Friday, August 13, 2010

Just Keep Writing!

Fifteen years ago, we moved my spouse to an apartment in Columbia, South Carolina because he was about to start an MPA program at the University of South Carolina. I spent the week working at my full-time teaching job in the Charleston area, and most week-ends, I drove to Columbia.

I think of this time period as a turning point, and it was, in so many ways. But for the purposes of this post, I'll focus on the writing turning point. It was during the last part of 1995 that I started writing poetry again.

I had written poetry in high school and undergraduate school, and I was starting to come into my own as a poet. Then I went to grad school in 1987, and my poet self went underground. All my writing selves went underground: I didn't journal much, I didn't write short stories or poems. Of course, I wrote at least 3 researched papers every semester, but that didn't feel like real writing to me.

During my first year of teaching full-time, I focused my writing attention on writing a novel. I had visions of writing my way out of that job. In some ways, I did, but not in the ways I envisioned. I envisioned a best seller, a movie tie in, those kind of fantasies.

When my spouse went back to school in 1995, we spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about our future. That's one of the things I love best about being in school: it's clear that a change will be coming, and the progress through school keeps the mind focused.

I look back and I realize that I've never stopped writing, but there have been periods when I haven't been doing the kind of writing that matters most to me. That's one of the reasons I didn't pursue a job at a research oriented university. I didn't want to publish or perish, at least not with my academic writing. I wanted to be a poet.

My 1995 self would be amazed at the trajectory I've taken, amazed at the amount of poetry I've written. My 2010 self feels frustrated at not having published a book of poems that has a spine. But it's important to stop listening to my hypercritical voice, that voice of the inner guidance counselor who tells me I'm not living up to my full potential.

It's important to realize that I've never stopped writing, even as my writing priorities kept shifting. At the same time, I want to be aware of the times when my poet self went underground. I don't want to lose her again.

My poet self went underground in grad school because I was surrounded by older professors, one of whom memorably said of every female writer he mentioned, "Of course, she was no good." Even as my feminist self recognized this sexism, my poet self felt nicked. In grad school, I was surrounded by lots of male creative writers who made themselves feel good by attacking the work of others, both fellow students, canonized writers, marginalized writers. I knew I had to protect my creative writer self, but I didn't mean for her to hibernate for so long.

I also felt inadequate in grad school. I was just one of folks there who had displayed some undergraduate talent. How did I know I could make it? The fact is, I didn't know for sure, and I developed habits that have served me well: breaking large projects into manageable chunks, working a little bit each day, doggedly never giving up.

I think that quality of persistence--not talent--is what makes graduate students successful. It's also what makes writers successful. I'm not sure I really believe in talent at all. I just believe in showing up, day after day, adjusting the trajectory as needed, so that year after year, one is moving towards the life one wants to have.

Hopefully, in 15 years, I'll be writing about the 2 or 3 poetry books and/or chapbooks that I've found publisher homes for. Hopefully, I'll be writing about the experience in the future version of the linked-in, facebooked blogosphere, announcing a new book, a poetry tour, and multi-media show, a medium we can't even imagine now, a new social justice initiative that combines my love of poetry and my vision of a better world . . .

But now, it's time to face my day of many meetings. First, to spin class!

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