Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007
[This is an open-letter to the person who asked.]
If you listen carefully, you can hear faint cries from Manhattan, every so often, from 2 May at 4:45 pm, when I turned in my MFA thesis, until 2:30 pm on the 18th, which is Commencement. The cries are pleasure or pain, like a baby’s, or the bouncing ones from the couple in the motel room next door getting it on. They’re pleasure and pain both, the bittersweet realization that school is over. I loved each and every class, and my classmates, and being with them, and I’m going to miss it all.
The literature seminars were terrific, though in an regular university way. A writing workshop class is something else again. There’s the ownership we have in our words, the risks we take in writing them, the way even fiction and poetry are about ourselves, one way or another, and the way the risks are all doubled and tripled when we show others work that still in progress…. It all makes for something that’s part encounter group, part martial arts.
Bittersweet as well was the thesis reading last week. For three days, Thurs/Fri/Sat, we each read 350 words from our theses; 30+ per night, almost 100 in the program in total. Two hours a night, snack food, beer, wine, an intermission, it was very pleasant. Last year apparently they had a longer time limit, and crammed it into two nights that were marathons of 5 and 4 hours.
350 words is not enough by half when you’re choosing them, but it turned out to give a real taste of what people did in their thesis and to let you know which ones you really wanted to go to the library and read (one copy of the thesis will be in the New School library forever). They were funny and fun and sad and revealing and sometimes the words soared high above and exploded like fireworks, and sometimes they hit you as if you had tried to catch a football with your ribcage.
I was put next-to-last on Friday night and couldn’t decide between two choices. My advisor wanted me to read one the end of Chapter 1, which is about a day of ice climbing. The other choice was the beginning of Chapter 3, about my climbing partner Crazy Mike.
The Crazy Mike selection would be easier for people to understand and it had a killer image in the first paragraph, the kind that blinds you like a camera-flash and lingers, making it hard to hear what’s next. It also ended with a great list, and writers love lists (because readers love them). It had a character who was a real character. Basically, it showed a lot of what I learned in the program and it was well liked in workshop.
The ice climbing passage had some drama, emotions, some nice images, and was about climbing, which was a huge plus. In addition, it went, as my advisor, the writer Susan Cheever, put it, from the particular to the general, which she said always worked. It didn’t workshop nearly as well.
Even at the intermission I, I was undecided. I asked Susan again, and again she said the ice climbing piece. I was still unsure. Finally, I said to myself that she knows what she’s talking about. She’s written book after book, she’s given hundreds of readings, she just finished a book tour where she had to decide what to read. She knows what works, and why the hell was I asking her if I didn’t think she knew best.
I brought both versions to the podium, looked up, said my name, adjusted the microphone, and decided to trust Susan. As I was reading, I knew it was going well. I was slow, I was clear, I was quietly animated, I was standing just the right distance from the microphone. I could barely look up at the 200 or so people sitting there—I hadn’t practiced the ice climbing piece, so I had to really look at it. The one time I remember raising my eyes I saw, in the front row, three faces listening intently—the head of the program; my final-semester workshop teacher; and the head of the fiction program.
I sat down to applause, shaking. (The next night I would talk to the person who I think had the absolutely best reading, a poet named Liesel, who described how much she shook after reading.) I looked over at Robert, the head of the program. He was waiting to make eye contact with me and smiled and nodded. I smiled back and looked to his right. My workshop teacher smiled and nodded. Then the head of the fiction program, who didn’t know me even by sight, did the same. The next night she would stop me as our paths crossed during the intermission, clasp my arm lightly, and tell me how much she liked my piece.
Thanks Susan. What I didn’t realize until afterwards is that it was the right choice because it was the risky choice; it was the believe-in-yourself choice.
A lot of people aren’t going to the recognition ceremony our part of the school is holding next week, nor the university-wide Commencement, the day after, so there was a strong sense on everyone’s part that this was our real graduation. In a sense, we were done last Wednesday when we turned in the thesis, or when we read from our thesis, or not until Commencement, but I know that, when Robert said, at the end of the thesis readings on Saturday night, “Congratulations,” that’s when it was really over for me.
I was graduated (sweet!) and we would never be together again (bitter), not for classes, or readings, or the bar after; we would see each other, but not in groups, not as fellow students, not with our writing raw and our selves turned inside-out, exposed to one another as if an experiment in collective open heart surgery. I miss it already.