Happy New Year.
As of the writing this update, The Douglass Street Lab starting on January 18th is sold out. Please contact me if you're interested in getting on the wait list or taking the next 8-week cycle of The Lab, which will most likely start late-March. I'm also on the lookout for new places to physically house The Lab. Mark, the current host, has been so good to me, but his sweetheart just moved in and I want to give them their space. Let me know if you have any suggestions as to a conducive, affordable place that can sit 10-15 people.
I started this update last week from the burbs of Pittsburgh. My sister-in-law Vicki was out of town, so I went to hang out with my brother and his three daughters for a few nights. One night I went out for a drive in the rain and came home to everyone sleeping. The East Coast's winter had stripped its trees and browned its grass and covered both with glinting frost. That and the ground soak of a sunny day's thaw and Pennsylvania's windy roads reminded me of the bittersweet time I last lived with my brothers, in 1985, in Massachusetts, when I was learning to drive, soon before I made the first series of choices that would turn me into a writer.
While in Pittsburgh, the girls wanted to read me their stories, show me their art, their photographs, their scripts. They wanted to hug me and hang on me and call me all sorts of nicknames. Jon admitted that he "totally relies" on Vicki for food so I whipped together some meals. My brother's instructions? "Do what you do to make it taste good and I'll do the dishes."
What a great way to transition into the new year: feeling loved, wanted, and useful.
Most people who've become writers haven't because they've spent their lives feeling the way I did at my brother's this New Year's. In fact, my senses are honed to pay attention to situations alive with mystery and contradiction, charged with static, things compelling and disturbing. When I first became serious about writing, I realized that its these situations I need to mine, as almost nothing else is worthy of fiction. Friends would occasionally comment about how detached I could seem in dramatic situations--and they had reason--because of the intensity with which I was observing and recording the nuances. I could be absolutely miserable about what was falling apart in front of me while simultaneously giddy, fascinated by what it might provide for my stories. This was true even when the thing falling apart in front of me was me.
Even in the early days of my writing, in the face of AIDS and watching friends die young, I'd become transfixed by contradictory details in the hospital room: the smell of maple syrup from under the plastic lid covering uneaten French toast on the table next to the plant where the new bud of an orchid flower had started to push through its spike.
This tendency, while good for my writing practice, I realize only in retrospect, kept me from fully experiencing relationships. Ignorant (or perhaps indifferent) to what likely started as a defense mechanism, I felt lucky, even if occasionally inconvenienced. I must have believed that I did what all writers do. I wasn't betraying my friends by using their personal lives in my fiction, so there weren't consequences. Instead of sordid details, I paid attention to tendencies, moods, the specific ways people reacted in extreme situations (bad or good). I paid attention to people justifying their bad choices, saying yes when they wanted to say no. Keeping score.I filled notebooks with facial expressions, imagined dialogue that I came up with while studying their expressions.
You may remember me writing about the first class of a former session of The Lab, one where I borrowed from a Michelle Carter exercise and asked participants to consider the thing they most fear writing. Not because it's so hardcore or punk rock or revealing or shameful (yawn)--but for fear of getting wrong. The subject or theme or experience so fraught with meaning that they avoid it for fear of failing to capture its depth and all its complicated nuance.
In that update, I talked about my relationship with my brothers. All of my characters have been the "only child." Soon after this discovery, I started writing about a character--like me in some ways--not at all like me in others--who has a complicated relationship with his brothers, full of physical distance, age differences, lifestyle differences. Much had been lost and disfigured because of the violence and addiction in their childhood home, causing the two older brothers to flee at young ages. The imaginative world revolved around the reuniting of the main character with a second brother after the third's death.
Soon after I started this story, I got a call from my own real-life younger brother who told me he has cancer. That was early November. Since then, I've made three trips to be with my family. Two to visit Paul as he goes through radiation and chemotherapy. He now has an excellent prognosis for a full recovery after a grim initial prognosis. He's finished with chemotherapy and only has a few radiation sessions left.
These past few months my real work has been staying present for my family. I never once thought of how the events might've worked in a scene. Instead I concentrated on the soup I was making my brother. Or sitting in the hospital room listening to the clicking of the keys of our laptops while he received his fluids through an IV. We all wanted to feel better, to try and have some modicum of control in the outcome, whether it was to get him to drink a Gatorade or eat some soup or take a walk. If I could be the one to convince him to do something "positive," when he felt too tired or depressed or overwhelmed, I could fool myself into believing he'd have a better chance of getting better because of me.
Of course this caused nothing but tension. My brother is a smart man. He understood the consequences the doctors explained about not remaining fed and hydrated. If he had been able to eat or drink when he did not; he would've. When I just sat with him and talked to him about his coaching (he's a soccer coach) or his daughter or whether or not to get our mother an ipad for Christmas, he seemed comforted. Or perhaps that's when I felt comforted.
I knew I needed to quit smoking and drinking years before I quit smoking and drinking. All of the signs were there. Yet no person telling me I needed to quit made me quit. The only advise that I ever got that helped me stop was my friend Michael's. He said, "Honey, smoke until you're done and try to enjoy it while it lasts. When you're ready, you'll quit."
2010 was a professionally satisfying year in some quiet ways, though it may seem on the outside, disappointing. In response to a difficult literary fiction market, my agent decided to concentrate only on non-fiction. I took the news in stride and used the time that had passed since I finished the first definitive draft of a novel manuscript and reread it and rewrote it. I finished the new draft over the summer and have started the new agent search. As tough of a time as "they" say it is to sell a first novel, with so much pressure from the big commercial houses to buy potential best-sellers, and with talk of electronic publishing making the literary agent a job of the past, it's also a tough time to be an agent.
I remember when I used to believe that the hardest part of publishing a novel was writing a good one. I've learned a lot about the business, and I'm moving forward in a multitude of directions. I also feel much more prepared than ever to continue writing in a time of transition. Why?
There has been a resurfacing of the close examination of what tragic things happen to students and teachers within academia. Does teaching in the MFA program make the writer weak? Does it rob him of his time he could be spending pounding away at the laptop? Is he so inundated with mediocre student work that it infiltrates the creative centers of his brain and render him mediocre too? Is he sacrificing too much? Do under-published academic writers become the most bitter people at parties? (I have seriously seen all those and more mentioned recently).
With so many great books and stories coming from those both in and out of academia, in and out of the commercial mainstream publishing world, it seems absurd to even engage in this discussion as if "it's good" or it's bad" to teach could be concluded. It's almost always someone who feels rejected by academia posing the argument as to why it's bad and someone struggling with his street-cred who valiantly defends the institution. We all make choices. I don't know a single person attempting to write--either within or from outside academia--who doesn't make a list of sacrifices and compromises to have a life including writing. And none of them are tragic.
And moreover, Who, besides writers, care about how writers write? Sacrifices are being made by people I know who're blowing glass, painting on canvas, collecting fine wine, raising kids, and passionate about surfing. Slate and NYT aren't running articles on that (but then again articles aren't written by glass-blowers usually).
To me it seems ungrateful, an excess of navel-gazing to even have this argument. There isn't a person teaching creative writing who couldn't apply for a different job and there isn't a person not teaching creative writing who couldn't pursue an academic life.
There is, at very least, an opportunity from within various academic environments to learn something enduring. Not everyone takes the opportunity (though many of my own teachers have and continue to) and that is to come out of oneself. I know that there are teachers who teach writing to gain a means to an end, but they must be plain stupid because it's too little money for too much work. At least in the adjunct circuit.
I want to read an article about those artists who see teaching as a separate and sustaining art form. One that allows the writer to listen and seek out and reflect back the kernels in early drafts that might lead an aspiring artist to risk more. Whether in or out of academia, most artists I know have a list of people in and out of the art world who they credit for helping them sharpen their senses and broaden their vision. I've met a few who seem to think that their so-called artistry and so-called vision comes entirely from within--but I've yet to meet one with whom I'd like to have coffee.
Which brings me to my concluding paragraph. It's a big thank you. This last year has been a tough one--I won't lie. Lots of little disappointments added up in my own creative career. I let personalities bug me. I felt as frequently wary as inspired by San Francisco's lit scene, but had to continue to be in it for work. Paul's diagnosis and the utter lack of control I had in being able to change it or do anything to take away his pain set me close to the edge. And it was teaching that saved me. Not every moment was glorious. No particular student breakthrough gave me the illusion that what I do is good. But seeing people engage, listen to one another, set out to earnestly help each other come closer to what they hope to write for fear of getting wrong. It moved me. Or rather, it kept me moving. So thanks. And Happy New Year.