I texted the Lunch Ticket Editor-in-Chief Katelyn Keating late last night to say I didn’t know what I was going to do about this blog. Both of us are working on finishing our graduation requirements for the MFA in Creative Nonfiction this week at Antioch University. Neither of us is sleeping very much. There’s a lot to do. I am stupidly trying to squeeze work conference calls into my final school residency. Katelyn is maintaining this journal, building and training its new staff. We are required to give graduate presentations, we have to read our work aloud, we have to turn in final manuscripts. The two years we devoted to allegedly mastering this fine art are coming to a head and we must show how we deserve the degree. When I gave my reading, my legs shook so hard I thought they would dance off my body. I am still drafting the twenty minute presentation I’ll give tomorrow. About the prospect of writing a blog to publish this Friday, I think my wording via text was that I was “effd.” Katelyn has been patient while I promised her I would come through. I did not want to write a terrible blog.
As is my inclination most of these days, I wanted to write something political. I had in mind an essay about how I believe satire will save the republic. But the essay would not write. Then this morning I went back to an email exchange with my mentor from earlier this term. I had written a confusing piece, that started with one subject but, like most of my essays, quickly devolved into confused diffusion. He said I should write him a letter and say why I was writing. I didn’t want to do the assignment because I didn’t want to get it wrong.
Though this might amount to a Hail Mary play of blogs, I’m sharing that letter here as a sort of suggestion, but also as a way of creating a contract for myself. For here is my biggest fear: What if, for fear of failure, I never write again after this MFA?
Happy Friday. Hope you are doing well. I’m drowning in work at the moment, not getting a lot of sleep or vitamins. But I’m making good on my promise to write this letter to you or myself or the universe. You can read it now, or later or never.
I’m challenged by the question of why I write, and the sub question of why I write what I write. Maybe the question is what do I want. Over the past week I’ve thought about this a lot; while driving, while bathing, lying in bed, sitting in my work chair. I’ve attempted to solve my desire like a riddle. I came up with a few ideas. I don’t know if they are cohesive.
For a long time I assumed everyone wanted to be a writer. When, over years in school, someone would say they hated English class, that they hated having to write, I thought they were being disingenuous. My suspicion was that anyone who has ever loved a book would obviously want to write one. To write has been like tapping my foot to a beat. Likewise, at a concert or a wedding and there are people sitting in their seats, not dancing, I assume they are suppressing a strong urge—that there’s a little war under their skin that they are barely winning. I have been sure that not expressing one’s self turns a person into a dangerous burstable dam, but maybe (certainly) I just indulge in feeling my feelings too much and I’m being over dramatic and ultimately sort of narcissistic and that’s why I can’t imagine not wanting to write. I understand now that there are people who don’t want to write. Or read, for that matter. I get it. There are also people who are not moved by a beat. I resist presuming they are dead inside.
I was not an English major. In college I studied Spanish and Italian to proficiency. I took French and Portuguese too, though I have no mastery there. But I had no real desire to speak to anyone in a foreign language; I wanted to hoard those words and elegant structures, to visit them alone and enjoy their multitude. I have new ideas about why I looked into foreign language. I feel often that there’s a barrier between me and the world; in conversations or lectures I struggle to understand what’s happening. The barrier exists in relationships too, and that’s as big a problem as it would seem. I went to other languages to try and find a window. I’ve described what I feel as a learning disability, but that’s probably not right. What I mean is that life comes at me in gibberish. Writing is the activity of making sense of ideas and objects and conversations, making constellations of a field of bright points.
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I am trying to understand my life. The MFA was a question I asked myself: What if you do the thing you love? What could happen? It’s expensive, for one thing. But the biggest problem is that I might be bad at writing, and that would devastate me. So I suppose what one needs, what I need, (though I may try to avoid it) is the courage to be bad at writing. I’m happy to say that I every day I get better at writing poorly. And then one out of every twenty or so sentences will please me very much. For at least twenty minutes.
What else could happen, if I keep this project going? The world might start to connect; the people and things might take shape. The little letters sit side by side, they are arranged into lines. They start and stop. They bulk into paragraphs they lengthen to pages. I figure out how to live. And that seems like a salient reason not to quit.
Katelyn: here is your blog, but it’s more of an exhortation. We should not let ourselves off the hook. Let’s go forward even when we’re tired and full of doubt. One in every twenty sentences will be a real beauty.
Mary Birnbaum is the Lunch Ticket blog editor and editor of the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Nonfiction. She studies creative nonfiction in the Antioch LA MFA Program. She resides in San Diego, California. You can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum