Ten Nuggets of Hard-Won Knowledge
This is the eigth in a series of posts leading up to the AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known.” Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center.
Oh youth! How naïve I was when I started at the Workshop, and when I left two years later. I had a vague idea I would improve my skills as a poet and eventually find a job teaching at a university in order to make a living. In the meantime, going to grad school certainly seemed more palatable than law school, a destination I’d been groomed for from an early age.
What do I know now that I wish I’d known then, starting in the fall of 1975? The list of knowledge nuggets goes on and on. But I’ll limit mine to 10.
Writing takes courage. Nobody really tells you this in so many words. If your work — prose, fiction, non-fiction — gets brutalized early and often in the classroom before grad school, you get the idea rather quickly. But if you only get praise, awards, pats on the back, invitations to drink port in the wood-paneled dens of professors and deans, then you let down your guard and are unprepared for the volleys of vitriol that await you in the outside world—especially grad school, where snarkiness is a kind of blood sport. Writing takes courage to cope with both the outside critics who will delight in trashing your work, and the critic in your own head who can stop you from writing anything.
You need to know if you really want to teach. By the time I went to Iowa, I had already had some teaching experience at my undergraduate school, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I’d been asked to teach there as soon as I graduated. I had no instruction. I was simply thrown into two classes of what is sometimes call “bonehead English” or “sub-freshman English.” I made many mistakes. And I discovered I didn’t really like teaching. And yet, that was my goal after Iowa. What was I thinking? I’m not sure that pursuing an MFA — in poetry, at any rate — makes sense unless you want to teach. Which isn’t to say that a couple years in a writing program, reading poetry, writing poetry, hanging out with other poets and talking about poetry, isn’t very valuable if what you want is to write poetry. But you can do that without the degree, and the tuition bills that come with it.
I wish I’d thought more about the path ahead and what I wanted. But I was young, and thinking about the future was not really on my radar.
Write every day with a deadline in mind. I waited around a lot for inspiration. And so I wasted a lot of time. I finally discovered the best inspiration of all: a deadline. In the case of the Iowa MFA, we had a deadline for turning in the thesis. I wrote more in the six weeks prior to that deadline than I did in the previous year and a half. The freedom of Iowa didn’t work for me. I would have thrived with assignments from teachers with hard deadlines. I needed structure. I wish I’d known that sooner.
The friends you make in college and grad school may last a lifetime. I was fortunate to make and keep great friends. I didn’t know they would be lifetime friends. I would have taken more photos to capture events and memories, made audio recordings, and kept every letter and postcard. I treasure those friendships and am thrilled for the successes of my friends.
The real lessons about writing happened in bars and homes. I didn’t get much from the classroom environment. The poetry workshops had a Lord of the Flies atmosphere. But in the bars and at kitchen tables, I learned what people felt free to express and explain and rant about. It was earnest, honest, and fun. And helped to give me the courage to stay in the Workshop and keep at the hard work of writing poetry, even if my passion for poetry was being diminished by the Workshop atmosphere.
It’s OK to be a commercial writer. I started writing advertising while still in high school for a small ad agency in Dayton, Ohio, my home town. I continued at Iowa, writing for an ad agency while not in classes. I kept that secret from my classmates for fear of being sneered at for doing such lowbrow work. I also worked for a radio station as an on-air talent and part-time writer. I didn’t know it then, but I was laying the groundwork for my career in journalism, advertising, marketing, PR, and freelance writing for a wide variety of companies and clients. After I graduated from Iowa and had to earn a living, I found my first job in Iowa City working for a radio station as a staff writer and Sunday talk-show host. From there, I moved to Denver to be the writer at a 24-hour jazz station. And while in Denver, I started writing magazine and newspaper articles about jazz. For real money! None of this had anything to do with what I “learned” at Iowa. After Denver, I moved to California and had a chance to work in newspapers for five years which provided excellent on-the-job training without any actual instruction taking place. But I had a great editor. And he helped me to improve my writing. The journalism experience was, perhaps, the most gratifying of my writing career. I benefited from having daily deadlines, too. And there were more lessons to be learned in the edge-worn urban bars where the seasoned writers drank their lunches. Sometimes they’d write at the bars. The one next to the Oakland Tribune was simply called the newsroom annex. I’d hear conversations like “Where’s Eddie?” “Oh, he’s next door at the annex.”
In short, you have to earn a living. If you can do so as a writer, you’re still in the game.
Some classes in business, marketing, and even bookkeeping would have been very helpful to my career as a writer. I was too busy trying to be an “artist” and never considered the value of the courses I could have taken that would have helped me manage my career.
Failing is the best way to succeed. It’s often-said, I know. And perhaps trite. But in hindsight, I really get it. I have failed a lot – at a lot of things. And I’ve learned from each failure. The pain lessens with time. You develop a thicker skin. And best of all, it turns out that failure isn’t so bad after all. Now when I fail at something, I simply shrug it off, accept it, and try something else.
Success can be a trap. My few successes faded quickly. “O.K. What else ya got?” became the constant response from bosses, colleagues, competitors, and The World At Large. And as a writer, I have often fallen into the black hole of trying to write what I think other people want instead of what I want to put on the page. Or the screen.
In the Real World, nobody likes to write but everybody loves to edit. If you write for a living, your work will often be edited by people who cannot write a decent sentence. What you publish might well be critiqued by people who have a very short list of publishing credits. Your ideas will be trashed by people with no imagination. And yet, your job will be to put the words out there and get paid for it. While at Iowa, I cringed at every edit, every correction, and every barb hurled at me. I had no idea many more were to come from bosses and executives who couldn’t write a cogent email. Which takes me back to point #1. It takes courage to write.