her. A few minutes later, I saw them down by the gates, looking through the bushes behind the row of benches like two flamingos dipping their beaks.

I didn’t take the phone. For all I knew, it was still sitting on that bench. But part of me wanted to go find that blond woman, put my arm around her, and make sure she got back up to whatever gold-leafed penthouse she’d fled; though, I don’t think people do that sort of thing anymore, not these days, not in London. And even now, hours later, I can’t decide whether I feel sad because of the emotions flowing right then through the city or because that woman lost her phone and, even high and ultimately miserable, had the decency to be polite to a complete stranger.

Looking Forward

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being
Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

On Envying Other Writers

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.

What am I working on?

My friend and fellow writer, K. Murphy Wilbanks kindly mentioned me in a blog post focusing on what she’s working on right now. So I will follow suit. Though I have the usual 100 things blowing up my computer, I am focusing on a few big projects at the moment.

What am I working on?

First and most painfully, I’m working onVelouria, my novel about a guy who lives in Washington D.C. and works for one of the smaller Smithsonian museums. I’m just about to close out the first draft at 250 ms pages, which warms the cockles of my heart. I will be completing this draft in just over a year of toil and misanthropy in poorly lit rooms.

Then there’s Heavy Industry, my novel about snow, murder, and the food and beverage industry in Illinois. That is also nearly finished and waiting for me to come back to it. But, since I’m getting ready to finish Velouria, I’ve already resumed work on it a bit.

My third story collection is in progress. I think I need about four more stories. Cruel Stars, my second, is still making the rounds at small presses and literary contests. I’ve had a lot of close-but-good-luck-to-you interest in it. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to get published before I’m too old to remember that I wrote it. But that’s how it goes with literary submitting, specially with story collections. Everyone tells me to self-publish. I might do this around the 100th rejection. I’m only up around 20 or so. Yay. Let’s submit 80 more times!

I’m also working on a super-secret screenwriting project, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done, well, ever. I’m also learning that screenwriting is different enough from fiction writing to present an entirely unique spectrum of writerly challenges. That, in itself, is cool because I feel like I’m learning more about narrative structure and how to control a story.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. But that doesn’t mean it has to march in lockstep with an editorial style sheet. At least, we like to imagine the best literature takes its own shape and carries its own unique message. A lot of this uniqueness comes from particularity—how a piece of writing expresses a vision that has not been expressed before. Of course, this can be highly threatening to those who spend a lot of time identifying with existing motifs and types in their genres in order to advance their careers.

So this question can be taken a number of ways. I prefer to read it as a question about particularity instead of the kind of theme-and-variation question we sometimes see in publishing industry blogs and magazines—designed to make hack writers and their handlers feel like they’re not just automatically churning out the same old thing. In other words, I’m not interested in a question that goes something like, how does your work stay faithful to the editorial hand that feeds you while still allowing you to feel like a creator? Whatever. I’ll answer this one: how do you imagine that your work finds a unique vision and voice relative to everything else? A writer should be able to answer this.

My answer is that I’ve gone through a long period of exploring idiosyncratic first person. That was what my first book, Gravity, was mostly about—seeing how voice can implicitly move a story forward without having to rely on the tired scaffolding of transparent, third-person realism. Basically, I was apprenticing myself to the tradition of literary maximalists in North American fiction. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanley Elkin in the 1960s and runs up through David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. But I’ve moved on now, I think.

Now I’m more interested in the atmosphere of place and the kinds of textures that can spontaneously arise from physical environments. I still have my obsessions: unemployment, suicide, social alienation, love, darkness, funerals, architecture, snobbishness, explosions, travel and petty theft—maybe a few others. But I’m thinking about all of these things in terms of environment now. I see my characters relative to their environments and how they interact with them. I think this makes my work particular. At minimum, it gives me a focus that other published writers don’t appear to have right now. I’m sure there are others out there who share my current interests. Let’s hope I don’t meet them before I finish this round of projects.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I can. My work and my creative impulse are very closely aligned. So I don’t choose what I write as much as make myself receptive to what’s already there, if that makes any sense. I will write anything, in any mode or form or genre, that pleases me. Maybe it is better to say that I will write anything that pleases that part of me over which I exert little control.

It’s like sex. We like what we like. It’s not a studied decision unless we’re intimidated into functioning like whores. And then are we really enjoying it? Sometimes, maybe—the way any professional can enjoy the familiarity of an articulated process. Then again, I see a difference between simply being highly professional and being a highly professional artist. The artist puts the art first and the professionalism second becauseno matter what your publicist may say in that passive-aggressive conversation about how they might “position your book”professional polish and artistic creation are two different things.  A lover puts the love first and the sexual maneuvers second.  That isn’t professional, but it’s authentic.

That said, I think I also write because otherwise I would be a severely self-destructive, depressed, impossible person. It’s a common thing to say, maybe a cliché, but I think it’s true for me. Writing is my outlet. I have always escaped into my imagination. Now I do it so that others can join me there. That is very satisfying in a number of ways.

How does my writing process work?

I write as often as I can, ideally every day. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. I try to write about 2 ms pages a day. This produces a story or a chapter every month. That’s as fast as I can do it and I find that’s all I need to do. It gives me time to think and keeps me from burning out.

I write what I feel drawn to write that day. Surprisingly, I get nearly everything done because I always have multiple projects in development. As long as I show up ready to get out of the way and let the creative impulse guide me, I’m good.

The MFA Distortion Field (yes, Dottie, and not just in Iowa)

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.

Nope.

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 Never Ends

For me, writing fiction means staying wide open to human experience by giving myself permission to be vulnerable and to intuit how other people can be vulnerable in the same ways.  It’s about representing that complex emotional mystery with as much sincerity and authenticity as possible—not as some kind of living camera, but as an individual person limited by defects and inhibitions, who is nevertheless willing to express what he feels.  That’s why I will never be finished becoming a writer.  I’ll never get it done.  I’ll never be able to say, “Okay, now I’ve done my best work.”

You Do What You Are

Back in Michigan, I studied more literature than was required for my degree because I enjoyed being around lit professors and grad students. Once a well-meaning lit student in one of those classes said to me, “It’s great that you want to become a fiction writer.” I said, “Actually, I am a fiction writer. But I agree, it’s great that I want to become more of one.”

When you know and develop what you are–writer, artist, teacher, programmer, lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, whatever–you radiate that. You become a catalyst for that kind of change no matter what you are doing or where you are. It’s not that you are what you do–because that implies that if you’re not doing it, you don’t exist. It’s that you do what you are, always.

So a photographer sits in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. She is a photographer in a waiting room. She is not someone who was a photographer for two hours yesterday and is now nothing or some kind of post-photographer waiting to be a photographer again tomorrow. She is what she is, and she is constantly thinking like a photographer. In her actions, conversations, thoughts, memories, and impulses, she is a photographer, whether she has a camera in her hands or not. By doing her art, she can deepen her sensibilities and technical ability. But she does not rely on anything outside herself to be who she is, even if she relies on cameras to express that state of being externally. Likewise, she does not need the recognition, money, or approval of the world in order to exist.

As a writer and a teacher, I am always writing and teaching–whether I am at my desk, in a classroom, watching a movie, or taking a walk across town. I radiate that and cause change around me according to it. It is the way I connect with the world. Moreover, I can recognize the same sensibilities in others.

My classmate understood this immediately. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t an awkward moment. I could see that she’d already turned inward and had begun to ask herself: “Who am I? What do I radiate? What am I becoming? What sort of change do I create?” It was a really good moment because these are the questions we all have to ask and never stop asking.