In Defense of the M.F.A., M.A., or Whatever

Only at the end of Cecilia Capuzzi Simon’s New York Times essay “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” did the truth hit me. 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of my M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. The program was one year long at that time, and I spent one semester studying under John Barth and the other under Doris Grumbach. I also finessed my way into Elizabeth Spires’ undergraduate poetry workshop.

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A twenty-three-year-old punk types out a draft at his desk in Baltimore.

I held up the rear of the mid-pack, turning out short stories and poems that were neither embarrassing nor accomplished. Actually, I was probably of most value as a critic, giving every manuscript an energetic round of copy editing and a lengthy summary comment. The greatest compliment I received at Hopkins came from one classmate who has gone on to nonfiction notoriety: “I always pay attention to your comments.”

But I was out of my league, and the nine months wife Kathy and I spent in Baltimore was a mostly unmerited privilege. My fellow fictionists came from Harvard, Yale, Sarah Lawrence, and so on. One already had his Ph.D., and another received a perfect score on the verbal section of Graduate Record Exam. One who has since gone on to glory was married to the actress who played Quincy’s (Jack Klugman) wife on television. One fought in Vietnam. So we’re talking smart, interesting people. And the alumni are distinguished: Frederick Barthelme, Louise Erdrich, Martha Grimes, Molly Peacock, John Barth himself, et. al.

I graduated from Penn State-Erie and scored in the 26th percentile on the GRE literature section. How the hell did I sneak in? I perched on the waiting list for some weeks, so at least a few applicants said “no, thanks” before my acceptance letter landed.

I appreciate the reservations some writers and scholars have about M.F.A.s and M.A.s. Capuzzi Simon points out the objections that tuition is steep and teaching opportunities—for those who want to pay the bills that way—are scarce compared to the number of graduates. And even in the mid 1980s harrumphs circulated about the gush of monochromatic work coming from apprentice writers who nurtured voice and vision in at best a comfortable terrarium and at worst a snarky thunderdome.

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The Coleman residence for a few seasons–on North Charles Street in Baltimore

My experience from September 1984 through May 1985 was in equal measure stressful and magnificent. The former was my fault. My lungs got punished by Vantage 100s, and I lost thirty pounds in my first two months. A little Zoloft would have helped. As I settled in, though, Kathy and I found C. C. Carry Out egg rolls one block away and the Graduate Club in the basement of our apartment building, an old hotel probably grand in its day. On Hump Night, dime Rolling Rock ponies washed down chicken fingers. Some weight returned. Gradually I understood my place and relaxed enough to avoid a nervous breakdown.

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John Barth (Credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

And I learned. Jack Barth—yes, we called him Jack—was more skillful and generous than I can say. He was much concerned with story-telling technique. If you’re going to tell stories, you ought to know what’s under the hood, as it were. When your story was up for the workshop, you met with Jack for thirty minutes in the days beforehand for a private conference. I’ve said many times that my hour and a half with Jack Barth was worth the tuition. How astute he was, reading my young work and discerning what I most needed to hear at that moment to grow and develop—and not a hint of annoyance at my ignorance.

Doris Grumbach established a rule during her first appearance at the helm: criticize what you will, but the subject matter of the story or chapter is off limits. I appreciated this, since my stuff was about the mundane lives of blue-collar sorts from the rust belt. It was all I had. In her teaching, she emphasized the importance of line-by-line attention to our prose. In one session we compared an original Raymond Carver short story with a revision that appeared in a later collection. The late minimalist made but a handful of minor changes, and we dissected each one. The point: if you’re going to be serious about writing, every pen stroke matters, so pay attention. Doris also invited the fiction workshop to her row house on Capital Hill and let us have a look at her carriage house study. For years thereafter I longed for such a sprawling, dignified space for my desk.

When Kathy and I drove back north to Erie, Pennsylvania, with my M.A. in hand, we moved into an attic apartment in a sketchy part of town. I set up shop in a 4’ x 4’ turret and, oddly, turned out poems. I’ve now written dozens of them, as well as scores of essays and a couple of books about spirituality and religion and one memoir—but never another short story. The poetry I generated for Beth Spires’ workshops was eh, and she did me the great favor of treating my work with respect and care without ever giving me reason to dream big.

Still, verse took hold of me. Over the next five years I got my work into a handful of solid literary magazines and bet I would have eventually published a collection. In the late 1980s I squeezed in the nervous breakdown I put off in Baltimore.

Though I haven’t completed a poem or story for going on two decades, Hopkins still shines in my memory. Thirty years ago this month I typed the final copy of my thesis, a collection called Senior League. I drafted longhand and moved to a little Smith Corona electric for revision and submission. In the turret, it was poems put down on an 8.5” by 14” yellow tablet, followed by typing when things got serious. For a while, when I taught English at Penn State-Erie, Kathy and I lived in a freezing farmhouse. Steam rose from our knees when we bathed. My study was tucked under a set of steps. Revisions got pounded out on a rickety old manual; the print quality was about as good as the poetry. Eventually faculty members received IBM computers with a blessed, crappy, postcard-sized screen, and I started composing on the keyboard.

I mention these details to demonstrate that writing changed for me at Hopkins. It became something I sat down and did, scribbling or clacking or clicking, whether I was in the mood or not, whether I had anything to say or not. I showed up in Baltimore in 1984 to study writing. When I left in 1985, for good or ill, I was a writer. Why? I had seen what committing to a craft looked like, received guidance from masters, and spent time with peers on their own pilgrimage. In all this I learned a simple fact: writers sit or stand or recline, get out a pen and paper or prop a keyboard on their laps, and bloody well write. And they spend far more time writing than talking about writing or figuring out what clothes an author should wear. Thomas Merton wrote, “What I wear is pants.” Amen. Oh and if writers aren’t gluttonous readers, something is amiss.

One thing I didn’t learn at Hopkins was what I ought to write about. That was a good thing. As I’ve shown up at my writing desks and waited for words to find me, I’ve also been figuring out what’s worth saying at all. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon summarizes a common objection to the M.F.A.: “Detractors . . . say the degree is responsible for so-called program fiction—homogenized, over-workshopped writing void of literary tradition and overly influenced by the mostly upper- and middle-class values and experiences of its students.” Poetry workshops could be guilty of the same charges.

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Resting with son Micah at the seminary townhouse complex–four of the best years of my life

In fact, you could accuse plenty of graduate programs of over-workshopping students. In addition to an M.A., I have a Master of Divinity and a year of Ph.D. studies (a twenty-page paper on Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial was enough to show me that a literature doctorate wasn’t for me) on the old curriculum vita, and each excellent, soul-shaping experience left its distinctive perfume—or stink, as I’ve occasionally said—on my thinking. I left Hopkins writing stories with nearly invisible endings. Twelve months at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was exhilarating, but nearly turned me into a Marxist. And Trinity Lutheran Seminary cracked me open and called me to believe like a grown up. In each case, over time, lessons that held up got integrated and those that didn’t got left beside the road.

The point: during grad school I immersed myself in the ideas being presented, welcomed them, lived with them, sometimes championed them. Sure, I got homogenized, but only for a while. Eventually my brain and identity returned. And isn’t this the educational experience: binge on learning, figure out what’s crap later, and grow?

When I was at Hopkins, I wrote about white, lower-middle-class folks whose lives were going nowhere. The resolution to my minimal conflicts was the moment when the reader understood that my characters were hopelessly stuck, even if they were oblivious. After covering the same territory in verse for a few years, I took up panic attacks, which led me in a direction I would have sniffed at in Baltimore: spirituality, and now, creative non-fiction that my younger self would have regarded as maudlin or trite.

In short, Hopkins was a critical stop on a thirty-year writing trip, but it was only one stop. Barth, Grumbach, and Spires were mentors, but so earlier on were Diana Hume George, J. Madison Davis, and the late Chet Wolford, who taught me to be merciless with a manuscript. I’m indebted to all of these guides, but none of them could help me with the most important questions to answer: What do I have to say? And what’s worth saying at all?

Here I admit a prejudice: if an M.F.A. graduate’s top answer to these questions ends up being, “Publish me!” then, well, yuck. Without something pressing to say, a writer produces literary hothouse tomatoes. And if M.F.A.s aren’t asking themselves about meaning and purpose each time they invoke the Muse, their degree isn’t to blame. Go ahead and throw a tomato at me, but I say the problem is poverty of artistic soul. Maybe this is an errant position.

Forgive. These are only the impressions of a middle-aged M.A. who, in the words of literary critic Anis Shivani, “[did] a degree” and nevertheless has been “condemned to obscurity.” Would I jamb a Chevette full of essentials and drive with my young wife from Erie to Baltimore all over again?

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C. C.’s egg rolls weren’t this crispy. They were a little soggy, in fact, but Kathy and I ate a hundred or more doused in soy or duck sauce. (Credit: Albert Cahalan on Wikimedia Commons)

You bet. Objections to graduate writing programs don’t factor in the need for those Jack Barth called “advanced apprentices” to get the hell out their own particular Dodges, drink and spar with classmates whose names they can’t forget, gather up the tricks of the trade, find a great egg roll, and rinse down memorable chicken fingers with Rolling Rock.

I learned from Jack about Chekov’s Gun: never hang a pistol (or egg roll, chicken finger, or Rolling Rock) on the wall in the first act without firing it by the third.

 

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An Embarrassing Measure of Blessing

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Baby Crash, who must be fed.

A Saturday morning routine has taken hold by surprise. As Kathy and I wake up at leisure—the one day that doesn’t begin with the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set as the alarm on my snotty iPhone—we stay in bed, talking, breathing, warming to the hours ahead. “What do you have up for today?” We have friendly negotiations, then when she heads downstairs to feed dog Watson and cats Baby Crash and Shadow, I pray/meditate for half an hour. After paying bills, we run on separate rails until suppertime. It’s a calm, sane arrangement.

Yesterday I had a shamatha moment—calm abiding, clear awareness—before Kathy got out of bed. As she lay against me, her hair was all over my face. I breathed in its scent—a glad habit—and looked out through its wild lattice at the turning trees on the Shenley Drive boulevard. Sun and fall leaves behind my wife’s brown hair—a double blessing.

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When I woke up, the storm had passed, leaving the Coleman family with firewood.

Another day last week as I settled into my nap, I watched those same beloved trees get thrashed by wind and rain. Though the temperature was in the forties, I opened one window about a foot so the hiss and deep ah of the weather could sing me to my rest beneath a feather quilt. Before sleep came, inhaling and exhaling the joyous riot outside, I remembered the fortunate position I’m in.

Each day I can take the Siesta Exit off of Interstate Absurdity and rest for an hour. Even during hectic stretches, I can usually pull to the berm for a twenty-minute power nap. The world is catching on to the restorative benefits of midday oblivion, but most people I know don’t have the liberty to do what has become central to my spiritual practice—stop, halt, cease and desist, for just a little while. The twenty to sixty minutes of repose isn’t counted as company time—as my brilliant grad school professor John Barth was fond of saying. When I add up work hours to make sure I’m earning my pay, nap isn’t part of the tally. Folding sleep minutes into compensated minutes would be sane, but at this point in our assumed societal covenant, it would be unethical. (Google and the Huffington Post provide napping pods, but I don’t know if they actually pay employees to nap. After a cluster of near misses, baggy-eyed air traffic controllers are cleared to close their eyes as long as the friendly skies are adequately monitored.)

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Even Thomas Edison napped in his midday valley.

No, my blessing is a flexible schedule. I regularly work from 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. shaping programming for the church, then go back to sleep. Or I catch up on e-mails between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. In a certain respect I’m always working, praying/meditating without ceasing, dreaming about what’s possible, opening myself to the Spirit’s leading. So at 2:30 p.m., when my forehead gets heavy, I surrender.

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The Shenley Drive maples that bless my siestas.

If I’m at church, the siesta kit finds its place on the floor of the pastor’s study, and I set my alarm for an hour ahead. At home, I lie on my left side in bed, look out the window at the Shenley Drive maples, and remember Kathy, who nurses cancer patients all day long and can’t stop to rest, son-in-law Matt, who nurses machines and has to slog through his midday valley, or son Micah, who paints with minimal breaks and comes home sweaty. I watch the maples from the barren branches of February to the swollen greens of July to the fiery leaves of October and reverence people who have no beloved brown hair to kiss or no bed at all. Then, especially when the weather plays against the trees, I nod off, embraced by an embarrassing measure of blessing.

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.