When I was little, I was a voracious reader. I left the library on Monday with stacks of books and came back on Friday to replace them. I read in bed at night, in the shower, in the car. As it does for many people, that changed for me as I got older. When I went to college, I was slammed with readings for classes. I tried to keep up with reading for myself, but academic and social demands made it harder. As an adult, workplace demands encroached upon my reading time, too. I saw the headline, “10 Books You Should Read This May” today and thought, “Yeah, right.” But it was schizoaffective disorder that really changed my reading habits.

A lesser-known fact about psychotic disorders is that they cause cognitive symptoms. They can make it difficult to focus, to communicate, to understand language. As my schizoaffective disorder became more severe, I found myself struggling to watch TV, to listen to instructions and, most devastatingly, to read. Texts that used to be easy for me became impenetrable and exhausting. I would beat my head against them for a few minutes and then give up, defeated. The literary fiction I’d enjoyed throughout my twenties became inaccessible. I couldn’t handle the philosophical, elliptical prose or the plodding plots. And theory? Forget it. My undergraduate thesis was on Lacan and Anne Sexton. I can still read Sexton…

The silver lining to this is that I started reading different kinds of fiction. I started getting into cozy mysteries and romance, both of which can be formulaic and predictable. I discovered that I enjoyed the fast-paced plots and familiar characters. I was able to chew through these novels much faster than I could the lit fic I used to read almost exclusively. I fell in love with falling in love as a plot point. I still read the occasional lit fic novel, as well as sci fi and fantasy, but cozy mysteries and romance are starting to become where I live as a reader. They are accessible to my hazy brain, which sometimes sees even long tweets and sighs, “NOPE.”

My schizo brain tells me to get to the point or get out. It has no patience for long-winded or circuitous exposition, no use for needless metaphor or excessive description. When I read discussion posts for school that go for more than 300 words, I tap out. If you can’t say it succinctly, my brain argues, don’t say it at all. My brain loves novels that have no fat on them, even if they are long.

There are points where verbosity is appropriate, but those are far less common than writers like to acknowledge. We write because we love words and language, and it’s sometimes painful to cut to the chase. But my mental illness has taught me that economy of language and quick pacing make for a fun, engaging read. The lit fic I read for years hardly merited such descriptors. It was often ponderous, convoluted and exhausting. In my twenties, in my desire to impress…someone…I conflated “difficult” with “good,” and sang the praises of many a Hard novel. But my mental illness forced me to admit that a novel you don’t enjoy reading probably isn’t all that great.

I don’t mean to say that literary fiction is meritless. Of course not. And I don’t mean to say that nobody does or should enjoy any of it. What I mean to say is that “hard to read” doesn’t mean “great” and “easy to read” doesn’t mean “inane.” Genre fiction isn’t junk fiction, as I wrote in this post. And literary fiction isn’t, simply by its nature, superlative. So while my mental illness robbed me of the ability to read 20 books a month and tear through lit fic like nothing, it also cured me of my literary snobbery. I’m grateful to it for forcing me to explore other genres and styles.

I posted my reimagining of Moby-Dick’s opening to our discussion board, but then I was faced with the second half of the assignment: critique. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not great at taking critique. I also struggle to give it in a way that isn’t soul-crushing and demoralizing. I don’t like lying to people, and I don’t like giving insincere praise. If I don’t have anything positive to say about your work, I don’t want to make something up just so your feelings aren’t hurt. I feel like that is insulting. That means I rarely give praise, especially for first drafts. When I started reading the reinterpretations people turned in this week, I realized that it was going to be a real challenge for me to critique softly.

I didn’t like any of the pieces that I read. From my perspective, most of them failed to embody the genre the writer chose. The one that did manage was so full of cliches that it bordered on parody (but not on purpose). I left a comment on one that almost managed contemporary romance, but I needed to leave another comment to really fulfill the assignment requirements. I asked Mr. Black what I should do when I couldn’t think of anything “nice” to say. His first suggestion was to make a compliment sandwich, which I don’t like to do. I feel like when you do that it’s obvious that the positive statements you make are just there to buffer the criticism. When people do it to me, I am insulted and learn not to take their praise seriously. So then he suggested reading an article about giving constructive criticism.

I read this article and this article. I was reminded to temper the critique according to the level of the writer and the stage of the draft. These reinterpretations were written by people who, for the most part, have never published anything. They’re mostly former English majors with a writing hobby that they want to turn into a career, and most of them have been writing all their lives, but are no more experienced with professional writing than I am. (I’ve published a few things, but generally I just write for myself.) And these drafts are 250 word drabbles that probably never even saw proofreading, let alone revision.

So maybe I should go easy on them? Part of me says no, you’re not doing anyone any favors by suggesting that something is Good or even Competent when it isn’t–we’re supposed to be preparing for lives as professional writers. Editors and publishers aren’t going to coddle our feelings and make us feel good about our crappy drafts. And if you’re turning something in, it shouldn’t be a crappy draft–it should be polished. But, as Mr. Black reminded me, I’m not an editor or a professor. I’m a student, and it’s inappropriate for a student to tear down another student even if my goal is to improve their writing.

And I’m not unaware of how arrogant it sounds to say that I have nothing nice to say about my peers’ writing. It’s not like my reinterpretation was Nobel material or anything. It has problems! But I won’t learn or improve if no one points out those problems to spare my feelings. I’d rather be torn to shreds and build myself back up than hear nothing but bland praise and watery criticism.

All that being said, I managed to come up with another comment for someone who had attempted YA. My biggest complaint was that what they wrote wasn’t, in fact, YA, but New Adult/Contemporary. So I focused on how they had managed to nail that genre instead. I felt toothless doing so, but I know that that criticism will be better received than if I had picked apart everything I thought they could improve.

So from this assignment I learned how to give a gentle critique, even though I don’t believe in them. I expect, however, that I’ll have to give a lot of them in this program. Hopefully the process will become less agonizing and maybe I’ll see that this approach works for some people? I guess we’ll see!

Four weeks into my MFA, we finally got a fiction assignment! It’s not that much to get excited about, but I’m so bored with rudimentary discussion posts and dull journal reflections that I pounced on it. We had to (re)read the opening pages of Moby-Dick and then rewrite them in the style of any other genre. Yep, another high-school level assignment. But at least it wasn’t, “Read this article and name the points you agree with”! I can’t post what I wrote here, since it’s homework, but I took a fantasy approach. We were only given a 250-word limit, so I didn’t get to paint very much, but I think I got enough in that the genre is clear and there’s a bit of a “what next” vibe.

I have to say I’m relieved. The last few months I’ve struggled to write any fiction at all. But rather than try to force it, I just let my brain rest and write other things (poetry, journal entries, long Facebook posts), trusting that when the time came to write some fiction, I’d be up to it. When I saw this assignment this morning, I was a little nervous! Would I be able to churn out prose that was even halfway decent? What if everyone else’s was better? What if no one comments on mine?

I’m glad I was able to sit down and write something, and I’m pretty pleased with what I wrote. It’s not earth-shattering or anything, as it’s a 250-word discussion post that I knocked out in 15 minutes, but it’s something! And hopefully people will comment constructively. Two other people have posted their reinterpretations already. One is a hard-boiled cyberpunk take and the other is contemporary romance. I’ll be commenting on their use of genre elements tomorrow, per the other half of the assignment. What I have to remember is that we’re all here, allegedly, to learn. So hopefully people will take critique seriously. That means making meaningful comments on each other’s work, as well being professional about taking critiques.

I’m not very good at taking critique, so I guess I project that onto other people. In undergrad, a lot of the “negative” feedback I got was from people who literally did not understand what I was writing. I’m not saying, “It was perfect, you just didn’t get it!” I’m saying, “You’re 19 and don’t care about this class at all, so you didn’t read the text carefully and now you’re lost. Also you don’t know what half these words mean because K-12 failed you.” Also in undergrad I’d get lots of people telling me they didn’t know what to say or what they’d change, which suggests that the work is either REALLY GOOD or REALLY BAD and is extremely unhelpful. And it’s not just undergrad workshops that suck–last year when I took this class, we had to submit a 4-6 page sample of our writing. I submitted pages from a faerie mystery I was working on, and someone assumed that “brownies” meant “seven year old girls in uniform,” despite numerous context clues to the contrary. Her entire response to the piece was based on this very basic misunderstanding. And as we all know, rejection letters from publishers and journals are often hopelessly vague and useless. So I’m not good at taking critique partly because I’m not used to getting useful critique. I’m really hoping that the MFA workshop experience will be more productive.

Anyway, hooray for our first fiction assignment! It’s gotten me all excited to write and hopeful that there will be more in the coming weeks. I doubt it, since that’s sadly not the focus of this course, but it would be nice, you know, to do creative writing…in a Master of Fine Arts…in creative writing…class…

Two weeks of MFA 505 down! This week was quieter on the discussion boards, as expected. I got my posting in early in the week and didn’t really chime in on any of the later threads. I know that’s doing The Bare Minimum, but the topic wasn’t very interesting, and nobody was making it interesting with their posts (including me, honestly, though I did mention The Schizophrenia, which other people seem to find a lot more compelling than it really is). I already did the journal assignment for next week, so tomorrow I’ll be getting started on Week 4 work. It’s weird to be in an asynchronous class WITH other people. When I took asynchronous classes at the community college, there was little to no interaction with the other people in class–it was pretty much just you and the instructor. That was nice, but I am looking forward to seeing how workshopping goes with this model. It’s lonely toiling away on these stupid busywork assignments in a vacuum, you know?

This week I took a break from my physical library books and read Goth, by Otsuichi. It was wild, like a lot of Japanese mystery horror, and had a lot of out-of-nowhere, Agatha Christie-type twists, which are also common in the genre. I enjoyed it, but I did read a couple of reviews complaining about the sorta ex machina stuff. If I were reading a different type of fiction, in a different genre, perhaps, that might bother me, but with mystery-horror I tend to just turn my brain off and Go with the story. 

That’s something I need to work on in terms of reading like a writer. I usually don’t pause and think, “I liked that. But WHY?” Nor do I usually ask myself why something works or doesn’t work–I just make the call and move on. Part of the writing life, though, is reading not just for enjoyment, but to learn and develop. It’s not the same as critical reading, the sort we did in college (or in a literature MA), where we read and analyze endlessly, applying theory to the work and teasing out meaning that perhaps the author didn’t even imagine. Rather, it’s like looking at a house and seeing it as an architect might, examining its structure and wondering why the builder chose this joist or that paneling, imagining why a family might want this house and not the one across the street. 

Honestly, it’s the kind of reading we were explicitly taught NOT to do in undergrad! I had professors tell me never to disclose whether or not I enjoyed a text, but rather to ask a question about it and then answer that question. That’s why I’m so bad at writing reviews! I’ve lost touch with the art of the thumbs-up. I can tell you whether a text is successful in critiquing the white savior trope, but not whether or not it was a Good Read. Reading like a writer, though, in part, demands that I say whether I liked something, whether it “worked” and then drum up reasons for that response. It’s still a thesis, just of a different sort. It’s something I’m working on.

So with Goth, I enjoyed the sudden twists because they fit in with the surreal world Otsuichi creates for his two leads. They are in an improbable place, with improbable events unfolding all around them. They are, themselves, unrealistic caricatures of high school students. So it makes sense that the monster is really the chemistry teacher all along (sorry, spoiler) or that that dog isn’t what it seems (again, vague spoiler, sorry). The nightmarish feel of the book is perhaps one of my favorite things about it. The violence is so over-the-top that it seems impossible. The characters are so one-dimensional that they can’t be real people. The book kind of reminded me of Silent Hill, in that it’s about a town so terrible (but normal-appearing) that it couldn’t possibly exist. If it hadn’t been done artfully, simply, it would be distasteful. But, just as I didn’t withIn the Miso Soup or Out, I didn’t find the novel lurid or trashy. Just surreal, in a dark way. Like a bad dream. 

To read Goth like a writer, I think I would consider the sparseness of the prose, and the brisk, walking pace of the plot. I would think about characterization and how Otsuichi manages to get the reader to care about and even root for its protagonist without knowing almost anything about him. I would think about the changes in narration and what effect that had on the plot. I’d think about how all of this came together to produce a novel I liked, and how to apply those ideas to my own work. I’m trying to think about all that! But it’s a new way of thinking about lit, so I’m stumbling along. I have a class coming up in my program, Intensive Literary Studies, that will probably help with this. I started the class last year, and it was largely Reading Like a Writer 101, which I need!

Another novel idea came to me! Actually, it’s an old idea that I discarded because I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I found a solution, and my immediate impulse was to start researching and planning. I checked out a bunch of e-books from the library, scribbled a ton of notes. And then I stopped myself. This is what I always do when I have a novel idea, and it never works out.

In NaNoWriMo parlance, I’m a planner for novels. For short fiction, poetry and essays, I’m a pantser. I just sit down and start writing until the piece is done, and then I patch it up in revision. When I attempt novels, though, I try to have an outline, I do research, I take exhaustive notes. The problem with this approach is that I always flame out, usually before I even begin writing. I do so much prep work that I either start to see so many problems with the story that I don’t think it’s worth starting, or I get sick of working on it and move on to something else. I wish I could pants a novel, but when I’ve tried that I always end up writing myself into a corner, getting stuck and giving up. I usually don’t have much confidence in my premises, so when I hit a wall, I never fight for it. I just give in. It doesn’t help that the one novel manuscript I did complete by pantsing was terrible. Plotless, boring and unusable. I ended up cannibalizing a few lines for poetry and scrapping the rest.

So this idea, to me, is as fragile as a soap bubble. If I let myself do my usual approach, I’ll destroy it within weeks. But I don’t have the confidence to pants it. Stephen Koch, in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, suggests that writers just begin. Just start. As if it’s that easy! I have no idea how to begin. This idea is in a genre I’ve never written in before, just like my MG fantasy idea, and I have no clue how to voice it or anything. I don’t even know where or when to begin in the story. And I’ve had so many false starts in the last year that I’m terrified to kill it that way! I feel like I’ve been given a rare and beautiful flower and I have no idea how to care for it.

I feel like a failure for not Just Starting, since that’s what all the advice says to do. Just start. Write your shitty first draft (nod to Anne Lamott). I’m just afraid of writing something that doesn’t go anywhere. I’m afraid of writing something so boring that I can’t stand to go back to it. And I do that a LOT. Koch writes that Vonnegut, I believe, taught his students to give their characters motivation right away. They have to want something immediately. And…I really struggle with that. I have a hard time getting inside my characters’ heads and figuring out what they want and why and what’s stopping them from getting it.

I used to do improv, and the worst thing you can say in improv is “No.” It stops a scene dead in its tracks. Instead, you learn to say “Yes, and…” And that’s what my writing needs. I just have no idea how to do it, so my scenes are meandering and static. I don’t know how to escalate. It’s funny–my adult life has been full of obstacles, but I can never throw them in front of my characters or raise their stakes. It was easy in improv because I almost always had a partner or a group to play off of. In writing, it’s just me!

Fortunately, I’m in an MFA program! I’m hoping that if I’m just patient and keep this idea warm in the back of my mind, I’ll learn to tend it over the next few terms. We’ll do writing exercises that will help me find a starting point and a voice. We’ll discuss novel-ing approaches and I’ll cobble together something that works for me. Rather than dive in and certainly doom this story, I’m dedicating it to the workshop. I’ll think about it and jot down notes when I don’t want to forget something, but I’m not going to Work on it until we start to approach genre and thesis in my program. I’m trusting that I’ll get the guidance I need to develop a dynamic plot and the confidence to write that first draft.

I hate busywork. I think everyone does. Unfortunately for me, this first class of my MFA is chock full of busywork. It’s all discussion posts and journal entries that do not require any kind of higher-level thinking. The first real assignment for the term comes from week 2. (This week literally all we had to do was post to the discussion board about which track of the program we’re pursuing and send the instructor the name and author of the mentor text we chose. That was, at most, ten minutes of work.) We have to write a journal entry discussing our own obstacles to writing, those experienced by a famous writer and those raised in our mentor text. Then we have to discuss how the articles we read this week and our mentor text can help us overcome the obstacles we outlined. That’s…it. This is an assignment I could give to a ninth grader. With the exact same texts. I’m gravely disappointed, even though I knew from last time that that’s exactly what this class entailed. It’s frustrating to be in graduate school, paying graduate school tuition, and doing 100-level work. 

This is probably going to be the hardest class of the MFA for me, simply because there is so much busywork. We have a few assignments that are more interesting, but for the most part it’s basic self-reflection and regurgitation. Not only is that incredibly dull, but it also doesn’t feel useful. I didn’t learn anything from that week 2 assignment that I hadn’t already gotten out of reading countless articles and books about writing, something I guarantee everyone in the class has done. The reason I chose to go for the MFA was so that I could learn skills and strategies that I couldn’t find in any “How to Write the Great American Novel” blog post. I chose the MFA because I wanted to dig into the processes of writing and workshopping and instruction. I didn’t want to prove, again, that I can read a high-school level article on writing and explain how it applies to my life. I’ve done that. Everyone who has taken English 101 has done that. 

I’m struggling to find the benefit in this course. If I can’t come up with something, I’m going to resent the class badly and have a terrible time doing the work for it. That would be bad because I need to maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep my financial aid, and if I let myself fail assignments because I don’t see the point in doing them (something I definitely did in undergrad), I won’t be able to do that. I know the course is meant to be a transition into graduate school, to help you get used to doing assignments and using the apps and platforms the program relies on, but this doesn’t feel like graduate school! This class is less demanding than the community college creative writing classes that I took for fun. The only thing I can think of is that this is an opportunity for me to work on dealing with demands like this. Doing things because they’re required, regardless of whether they’re useful or beneficial. 

I’ve always struggled with that. I’ve never been willing to do something just because it’s required. If someone couldn’t clearly explain the purpose or benefit of a task, I wasn’t doing it. I strongly suspect that this is part of my autism, and it has been with me all my life. As a kid, I was labeled as stubborn and arrogant for refusing to do work I didn’t see the point of, and my mom would constantly ask me, exasperated, why I wouldn’t Just Do It. It’s easy! Just get it over with! But I literally cannot. It feels impossible because it feels unfair. When I failed assignments in high school and college because I didn’t think they were worthwhile, my parents were furious. Why couldn’t I see that I had to do them to get the A? I can see that. I just don’t think it’s fair.

So maybe this class is really an exercise in reality acceptance. One of the pillars of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, reality acceptance means acknowledging reality without fighting it. It’s something my autistic brain really struggles with. I get obsessed with how things should be, refusing to accept the way they are, even if it hurts me to do so. I can’t accept that sometimes I have to compromise in order to get to a point where I can change things. (For example, I have to get through the pointless busywork of this course in order to earn my degree at which point I can be an instructor and teach my writing courses differently.)

I think it might be helpful for me to read some material on radical acceptance while I work through this class, because every single one of these assignments is going to be a battle.  Hopefully, that work will make it easier to get through my classes and accomplish my goal. 

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood and went to Goodreads to mark it “read” and skim the reviews, as I often do after I finish books. I was surprised at how polarizing the book seemed to be! People either loved it or loathed it, giving it either four stars or one. In reading some of the reviews, I came across the term “stunt blogger,” something I had never seen before. Apparently, it refers to a writer dedicating a piece to a project, usually one that involves some sort of lifestyle change or insanely difficult task. It applied to Held Evans in this case because the book is the result of a year-long project for which she attempted to live according to the Bible’s mandates for women. As I thought about that, I realized that this is kind of a stunt blog! I’m a non-writer writing about doing a fiction MFA and writing a novel, essentially a two-year project for which I have to change elements of my life.

While I don’t intend to write a book about the process, I suddenly feel better about it. Viewing it as a project, rather than as a necessary and critical step toward a career, makes it more approachable and, honestly, more fun. I feel less pressure, even though I still have to maintain a 3.0 in order to retain my financial aid. 

When Held Evans set out to live biblically for a year, she gave herself a set of commandments to follow, based on Bible verses about women. It makes sense to me, as I set out to live writerly for two years, that I do something similar. I’m not good at sticking to rules without accountability, so maybe writing them in here will provide that for me.Here’s what I’ve thought of so far:

  1. Write daily, even if it’s just a journal entry.
  2. Incorporate one lesson from my mentor texts into my life every week.
  3. Finish one book every week.
  4. Work on one piece of fiction or poetry per week and share it on the blog when it feels “ready.”
  5. Complete all of my assignments on time.
  6. Really participate in my class discussions, rather than just posting the bare minimum and dashing.

The list is a work in progress, so I’m sure it will change as I get into the project and get a feel for my coursework. But for now that seems like a good preliminary set. 

I’m excited for class to open on Monday, even moreso now that I’ve had a bit of a perspective shift. My advisor called me at about 9 this morning to check and see if I had any last minute questions and to assure me that there would be advisors on call until 9pm tonight to answer any that came up. This level of accessibility borders on the ridiculous, and I’m very grateful for it even if right now I don’t need it. I may be terrified of failure and very conscious of how un-writer-like I am, but at least I feel supported and know that if it all goes wrong there’s someone I can call!

Once upon a time, there was a boy. We hung out all the time, talked endlessly and everyone expected us to date and yet…we didn’t. Not that there wasn’t tension; there was, we just never broke the surface of it. Looking back I think we did have Feelings, but maybe not enough to sustain a Relationship or maybe the wrong kind and neither of us wanted to put the other in the position of saying so? I don’t know. Regardless, one night I was over at his place and he told me, point blank, to ask a question about him. Something I wanted to know. I couldn’t think of anything. I told him I was naturally an incurious person, and he said that I had better go. I’m going, I replied. I’m going.

I left his house feeling embarrassed and somehow less-than because of my in-curious-ness. It’s something I continued to feel bad about, whenever I thought about it. I’ve never been an insatiably curious person. I wasn’t the kid who pestered adults, asking, “But WHY?” ad nauseum. I generally accepted things if they made sense and ignored them if they didn’t. The things I researched at the library were things of practical interest to me. I read about pigs because I dissected one in Saturday biology class. I read about fish because I wanted an aquarium. I read about interior design because my mom gave me permission to redo my bedroom however I saw fit. I was a smart kid, straight-A student and everything, but I wasn’t driven by the kind of sparkling, precocious sense of wonder that people always paint smart kids with. I didn’t see myself in the clever, questioning protagonists of children’s chapter books. I was more like Chucky from Rugrats: accepting and afraid.

This boy, though, was the first person to force me to acknowledge this trait, and the first to make me feel inferior because of it. He wouldn’t be the last. As I continued on in college, I became an English major and took creative writing courses. In those classes, we were encouraged to take inspiration from the world around us. Ask questions that would lead to stories. Why does the man at the bus stop look so sad every day? Where is he going that fills him with such melancholy? What if he sprouted wings and could fly to his destination? What if he’s in the witness protection program? What if he has amnesia? What if, what if, what if. It was at this point, confronted with everyone else’s creativity and curiosity, that I began to question myself as a writer. Was I cut out for this? Do all writers have to have a thousand questions on their tongues?

I stumbled through the rest of my undergrad career, and then I got sick. My mental illness kicked into high gear and became the focus of my writing. I became a sort of confessional poet, shaping the dysfunction and disorder in my life into verse. I got good responses to my work and even published some. But then I left my abusive husband and started teaching and my “creativity” vanished. I no longer had anything to write about if I couldn’t draw from the poisoned well of my own life. I read wildly imaginative novels and stories, provocative plays and poems. I read articles about writers doing years of research to write historical novels, non-fiction writers interviewing hundreds of subjects for their own topical books. And I thought to myself, There is no way I can do any of that. I don’t have any questions.

As I approach my MFA with only the barest ghost of a novel idea, I suspect that my incuriosity has a lot to do with my massive writer’s block. If writerly texts and writers on Twitter are to be believed, the world is just bursting with the seeds of stories and novels. One need only step through one’s front door to be practically assailed with possibilities for writing. The trees? Ents! Your neighbors? CIA operatives! The weather? Controlled by aliens. Or whatever. The Writer, these sources assure me, sees with different eyes. But I don’t. The best stories I’ve written have been written to prompts, not Inspiration. And most of my non-fiction (take this blog, for example) is taken from my own life and thoughts, not exhaustive research.

So one thing I hope to develop over the course of my degree is this questioning engine writers are supposed to have. I want to train myself to stop taking the world at face value and to turn it over in my hands, to ask questions and to wonder about possibilities beyond what physically exists. This is a real challenge for someone who didn’t even do imaginative play as a child. (I dressed my Barbies and brushed my ponies’ hair, but I rarely came up with scenarios for them or acted out anything–they were just toys, not actors in a fantastic play.) But I feel like my writing has progressed as far as it can without imagination. I’ve already written all the gory, depressing details of my inner life and become bored with them. I need to look outward, rather than inward, if I’m going to tell good stories, and that’s a scary prospect for me!

My husband sometimes asks me to tell him a story, and to be honest, I dread that request. I find it impossible to draw a beginning, middle and ending from thin air. And perhaps it IS impossible. Most good storytellers don’t just draw from nothing. They draw from observation, from curious questioning, from postulating. I want to be able to remember the man at the bus stop and to spin a story about him. I want to be able to look at a situation from the news and build a world around it. My worst fear is that that’s not a skill you can learn, that it’s somehow innate to Real Writers. That some people just have it and other people don’t.

My second-worst fear is that this is something I was supposed to develop BEFORE joining the MFA. That the program is going to be all about refining my writing, not finding it. Last time I started this program, everyone was a self-described Writer. Most of the people in my class had at least four works in progress, some had stacks of completed novels. They talked about seeing stories everywhere they went. I felt like such an outsider, and I’m dreading feeling that way again this term. Does anyone do the MFA to become a Writer? Or does everyone already believe themselves to be one upon arrival? Can you develop a writer’s mind by studying the craft, or is it something you’re just born with and learn to refine?

There is one thing that gives me hope here. When I was younger, I played the viola. I was pretty good, but I hated practicing. (The reasons for that are for another post.) I did the bare minimum and skated by on natural talent. There was another violist at my school, Lily. Lily was extremely talented and easily won first chair over me. I was insanely jealous of her skill and raged at how unfair it was that she should be gifted with such talent and I got second-best. But then some important information came to light. First, Lily had a much better private teacher than I did. My teacher focused on musicianship and completely ignored technique, seriously hobbling me as I progressed. When I switched over to Lily’s teacher in high school, she was appalled at my graceless left hand and ignorance of basic music theory. Secondly, Lily practiced. A lot. Lily’s fingers were calloused and strong from the amount of time she put in practicing. Hours upon hours, where I was lucky to put in fifteen minutes in a day. What I had taken for natural ability was actually the result of painstaking work. Lily was better than me because she worked harder. 

Remembering Lily’s hard work makes me more optimistic for the MFA. I may not be a natural writer or curiously inclined, but maybe if I really apply myself to the process, I can develop writerly instincts or a writerly mind. Or maybe I’ll find ways to concoct stories with the brain I already have, figuring out my own kinds of strengths. Either way, I hope that hard work in this program will make me a better writer and, consequently, a better teacher. 

She stares intently through the fence,
Her job to guard where we pay rent.

Three strong legs and curious nose,
She follows where the stray cat goes.
Searching under cars in rows--
That’s how our walks are mostly spent.

She’s up each day before the dawn,
Pays no heed to my grumpy yawn.
No matter how I plead and fawn
She must go find where that cat went.

Single-minded as the sun,
She pulls and strains to find the one.
The villain who taunts her just for fun.
She loves the chase and she’s hell-bent.

This poem is a zejel, featured in the “Poetic Asides” column in the March issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. I cheated a little bit by using a slant rhyme for the opening couplet, but I think that’s OK. This poem was a challenge because the XXXA scheme felt super weird. In the column Robert Lee Brewer suggests that readers write a “pet” poem. I took the prompt very literally and wrote about my dog and her obsession with the stray cats in my apartment complex.

Lately poetry has been the easiest form of writing for me that isn’t journal-style non-fiction. It’s a return to the past, I guess, since poetry used to be all I wrote when I wrote for an audience. It feels good to write it again, even if what I’m writing isn’t as viscerally confessional as what I wrote in my early and mid-twenties. (Though, does anyone write as viscerally confessional poetry as they do in their early to mid-twenties? I sort of hope not!) I’m finally starting to expand my subjects beyond “myself” and “my feelings,” which feels liberating. Honestly it’s kind of oppressive to obsessively mine your trauma and pain for verse!

Speaking of mining your trauma, we are re-watching The L-Word at our house during this time of quarantine, and we are on the season where Jenny enrolls in a writing course taught by Sandra Bernhard. Bernhard, as Charlotte Birch, tells Jenny that she’s not a fiction writer; rather, she just disgorges her personal traumas and emotions onto the page and changes a few names. She’s a memoirist, and not a particularly good one. That made me think about myself as a fiction writer, and how I have such a difficult time coming up with stories that aren’t thinly veiled autobiographies. I wonder if nonfiction should really be my metier, too.

Nonfiction scares me, though, because you have to draw from outside yourself at some point! Nonfiction means research and interviews and experiments, all of which sounds a lot scarier than plunking myself down at Starbucks and just…writing. It also depends on a very strong voice. I once read an entire book about sea mice because the author’s voice was so strong (gentle and thoughtful, but strong). Can I write like that? I honestly don’t know. And my MFA doesn’t have a nonfiction track, so my academic opportunities to explore that are going to be limited. Still, it’s something I’m thinking about.

Anyway, I think poetry is my path back to writing fiction, so I’m going to keep working at it over the next few weeks.

The first day of class is a week away, and then my days will be busy with discussion posts, readings and papers once again. I read the bio for my first professor and I’m looking forward to getting to know her a little bit over the course of the term. Wondering what she’ll be like has led me on a retrospective of my favorite English professors, and I’ve started to think about why they were my favorites and what that might mean for me as I pursue this degree and career as an English instructor.

Oddly enough, my favorite English instructor was a graduate assistant who taught my section of English 101 at Northern Arizona University. I approached the class with reluctance and derision. After all, I had just transferred from a college so liberal-elite-minded that it didn’t even offer English 101, assuming that anyone who got in to the school already had the skills such a course would teach. It was required at my new school, though, and I grudgingly registered. I figured it would be a huge waste of time and an easy A. Such is the hubris of a 21-year-old transfer student. 

I was right about one thing: the course WAS an easy A for me. But it certainly wasn’t a waste of time. Steve, our instructor, changed the way I viewed English instruction profoundly. He was energetic, engaged and excited about the material in a way that my elite liberal arts professors had been too self-consciously academic to permit. This is probably because Steve wasn’t a career academic. Before taking the plunge into graduate school, he had done all sorts of things, including working in construction and logging, offices… He was a renaissance man in an era when most people train to do one specific thing for the rest of their lives. He was a Brit in America, also, which lent him a unique perspective on our educational system, something he touched on from time to time.

What I remember most about Steve was his fascination–obsession?–with Jimmy Santiago Baca. He loved his work and his story, and he shared both with us enthusiastically, using it to teach us that with literature anything was possible. No conclusion was foregone. I never really got into Baca, but whenever I see his books on a shelf I’m reminded of Steve and his eternal optimism. And perhaps that’s why Steve is my favorite instructor. Because what I remember of him isn’t what he taught us about formatting and citation and flow, but how he shaped my view of literature as a great liberator, a force for empowerment. Previously I had thought of literature as sort of inert, something you dug up and studied and maybe loved, but which ultimately remained separate from your self. Steve taught us that literature was alive and vital and that we were a part of it, or could be, if we so chose.

I took those lessons with me for the rest of my undergraduate career and tried to center them in my work as a high school English teacher. I didn’t want English to be an object, something my students picked at or stared at from behind thick plate glass. I wanted it to be something they could consume and embrace and engage with. I don’t know how successful I was, but that mission continues in my quest to become a college English instructor. I know that a saddening number of students nowadays take English only because they have to, and they do so with grim dread. They don’t want to read or write or analyze. English, they think, has nothing to do with what they want to do with their lives, so why study it?

And unfortuately, the job market bears out that mentality. We have developed a widget-making economy, where individuals are expected to amass years of experience doing very specific things. If you don’t have that specific experience, it’s very difficult to find work in that field. Ask any former teacher how hard it is to find work in the private sector with only the (hundreds of) soft skills that a life of leading, guiding, instructing, demonstrating, evaluating, reflecting and analyzing produces. So while a liberal arts or English education provides a wealth of skills and builds character, those skills and traits are simply not valued in the job market right now. So how do you sell English to a bunch of undergrads going to school to advance their careers? 

I’m hoping that drawing on Steve’s passion for literature as empowerment helps me to do that. I hope I can impart to my students that while rhetorical analysis may not be a resume-ready skill, it will enable them to watch the news with discernment. That applying psychoanalytic theory to a novel may not directly land them a job at corporate headquarters, but it will allow them to make sense of and connections between the stories unfolding around them and in their own lives. And isn’t making connections what life is all about? That’s what people tell me, anyway. 

I hope, then, that I can be the kind of instructor who helps my students see that literature is like a magic mirror for our world. Texts allow us to see and to be seen, to hear and to be heard. They give us the gift of insight and perspective, guidance. They open doors for us. They’re not just sheaves of paper bound together with string and glue.

I never saw Steve after that class, and I transferred out of NAU after another semester there. I looked him up while writing this post, and found that he is a director of education at a college a few states away. He spent several years teaching English and education there. He’s into tai chi. I’m glad to know that he is still out there influencing students and promoting education and lit. Maybe I’ll write to him and let him know just how significant an impact his little English 101 class had on me 16 years ago. 

What about you? Who have been the most influential teachers and guides in your life? How have they shaped the writer, student or teacher that you are today? What do you hope to carry forward from their teachings?