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The Desolation of Smog

Whenever the temperature dips below -20 F (-29 C) in Fairbanks, the city gets smothered in a blanket of smog. Part of this is our weird topography —  a flat river valley bound on two sides by mountain ranges — which creates what is known as a temperature inversion. Warm air gets trapped beneath denser, cooler air and can’t rise. Thus, all the smoke from the wood-stoves and all the auto exhaust intermingles with the fog that visits us in winter. At its best, the fog creates hoarfrost on the trees (and we have lots of trees,) such that it looks like you’re living inside a Christmas card. But at its worst, it creates an awful smog that drives me to wearing an allergy mask during the dead of winter. The locals euphemize the phenomenon as “ice fog,” and by all accounts they seem to be inured to its effects. The smog is so thick that I assumed it was the sole contributor to the annual average for the air pollution of the city.

A winter scene of a straight road going off into the distance. Bright blue sky above. A single tree to the left of the road, a forest to the right. All the trees are covered in hoarfrost, and the ground is covered in snow.

Something like this. Photo by LadyDragonflyCC via Flickr. Original format. http://bit.ly/1fulGjO

Yesterday was the longest day of the year (though really we haven’t seen true darkness since late April, thanks to our extra-long dawns and dusks,) and Fairbanks celebrated its Midnight Sun Festival, the largest outdoor event in the state. Our summer-collegiate baseball team, the Alaska Goldpanners, played their annual Midnight Sun Game, considered amongst the unique and original events in sports. It was a glorious first day of summer.

This morning, though, I smelt something odd. At first I thought the motor was burning out on my desk fan. Great, I thought, I have to replace it, but good thing I’m headed to the store. On my way out the building, the same burning smell permeated the building, and I half-wondered if the building was on fire.

Then I set foot outside and realized that this is what forest-fire season looks like in Fairbanks.

There are over 100 forest fires in Alaska at present. The closest is near the town of Nenana, an hour’s drive west of here. I had assumed Fairbanks was safe from the effects of the fires, as long as they kept their distance. But, like I said, Fairbanks is in a river valley bound by mountains, and Nenana is to the west. Which means that all the smoke of the fires is channeled directly to the city.

Visibility is almost as low as it is during the worst of the winter smog, and my breath sears my lungs. It looks like it’s time to break out my allergy mask once again.

And yet, I do enjoy living here.

Why? First off, I lucked into a great program for my degree, where my colleagues have become my friends and my professors have become my lifelong mentors. We have a community here, and that’s what I most wanted out of graduate school. Fairbanks is also a nice place to live, smog aside. The people are warm and friendly and sociable. We have unique cultural opportunities, like the World Ice Art Championships, and the city attracts people from all over the world. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to prefer living in small towns over big cities. Not that Fairbanks is that small — about 80,000, depending on how you count it — but, compared to some of the places I’ve lived, it’s small, or, I suppose, just right.

The smog still sucks. But one thing I have learnt in life is that there is no perfect place. No matter where you live, there will be things you like and things you don’t like. It’s a matter of what compromises you are willing to make.

And, for a couple more years, wearing an allergy mask on occasion is a suitable compromise.

When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

A Ghost Story

Today I went to the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design (or, as we call it here, MCAD, pronounced “Em-cad”). They have a fantastic little art-supply store called the Art Cellar for their students and the general public, and from time to time I pick up supplies there. As I walked down the hall of Morrison Hall, I felt the oddest sensation, a shudder, almost. And I’ve felt it every time I’ve walked that hall. Today I figured out what it was:

A ghost.

In September 2007, I attended their open house for prospective students on a lark. I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to pursue a degree there, but I was desperate for a change of pace in my life. As I toured their studios and classrooms and laboratories, I drooled over the possibility of attending. I would have the opportunity to create almost anything I wanted, trained by the best in their field.

And so I set about putting together my portfolio and application. I hadn’t drawn seriously in the longest time (and with my job and commute and ridiculousness from my roommates at the time, didn’t really have the time or space to do so). But I gave it my best shot. I filled out the application and made an appointment for a portfolio review. Though she wasn’t so impressed with most of my drawings, my mixed-media work intrigued her. Shortly thereafter, I received notice of my acceptance to one of the top art schools in the country.

And then I found out how much it was going to cost.

And I understood why most of the students come from wealthy families.

Maxing out every possibility for funding wouldn’t have even touched the bill. And so, with that, I let go of that little dream.

And now, every time I walk the campus, the ghost of another self from a slightly different universe accompanies me.

I’ve had some very good news in the past week from graduate schools to which I have applied for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. (I’m not going to tip my hand as to the specifics just yet in such a public venue as this.) Suffice it to say that I will be moving from Minneapolis this summer after a decade of living here.

The question for me at this point is, will I exorcise all these ghosts before I leave?

The job opportunity I didn’t take.

The guy I didn’t ask out.

The apartment I turned down.

Will I leave these ghosts behind when I move away, or will they somehow find a way into my baggage?

Does it matter?

I like where my life is going. It’s been a remarkable turnaround from my lowest depths five years ago. My future is bright right now, and my present ain’t too shabby, either.

The pangs of what might have been may always stick with me. My brain always seems to be at every point of time except the present.

It’s up to me to graciously respond, “Yes, that would have been nice, but this is nice, too — and probably better.”

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.

Transition

As I have made a decision about what I’m going to focus on in grad school, it means that I’ve had to make a radical shift in my writing, from spending most of my time writing poetry to focusing on creative nonfiction. Interestingly, this doesn’t change what I’m writing. Most of the material for my poetry comes from my life and family stories. It certainly changes how I write, though.

I’m facing several challenges in this shift. One is how I edit. I’m used to having a half-dozen poems, each fifty to a hundred words long, and bouncing back and forth amongst them as I edit. This fits me; I have the attention span of a fruit fly. Working on prose requires more focus and discipline. I’m only working on one or two pieces a day, and spending a lot more time with each.

Another challenge is length. When I edit poetry, I try to whittle down what I write to the essence, to the point that I recently created a haiku completely by accident, after I had cut out over half the original material. Prose is a different beast. You can write short prose, and I gravitate to this. Most of my prose pieces are between 600 and 800 words. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. However, the demands of publishing industry mean that I have to be flexible and know how to write in longer formats. Also, I know that some of the grad schools I want to apply to specify in their application directions that a nonfiction portfolio should consist of two pieces totaling 15 to 25 pages. This would total 5,000 to 8,300 words, according to my quick and possibly incorrect calculations. This is a far cry from 1,200 to 1,600 words.

I despaired of this at first. I didn’t think I could do it. Then, I just told myself that, if I have to do it, I can do it. I respond to instructions well; I was a good boy who “did what I was told.” What it really comes down to is, first, selection of material, and second, lots of practice. I’m not going to write a big novel right now, and I don’t need to. I can work up to bigger and bigger pieces.

Yesterday I started a draft that hit 1,000 pages and is probably only one-half to two-thirds done. It’s a good start.

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.

Nonfiction

The past few weeks, I have been wrestling with an important decision: whether to focus on creative nonfiction or poetry for my graduate work. In nearly all writing MFA programs, a student must choose well in advance–during the application process–what their focus will be. I have been thinking long and hard, and realizing that creative nonfiction is likely the best choice for me.

Creative nonfiction is not as common in writing programs as fiction or poetry.  When I add in my strong desire to incorporate playwriting into my studies, then the list shrinks even further. Right now, I have eight schools on my list that fit those priorities, and that are also in locations in which I could reasonably live. Climate (for health reasons) and city size (for logistics) are my primary considerations for livability.

The trouble that I am running into as I develop my writing is knowing what should go into an MFA application portfolio for creative nonfiction. I have to assume it is more than just memoir. I assume that personal essays fit the bill, though I have not done much along those lines. Does literary critique–or any other sort of critique–work for the portfolio? Are there any other subgenres that I’m just flaking on?

If anyone has advice on this subject, I would greatly appreciate it.

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.