Saturday, January 10, 2009

Back To School

The following blog is a kind of meditation inspired by this past week at Pine Manor College where I am about to complete my first 10 day residency in the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program.

It’s hard to not over edit this piece as you can imagine; I have just spent this week dissecting and rewriting my work to the point where everything I write seems wrong some how.

And, yet, in the spirit of “writing naked”, I hand you the following piece:

Part I:
Glowing Objects

I sit at the square table in a low cushioned chair. My teacher, late 40’s, mustached, hair short, spiky but not trendy, is waxing serious about podcasts, Abby Hoffman, and character development. His genius at pulling seemingly unrelated and even odd elements together to illustrate his point is slightly hypnotic-- even if you aren’t quite sure what he is talking about.

I sit so straight up, it’s as if there’s an opening at the crown of my head, an opening where this teacher’s wild, odd brilliance pours into me, and hopefully, transforms me from a good writer to a great one.

As much as I want to focus on this energy pouring into my brain, as engaged in this moment, as hypnotized as I am, something distracts me.

Just to the left of my chair in my overstuffed backpack are two precious items that nag at me, beckon me. A beckoning I feel so strongly that I fear they might actually be glowing, glowing hotly, brightly, trying to get my attention. Now I’m convinced that any moment they will actually develop arms, hot glowing arms, to reach up and unzip the bag, and burst free in all their glowing glory. I glance over at the backpack, surprised when all I see is this ordinary, slumped over, olive green bag. No glowing. No smoke. Nope it’s just me, as usual, overly and hyperly self-conscious about these two items.

I take them with me wherever I go, even places that have nothing to do with writing or reading. I take them on trips to my in-laws and leave them the glove compartment in my car for when I do errands.

Just in case.

Just in case, over the course of conversation or errand running or in-law visiting, the Subject comes up-- oh, you’re a writer? What have you written? Well, actually, POW, look at that, here they are actually. Would you like a copy? I often examine why I feel the need to do this. I have no clear explanation. It might be insecurity, it might be a need to connect with other beings.

So of course I brought them with me to school, to my low residency MFA program, Semester 1. And now, sitting in this class, they have decided to do a light show in my mind, calling attention to themselves and forcing me to take them out.

Okay, not really, but that’s what it feels like. Even though, when I packed them, I tucked them deep into my bag, not really to show anyone, but more to remind me that this is a part of my writer-self, a part I often feel self-conscious about, especially when I do “writer stuff”, like attend a class or retreat or workshop. I carry them much like how I wear a tiny Jewish star necklace, to remind me of who I am. Even if who I am brings up issues of fear or shame or just good old fashion self-consciousness.

I don’t take out my books during the workshop. But the entire time I feel their hot and glowy presence and worry they might just come out on their own.

They didn’t.

Part 2:
Sordid Past

I feel weird about it. About my seemingly, at least to me, “sordid” publishing past.

Why didn’t I just whip out my books for my classmates and teachers to see? Was it because I feared looking like an insecure, egotistical, ass? Was it because I worried it would set a tone for “show off” or “she thinks she knows everything” or “why the hell is she here if she thinks she’s so great?”

Yes. That’s exactly why I didn’t do it.

Within in just hours of arrival, days before that workshop, I realized in talking with some of my new classmates, that I came to this program with a little more “baggage” about publishing and even writing than most of my fellow MFA students. I already have a membership (recently expired) with SCBWI, know the art of the query, understand the frustration of rejection and submission– a.k.a the waiting game. I even know about agents, book signings, and school visits. I know about royalties and Amazon ranking.

In the MFA program, the premise seems to be that you have NOT been published, that you need/want to study BEFORE publication. That we take our work seriously and want real, full lives as writers. Therefore, someone like me, who started off writing and submitting, studying craft at retreats and workshops, someone like me, is well, I don’t know. In the first draft of this blog I said that I felt like a fraud and then an impostor. But now, it’s the second to last day here, and I realize that my classmates and teachers do not feel that way about me. In fact, I don’t think anyone really cares what I did before, the self-publishing. It’s kind of irrelevant. But my background as an author (which, truthfully, I feel weird calling myself) is not the norm among my classmates. And, as usual, whatever is different about me, I obsess about and worry over. I want to fit in and felt, at first, this might be the thing that makes me NOT fit in. It turned out to not be, however. It turned out, it didn’t matter.

But, none-the-less, I am self-published, which in and of itself, might be viewed by some of the serious writer students, MFA students, as fraudulent and “self indulgent”.

Don’t get me wrong here. NO ONE during this week has said this or made me feel this way. My anxiety, once again gentle reader, (those of you who are new, please take the time to read some previous blogs and you will see my history of self-flagellation) is all in my head.

And I realize, finally, why I am so judgmental about my self-publishing. Because I did it, I published the books myself because I couldn’t make it the other way. So, really, my reasons were more out of defeat than anything else. I guess I can’t quite get over that, get over my failure to break in the way I wanted to, with a book deal. That's why I feel weird calling my self an author. I am not sure if I have earned that, not because a self-published author isn't a real author but because I didn't want to self-publish. I did it because I failed the other way.

Part 3
Secret’s out

During the course of the week, I let people know, as needed, that I self-published some books. As it comes up, as conversation leans toward discussion of publication and submission, I offer, simply, my own experience. Ironically, I feel by not telling, I would be fraudulent. I would be pretending to be innocent and naive to the ultimate reality of life after the MFA, the thing that we will face, hopefully, later on.

But one thing I did not do was take out those hot, glowing, eager little books and show them, in all their glowing glory, to anyone. If I did, it was brief, like taking them out to get other things, a brief flash, but not to share. Yet, I carried them with me. Every day.

Part 4

I have to say it’s a relief to finally be somewhere in the writing world where publication is NOT the focus in the process. Where it is not emphasized, in fact, it’s discouraged from the dialogue for 1st and 2nd semester students. I guess a writer doesn’t need to know the ugly realities of publishing while they are in the process of honing their craft. It is distracting and burdening. It was distracting and burdening to me all these years. So, for now, I feel relieved. Back in my regular life, I even tell my own writing students, let’s focus on craft, publication will come later, and it’s a relief to have teachers telling me that here. Leaving that subject off to the side keeps the purity of the art we are trying to create. Entering the world of query letters and submission means losing the innocence and purity of just working on craft. So, it makes sense to not emphasize that.

Part 5

I am here because I want to study craft more. Not because I don’t think I’m a good writer already but because there’s a greatness deep inside that I’m too close to myself to be able to pull out and make room and space for. That a set of good teachers and talented fellow writers will help. I’m not deluding myself into thinking that this is the brass ring though. But, now, I can challenge the assumptions and insecurities I have about writing and my self-publishing with something I can stand on. My craft will be validated through receiving my MFA. Instead of worrying about the sales of my book as validation, I can stand on a body of work and a degree that proves-I did it.

My contradictory feelings about being self-published, pride with shame, power with fear. I can’t fully explain. I haven’t reconciled the feelings. I used to try and in the trying I would struggle.

My theme in my life is letting go of struggle, coexisting with any pain or conflict, with not struggling with the frustration around me and my not getting a book deal. I want to just be, be whatever/whoever I am and not justify it.

Maybe my past experience in publishing can help, help me and my fellow writers. But I think the real challenge is for me to not let one world collide with the other. Now, I can have separateness between craft and business. Finally.

Part 6

I stand in between the chairs that form rows in an old, dark wooded, high ceilinged room where Virginia Woolf sits like a guru in a painting. This is where we sit each night and listen to our teachers read. The hour and a half always flies by as we travel far away into our mentor’s stories hypnotized by their voices reading from their own work.

But of course I’m distracted. We haven’t begun yet and are just arranging our hats and coats and bags around our seats. My spiky-haired, mustached teacher is in front of me doing the arranging winter gear dance the rest of us are doing. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him. I stall sitting down because once I sit, I will lose the courage and those two books will start to burn brightly in my bag and will probably ruin the rest of the evening for me. I stall by arranging and rearranging my hat, coat, and gloves tucking and folding and moving and shifting. My teacher is about to sit, and I know if I don’t act now I will lose the moment, the opening. So, I reach into my bag and grab them. They are cold from being in my backpack all day while I traipsed around campus. I turn to my teacher quickly and thrust the books at him. I mumble something about wanting him to have them and he says I was going to ask you… We both laugh. It’s clearly awkward but he asks me to sign the books and I do, fumbling and uncertain of what to write.

No one around us really notices the exchange, and if anyone does, they don’t say anything. When I sit down and the first reader begins, I am wholly focused, completely engaged, and not once thinking about those two glowing objects now in my teacher’s bag.


Unknown said...


This is one of your best blogs that I have read. You hand out those books. Publishing must be the only industry where there is a stigma to doing it yourself. In all other business there is prestige for owning your own business, creating your own product and selling it yourself.

Joanne Carnevale said...

Wow Hannah - great blog! Almost a bit of a short story with a happy resolution. I felt heightening action and then a denouemount.

Has no one in your class had anything published - article, short fiction piece, anything?

I've said it before but bears repeating that your "failure" to get a traditional publishing contract is more a failure of short-sighted editors and decision makers. I hope never to become those people.

The numerous awards showered upon your books are evidence of their worthiness. Many traditionally published authors only wish they could point to even one of the several awards received by your novel.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'm looking at your books right now and can't wait to sit down and read them and show them to my teenaged daughters. What a terrific blog and very sweet.
Spiky haired teacher