I have a conversation with my partner Dustin’s Uncle Jack about how he fell on his good hip and, while painful, it reset his hips. The pain he’s been suffering from the former bad hip is gone.
I wish that would happen to me, and then, a day later, on the plane home, it does, with a bag falling on my bad knee.
I’ll be making some more wishes.
I spend the month of November at a writer’s colony, Ledig House, in upstate New York. I can’t work without very good coffee, and so I investigate, and find some of the very best coffee I’ve ever had. This is consoling. Strongtree Coffee is an organic roaster local to Hudson, NY, located right by the train station.
The owner describes changing her business recently, due to climate change. Coffee business owners are not climate change skeptics. Instead, they are preparing to fight each other for the increasingly scarce beans.
I am already on board for saving the planet, but had not prepared, all the same, for a shortage of good coffee.
There’s a Turkish writer at the colony who describes living under the threat of constant arrest, due to several charges leveled against her by the Turkish government. After this conversation we watch an episode of Glee. I can’t tell if she’d be happier in America, where the government doesn’t care enough about writers to threaten them.
When she decides to leave early to return, I see the answer is no.
A few weeks later, as the election happens, I try to explain the US to the international writers, who watch, incredulous. The one who seems to understand best is an Israeli writer, who says, insightfully, that Far Right American governments are typically more favorable to Israel. No one is rooting for Obama in Israel, he says. It makes me wonder if he saw this.
I reflect on the irony of trying to finish my novel during #Nanowrimo. Daily.
On breaks, I read essays by people still trying to discredit the MFA, responses to them, responses to the responses. I wouldn’t mind something written that was critical of the MFA in ways that were honest as to what is taught there, but this parade of paper tigers doesn’t resemble the world.
In the meantime, it’s a new business, created by the MFA: the industry of attacking the MFA.
I’m tired of these attempts at totalizing views on this topic, though, and tired of this argument, if that is what it is, which is not the same as being critical of the MFA and asking it to reform—it is about delegitimizing it. This I think of as a mask—it only reproduces arguments elsewhere in the culture, arguments that are all really about money, and that are in themselves a mask for the same thing: access to a “safe place”, aesthetically and morally, that doesn’t exist. If anything is dangerous, it’s said totalizing view: the attempt to delegitimize the degree altogether, to portray the hard work of the people involved in an entirely negative light—and it is hard work. Worse, the anti-MFA crowd portrays itself as populist, when in fact the MFA is, despite portrayals to the opposite, a largely democratic force in American literature—a fellowship won by a student entering a grad program allows one to write a novel or stories when one lacks, say, a trust fund or a huge advance.
I can understand being bitter if you spent 80k on your degree that you don’t have, but I wouldn’t do it, and I always tell students faced with that not to go. You could make the money back in a lifetime of teaching, but it’s better to have a fellowship.
When I went for mine, those two years were the first two years of my life where I was paid to only write and and study writing. I made much less than the fancy New York magazine editing job I gave up and I didn’t care. I was tired of editing articles about Versace skirts.
I understand the critiques then partly through the lens of who I was before I went—from the time when I applied skeptically, afraid of what I imagined was a program that would try to wipe any individuality off of me. I was a queer punk bookseller from San Francisco who’d lucked into a NYC magazine job and felt too cool to get a MFA but also too cool for magazines, too—too cool for anything. I was young and ridiculous with misconceptions, and getting into Iowa with a magical realist queer sexually explicit story about a Korean adoptee was the last thing I imagined was possible, but, I applied to prove I was right, and then I was wrong. When I got in, with fellowship money, the myth, the idea that the program only wanted young Carvers or people to turn into young Carvers, began to shatter. When I say most of what I read about the MFA (or Iowa for that matter) is wrong, what I mean is, I used to believe that too.
I find How to Write Like a Victorian, by Paul Collins, on the first book of writing instruction, a much-needed bit of comic relief. Which is to say, the attacks on the MFA begin perhaps here, and much as now, much of the complaint seems to be about the democratization of writing:
The whole discipline had been gestating for a decade, beginning with novelist Walter Besant musing in 1884 over the notion of “Professors of Fiction”—something then as fantastical as a steam-powered robot. It was a vision that at least one critic found “Appalling. As if there were not enough novels already. … [Now] we are to have our young maidens trained to the business, and let loose upon the world, in batches, every year to pursue their devastating calling, as if they were dentists or pharmaceutical chemists.”
I will now imagine myself as a steam-powered robot professor and writer. Also: consider the much better The Writing of Fiction, by one such maiden, Edith Wharton.
What worries me more is the celebrity, or the economy that struggles to exist around celebrity. In the same way that most people in the Hudson area now owe their livelihood to the needs of weekenders, publishing too often caters to celebrity. “Most of the people I see promoting their book on tv are already famous,” my partner’s sister observes a few days ago. She says this as she is asking me how the average writer can publicize their book.
“This is a big question,” I say. I remember my idea for a tv show, born several years ago, out of the desire to have a show where my book would be the product placement, carried by the stars everywhere. I’m not entirely convinced it is a bad, cynical idea.
I leave Ledig House, and go on to Philadelphia, making a short stop to read at Temple University and meet with students in their MFA program. I get a ride from a Tunisian cab driver who, it turns out, is a writer. He left Tunisia because of his political writing, unable to stay, but he doesn’t speak English well enough to write and publish here. I encourage him, because he is entertaining, to try to write more in English.
I think of the Turkish writer.
In the US, I say, you would never have to leave because of your political writings. Writing itself has been discredited, which is something of a time-saver for the fascists. (This is still true for now, despite the best efforts, say, of the MFA and #Nanowrimo.)
You’re right, he says, with a short laugh. And then drops me off.