Saturday, October 9, 2010

Here

by Emerald

It was late summer 2002. I had packed up my apartment in the Washington, DC, area, where I had just acquired my master’s degree in the field of politics, and was preparing for the cross-country drive to Washington state. I had been accepted into a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing there and would be starting in just a few weeks. I was thrilled. Finally, creative writing was going to be not only one of my utmost loves but a “legitimate” responsibility as well.

***

I started writing when I was seven. By third grade I had a special notebook dedicated to the “book” I was penning. In my seventh and eighth grade years, I was chosen by my English teacher to attend an annual Young Writers’ Conference, for which I prepared and presented a short story each time. My parents seemed perfectly content to express appreciation and support for the interest I showed in writing creatively.

Even from a young age, though, I experienced a nagging internal voice that seemed skeptical of writing, solely, it seemed, because it was something I enjoyed and thus seemed like more of a leisure endeavor than something “responsible.” I frequently found Annoying Internal Voice saying things like, Have you finished all your homework? Is your room clean? Why are you writing right now? What else should you be doing instead? Why are you indulging like this in something you like to do? (I’m not sure how pleasant Annoying Internal Voice’s outlook on life was.)

When I was accepted into the MFA program, I was overjoyed by the prospect of having uninhibited writing time and the opportunity to focus on it as a primary responsibility. I also loved academia by this time, so the combination of it and creative writing really did seem like a perfect opportunity to me.

By my second semester in the MFA program, something wasn’t working like I had thought it would. On paper, it seemed fabulous. My academic responsibility now was to sit around writing, just like I’d always dreamed of feeling “allowed” to do.

But I wasn’t experiencing the MFA program (only) on paper. I had found, increasingly, that the understandably standardized environment of academia juxtaposed with what I found the irrevocably subjective nature of creativity and artistic expression did not resonate with me. I want to be very clear that I am not saying that I find the idea of MFA programs in general inappropriate or misguided. I am quite aware that for many people, including many of the lovely colleagues I met while I was there, they seem to work beautifully and be the fabulous opportunity I thought one would be for me.

For me, though, the intertwining pursuits of academia and writing creatively, a combination I had seen as so optimal, felt jarringly dissonant. So much so that eventually, I felt like my participating in the program was undermining the integrity of my love for both academia and writing. This feeling grew to seem almost intolerable.

I do not hold an MFA in creative writing today. Toward the end of the completion of the second semester of the (two-year) program, I began to entertain the consideration of leaving the program, an idea that initially seemed almost incomprehensible. But despite how excruciating taking such an action felt it would be, the discontent I was experiencing seemed to be proving impossible to ignore.

The act of going into the director’s office and explaining that I wanted to leave this program into which they had accepted me, of telling my loved ones that I was renouncing this graduate school I had just moved across the country to attend without getting a degree from it, of knowing I had no job and no idea what I was going to do for one upon exiting the program, felt…well, really shitty.

Sadly frequently, I had in the past relented to Annoying Internal Voice and even identified with it, absorbing the idea that indeed I shouldn’t be “indulging” in writing so much and should consistently ensure that I was completing whatever other responsibilities seemed more important to it. I knew that on some level, being accepted into and attending the MFA program had been a strategy to get Annoying Internal Voice to shut the fuck up. What ground would it have to stand on? Writing was going to be one of my primary responsibilities as an MFA candidate.

So when I left the program, I found myself plagued by a feeling that I was somehow “giving up” on writing, that I was forgoing an incredible opportunity to dedicate time and attention principally to it and thus showing that I didn’t really feel serious about it—even though that was not at all how I felt.

It seems to me what it really was was the opposite, which I think I knew somewhere inside even at the time. It is not up to an external structure to make writing seem serious for me, and to give me “permission” to engage in it however dedicatedly I want to. All of that is up to me. Not the automatic Annoying Internal Voice—which really can shove it—but a conscious me.

As has been mentioned by some of the regular bloggers here this week, in a way there doesn’t really seem to be a “square one.” Lisabet put it nicely, I felt, in a comment on Ashley’s post when she mentioned the dictum about never stepping in the same river twice. I don’t regret the experience of attending the MFA program at all. I met some beautiful people and received feedback on writing I did at the time that I feel was helpful and much appreciate.

If I was back at square one (or as Jude Mason said in the comments also after Ashley’s post, “square 1a”), I guess I turned in a different direction and embarked along a new line of numbers. Not long after I left the program, I started writing erotica. In which case it would seem, perhaps, that the return to square one actually took me closer to where I have gone, and have much appreciated going, since.

Which is here.

18 comments:

  1. Hi, Emerald,

    Welcome back. I loved your story. I admire you for having the guts to let go off something that just wasn't working for you, for trusting your instincts. It's not easy to make choices that the rest of the world can so easily label as "wrong". I'm just glad that you listened to your true self instead of that Annoying Internal Voice (which we all have and which is telling me right now that I'd better grade these student projects, instead of working on my new story).

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  2. Hi Em,

    Thank you. As a Creative Writing tutor, you know that I'm an advocate of the benefits of Creative Writing programmes. But I'm also aware they aren't right for everyone.

    Writing is hugely personal and academic involvement can often feel like labelling for the sake of labelling, or trying to critically examine the unexaminable.

    It must have taken a lot of guts to make that decision. Congratulations to you for making that decision.

    And thank you for going on from that decision to become one of my favourite erotica authors.

    Best,

    Ash

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  3. Hi Em,

    Excellent post.

    I’m not sure how pleasant Annoying Internal Voice’s outlook on life was.

    I laughed out loud at that!

    Yes, we all struggle with that voice.

    Mine kept me away from writing seriously for years; I was in my mid forties before I started writing regularly and with commitment. After I did, I discovered what a fundamental part of me it was. I wondered how I went so long with it being such a small part of my life.

    Now I can't do without it.

    So, you could say that my path to writing included a 25 year detour down the road of writing computer programs.

    In hindsight, I like the way it turned out; my business and life experience along the way is an important part of my writing now, though I'd be lying if I didn't say I sometimes wonder, "what if I'd gone full tilt into writing when I was young."

    It seems to me, the detour you took through the partial MFA program was in the same spirit. You are to be commended for knowing when something wasn't working for you, and getting back on your own personal path.

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  4. Hi Lisabet,

    Thank you so much. It seems to me from your comment that you got exactly how I felt at the time and what I was doing my best to convey here. I appreciate that, and your comment, very much.

    Also, I laughed out loud at your parenthetical insert. :) I hope you're having/had fun grading!

    All best,
    Emerald

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  5. Hi Ash,

    I do hope it was obvious in my post that I hold no perception of creative/artistic formal education programs as inherently discordant. It has always, in my talking about this experience, felt so important to me to impart that. It seems to me in reading your comment that you did interpret that though, which I appreciate. :)

    In my experience, when I have done something in order to placate what has felt some kind of order or demand, be it external or internal (I have done both—in this case, as was perhaps clear from this post, it was internal), it has not seemed to turn out well. I would guess that is because I have needed to learn that acting in major ways to placate a demand that does not come from a true, conscious place inside me does not serve—regardless of what the action is.

    In this case, obviously I needed to learn that...it is arguable that really, I wasn't feeling excited about and choosing to attend an MFA program for the experience of immersing myself in what it had to offer. I was doing it in a desperate move to get out from under the internal voice that sometimes harshly rebuked me for spending time writing (perhaps to practically get a little air, if you will!) and to have an "excuse" to do what I wanted to.

    I for one see quite a difference between the two, and I would guess that was why I experienced involvement in the MFA program the way I did.

    Thank you for doing what you do. :) I can only imagine what an amazing experience being in one of your classes may be.

    And thank you also, of course, for what you said at the end of your comment, and for the steadfast support you have shown me as a (erotica!) writer.

    All best,
    Em

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  6. Hi Craig,

    "I’m not sure how pleasant Annoying Internal Voice’s outlook on life was.

    I laughed out loud at that!"

    Heh. Thanks. ;) Really, I have found the degree to which it seems stern and uptight sometimes astounding.

    Ah, yes, your description of how you relate makes much sense to me—I have seen you express such things before.

    "You are to be commended for knowing when something wasn't working for you, and getting back on your own personal path."

    Thank you, Craig. I really, really appreciate that.

    All best,
    Em

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  7. Emerald,

    Wow, how incredibly brave of you! Knowing yourself, REALLY knowing yourself, is something that is insanely hard to do, and something that I believe most of the world decides not to bother with. It would seem that you survived the lumps you needed to take to get there for yourself, and though this feels like an understatement, I just have to say again: Wow.

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  8. Emerald - I've heard this before from others who left MFA programs (although not as eloquently). Every writer is different, and we find our inspiration in our own ways. Thank goodness you had the guts to find what worked, and didn't work, for you.

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  9. Hi Madeline,

    Thank you so much. I also feel that self-awareness is of utmost significance. I so appreciate your comment and indeed feel quite flattered by it, as such self-awareness is something to which I deeply aspire.

    Thank you so much for coming by and for commenting.

    Namaste,
    Emerald

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  10. Hi Kathleen,

    Thank you.

    "Every writer is different, and we find our inspiration in our own ways."

    So true. That actually reminded me of some of the lovely, fascinating fellow students—and professors—I met at the program. :) That part of the experience was something I certainly loved.

    "Thank goodness you had the guts to find what worked, and didn't work, for you."

    Thank you—I appreciate that acknowledgment very much.

    All best,
    Emerald

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  11. Hi Emerald!

    Wow, good response here.

    I've never attended any formal writing classes, so its always interesting to me to hear what people have experienced there, because I'm always asking myself if i missed anything important by not getting a proper education in this thing we do. It doesn't sound like there's any right nswer to the question. Stephen King doesn;t hold much interest in writing workshops, but says the good thing about them is it gives yu a chance to show your stuff to other people and get opinions on it. I've been fortunate enough to do tha with ERWA and my writing partners and mentors like Lisabet, so maybe I'm not missing anything can;t get along without.

    You have an interesting story yet to tell us. I get that feeling. Someday you need to tell us how you went from student to adult web performer.

    Garce

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  12. Hi Garce!

    Thanks again for inviting me to guest blog today!

    "It doesn't sound like there's any right nswer to the question."

    Indeed, it strikes me that way too. There seem to me to be few questions with "right" answers in the realm of creativity (in this case writing)....

    "Someday you need to tell us how you went from student to adult web performer."

    It's pretty straightforward, really. :) Not very different from going from student to many other jobs, I would imagine (though I worked in the day-job nonprofit arena for a while first). Just because it's perceived or treated differently doesn't mean it seems so different as a job. ;)

    Thank you again for asking me to guest blog today, Garce! I have quite enjoyed it.

    All best,
    Em

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  13. Hi Emerald,

    I join in the chorus of gratitude for this honest, eloquent and enlightening essay. In knowing yourself so well, you articulate some of my own feelings about writing that help me know myself better. Especially that part about having fun coming last on the list when in fact living our lives with joy and authenticity is our work as human beings.

    There are so many myth out there about the writing life--that it should come easily to the truly talented for example, give or take a few hungry years in Greenwich Village hanging out in bars. But I think the road to self-knowledge is a rocky one, with lots of wrong turns. Writers who know themselves and what they want are the ones worth reading. And your erotica is a shining example of this.

    Thanks so much for this essay. It makes me want to go write something.

    Donna

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  14. Em,

    You're writing, that's what matters. You're a writer. You do what you love. Maybe it's a calling, a talent, or something you can't help like double jointed elbows. You keep writing.

    Love,
    A

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  15. I too thought this was a great, thoughtful post. I heard that internal voice for a long time, telling me you should get your MFA. "You can, so why not? You have the smarts and the drive. You like school. You're almost obligated to continue your education."

    I did a lot of thinking, and a lot of back-and-forth and I finally realized that just because I CAN do something, I am not OBLIGATED to do something. And in many ways, school was safe, a procrastination technique to avoid what scared me most: listening to my own voice, writing and submitting.

    Since then, I've had the same back-and-forth over things like getting married, buying a house, and having kids. People say, "Oh, you'd be great at xxx. You should totally do it." And I start to think that I should.

    In the end I realized that SHOULD is never a valid reason for me to do anything. It might work for others, but not for me. The only reason to do something (for me) is because I want to, because I'm excited about it and in love with the idea.

    A lot of my students ask me now about grad school, and I give my opinion. Which amounts to: "Think about it long and hard, about why you want to do it, and what you'll gain and lose. Only you can decide what's right." And the ones who look dissatisfied with that answer are the ones who start applying. I think because they want someone to help them with guidelines and rules. The ones who nod take some time to decide. Sometimes I get requests for recommendations from them, sometimes I don't.


    So, no grad school for me. I spent those years writing instead. It was the right choice for me, and I don't regret not going for a second.

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post and all of the comments! Great way to start my Sunday.

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  16. Hi Donna,

    Well, thank you so much. I blushed when I read your comment.

    "living our lives with joy and authenticity is our work as human beings"

    Oh, how utterly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that reminder.

    And thank you so much for visiting and reading and for such a lovely comment. I appreciate it so much. :)

    Namaste,
    Em

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  17. Alana,

    Thank you for coming by and for reading. Have I mentioned lately how inspiring I find you? If not—enormously.

    Thank you.

    Love,
    Em

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  18. Hi Shanna,

    Thank you so much, and oh what a lovely, lovely, lovely outlook about "should." It seems like for much of my lifetime "should" has dictated or at least heavily influenced my perspective and behavior—what you offered seems so refreshing. And indeed, wise.

    "in many ways, school was safe, a procrastination technique to avoid what scared me most: listening to my own voice, writing and submitting"

    I hugely relate to this. As I mentioned in the comment responding to Ashley's, I do feel that I was using an MFA program for an "excuse" of sorts to take the time to write like I wanted; and thus it seemed somehow still an action from the energy or focus of avoidance. And thus the cycle there seemed to continue as such because something was off from the beginning. (This is another reason it strikes me that for some, such programs could seem very different and quite fruitful experiences and environments—because the initial angle of approaching them may be so different.)

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting. And I too have found the comments in general lovely and enriching—thank you to everyone!

    All best,
    Em

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