(Originally posted on March 27, 2009 on my main blog.)
I'm not one who has a favorite season. Each one offers its delights and literary opportunities. And each one its challenges (tax preparation, for example). But on a singular practical note, as a motorcyclist, Spring rules! Still chilly enough so you're not suffering in thick leather. Warm enough so you're not screaming IT'S SO COLD in your helmet.
Spring is also time for MA & MFA application results. Each year the number of letters-of-recommendation I write increases. Partly because I teach more students now than I used to. But another part is that so many undergrads just begin to grasp the concepts of the craft of fiction, and the possibilities they offer, and then they graduate. They want more!
Each year I see talented writers and students get their rejection and acceptance letters. It's always bittersweet. And with all things subjective, it's always surprising. I've already heard reports from disappointed students, with whom I've had my 3-year-plan talk. So many think it's so crucial to continue their study RIGHT NOW and IN COLLEGE. I try to remind them that being a student of writing is about being awake. Noticing the world. Paying attention. READING. Questioning your assumptions about people. Being a writer, I tell them from experience, isn't about a degree or a book deal. I tell them that if what they really want is to go to an MFA program, they should plan on working on their prose as full-time as life will permit. Then reapply. In the meantime, make the world the classroom.
That said, I can't help but be thrilled when I hear back from former students (both at State and in The Lab) who report that they've gained acceptance into the various programs. Several of my former students will be MA/MFA students at SFSU. Others have been invited to attend Columbia University, NYU, Brooklyn College, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Syracuse. These programs are so highly competitive it's practically staggering. So congratulations to them all.
Speaking of book deals... It's easy for me to hide behind process. Especially because I love teaching, and, unlike many other writers who teach SO they can write, I'm as happy with the word "teacher" as I am "writer" when people describe me. If I'm not careful, I can allow myself to think being a writer is solely about a way of seeing the world. I also got into a lot of trouble back when I'd just finished my MFA when I thought being a writer was solely about getting published.
In 2000, the year I turned 30 and finished my MFA, I got a story accepted to The Atlantic Monthly. From then on practically every short story I sent out got taken immediately. I had short piece up on the now-defunct EVO (Emerging Voices Online), the once-online version of The Mississippi Review. A New York agent contacted me after reading that story and asked if I had a novel. I did. It was, at the time, a controversial story about a young gay runaway who contracted HIV. Arguably on purpose. It was what I worked on the entire time I was in school. Both undergraduate and graduate. He read it. Loved it. Commented on it. I revised it. He signed me.
Looking back I can also see how my last year of grad school set me up to believe things that weren't true. Before my last year, I'd entered absolutely every contest available while in grad school. Both at SFSU and the wider local, State, and National. I received nothing but rejections for two years. Then, suddenly, in 2000, the floodgates opened. I won contests and grants. I had also been hired to teach from a highly-competitive pool of my peers. Nothing had changed except my luck. The only thing I could brag about was my persistence.
That combination of events really set me up to expect that my first novel would find a publisher. My agent was certain he could sell it. He had a plan. Then September 11th 2001 happened and things changed. The Atlantic delayed the publication of my story. My agent left. I got a new agent, but no one wanted my book.
At the time, I was living in Italy and trying to work on a second novel. I had nothing to send out because I hadn't written a short story in since college. My first novel took five years to write. The second project (which attempted to be a novel), I'd come to find out, was overly ambitious. Especially since I was trying to negotiate a new life in a new culture where I hadn't yet learned to speak the language. That project required the skill of Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison in order to pull off what it was attempting. And frankly, I hadn't lived long enough in order to earn it! (I plan on going back to that material again on my 60th birthday).
I tried for a while to send out excerpts to keep my publications going-but since I hadn't found the central conflict in the "novel"-I couldn't find it in the scenes either-and none of them stood alone.
That phase of my life was not easy. But now I'm really glad I went through it. I see young (and old) writers who seem happy when they're publishing and miserable and competitive when they're not.
I do not want to live my life that way.
It took a long time for me to get over the disappointments. I had to swallow my pride. For two years after I moved back to the U.S. and had started teaching at State again, I supplemented my income by waiting on tables. Sometimes my students would end up in my restaurant. It was humbling, to say the least, to recite the fish specials to the students who had been in my classrooms at a University.
There, I discovered what was important to me. I wanted to concentrate my energies on regaining a practice. On seeing how i might bring rigor and excellence into the classroom. I sought out opportunities to be of service to the communities that had been so good to me. I started working for Performing Arts Workshop. First as the Artist-in-Residence at LYRIC, then as an Artist Mentor. Once again, I was humbled by these people whose lives weren't defined by the outward successes of their own careers (which they were having all the time), but by what they were contributing to their communities. I'm lucky because I work with folks both at SF State and at Performing Arts Workshop who're so active as voices for their communities. Reading at fund raisers. Offering their time. Their names. Their endorsements. They're incredible educators. They bring artistry to teaching. And I really get why they're contented with their lives.
I tried the best I could to take their lead. To reconnect to how I was raised (both of my parents have always been very active volunteers and community participants). Then, finally, a new idea for a novel came to me. And now it's time to finish it. I received a grant for the manuscript when the work was in its early stages. Because of the huge generosity of a good friend (who happens to be my cousin) and his partner, I have a place to go and write in the summer, away from what could distract me here.
Now its time to finish.
The manuscript will require, as all manuscripts do, revision. But still, I have so little left to do (comparatively speaking) to get the story to my agent and couple of trusted readers.
Those in my field who I admire, the ones I was describing before, do not contribute to their communities or bring passion and rigor to their classrooms INSTEAD OF moving forward in their art forms. They do it in part BECAUSE they're always moving forward and finding new ways to express themselves.
DOUGLASS STREET LAB UPDATE:
The January Lab was one of the best yet. Highlights were a visit from Nona Caspers (above) who read from her book A Little Book of Days and discussed with The Lab participants how to look for the extraordinary which emerges from the ordinary. We were lucky to be the first stop on her tour!
Another highlight was the public reading we held:
Above, Labber Zach Grear reads to a roomful of word lovers as the fog moved east across the city as the sun set in the windows all around us.
There's another shot. A whole album of pictures exists if you'd like to become a "fan" of "The Lab" on FACEBOOK.
Thanks for reading and, as always, all my best with your reading and writing.