Friday, August 5, 2011

Writing on the Side, Part II

I've always written. My parents have saved various artifacts of my nascent writing career. There's a story I transcribed to a teacher in preschool, and my first book, a graphic novel written and illustrated on construction paper about the adventures of Fred and his best friend, a piece of bread come to life (called "Fred and Bread"). In fifth grade I had my first taste of true inspiration. While walking on the beach I had a fragment of poetry come to me and I spent dinner with my family finishing it on a napkin.

The encouragement I got from my parents for those few lines was amazing. Over the next two years I wrote many "poems," but in truth few of them had any spark to them accept the first I wrote on the beach. Even I could tell when I started clawing at words, desperately trying and failing to make something magical happen.

In high school I started writing again. I had some genuine inspiration and when that didn't come through I just covered it with slavish homages and mimicry of Beck's lyrical style circa Mellow Gold. My freshman year I joined the high school literary journal club, a shunned circle filled with young women who wore to much black make-up and had a deep feelings about the nature of stuff. I'm only a little sorry to say that I mostly felt contempt for the student-written pieces we considered for inclusion. The final straw came when we read a submission that started like this:

My life
is like
a deep
dark pit

... it didn't get better from there. To my surprise everyone in the club praised it heartily, for it's honesty, and for getting things so right. I was flabbergasted, but when I went home and re-read the things I'd written I realized they were no better. Right then, in my sophomore year I made the determination that I was done with writing, at least until I was sure that I could avoid writing only about the deep importance of my high school angst.

The amazing thing is, I kept this resolution. From time to time an English class would offer a creative option for a project and I would take it and usually do well, but I didn't even consider it again until I was registering for my first college classes.

I was determined to be a Cognitive Science major, but Oberlin didn't have it and so I determined that I would take Neuroscience and Psychology 101, and see which was more fun. With those and an English seminar I was at 12 credits, and so I began flipping through the course catalog (when did they stop printing course catalogs?) looking for something light to slot in. My dad, who had his own copy of the catalog, said "What about Technique and Form in Poetry?"

Mid-way through my first semester in college I was already doing so disastrously bad in Neuroscience that even 100% scores for the rest of the semester would only have been good enough for me to pass with a very lenient curve. In Psychology 101 I had severely alienated myself from the department when I got into an argument with one of the professors in class where I posited that reported rates of male depression were far too low because men don't seek help for their depression and it manifests itself in different ways (now acknowledged as obvious in most psych circles). The professor then tried to tell me that women, who have so many responsibilities, not to mention ovaries, really have far more to be depressed about than men. At that point I called her an idiot. Things devolved from there.

Meanwhile the class I was loving most was Technique and Form in Poetry. Professor Martha Collins was just a little quirky and very enthusiastic. Every week we were responsible for writing at least one poem. There were couplets, haiku, sonnets, prose poetry, and many more. For individual assignments she awarded check minuses, checks, check pluses, and on a couple rare occasions, check-plus-pluses. I never received a check minus, though Martha was not a push over, on a few a occasions she gave me the check, but commented that she felt my work was weaker that weak. Every week Martha put a couple poems up on an overhead projector for the class to discuss, and I found mine poems going up nearly every other week.

About 3/4s of the way into the semester we were required to turn in a handful of poems, these inspired by the work of another poet. I knew immediately what I wanted to do. When I'd first gone to the book store for my textbooks I had browsed the poetry section. There I ran across Pablo Neruda's Book of Questions and was captivated. They didn't have it in Oberlin's library (or maybe it was checked out) and so I kept returning to the bookstore, surreptitiously making my way through it. I determined that I would write responses to the first few pages of questions. Once I got going I couldn't stop. By the time I finished I had written 50 pages of poetry.

When I got to class I threw my manuscript into the stack by the TA. Then I waited one week.

The next week when I came in Martha was waiting for me at the door of the classroom. "Come to my office after class," she said, "we need to talk." Her tone was flat. She didn't smile. That day nothing I'd written was on the overhead. Martha began the class, "I received a lot of interesting responses to this assignment. Many of you took it seriously. Some of you took it VERY seriously." I felt myself go red.

I sweated through the class and when it was over I was the first one out. I waited a healthy amount of time, enough so I was sure Martha would be in her office, and then headed over.

When I arrived she was flipping through my Answers. The pages were covered with her pen marks, some comments, but mostly check marks and a few smiley faces. I began to relax, a little. Martha turned to me and asked, "So how long have you been working on this?" When I explained that the spirits had done it all in one night, she nodded once and turned back to the pages. Then she asked another question, "What's your major?" I started to say biopychology, but Martha stopped me. "No you're not," she said, "you're a creative writing major."

Since that moment I've never doubted that I, whatever else I may do in life, am first and foremost, a writer. It's not an easy career/life choice. I've had dozens of pieces published, but I haven't yet had a manuscript accepted. I have an MFA, but an MFA is apparently no longer a terminal degree. I've scraped by the last few years with writing-related jobs that barely support me, and while I love the job I have now it's not tenure track and I don't receive benefits.

This history, and everything I wrote about in Part I came flooding back when I had a student ask a question I think about often (in the conditional past tense):

I really like writing: should I major in Creative Writing?

It was so assured, so matter of fact, that for a moment I had no idea how to answer. I often wonder, should I have majored in Creative Writing? I was interested in economics, psychology, and computer science. Surely one of those would have me in a position to be making bank now. But at the same time I know there were many things I've written, that almost certainly never would have come into being.

I hemmed and hawed, I made allusions to Wallace Stevens. Finally, I told her to double major, or if she writes on her own to join writing clubs or school lit magazines and minor in Creative Writing. I told her, despite what I chose, to keep her options open.

But not everyone can be Wallace Stevens (in fact, I'd guess only one person ever can). For me, and I think many other writers, there was no other way. I needed the mentoring and the validation to assure myself that I was making the right choice (even if I question it at times). By writing for so long, with such focus, I've steeled myself. Even if writing on the side only makes it impossible to write a few good pieces in a year. Even if I have to scrape out a living and wait years (I hope not) for one of my manuscripts to be accepted for publication, I write not for a grade, or remuneration, or even for the adulation of my peers, but because I love it and I must.

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