MFA Nostalgia

Last night I visited my old campus. It’s a city campus, walled in, where I spent two-and-a-half years in MFA courses (I took an extra semester for thesis workshop) and then two-and-a-half more years “writing” the thesis (more like keeping my cheap & cushy couples housing that I won by lottery) and more years have passed since even those. After I graduated, and thus lost the apartment, E and I moved out of the neighborhood and now I rarely go back.

I’ve been in regret mode lately: I shouldn’t have started my MFA straight out of college, I just wasn’t ready. I shouldn’t have gone to such an expensive school. I should have graduated straightaway instead of keeping that apartment (although dodging the loan payments sure was helpful). I should have used my connections to get a more interesting job. I should have used my connections period. Mostly, I should have made better use of my time there. Should have, could have, you know the rest.

So it was with trepidation that I took the subway there last night. I was meeting a friend nearby, but I got off a stop early, my old stop, just to have a look around. My supermarket is gone, the building now turning into condos. My favorite newsstand is still there, with the great selection of literary journals, as usual. They didn’t remember me. The famous diner where E and I got food poisoning (we suspect the french fries) is still there. The bar I never really went to is gone. I felt out of place, and yet right at home at the same time.

I kept walking. I approached the gates of campus. The lights were up in the trees, just how I’d remembered it. I walked in to the middle of the lawn, where the buildings spread out all around me, and it all came back in a wave: how happy I had been there, how much I had loved it.

I had to take a moment, so I sat on a bench. This same bench, overlooking the main campus and just below the art school, is where I have a clear memory of sitting, my second year in the program. I recall it clearly: I had come from a workshop class that had gone really well, and I was delighted, and embarrassed, by the comments I’d received. I was living three blocks away with E, who was about to start film school. I had just starting writing the manuscript I thought would become my first published novel. I was editor of the literary journal. I knew it would soon be over, all of it. And I told myself to remember that moment, because there would come a day when it would be so far over I wouldn’t even recall what it felt like to be there. I’d be paying off all those loans I blindly signed. I’d be working a boring job. I wouldn’t have the time to write for hours every day.

I was right, here I am, and all those things have come true. So was it worth it? Before the trip to campus I would have said probably not. After, though, and especially during, I would have said maybe.

Maybe it was.

But also, sitting there on that bench on the night-lit campus, I looked up at the art school where I had all my classes and felt . . . incomplete. Like I haven’t done right by the experience as of yet. Like I’m not working hard enough. Like I should be sitting here now, in the 40 minutes I have left before I go in to work, and be writing something real instead of this post. Something is missing and it’s all on me. Whatever I expected of that experience hasn’t happened yet.

On the subway ride home, hours later, I ran into an old acquaintance from college far, far away in the Midwest. A coincidence. Another coincidence was that the friend who was with her had finished an MFA in the same program I did, a few years after me. She leaned over and asked how it was going. I shrugged and said okay I guess. So that means no million dollar book deal? she asked. No, I admitted. And she laughed, and I laughed, and how absurd that is to wish for, to expect. My own delusions are so simple now. I just want to finish writing a good book and get it published. You could pay me two dollars. That would not help me pay off my student loans, but it would sure be the best two dollars I’ve ever come across in my entire life.

I’m feeling a little more motivated now. I want to live up to my own expectations. I want to go back to that campus one day and have not a single doubt remain. It could happen. My spot on the bench is waiting…

Top 10 Reasons Why It Is Time to Go to Bed

  1. It is 7 minutes to my bedtime.
  2. I didn’t have a bedtime as a child (my mother didn’t believe in them) and yet now that I am “older” I do because if I don’t go to bed by a certain time I am unable to wake up in the morning and my day is completely shot.
  3. Tomorrow is Tuesday, i.e., staff meeting at work, i.e., the day is already shot.
  4. My eye is puffy for no reason and I am the only one who can see it. I may be allergic to my own hand.
  5. I also may be imagining the puffiness.
  6. Maybe I am making myself sick in an allergic reaction to my life.
  7. A girl at dinner had her first book published at age 13.
  8. No, she laughed, it was actually age 15.
  9. Both make me equally depressed.
  10. Maybe I will be inspired to write tomorrow. That is reason enough to make the effort to crawl into bed.

Unable to E-nun-ci-ate, and Other Story Problems

I’m at a difficult spot in the short story I’m writing: the final scene where it all comes together. The how-did-this-happen, the full circle, the change everyone says you must come to in a story, the WHY. To be honest, the story is about me, but no longer about me, it’s more personal a piece of fiction than I’ve written in a long time. This may be why I’m treading water in this scene, unable to fully articulate what it is I want to say.

It isn’t helped by the loud, drunk group two tables away. They stayed up all night and now here they are in Starbucks not yet willing to part ways to head home. They are distracting, with yelled conversations such as “You used to suck drugs?” “No, I used to sell drugs.” And the laughter. And no one will sit in a table near them, except, I suppose, for me. (I needed the outlet.)

The scene stares back at me. I don’t think I will find the way deep into it today.

I have a fellowship application to mail. I have a pile of work on my desk at work. Friends to meet for lunch, then dinner. A busy week. But I’m at the scene, the scene! How ever in the world will I be able to find the words to explain it?

In a sense, I have been writing this story since 1998. I remembered a story I brought to a grad school workshop that first spring—the story didn’t go over so well, as I remember—and I put it aside soon after and haven’t gone back to it since. But maybe this is my way of going back to it. I’m realizing that while not a single word, not even the concept, nor the character, is the same as it was then, this story has the same heart, it is trying to say the same thing.

Will I be able to finish this story this year? A single story, 25 pages, it feels like it’s taking a lifetime. I don’t even know if this version will be the one. It all depends on this one scene.

Not too much pressure, eh?

Where I Write, Suggested Improvements

My weekend writing spot would be better if they fed writers intravenously from convenient tubes in the desks. I can never decide what to eat—a character flaw—and taking the time to venture downstairs and out of the building is a distraction too dangerous since it involves seeing all the colorful windows and crowds on Broadway and I do not want to buy a new shirt at the Gap.

I miss the MacDowell picnic basket.

Also I could use a more ergonomic chair, one that reclines completely flat and has pillows, on which to “think” between sentences (okay, nap).

The coffee machine should drip perfectly foamed mochas.

While we’re at it, time should stop upon entering the writing room, a force field where clocks do not hold to their measured digits, and so if I get here at 10:00 and write for 8 hours straight it is still only 10:01 when I pack up my stuff and go home. I’d get a lot more done that way (and my apartment might not be such a mess).

In addition, I’d like to be transported to the bathroom in the hallway on a direct chute so I don’t have to remember to get the key and so be out in the hallway and then have to return to get said key, and be interrupted by a writer who does not know how to use her new cell phone and wants me to show her how to check her messages, then finagle a way out of that to get the key to go to the bathroom to go back to the desk to realize I forgot the next great sentence I was repeating again and again in my head.

I like the sound of rain and it helps me write so maybe there should be mounted speakers that pump out a raging thunderstorm so I feel really inspired… except that may make me need more trips to the bathroom.

I probably should not be allowed to have Internet access.

And if this were a perfect place for a writer, specifically me, the writer of enormous anxiety and self-doubt, a little publication fairy would pop down from the ceiling when I finish a great story and snap it up before I even have the chance to print it out, preferably a fairy employed by Open City or Tin House.

Other than that, this place is all right.

A Whole Life in One Story

I’ve been carrying around a short story anthology for a couple of weeks now, reading a story in the mornings with my coffee when I have the spare moments. Today I wanted to go straight to my writing spot, but upon starting one of the stories in the anthology I couldn’t move until I reached its end. I was at a table at the coffee chain I always find myself in, and the mood was just right for short-story reading. The place hushed, not too much high-pitched foaming on the part of the baristas, no loud people, not too many students because most must be home with their families. I had a table to myself in a corner. The story was many pages and I sat, engrossed, until I had reached the end: “Passion” by Alice Munro. I’ve read it before. The first time in The New Yorker, before I let my subscription lapse in favor of subscribing to something else. The second time when I bought her book Runaway. So it wasn’t new to me, this story, and yet so many of her stories have a similar feel—the small town girl, the event that changes her life, the looking back from faraway—and so at first I wasn’t sure which one it was. Then I knew, and it got me excited, and I dove in to read it again. I admire Alice Munro’s short stories so much—how is she able to fit an entire life into a single story? She focuses on one defining event and yet the rest of the character’s life can be seen there as well, under the surface or off to the side, moving beyond the space of the story, just as alive as if she’d written it and included it on the page. No more is needed. And at the same time it could go on forever. It’s a perfect balance. I’ve come to expect it, and still come away surprised, and in awe, at how she pulls it off. That’s a successful short story. It’s humbling now, as I sit here, about to continue work on my own.

The Real Fellowship Essay

I won’t post it here, but today I completed the actual fellowship essay that I’ll be sending off next week. It’s honest but not as sappy as previous drafts. I have tried to remove all trace of desperation, but the fellowship committee may still be able to sniff it out when they open the envelope. I might need to add perfume.

The chances of getting this fellowship are laughable, so it’s one of those “pick me! me! me!” letters you throw out into the wind and see what happens. I don’t want to agonize over the answer this year, so I hope I’m able to shove it into a back drawer until notifications are mailed this spring. There are so many other things I want to apply for—for the summer, and next year. I simply want something to happen. The more you try for, the more you might get, or so the theory goes. So, this year, I am going to put my name in every hat I see.

Within reason. I most definitely do not want to become the next “American Idol.”

Distorted Memory

Memories are twisted. They’re worse than play-doh. Let’s just say I had a friend, and we spent many years together, and many of my memories are tangled up with this person, and I would only assume, I would have to assume, that her memories would be the same. Or similar. Or at least have mention of me, somewhere.

I unwittingly discovered this person’s blog, on which was her life story. In it, I did not exist. The years I spent at her house were described as solitary years in which this person was a “loner” as if she had no friends at all. All those years, constantly sleeping over this person’s house so as which to escape my own, being together during school, and after-school, and on weekends, and during holidays and beach vacations and parties and every possible element of my childhood I can think of: gone. Did her memory erase me? Am I that easily forgettable? Or was I not what she needed at the time, and I had no idea until now?

As a fiction writer, I often rewrite my memories. Literally. If a story of mine is somehow loosely related to my real life it has a way of becoming more real than the supposed real life, the memories competing with what is on the page, and the page always wins. So I can’t complain that I’ve been written out of hers. It just makes me question myself and what happened. My memory is getting flimsy.

This must be why people get tattoos. (Besides the fact that they look sexy. Yeah, e, and by that I mean you.)

Lecture to Self on a Two-Day Week

Dread is not called for here. It’s only Tuesday, and the week is up after today. This is a holiday week, a happy occasion, so be happy.

Sit awhile. Listen to the Dresden Dolls. Sip your mocha. Cover your head with the scarf so it feels like no one in the whole Starbucks can see you (that’s called magic, folks). Other people’s career aspirations have nothing whatsoever to do with your own. It doesn’t matter who brags about their window office; you’re floating above it all, windowless, so let them speak their Greek.

This is your day job. It is not your career. Artists have day jobs all over the city and at least yours doesn’t involve balancing stacks of plates, since you’re such a terrible klutz. See? If you drop a book it doesn’t shatter.

As a kid when forced to spend those endlessly long days at the factory, watching your parents work, you had a favorite game called “Office.” Remember? You would form the shipping cartons into walls and use old rusted desks and chairs with broken backs to arrange your own department, at which you did… something indefinable. You stamped pages, scrawled signatures for no reason, answered dead telephones, photocopied reams of your face. This was fun at the time, playing grown-up, and now here you are doing just that. You have a desk! You have walls, and they’re not made of cardboard! Your phone works! Your signature counts for something! Even though you do not spend hours photocopying the myriad expressions possible on your own smushed face I know there is a tiny itty-bitty part of you that remembers the days of playing “Office” and thinks it funny that you’re there at all, business cards and everything, like an impostor.

Fun, huh? Yeah, that’s the spirit. Besides, it’s still early and you don’t have to leave for the actual office for over an hour. Write your story… while you still can.

Start Small

I’ve started small. There are many things I want to write—some I’ve admitted here, some I haven’t admitted even to myself. So much to do, and such small scraps of time in which to do it. So I’ve narrowed my focus this week, holiday and all. The story I’ve returned to is already 25 pages long, and yet filled with holes so gaping I can shove a foot through, oh and the character is smarter than I am and thus harder to write, and it takes place upstate, and it somehow involves the Black Plague, in passing, about which I know nothing, and guest stars my own father, with whom I have not spoken to in years, and the car being driven is a black Rabbit, and I have dreamed about it before (the story, not the Rabbit) and so I want it to say so much. It sounds outlandishly large and scattered when I explain it like that, but really it’s a sentence here and a sentence there and somehow, someday soon the sentences will all come together into a semblance of a story. (This is what I hope.) Fact is, I am writing a story instead of revising the one novel or writing the new other novel just to get into the habit of writing for myself again. It’s a lovely feeling to write anything I want. ANYTHING! Yes, when I type in all caps I am happy.

Magic

An old friend who has come to visit is a magician. I didn’t know until last night, and it thrills me. I am the most gullible person when it comes to tricks. I want them to be real magic. I do not want to know the secret (please do not tell me). When his trick made it seem that he had guessed the exact card I had picked from the shuffled deck in my mind, I felt a pure thrill, a shiver up my spine—no joke. After we left, I couldn’t stop talking about it. “How did he do it?” I asked E. Then added, “No, don’t tell me.” Then, “But, really, HOW did he do it?” And on, and on. There should be nothing wrong in believing—hoping—wanting something to be entirely unexplainable. He saw the Ace of Hearts in my mind and pulled it out of thin air. That has to be it.