MFA Programs for Creative Writing all require a 20-30 page writing sample; this is the key to the application. And so I am editing a chapter from my bad side for the purpose.
We drove through the iron and brick gate, past the soccer fields and distant trees to a long quadrangle, yellow brick buildings going down the sides like a prison. An old man and woman stood on the wide concrete steps of the white-pillared building at the end.
“Good afternoon, Headmaster Hostler.” Nani looked like a corpse in her fresh lipstick.
Headmaster Hostler was badly shaped, fat in his stomach and legs, and then pinched up at his shoulders and face; it made his blazer come out like a dress. “Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Keynes. You’ve met my wife, Mrs. Hostler?”
“Welcome to St. Augustine’s.” Mrs. Hostler shook Nani’s hand.
Headmaster Hostler bent down to me, his thin hair hung over his giant forehead in thick greasy lines. “Perseverare Conantur.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Perseverare Conantur.” Mrs. Hostler indicated the gold cursive writing above the doorway. “Do you know what that means?”
She had a tight face, her skin bright and gluey. “And what does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Endeavor,” I repeated.
“Yes, Mrs. Hostler.”
“Quite a responsibility, isn’t it, Miss Bocklin?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hostler.”
“We are sure you are up to the challenge.”
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to be an actual writer, whether it’s using the right words, or it’s a sensibility or a devotion to craft or just being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I know it isn’t just writing. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years and I have yet to feel the part. I do sometimes tell people that I’m a writer, but not the customs agents because I don’t make money doing it, with the exception of a brief stint as a sports columnist and my current job writing copy about toilets.I know that writing means something to me. I have a clear sense of me when I write. It’s just me and the words coming out of my head, a long wavering stream that I sometimes catch, and feel clear when I do. And so I’m writing. I know that I’m doing that.
I just don’t know about the being a writer part. I doubt my ability to be as open as Richard Blanco or as honest as Darin Strauss.I doubt my cleverness, wit and sense of denouement. But more than anything I doubt being able to enunciate what it is I doubt without trying to make it sound too much like what I think I should and then I’ve just missed the point.I have been told that I have an ear for dialogue and that I seem dedicated to my work. I’ve also been told that part of my problem is that my narrative tends to be too fast-moving, a frantic thing that doesn’t breathe and therefore is opaque.But still…I know that my writing makes sense to me – even these few words; it gives me solace, a moment where life isn’t just chaos and missteps. That’s why I’m trying to do it, so that it’s not me just chasing words, but crafting and binding and offering my thoughts on that. I’m attending conferences and workshops and orientation meetings for MFA programs. I’ve even thought of growing a beard.
But I’m still not so sure. I have my doubts that, even after whatever comes next, I’ll even be a writer then, that I’ll feel like I should, or I’ll even want to because it seems that maybe there’s nothing like just chasing words, nothing as pure as that. At least that’s what I tell myself.
They take turns singing, or seeming to sing; there are no intelligible words, just murmuring beneath the din. The sound builds, seems to get louder – although nothing like their 2008 tour – pauses and starts again, a certain blissed-out monotony, chaotic but not, that wears everything down, until it’s just one long thing, only stopping to breath, all of this until the last song, You Made Me Realise. This final, drawn-out moment goes straight in, vibrates against the organs and veins and fights your heart rate until you feel like you’ve been initiated into a murderous cult. And then they leave, and that’s that.
I was keen to get into the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia. Overly excited, I raced up the campus steps, idolizing everything of the brilliant open space, sat in a long bright room and read through the hand-outs with a hundred other hopefuls. What a place, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great to be here.
The panel of faculty and administrators arrived and explained, “We are intensive and demanding, but it’s worth it in the end.” That seemed vague but still quite fine. I was sure they were right.People asked questions. “What’s the difference between a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD with the same focus?” The panel looked at itself and finally offered, “I don’t know what a creative writing PhD is and since we don’t offer it, I would have to say that a MFA is better.”
A young woman then asked if she might be able to extend the program from two years to three years, in consideration of being a parent or having a job. “This would be very, very unlikely.” Translation: NO
Well, I thought, too bad for her. And one less person for me to worry about.
The panel switched to a group of MFA students who made things much worse.
“There are lots of great programs out there. I mean, you can be in a cornfield, which is very nice, or you can be in New York, which speaks for itself. Where else can you go to MOMA on your day off?” He was on a roll. “The program at Columbia is lavish. I was just talking about artichokes with my professor. I really was. I feel like I have the golden Willy Wonka ticket and I have to wave it in the air.” His peers offered little more. “You’re totally tapped into that really rich network,” a narrow-faced girl gushed.
“It’s really amazing,” a recent, bearded graduate summated. “You’ll learn a ton of things.”
And then this anecdote was delivered, meant to be inspiring but having the opposite effect. “I was freaking about the cost. I mean, I couldn’t stop thinking about the money. And so I went to the director and told him about my stress, and he said, ‘You can leave, if you want.’ That’s when I realized I didn’t want to.”
I wasn’t feeling as keen about all this, but nevertheless went down with the other hopefuls to listen to visiting writer, Ben Lerner, downstairs and watched a young couple whisper and kiss in the theater.
I read The Columbia Spectator; the cafeteria “received only ten violation points from the city”, while the football team had lost again, although “the margin wasn’t as bad as last year’s 69-0 blowout.”
I turned to the classifieds; the ads were sparse – a single apartment listing, just one thing for sale – and then a surprising focus on donors of eggs and sperm.Four of the thirteen ads, in fact, were of the egg and sperm variety, 31%. I thought about this as I watched the young couple suddenly left as Ben Lerner arrived to speak of the “vision of the virtual” and “the tragic limitation of words”. It was after his third use of fecund and dozenth citation of ekphrastic that it hit me. This was an egg factory of the future! Not only was this institution enticing the brightest of the bright, but it had the audacity to charge them into penury, forcing many to sell their eggs and sperm for the privilege! What evil genius!
I left, my coat and bags in a messy bunch, briefly scanning for the young lovers in the night, thinking that they must have made their escape from the compound, their eggs and sperm intact.
I’ll be standing there thinking I’m faking it, just staring ahead, and I’ll feel like I’m just pretending, waiting for someone to rush to me, the poor lonely kid with no one to love. I feel like that when I’m doing anything, eating, walking, crying, anything, and I’ll think that when I’m dying too. That’s how I am.*
(From “All In”.)
What’s with this f—ing GRE test? What do questions that purposely obfuscate the purpose of a text’s text accomplish? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
As a writer, can’t I, like Laurie Anderson, just let x=x? (That’s rhetorical too.)
What did I learn from this extended moment of despair, except how to bring the correct identification to a test center, to empty my pockets front and back, to barely decipher a bored moderator’s recitation of the rules like a bad waitress with a bad menu, and to sit in front of an antiquated computer screen for interminable hours to only be confused by the relevance of the results? (Is that rhetorical? I no longer know.)
Richard Blanco is not only a celebrated poet and a genuine soul, unafraid of the perilous depths of self, but he also really knows his stuff. I was privileged to be part of the Sanibel Writer’s Conference this weekend and listen to his thoughts in workshops and readings. No single line of poetry is ever arbitrary. Every line of poetry is like a truss in a bridge. It has to hold its own weight. It’s picking up from one side to the next. Each must be able to transfer the load to the next. It’s not that different from prose, understanding the basics of language. All poems should be read aloud. You’ll be surprised what your body tells you about it. Poetry cannot escape that aspect. We need to remember poetry was once a means of gathering, around the camp fire. It was music, the troubadours. That’s its roots. He even explained iambic pentameter with ease.
It’s not just the syllables and iambs. It’s important because it matches one breath. It is a unit of thought, a yardstick for ideas. Anything shorter seems abrupt. Anything longer seems long-winded, more of narrative rhetoric. Iambic pentameter is a good fundamental tool to focus and modulate the lines, something that can now be played with in free verse.
I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was
And pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.
(*From Looking for the Gulf Motel.)
1. Reflect on a photograph:The camera was given to me at Christmas. I took a picture of my brother in front of the garage. It wasn’t centered, not even close. He stared back, bored, his mittened hands awkwardly together, waiting for me. It was a nothing moment, taken badly, now something with little to say. I wonder where the other pictures are. Why only that one? There must have been another dozen or so. At least. Were they also of my brother and the garage? The garden? What about the dog? Where are my parents?
2. Write about a place and time – an indelible moment – with extraordinary and ordinary aspects.
Richard was shirtless, his sweaty chest barreling over his grey black shorts. His girlfriend was behind him in the corner, completely naked, just her high heels and a glass of wine in her hand. “She’s a nudist,” Jerome said. “Can you believe it?”
“It’s freezing outside.”
“I know.” His face was glowing, stretched like elastic. “It’s the kind of thing that only happens on MTV.”
3. Write a piece that starts with “The last time I saw _____ was _____.”
The last time I saw my cousin was on the park bench at Emerald Lake. He was red-faced, laughing, a bottle of Kokanee in his hand. “They’re everywhere! Holy shit!”
They raced back and forth, dotting the burrowed ground, chasing each other to get nuts from the people, darting back, vanishing like they were never there.“It’s a Golden-mantle Ground Squirrel.” I had my glossy guide, The Field Guide for the Flora and Fauna of Western Canada, clutched in my hand.
“The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel!” He spilled beer in a foamy glob at the one nearest. “There you go, tiger. You’ll like that.”
4. Choose the thing that you are most afraid of and write about that.
I can’t move my head. Not even my shoulders. I am pinned, dead still, between the boards, a bright side light on my face and neck. I am in a flat horrible space, my eyes wide, stuck inside this coffin in the ground. Stuck there, panicking. I can’t even raise my hands properly. I have no control. I am completely helpless, trapped by monsters, people I don’t know, who have left me here to die, to be tortured in my final hours and think nothing of it. I close my hands to make it go away, but it is still there. I can’t get out. I want to scream but I can’t even do that. I am stuck in the horrible silent box with not even myself.
Another early start to the day at the Sanibel Writing Conference, more time for writing exercises with John Dufresne.Writing Exercise 1: List of Frail Things (Derived from The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon)
Old people, children, stained glass window, eyes, bones, atmosphere, ice, wings, egos, sleep, understanding, eggs, music.
It was a dark and stormy night, just the beginning. I was glad for it. We wouldn’t have to leave. We wouldn’t have to do anything but watch the windows buffet, the rain tear sideways at the tops of the trees and police car driving slowly around.
“What time is it?” Valerie looked tiny in the door.
“What does it matter?”
“Everything is broken.”
She stepped onto the cement ledge and pulled out her Sponge Bob alarm clock. “Not everything.”
“Ruined.” I stared out, the trees hanging low over the lone sloped-down wall, the window twisted down, looking at the ground.
She grabbed onto a board and climbed onto the pile.
It came over in a nauseous wave, suddenly up from her stomach and lungs. I was going to throw up. “Get down from there!”
She waited on the line. Steely Dan. That’s who it was; she had never liked that song.
“It’s what we were afraid of.”
She pressed her finger against the table, watched it go white and flat. She wondered how far back she could get it. The bone wouldn’t break. “Is there a treatment?”
“Bring him in the morning.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t remember hanging up or sitting, but she had his head in her lap and stroked his neck and shoulder. She hated how vulnerable he made himself. She squeezed him harder than she wanted. He looked up at that.