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Year’s End

So today is a time of reflection, as it is for many. I look back on this year, and see that I pulled off one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: apply to enter a creative-writing MFA program. I’d say that this particular type of  graduate program is more grueling to enter than most for two reasons. First off, you must write a substantial body of work that represents the best writing you’ve ever done. It means putting everything through nine or ten drafts.  And then you “finish” the writing and send it off to the schools, and because you are an artist, you find a million things wrong with it and are convinced it’s the worst writing ever.

Second, the norm for the creative-writing MFA is to apply to many programs–ten to fifteen is the norm, I’ve applied to fourteen–mainly because the acceptance rates are so low. And the process to apply to each school is entirely different from one to the next–right down to how much writing you need to send to a school. Though the standard is 20 to 30 pages, one school required 15, another 50.

Sadly, not much has gone on in my life this year beyond this process. I continued with classes, and continued to do well there. I tendered my resignation with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus to aid my transition to the next phase of my life. I just got the news that I will soon be starting a new job as a writing tutor at my school’s tutoring center. Friends died, new friendships were formed, and life continued.

Looking forward to the next year, I will hear in February and March where, if anywhere, I will go to graduate school. Then I will plan my next move. I’m excited about my prospects.

I don’t believe in resolutions. But I do like challenges and goals. So the challenge I have set for myself for my writing at the moment is to write 26 essays. The idea behind the essays is that their themes will go in alphabetical order. I won’t guarantee I’ll do them all in 26 consecutive days, but I will do my best to approximate that pace. I will post these “alphabet essays” to this blog.

I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year’s celebration. Stay safe and have fun.

End of an Era

It was just May of last year that I had my first-ever creative-writing course, Introduction to Creative Writing. That summer, I learnt that I knew nothing about writing. And I’ve spent the year-and-a-half since learning as much as I can about writing. And now I know more than nothing.

It was only about a year ago that I first considered entering a creative-writing MFA program. It was an easy decision, because academia is where I fit. I’ve invested much of the last year in choosing graduate schools, refining my writing sample, filling out applications, and, of course, continuing my undergraduate education.

Last night, I finished up my Advanced Creative Writing class, my last-ever undergraduate writing course.  It was a bittersweet time. I’m so appreciative of my instructors and classmates–all most talented–who have done so much to help me improve my writing. I know the relationships I’ve established will continue for years. But I will miss the regular camaraderie and sage advice.

Still, now it is time to move on. This spring I have a couple of art classes to finish my minor. I hope to learn soon whether I have a part-time job as a tutor in my school’s writing center. I’m taking up some volunteer opportunities, investing in hobbies, and otherwise biding my time until I hear back from the graduate schools roundabout March.

I know that, in the coming months, I will be spending more time on this blog. As I continue to explore and develop my writing, I find myself turning more into an essayist, and this blog is the perfect place for me to develop this new facet of my writing.

And then, who knows where I’ll end up. So much depends on what the admissions committees decide. All I know is that it looks like I will be in a much different situation this time next year, and I’m bursting with excitement to find out what my next step will be.

Limited Time Offer

My last post generated a bit of controversy amongst readers and friends. Some insisted that I thoroughly could write fiction if I chose to dedicate the time and effort to improving my craft. I was perhaps a bit too surreptitious in the first paragraph–I wanted to allude to the fact that, indeed, there is some choice involved.

However, I still maintain that I can’t write fiction, and here is why:

At present, there are forms of writing that in which I am far better. I write memoir and poetry well. I’m further ahead the learning curve with both of those art forms. And I have a pressing deadline: I must have writing samples prepared for graduate school by the end of the calendar year. This must be the best work I’ve ever written. And it needs to be in the genre I choose to write for graduate school. The schools want me, amongst other things, to write in the forms in which my writing is most mature. My fiction writing is not possibly going to get there by the end of the year.

There is another, deeper concern involved as well, also related to writing. I don’t have much time to write. I don’t mean in my day–I mean in my lifetime. All I have to do in life is a limited-time offer.

Act now and we’ll throw in this free waffle iron! Photo by Cloganese. Via Flickr.com

I’m not wanting to sound alarmist and melodramatic, prognosticating my death. But I have to be honest. I wasted an entire decade of my life in ex-gay therapy–time I couldn’t commit to personal or professional development because it all had to take a back seat to the impossible attempt to turn into a heterosexual (or a giraffe, which was just as likely and just as necessary).

And I can’t necessarily predict a long life, either. Though my mother’s family tree is filled with centenarians, it’s hardly the case for my father’s side. Indeed, I buried my father when he was only 59. I am also (as I have discussed previously) diagnosed with psychiatric illness. Those who suffer mental disorders can expect a lifespan 25 years shorter than those undiagnosed. And it’s not because of suicide, like you might think, but rather from physical ailments that go untreated because doctors ignore symptoms, believing they’re just in the patient’s mind.

Believe me, I hope to beat every one of these statistics and become yet another centenarian to grace my family tree. But, with all of these factors taken into account, I perhaps am more deeply aware of my mortality than some. Seeing a parent die when you’re only 23 can do that.

So I run on the assumption that I’m not going to be around as long as the next guy. And I have a lot that needs to be said. I often say that mine is a case of the message being more important than the messenger. And I write so that something of me will live on after I die.

So it’s not for lack of desire that I don’t write fiction. I simply must focus my energies on my strengths, so that something worthwhile comes of the time I have left on this planet. This to me is far more important than my random desires.

Among the Leaves

Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.

Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.

But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.

At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”

I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)

The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.

He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.

And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:

If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.

Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:

Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.

Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.

[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]

Write Every Day

“Write every day” is a common maxim offered to young writers. The idea is that, like a muscle, you have to keep your writing in shape in order for it to get stronger, and, like working out, it’s very easy to let the pressures of everyday life pull you out of the habit.

Not every writer agrees with this statement. One of my instructors, Alison McGhee, doesn’t believe this is a hard and fast rule. She is much more of the mind that each writer must discover what works best for himself and just go with that. If that means writing every day, go for it, but it’s not guaranteed to work for everyone. I concur that this idea makes a lot of sense.

Yet I know that I need to be diligent about writing. It is easy for me to fall out of the habit. So many things distracting me. But the strangest thing distracting me from my writing is writing.

I, of course, have this blog, which got a little bump in readership this week. As a student, I have my coursework, and I don’t have writing classes every semester–it’s all in the luck of what’s offered. I have writing samples to put together for the graduate-school applications I’m submitting this winter.

(This doesn’t even get into reading. As a writing student, I’m not only to read for school, but also “free-read”, so that I am exposed to the best writing out there. This is not easy when you read slowly.)

And I have other obligations, like anyone: my school’s arts/lit magazine (of which I’m an editor), my school’s writing club (in which I’m vice-president), Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and making sure I have my domestic, social, and recreational needs met.

In juggling all of this, I feel guilty when any one of these things slips up–and it’s often because I’m busy meeting the obligations.

But I had a revelation over the weekend. On a certain level, writing is writing. It’s all practice–especially as a beginning writer. And it all overlaps. Many of my publication submissions come from my schoolwork. I’m considering reworking blog posts for some of my grad-school applications.

For me, to write every day is not a rule I live by–it’s become a necessary means to keep up on all I have to do.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Schools and Books

I find myself in a dilemma. One of the goals of my blog is provide some insights into my experience of trying to go into a creative-writing MFA program. It would follow that I would post about the specific schools I am considering. However, it occurs to me that it might not be in my best interest to be too public about who I am considering. I think about this only because it feels like blogging openly about looking for a job. Potential employers may be turned off by seeing who they are competing against–or that they’re even competing against anyone.

I have just joined a Facebook group in which we are helping each other in this process, and we talk about specific schools a lot. However, I would like my blog to become a resource on this subject, as well. I think I will need some guidance to determine how much about my “top-secret list” I should divulge here.

Today was also a splurge day. I took my self to Magers & Quinn, a local bookstore. They keep racks of deeply discounted books outside the store. I can pick up five or ten books for under ten bucks. Today’s selection forced me to hold myself back. I don’t have much money, and so I try to only splurge this way once every couple of months. (Besides, I have run out of bookshelf space.) Amongst my book purchases today were:

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful by Alan Paton

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

As well as some lesser-known novels that looked appealing, and some short-story collections.

You would think, with my book-buying habits and my overflowing bookcase, that I am a voracious reader. Alas, I am not, but it is not for lack of desire or effort. My trouble is that I am a slow reader. I never knew that I was a slow reader until a year or two ago. There was some online test making the rounds that determined your reading speed and comprehension. Most of my friends read at the rate of a sophomore in college. I read at the rate of an eighth grader. My greatest salvation was that I did not finish my philosophy degree and move on to a philosophy PhD. Had I done so, I would have drowned in my very first week, as a philosophy grad student typically reads about 1,000 pages a week of the densest, most challenging and difficult material you can imagine.

All of this brings up three questions:

Why am I such a slow reader? I know exactly what the problem is. I know that fast readers have developed their reading skills past the point where they are narrating the text to themselves inside their heads. They absorb content without necessarily reading every single word. They are master skimmers, and have great retention in doing so. I never got to that level.

Why don’t I work to improve my reading speed? It’s simply because I enjoy my inner narrator. I like playing a book in my mind as if it were a movie. I like assigning voices to the characters. I love luxuriating in detail. I could learn to read faster, with effort and guidance, but I think reading would be less enjoyable, and to be robbed of the joy of reading…. I can’t even imagine.

There is a price I pay for my slower reading rate, of course: I can’t possibly read everything I want to. I accumulate more books than I’m ever going to be able to read.

Why am I collecting books I’m never going to read? When I purchase a book, I have no idea for certain whether it is a book I will ever read or not. I purchase based on whether I am likely to read a book. I am also focusing more on obtaining books that will help me in my career. My gigantic volume of the complete works of Shakespeare? I’m never going to read that cover-to-cover, but it will be invaluable once I am teaching lit classes. Plus, I got it at the annual book swap my friends and I have, so I didn’t even have to pay for it.

There is also, though, a deeper and more personal reason why I have all the books I do. I have lost my entire personal library at least three times in my life. This was owing to difficult situations, both mine and those close to me. I’ve had my entire library end up in the landfill before. Every time I lost my library, I grew more tenacious in holding on to the books I had.

The funny this is that, unless I end up at the University of Minnesota (oops, did I tip my hand there?), I will be giving away a chunk of my library. Even if I take advantage of book-rate shipping, I will not be able to keep them all. But, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t yet know what I will keep and what I will give away (no way is anything going into the landfill this time). But I am grateful for all I have, and read as much as I can when I can.

Dyssynchrony

Another one of the debates that I forgot to post yesterday regards age:

“The top programs are only interested in students who are younger, in their twenties, because they’re seen as more malleable.”

“But I started my MFA at a top school when I was well into my forties.”

So it’s another thing that I have to go with my gut on.

Some think I’m on a fool’s errand going into writing degrees at my age. They think I should go into STEM fields, since that is what is needed and therefore have better chances at earning a good living. But I think that it would be a fool’s errand going into fields in which I have proved that I have zero aptitude no matter how hard I work in them. I think it’s a fool’s errand to assume I am going to be able to amass considerable wealth in what years I have left–that is best left to those who have a twenty-year head start. Plus, I think that the recession proved how reliable conventional wisdom is–look at all the people who bought houses because they were an “investment.”

I lost nearly two decades of my life. I spent the first decade in ex-gay “therapy.” When you are given an impossible goal, and are told that that goal is the most important thing in life, everything else–education, career, relationships–ends up on the back burner, and because you’re investing all your effort into doing the impossible, you get nowhere. You are frozen. Everyone else around you is moving forward with their lives–finishing school, getting married, starting families–whilst you remain a teenager.

The past decade has been spent undoing the damage of the first decade. It meant working with real, actual, licensed, trained therapists, rather than just going to anyone with an ichthus on their shingle. It meant years thinking hard on who I am, what the world is, what is necessary, and what I want. It meant playing catchup with my peers, some of whom are at the leading edge of grandparenthood, whilst I am still seeking a BA and am still extremely single.

They call this phenomenon of being out of synch with your peers “developmental dyssynchrony,” and it’s where I live my life. I think I’ve made great strides in the past years to approach where my peers are, but I’m not there yet.

At the conference this weekend, I ended up spending more time talking with the authors and presenters than with the students who dominated the audiences, because we discovered that we are all almost exactly the same age. Spending time with them gave me a glimpse into my life five or ten years from now. Hopefully five. I want to keep closing that gap.

Gut

I have a history of not listening to my gut, and it has always got me into big trouble.  Listening to everyone around me except my own heart has put me in the wrong colleges, the wrong majors, the wrong jobs.  Not listening to my gut has put my life in jeopardy.  I have had to learn to listen to my gut, and I am finding that this is nowhere truer than in the search for a good Creative Writing MFA program.

When I look for five different opinions on the pursuit of a good grad program, I get ten different responses:

“You have to look for a potential instructor who writes like you.  You’ll learn more from someone with a similar style, and the school is more likely to pick a student who is a good stylistic fit with their staff.”

“Nonsense! So many of the big-name writers do very little actual teaching in these programs. Besides, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they can teach worth a lick.”

“It’s like real estate: Location, location, location. If you’re not in love with the place you’re living the next two to three years, your work will suffer and your whole quality of life will go down.”

“Whilst I don’t suggest going to someplace you’ll be miserable, bear in mind that you’re only going to live there two or three years–that’s nothing. Besides, if you are going to be a college instructor, you will have very little say about where you live after you graduate.”

“It’s all about the benjamins! You’re daft if you take out one red cent in loans for an MFA. Go only where they will pay you fully.”

“If a program fully funds me, but their alumni have zero track record of developing anything resembling a career, what does that say about the program? Taking out a little to go to a program with a proven track record will pay off in the long run.”

And on and on it goes. I really can’t keep up with all the contradictory advice I get.

So that is why I’ve decided to go with my gut. I know myself better than anyone. (I did not believe that for many years.) I know what sets of circumstances will work for me and which won’t. And no matter where I apply to, there are always X-factors no one can predict.

With that, I’m feeling pretty secure about my list of schools. Each has great upsides and some drawbacks. There is no perfect program; they will all have drawbacks. It’s a matter of whether you can live with the drawbacks.

What I am insecure about, though, is how public I should be about my list of potential schools. I know that no matter what school I post, I will get a Greek chorus offering 155,309 reasons why I shouldn’t go to that school, and I don’t need that drama. Also, how much are the schools I’m applying to going to be looking over my shoulder to see where else I’m applying? When I applied to Bible college, I had to list on the application where else I was planning to apply. Though grad school is hardly Bible college, I don’t know if it’s standard practice for them to know where else I’m applying, and whether their knowing will have an impact on whether they accept me.

I’m sure all this will work out in the end. I am excited at the prospect of moving on to the next phase of my life.

Morris

I was pleasantly surprised by the little uptick in readership yesterday.  It is certainly enough of a motivator to write here a little more often.

At the moment, I am in the town of Morris, Minnesota, about three hours west of the Twin Cities and near some Dakota or other.  I am here for the Prairie Gate Literary Festival the University of Minnesota-Morris.  The town is small, about 5,000, and to me, quintessentially small-town Midwest.  In other words, it is very familiar but not entirely comfortable.

This is my first professional conference.  For the next day and a half, I will attend readings and workshops, as well as doing what I enjoy most: meeting new people.  Business cards in tow, I hope to find a bit of camaraderie and kinship, and perhaps even learn more about MFA programs here in the Midwest.

I will be sure to give an overview when I return to Minneapolis on Sunday.  Meanwhile, I’m about to head off for the evening’s activities.

Dilemma

This is the debate I struggle with right now: do I focus on poetry or creative nonfiction?  Virtually all graduate programs require their students to pick a specialization.  Usually, the choice is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction.  (Some programs will include playwriting and/or screenwriting in the mix, and some programs are only fiction and poetry.) I have learnt that, despite my desires otherwise, my talent is not in writing fiction. I am good at inventing worlds but not good at getting anything to happen in them.

As far as creative nonfiction goes, one of my instructors–the only one who has seen me write in several genres–believes that my creative nonfiction is strongest, memoir in particular. The fact that my life has just been weird works to my advantage in terms of having material to work with. I am also learning this semester that I do very well at writing literary critique, so I’m not just a one-trick pony when it comes to creative nonfiction.

But creative nonfiction does not come to me easily. At all.  For two weeks I’ve been struggling to write an essay for this blog, and I haven’t got anywhere. It’s a time-sensitive issue, as it pertains to some recent current events, and I am very passionate about the subject.  But it has been like pulling teeth getting anywhere with it. Every day, the relevance of what I have to say in the essay fades a little.

Poetry, on the other hand, comes much more easily. When I sit down for some writing time, the first thing I work on is poetry, and it’s what I spend the most time on. I like how the boundaries of poetry are loose and free. I like that I get to play with the way the words feel in the mouth. I like that I can whittle a story down to its essence–all the way down to a haiku if necessary. It is also all I have managed to get published to date, and people tell me that, out of what I write, it is what elicits the most powerful reaction.

The trouble with poetry, though, is that its audience is absolutely tiny. And I do not write just for myself. I do not write because I enjoy it–though that is a wonderful by-product. As unpopular as it is to say in the writing world, I write because I have something that needs to be said. If someone else said what I have to say, the value would be the same. This idea may not be obvious in everything I write, but to date I’ve only told the thousandth part of all I need to say, and I hope that the message of all I have to say will be understood as the sum of all I write, rather than just bits in isolation. Each bit I write is like a premise in a very long philosophical argument. And I write because it behooves me to contribute to society in the best way I can. The best thing I can do is to write. To have the biggest impact possible, to me, is to have as many people reading as possible. I have trouble seeing how that is possible with poetry.

I have a few months yet before I have to submit my choice to the schools I am applying to. And I will have some classes between now and then in which I might encounter some breakthrough in my writing–heck, maybe even with fiction. And if I get into my first choice of school, I won’t even have to choose a focus. (Yeah, I’ve made great strides with my choice of grad schools and my list is more or less set.) And, of course, I can always write whatever I want–I will just have two or three years where I’m focusing more one genre. Perhaps bearing that in mind will take some of the pressure off. However, my application will have to have my best writing, and I will have to decide which genre is my best writing, maybe.

It will all come together. I just get impatient.