On freedom.

I got my mind soundly blown yesterday.

It was Alumni Day for my MFA program, a day for graduates like me to invade the residency in progress and get our semiannual fix of high-level literary exchange (and cheap wine and friends).

I almost didn’t  go. I was driving north on 95, toward the little island where the residencies take place, and I almost just kept driving: out of Connecticut, into Rhode Island, and back to the dark silence of my apartment, now cat- and wife-free. It had been a long week for me, and so much of me just wanted to collapse in on myself and not think, or talk, for a while. The thought of having to tell a new audience how “okay” I was in spite of everything, after doing that non-stop with friends and family over the holidays, drained me before I even took the exit.

But I had to go. Because Baron Wormser was going to talk about Emerson.

(If you don’t know Baron Wormser, you’re doing it wrong. And by “it” I mean reading, and living in general. His creative works are rich and introspective and fresh and can be so damn funny. He reads a passage of poetry or prose aloud and a new, deeper meaning slides into place. I had seen him give a seminar in the past on James Baldwin and ran out and bought Notes of a Native Son. In short: read everything Wormser has written, and then see him in person if you can.)

I can’t capture everything Wormser said about Emerson and put it here for you; even if I could, I wouldn’t. But what I can tell you is that I am still thinking about the seminar twenty-four hours later. I am still thinking about freedom.

In the passages of Emerson that Wormser presented and analyzed, the idea of freedom was always in the foreground: the freedom to know one’s true self, the freedom that comes with genius, the freedom of writing what others are scared to say. In America, the word freedom has been manipulated commercialized to the point where it’s hard to know what it means to be truly free anymore. But to Emerson, it was simple: freedom is the opposite of security. Freedom is fear.

We’ve put a premium on security. We surround ourselves with stuff: tangible, material goods that make us feel prosperous, important, safe. Feel real. But if Emerson is right, and I think he is, all this stuff that we touch and hold is a wall we build between us and the knowledge that reality lies in the intangible and the abstract. And that’s scary.

Maybe I’m way off. Maybe this isn’t what Emerson meant at all. But as Baron read his words aloud and as people around me weighed in, I sat quietly and wrote only this, because it buzzed in my head and wouldn’t stop until it was down: what you fear most is the only thing you can know for sure.

I am afraid of many things right now. Nothing is stable; nothing is certain. But in Emersonian fashion, I’m letting myself feel the fear and the instability. Security rushed out, and I’m not filling the vacuum with stuff or meaningless relationships; not this time. I’m sitting with the uncertainty, and with my fear.  I am face-to-face with this very human terror, but it’s as if I am outside of myself, above myself, able to acknowledge that I am scared, able to experience the fear, but it doesn’t consume me. I am leaving the void open, and rushing into it is a deeper understanding of not only myself but also the nature of fear. And I am freer than ever before.

The terror we feel about the unknown is more real than anything we can hold in our hands. Security is an illusion that shackles, stunts, suffocates life and creativity. Embrace fear, embrace the void, and you are free.

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The writer’s White Whale.

Don’t call me Ahab.

Remember LiveJournal? I feel like all I did on there was complain my way through middle and high school (and, I admit, college): nobody loves me, nobody cares about me, nobody filled out my seventy-question survey. What a tremendous and melancholy bore I was.

I’m trying really hard not to turn this blog into another emo-shame-spiral of posts, but sometimes being a writer sucks, and it’s just so much more fun to write about sucky things.

I got rejected twice yesterday: in the morning by an awesome job and in the evening by an awesome residency program. Nice bookends to a Tuesday, right? Since I haven’t printed them out yet to add to the pile of rejection letters that any self-respecting/masochistic writer has on her desk, I might as well include them here, in the interest of being green (and my forgetfulness and procrastination):

 
This is a note to say that we made an offer for the “social media job,” and filled it. We’ll be announcing it soon on the blog, but I wanted to give you a heads-up first, as someone who completed the questions.
 
Honestly, almost everyone who applied could have done the job, and most would probably have been excellent. The applicant pool was simply wonderful. The applicants represented many different directions we could take the company. It was hard choosing and–now that it’s done–it feels terrible to “say goodbye” to so many “possibilites” [sic] and so many great people. But we think we made a great choice–two smart and energetic people with diverse experiences. We wish we could hire you all, but two was one more than we thought we’d hire.
 
Thank you again for appling [sic] for the job, and for completing those questions so thoughtfully. One of the first tasks of our new employees is to read many of our favorite answers.
Best,
Tim

For some reason, the glaring typos soften the blow.

Thank you for submitting a Winter/Spring 2014 Fellowship Residency application to Playa. Our review panel found it difficult to select residents from among the many worthy applicants, and I must unfortunately report that you were not among those chosen for a residency at this time.

We are grateful for the time you invested in this process, and truly wish we could offer residencies to everyone that applied. Unless you advise us otherwise, your name and information will be retained so that we can send you news and updates about programs at Playa

I wish you all the best in your creative endeavors.

Sincerely,

Lisa Pounders
Residency Director at Playa

Again: that missing period at the end of Paragraph Two makes me glad I won’t be associating with such heathens this winter. It’s the little things.

Naturally, I was pretty blue by the time the second rejection rolled in around 5:00. But I didn’t beat myself up or feel like I was worthless (which is maybe how I’ve handled these in the past). Instead, all I kept thinking was: when it’s a Yes, it’s going to feel earned, and right.

Because at some point, a decision will come down to me and another person who is equally good, and who knows what minuscule criteria will separate us? And one day, those fickle margins will skew in my favor. And there’s something more than earned or right about that; it’s magical. No wonder writers put themselves through hell. The Yes is intoxicating, addicting, and worth the self-imposed hell. (Or, at least, I hope it is because I don’t really have a backup plan.)

Regarding my last few posts: I think rejection makes me a writer way more than simply “wanting it” does. Because wanting is passive; rejection is the byproduct of action, of risk. These letters aren’t in a pile on my desk to discourage me. They are proof that I tried.

The Yes is my White Whale, and I will keep flailing and failing until I finally get one.

And then I’ll start the whole thing over.

On wanting it.

This post didn’t start out negative. I swear.

A writer friend of mine recently shared this slideshow that offers tidbits from the collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. In the slideshow were several pearls of wisdom, but Susan Orlean’s quote is what I’d like to address today: 

“Wanting to be a writer is a huge percentage of what makes you be one. You have to want to do it really badly. You have to feel that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That’s sure easy for a published author and New Yorker staff writer to say.

I originally thought this post was going to be about how reassured I felt by Orlean’s words—how I know now that I’m really a writer, because I want it so badly. I thought I was going to talk about how we can’t base our success on how much someone pays for our work.

And then I realized: that’s bullshit. Bullshit that I keep saying, because others keep saying it. So, one poor writer to another, let’s dispense with hollow platitudes for a moment. 

Wanting it isn’t enough sometimes.

The Orlean quote reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 2008 election season, when Hillary was officially out of the running and Palin was the VP nominee for the GOP.

Image

FEY AS PALIN: It just goes to show that anyone can be President. …All you have to do is want it.

POEHLER AS CLINTON: (LAUGHS) Yeah, you know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I should have wanted it more.

The idea that “all you have to do is want to be a writer and you are one” falls in the same category as “anyone can succeed in America” and “you’re guaranteed a job with a college degree.” They are delusions that people with money keep perpetuating, to the continued frustration of hardworking have-nots: are we not trying hard enough? Do we not want it bad enough?

I know Orlean isn’t saying that “if you want it enough, you’ll be a successful writer and make a boatload of cash.” She’s saying, “if you want it, you already are a writer.” But this means next to nothing in the land of capitalism, household bills, and student loans.

There was a time when writers could make a living for themselves on their talents alone; they didn’t live like royalty, but they got by. But this age of freelancing and adjuncting and the ever-shrinking list of periodicals that publish and pay for original work, especially from emerging writers without a platform, makes that whole “I write for a living” thing seem pretty impossible. Very few places are able (read: willing) to pay writers a living wage, leaving us to piece together a full-time, zero-benefits schedule between community colleges and jobs off Craigslist. And who has the desire to do anything but sleep at the end of that kind of day?

I’m not going to feed you a line of bull that this life is easy or that it even feels worth the trouble every day. Sure, it’s important to believe in yourself. And, yes, even without any viable prospect for a life in which my writing pays for itself, I will continue to write and continue to try. But the longer we deny that money  matters, that being well compensated for our work is as important as the act of creating it is, I don’t see the landscape changing in our favor.

…And in honor of the Ladies of SNL theme: This post was brought to you by Debbie Downer. Womp womp.

debbie

Why do you write?

I’ll get to the pressing question above in just a moment, but first: a recap of my writing life since I dropped off the blog in May.

  • I’m published! Granted, it’s a critical essay, but I’ll take it. Sidenote: Mason’s Road is a great way to get your stuff seen and possibly published without any submission fee! Reading period opens soon; in the meantime, check out the awesome stuff in this issue.
  • My writing class at the library ended in May, and they’ve asked me to teach two workshops this summer: one on found poetry, one on horror/thriller writing for teens. The best news of all: this will be my first paying gig as a writing teacher. I hope to pick up the fiction class again in the fall with compensation as well. Fingers crossed!
  • My favorite memoirist and I have made a pact. At least once a month, we have to send out a story or essay to literary journals and magazines. I’ve never actively tried to get published (except for my above credit), so this is a somewhat scary and exciting endeavor. I’ve tagged her blog here in hopes that she’ll feel inspired and/or pressured to update.
  • I’ve just returned home from my last summer residency in the Fairfield MFA program. I graduate in January. Holy hell.
  • All of this excitement coincides with my final semester; I have to write and polish my creative thesis–the first 135 pages of my novel–by Halloween. No pressure!

I think that’s all. Now, for the question of the hour.

“Why do you write?”

One of my favorite writers and teachers, Rachel Basch, posed this question during our residency workshop last week. She said we should determine the answer, distill it down to one sentence, and paste it above our work space at home to keep us motivated. A great idea, no doubt.

For me, though, “Why do you write?” is one of those questions that, as soon as it’s asked, wipes my brain clean of any answer; the same is true for “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What are you thinking?”. I’ve had some time, now, to think about this, and I figured my groping for an answer would be a great way to get back up on the blogging horse.

Blogging horse.

I write because I always have. I was raised in a house where my parents pushed me and my siblings to do whatever we desired. I tapped, I skated, I sang, I acted. If I’d cared enough, I could have pushed myself to make a living out of most of the things I tried as a kid, but none of them stuck. What was always there, what I never even realized I’d been doing all along, was writing.

The first thing I did when we got a computer was figure out how to do columns in WordPerfect and make a full-color newsletter for the kids in the neighborhood. I would force my brother and sister to take my reading and handwriting classes after school, with the help of a mini-whiteboard and old schoolbooks. I wrote a multi-chapter murder mystery in elementary school that beat out the middle school for best story and an essay about my hero–my dad–that landed me a meeting with Ruby Bridges. I typed up letters to the editor for my father and went on to write controversial editorials for my school paper on abortion, same-sex marriage, and our high school civics program.

I never put two and two together. I went off to college and all but forgot about writing. It wasn’t until my father passed away that I remembered. When something like that happens, it clears your decks of anything superfluous and leaves you only with what matters most. French and politics fell away, and writing rushed in. I wrote everything down: every memory, every question, every fear, every dream. It hurt, but it felt good. For the first time, my brain and heart were working together. A light bulb switched on somewhere, and I found my soul again.

So, that’s why I write. Why do you?

Long time, no post.

It appears I haven’t blogged in months; I’ve funneled all of my writing into a huge paper for my MFA. But since I’m feeling all sorts of weird today, I decided it was a good time to get back into it. Apologies now for what will, most likely, be a very disjointed, total bummer of a post.

I feel restless today: a feeling that’s become commonplace since starting my MFA. Before, I was content with my job. It paid the bills and let me exercise my French. Hell, it got me out of bed five times a week while I slogged through the grief of losing my father. I’m grateful for that. But now that I’ve rediscovered my vocation in life, the waiting is wearing me down.

There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do in this moment. I need this job for the vacation time, or I can’t finish my degree. Even if I could leave, what would I do? I think I’ve been a starving artist in all of my past lives; it seems carved in my bones that I should only be drawn to endeavors that make me zero or negative dollars. Why can’t I have a passion for screwing people out of their money? Or cutting people open and sewing them back up? Why is my fire lit by solitary work that has no value in this culture unless it’s bastardized into Hollywood drivel?

I have no good answer. I guess no writer does. Maybe that’s why so many of us stick our heads in ovens or wade into a river with stones in our pockets. I don’t think what I want is difficult or complicated; I just want to live, doing what I love. I guess a lot of people live their whole lives without being that lucky. Here’s hoping I’m not one of them.

Back on the mainland.

Yesterday, I returned to Rhode Island from my third MFA residency in Mystic, CT. For ten days, I sat in pews, on beds, and around all sorts of tables, workshopping and eating and writing and reading and listening. More than 24 hours since leaving, my mind still buzzes with stories and inspiration. I’m letting the “real” writing marinate until tomorrow, but I felt a blog was in order after some time away.

Man, my English kicks ass when I get back from Enders, but don’t get used to it. I can see disjointed, grammatically incorrect posts coming down the pike. Damn that 40 hours a week of French.

This residency was not at all what I expected. To say morale was low would be an understatement–or, actually, an overstatement. It was in the toilet; pardon the pun. (I’m sorry. I’ll stop.) You see, by Day Three, the men’s bathroom had overflowed several times. By the end of Day Five, most students moved off-campus, since they had to shut off the water in the main residence hall. Yes, it was a full-blown “Septic Emergency.” My friends and I decided to stay behind, the Great Unwashed, sneaking showers and nursing plastic cups of Franzia while the sane students went back to their cushy hotels with private showers and running water. Wussies.

We made the best of it, but on a social level, there was a bit of a “funk” going around. When it hit me, it was the I’m Not Good Enough funk. The I Shouldn’t Be Here funk. When you spend 95% of the year on your own, working your butt off on your own stuff, you come to the Island with some pride. Good pride. Pride that says, “I kicked some ass on the page this semester, and I’m ready for workshop.” Your stuff is better than it’s ever been, and you have every right to feel accomplished. But there’s nothing like student readings to suck the confidence out of you. So much talent in one room, in one program. It got to me. After a good workshop experience and reinforcement from my buds, the funk passed. Franzia helped.

On a work level, though, this residency was a big one. I thought I got a lot of good ideas last time! This time around, with the expansion of my story more-or-less in place, the feedback I received was about characterization. This semester, I won’t be going out, but in. My characters need deeper roots, desires, consequences. It’s time to raise the stakes and really get inside these bad boys. I’m scared and excited all at once; this is really happening. I’m writing a novel.

It’s good to be back on the mainland, especially with this fire alive in me as I type. I can’t forget to rekindle it over the next six months. This fits perfectly with my New Year’s resolution: finish what you begin.

P.S. I have another story to tell, after this one. It came to me on the Island.

Balance.

My life never seems to have any sort of balance to it. If one portion of my life is going well, the rest is usually in the shitter. Like now, for instance, I’m kicking major ass at work, so it’s hardly surprising that the personal and writing portions of my being are circling the drain. I’m eating like shit, I’m feeling like shit, I’m writing like shit.

I wish I could attend to one thing without everything else going nutso. Or, better yet, I wish I wasn’t so single-minded and could juggle things more effectively. Instead I just chuck the same ball up in the air, over and over, while all the others roll around on the floor.

Sure, I have a lot on my plate: marriage, grown-up responsibilities, a full-time job, a full-time degree program, a novel-in-progress that’s making me plumb the depths of my grief every day. But everyone’s plate is full. I don’t know how to get better at this, but I hope I figure it out soon.

On the bright side, my final packet will be in the mail very, very shortly. As in, tomorrow morning at the latest. And my mentor will have it all electronically tonight. I can’t wait to wash my hands of this semester. It’s been difficult, even painful at times. I was pushed to new limits, and I learned a lot about myself as a write and a person. But not having to touch my own writing unless I want to until after the New Year is a glorious feeling.

Okay, off to try to learn how to juggle.