Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Year to Write

When I was in high school, I published a "zine" called Iconoclast which featured an eclectic assortment of obscene, bizarre, and mostly terrible poetry by myself and my friends. I also attended a variety of open-mic poetry events in Albany, New York, performing my own work and listening to the inspired ravings of fellow upstate oddities. I remember this terribly pretentious poet named R. M. Englehardt, whom I always used to make fun of with my friends. I remember having a Mrs. Robinson-style crush on another poet, Mary Panza, who was twice my age. I also remember, quite affectionately, these three old dudes who called themselves "3 Guys from Albany" and read their work as part of a collaborative performance. Albany poetry: it was a scene, sort of.

When I left home for college, I knew I wanted to write. I even picked a college (Bard) that sounded like it was built for writers. I knew that it was unlikely I would ever make a living as a writer, but I didn't think I needed to worry about that yet. College, for me, wasn't about being practical. It was dreamlike. It was a world of ideas and imagination. It was filled with the joy of knowing that high school was over, and the repressed anxiety that one day the dream would end, and I'd be a starving artist of some kind.

My number one priority freshman year was to get into a Poetry Workshop. At Bard, you couldn't just sign up to take Creative Writing--you had to submit a portfolio of your work in order to demonstrate that you were serious about your craft. The professor would look over the portfolios and decide which students he/she wanted to work with. There were always more portfolios than spots in the class. Not everybody made the poetry team.

I scrutinized my work. I sweated. I revised. I put together a collection of my best poems.

I didn't make the cut. I didn't even make the waiting list.

In hindsight, this wasn't all that surprising. I had never read much poetry, especially not contemporary poetry. Aside from Allen Ginsberg, the only living poets I was really familiar with were the local versifiers from Albany. That kind of poetry didn't really cut it at Bard.

Later that semester, I got a voicemail from Peter Sourian, who taught a creative writing workshop in prose fiction. Professor Sourian had been on an Amtrak train, chatting with a conductor, who had mentioned that he knew a young man--a friend of his daughter's--who was studying at Bard. "He's a nice young man. Check up on him, if you think of it." And he did.

I took Professor Sourian's invitation to stop by during his office hours and introduce myself. We chatted about our common acquaintance--my friend Michelle's dad--and about a writer from Albany whom we both admired (William Kennedy). When it came time to register for Spring classes, I submitted a portfolio of short stories for Professor Sourian's fiction workshop. Of course, I got a spot in the class.

Would I have ended up in that class if my friend's dad hadn't talked me up to this professor on a train? I'll never know. I decided to believe that I was simply a much better fiction writer than I was a poet.

Professor Sourian ran his workshop in pretty old-school fashion. At the end of a class, he'd tell a few of us to bring a story to the next class. At the next class, he'd read a story aloud and ask everyone to say what they thought of it. You'd sit there and listen to your classmates and your professor analyze your work, sometimes generously and sometimes harshly. It was not for the faint of heart.

The first story I submitted for the class was pretty terrible. Professor Sourian said something to the effect of, "There's no story in your story."

The next story I wrote was about a friend of mine who had been molested, as a child, by her uncle. The third story I wrote for the class was about coming to terms with my father's death. These stories were both probably emotionally overwrought and painfully amateurish, but they were better. They had their moments.

I ended up taking two more fiction workshops while at Bard, one with Richard Ford (who was pretty well-known) and one with Liz Strout (who would go on to become very well-known). Writing fiction didn't exactly come easy to me, but I was definitely getting better. When I wrote, I often tried to create somewhat mythic versions of real people I knew in my life, and to place them in mythic versions of real places I had been. Sometimes I felt like I was writing portraits; sometimes I felt like I was writing landscapes. Sometimes I was going for realism; sometimes for fantasy.

One of the graduation requirements at Bard is a year-long, 8-credit project, completed during one's senior year. I decided to write a collection of short stories for my project, and Professor Sourian was one of three professors who read and evaluated my work. The collection was called Where Things Come Together: Stories of the Northern Hudson. Each story was set in a different town along the Hudson River and featured a character loosely based on someone from my past whose real story had fascinated me at some point. (Maybe I should have just written little biographies of ordinary people. I often wonder if I could make that into a marketable genre.)

My senior year at Bard was the high point of my writing life--far more pleasurable than the years I spent writing my dissertation for my PhD. (Of course, writing a collection of short stories and writing a dissertation are very different projects. Both require imagination and insight, but one is geared toward a broad audience, while the other is for quite a narrow one.) I lived in an old dormitory that year, called "Manor", with a clunky old radiator that I couldn't control. I remember (wastefully) keeping my window open in the dead of winter to avoid broiling. I remember sitting at my little desk, with a faint view of the Catskills, typing away while pockets of cold and hot air swirled and mixed around me. I remember creating scenes and characters that excited me, and I remember the moments of terror when I thought it was all crap--that I had spent months producing total garbage. I remember sharing stories with friends and professors, afraid to hear the truth. I remember the relief when they told me, "I think maybe you've got something here."

Of all the great things Bard gave me, perhaps that was the greatest. A year to write.

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