Today marked my unceremonious social-media announcement to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing (and/or Poetics) and to do “whatever it takes” to get into a program. I would be lying if I said this was a pivotal turning point of any kind. No movement in my actual existence, the life I have lived for twenty-seven years and dragged to three continents, was heavy or momentous enough to crack walls that are psychological. Seeing a therapist every week and being forced to remember and re-experience my past is creating more of the energy and direction needed to reverse my stray trajectory. Instead of a pivot, I feel like I am paddling across a lake, turning the boat in small increments.
Looking at old blog entries is another way I am prying open lock-boxes in my mind and getting past feeling ‘scattered’. I wish I had more space and time to explain the feelings of disjointedness that accompany my uncertainty. Instead of reaching the point of certainty through great accomplishments or signs of “destiny” I had to abandon the dreams of being ‘significant’ (via activism or otherwise) and start asking myself which field(s) I was most suited to explore deeply. I wanted a big plot-twist, like becoming a conflict mediator or an interfaith peace-builder, but even my plotting is emblematic of my desire to be a writer. My favorite professor, and one-time Writing Center supervisor, commented that I kept “circling back” to the idea of an MFA and that it was “in [my blood”. If I still felt the need to be superlative — you know, to be the best at everything — I might re-enter the cycle of hope and self-abuse. A few faithful friends remain in my corner: telling me I can do whatever I set my mind to and gently rebuking my self-deprecations.
Another writing center colleague has made sharper rebukes, such “quit saying you can’t” and “stop judging … you could be writing something to be edited later” and “no one said it was easy; that’s what makes it worth it.” Childish as it is, I respond better to the tarter variety of criticism because it impresses me as more genuinely concerned, not a platitude given by a well-intentioned acquaintances but the admonishment of a committed friend. Naturally, that’s trash: the others are no less sincere. Still, the bitterness of one spice often brings the others into relief — a more shrill voice of love and encouragement is really helpful. I’ve never been so touched by someone accusing me of bitching at myself too much. I felt like I was being defended from my harshest critic (myself). Simultaneously, I feel a nice sting of shame for being self-absorbed, even when I am tearing myself down.
As went my music, so must my writing go. There was a time, when I was twenty-four, when I grappled with the reality that I would never, ever play professionally but that I could still develop my musicality in small ways that made life richer. The catch was that I could not berate myself for having a bad day anymore — I had to reward myself for picking-up a horn/bass and practicing. My relationship with these ideas are changing over time in order to embrace practice as an act of creativity rather than preparation for an event to come later. In my writing, that means abandoning a myth I stitched together at fifteen or sixteen. In those days, I believed that I needed to make every piece of fiction or poetry count toward my final goal or else I would not be able to distinguish myself from other aspiring authors. Now I see that all I did was make creative writing into a game of higher stakes than my non-fiction practice — something I did automatically. It was one psyche-out after another, unless there was external pressure. As I sheltered my anemic creative-writing practice, I robbed myself of precious opportunities to feel some pressure from my peers. Maybe I was embarrassed or not sure if I would not rather do something else with my life, knowing the difficulty of the road ahead. The only thing which has changed is that I now believe that I can lead a happy life with many difficulties whereas, before, I always believed that difficulties needed to be overcome before happiness possible. If I’ve fallen out of love with end-outcomes, I can fall in-love with the process. As Mercer Ellington said of his father (the Duke, himself), “his favorite piece was always whichever piece he was working on at the time — never something already finished…” Challenge is always with us.
And this ain’t the best written post — but ya’all should have heard me honk’n the first day I decided to start playing trumpet again. Wow — but now my sound is smoother than it’s ever been (for what that’s worth…)
The nastiest nay-saying ‘voice’ in my head is the one that reminds me of how much ‘practice’ I missed by procrastinating my decision to commit fully to the idea, noting what seems to be diminishing returns. An accompanying voice is one that tries to justify & otherwise redeem all of the other ‘practices’ I use to procrastinate. I am tempted to say “bad habits” but I want to dissolve that paradigm. It’s a problem of proportions, strictly, not necessarily of choices. Getting past these two diametrically opposed but mutually reinforcing voices is a matter of practice.
When I say that I intend to work on my MFA, it’s almost an admission that I am going to quit trying to work on myself all the time. I can shape myself concurrently. Whether I make applications this winter or next winter, I am stating for the record that I am going to privilege
my aspirations over my uncertainties. Yet, I can say that all I want and never have these paragraphs become ‘performative’ — like a promise or an oath. What I really need to do is be vulnerable to the process of writing creatively, hoping everything and expecting nothing but more trouble and missteps.
Let’s do it. I have themes I want to explore, characters to develop, subjects to teach, and ideas to air. Activism will always be with me, shaping the ways I shape the world — and music, too, keeping me from imploding. Let’s do it.