What is it with writing?

presented as the Critical Introduction of her MFA Thesis

When facing this Critical Introduction, I thought hard about speaking on some aspect of craft. Something astute, like Jennifer or Carter. Yet I found that until I have had more publication (and let’s face it, publication is the benchmark of success), I don’t feel qualified to tell you all what I think about writing. In fact, as I’ve progressed through this MFA, I’ve realized how much I have yet to learn. Besides, Jennifer and Carter are really smart, and me, well, I’d rather commiserate with you all instead. Because I do feel that I’ve joined the writing community. Think of this as a bit of kibitzing in this rare environment of like minds. Consider it sort of an intellectual pep rally, spectating the world from the bleachers. Audience participation required.

I’ve titled it What Is It with Writing?

Ready? Here goes.

Since I began this MFA, when I’ve been at my neighborhood pool, or at parties, or at the grocery, there’s a conversation that has occurred, again and again. Let me take you through it. Feel free to imagine the sounds of children splashing, a raucous bar, or the clink of silverware. I’m sure you’ll recognize parts of this, so feel free to pipe in with any exceptional comments you’ve gotten.

The conversation goes like this, with slight variations:

“What do you do?”

“Oh . . . I’m a writer.”

“A bike rider?”

This is said with a puzzled look, because where I live there are so many professional athletes. Usually, I have to say, “No, a writer. W―R―ite ―r.

“Oh! A writer!”

“Yes. A writer.”

There’s an awkward pause.

“Oh! What do you write?”

“Everything. Articles, essays, ad copy, internet sites.”

“Articles! Where would I find your articles?”

“Well . . . right now I’m in graduate school, so haven’t been doing so much of that. School, and the economy taking its toll on magazines’ abilities to pay free-lancers has made me take time off.”

“Graduate school! Well . . . that’s great! For what?”

People seem to love the idea of graduate school. It sounds so . . . scholarly. Hooray!

“I’m getting my MFA in Writing.”

“Writing?”

W―R―ite ―ing.”

“What type of writing?”

“Fiction.”

“Oh! How―nice!” There’s an awkward pause. This time an assessment of my face, maybe my body. “What do you want to do with that?”

I’m willing to bet, if you’re getting a degree in accounting, nobody asks, “What do you want to do with that?” If you’re getting a law degree, nobody asks, “What do you want to do with that?”

W―R―ite,” I say, struggling to avoid a tone similar to that of my pre-teen daughter, and not always succeeding.

And they say, “Oh! How―nice! What type of fiction?”

“Short stories. Novels.”

“So you’re writing a novel?”

“Well . . . no. I’ve been focusing on short stories while I’m in school. They’ve been great vehicles to practice craft.”

“What would you do with those?”

“Well . . . I’d like to sell them to magazines. Well . . . literary journals, actually.”

“What are literary journals?”

“Well . . . they’re magazines that are published once, twice, three, four times a year, mostly by universities. They feature short stories, poetry, literary criticism, that kind of stuff.”

“Oh! How―nice! Who reads those?”

“Well . . . other writers, I guess. Maybe some ordinary folks, I hope. I aim to publish several of my stories from the program, and then sell them together as a collection.”

At this point, a glaze frequently settles over the other person’s eyes, and I think, Don’t― do―it! But I say, “I’ve sold two stories.”

“Really!”

The word sold brings them right back. Hooray!

“Well . . . not sold, actually,” I say. “They didn’t pay anything, and I had to buy my own extra copies, so it’s cost me twelve―dol―lars. But they’re really reputable journals.”

At this point I see the person wonder if I’m on medication. See true sorrow for my husband in her eyes. But I think,At least I didn’t say I wanted to be a po―et!

Sometimes the conversation will veer to how I hope, after a successful book, to teach in a program similar to the one I’m in, and the person will hone in on that chunk of concrete life. Usually, however, it careens into the other person saying (you know what it is): “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

I’m willing to bet an accountant never hears that. Never does someone say, “I’ve always wanted to balance the books for a big corporation,” and then describe, in excruciating detail, how the ledgers would look. A psychology student never hears, “I’ve always wanted to conduct therapy,” and has to listen to how someone imagines they’d steer a person away from suicide. A lawyer never has to hear, “I’ve always wanted to defend a murderer.” Even a painter rarely hears, “I’ve always wanted to paint.” What is it with writing?

I listen and nod and think of the countless hours I’ve spent learning to write. I think of how even here, now, after two years of rigorous study with some of the literary world’s best, I still doubt my abilities. How it would suck if this person did write that book, and it was way better than anything I could write.

I guess everybody just has a story to tell, and supreme confidence in his high school English teacher, which, having been one, is really nice. But . . . dang!

At this juncture, since I’m among my own kind, I find it useful to clarify another point. One that I could never, ever, say in that other world. I don’t really want to be a writer; I want to be a storyteller. My time with Pacific has been about learning the best possible skills to convey stories. I’ve said to my advisors John Rember, Hooray! Pete Fromm, Hooray! and Bonnie Jo Campbell, Hooray! that “I’m all about my readers.” I’m about most directly making that connection between my words and their imaginations. I want my readers leaning forward, squirming with discomfort, laughing out loud, wiping eyes, and staying up way too late. I want to be responsible for tardy dinners and tiffs between swimsuit-clad, sand-basted couples on vacations.

I came into this program on a mission. I wanted to emerge with a few published stories, the foundation of a short story collection, and the framework of a career. You know, nothing big. Fight! Fight! Fight!

In my first semester with John Rember, Hooray! I wrote him, saying, I’m not in this for fluffy self-improvement. He responded with (are you ready for this) : “It’s okay to be fluffy.” Really! John Rember said that! Hooray!Though I could see his point, it didn’t sink in.

I am hungry for fiction to be my career, to be able to eke out enough of an existence that I can legitimately say I’m a fiction writer for a living, however meager that living may be. Because what lies at the heart of this strange, repetitive conversation, is that nobody really gets to be a fiction writer, do they? It’s just a hobby. Step out of the dream world and get a real job. Even if the person admires you, she thinks you’re insane. Fight! Fight! Fight!

In my second semester, Pete, Hooray! encouraged me to keep my confidence through my stories’ tough scenes. In my third semester, BJ, Hooray! said, “Let go of your own aspirations for the story. Let the writing serve the story.”  This was and continues to be harder work than I anticipated.

People close to me know I had a rough childhood. Aww! I don’t talk about it a lot, but I don’t keep it secret. Most of it, I don’t remember. None of us kids do. I’m told it was a means of survival. But the bones of experiences return to me occasionally, and they are the genesis of great material. Hooray! I can’t resist, and because it’s not memoir, and because my memory is so hazy, I take huge fictional liberties. Especially with the endings. One of my proofreaders for my thesis called, saying, “It was hard for me to read about these kids.” I wanted to say, “This is fiction. This is gentler.” I expected all this.

My greatest surprise of this MFA process, though, has involved demons I didn’t know haunted me and surfaced because of the writing. And I had to learn to recognize when they were present before I could even face them.Fight! Fight! Fight! But face them I did. And I’m sure it’s just the beginning.

John Rember, Hooray! got me poised and ready via reading the dark psychology of Robert Bly and Earnest Becker, and by preparing me for the end of the world. Then Pete Fromm, Hooray! the most unwitting of provocateurs, through his unyielding demand that I dig deep into my characters and not allow them to be caricatures, his demand that I not suck―suck―suck, led me into territory that, if I hadn’t pursued this program, would have hindered the rest of my life. I didn’t tell Pete during our semester. I thought it might make himfreak―freak―freak, so I decided to tell him in person at the residency, where he could see I wasn’t insane as I said it. I sent in an honest mid-term assessment to Shelley that revealed this struggle though, and she e-mailed back, saying, “You’ll be not only a better writer, but a better person.”

I’m willing to bet . . . an accounting student has never e-mailed his program director saying that having to balance that ledger for a pseudo corporation made him have to face his latent fears of his mother. And if he did, well . . . I’m not sure he’d still be with the program. What is it with writing?

About this better person thing: more whole, perhaps, but functional? Well, let me show you. As my semesters have progressed, I’ve grown quieter and quieter. I’ve become reserved and selective about the friendships I’ve kept. I’ve whittled away my social time. I call my friends for bike rides or hikes infrequently. Usually, I go out alone. I can be non-committal about everything but my writing. About that and the time for it, I’ve grown headstrong. Dangerously so. And I hate to admit that I can see why Cormac McCarthy lived in a motel in Knoxville, Texas, or why Sherwood Anderson left his job and family. This writing isVortex―of―Doom, and I’ve peered over the edge. I could become mired in Pam Houston’s “swamp.” The strength of its allure frightens me.

And all of this for what? I’ve had two stories accepted, and they cost me twelve―dol―lars. Even with this success, another is not guaranteed. Maybe it was a fluke. In writing a story, Barry Lopez says I may save a life, but at times I worry that I destroy my own. Yet there is nothing else I’d rather do.

In my final semester, I surprised myself by realizing that I love to write humor. Seems it’s my natural voice, and I take it as a sign of how I’ve grown. With the patience of my husband and daughter. Hooray! With the constant friendship of Sue Staats, Loranne Brown, and Nancy Stebbins (my Princesses). Hooray! With the brilliant and patient advising of John, Pete, and Bonnie Jo. Hooray! With the support and advocacy of Tenley, Colleen, and Shelley. Hooray! With the support of this entire Pacific MFA community. Go team! Somehow, I’ve emerged at the end of this MFA-thing with the ability to wander into the abyss and stumble out laughing. Hooray!

I just don’t think an accountant, or a lawyer, or an architect ever learns that in school.


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