This is a letter of gratitude.
Gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve as Blog Editor here at Lunch Ticket for two issues.
Gratitude for my peers in the writing community.
Gratitude for being given the privilege of editing and writing among such a talented gaggle of writers (an inkwell of writers? a creed of writers?).
Gratitude for the poetry that binds us.
* * *
Writing is lonely business. There is no way around it. Sure, we collaborate occasionally. We write pantoums. We drink wine (or whisky) and read our bad love poems to one another. We play with call-and-response prose. We huddle around tiny tables in crowded bars, pass folded sheets of paper, and giggle at the inanities we scrawl. But this is play. And while I don’t mean to downplay the importance of play—it unlocks us in ways that severity and seriousness will never allow—in the end, we scamper home, sit at our desks (or curl up in bed next to cats), and write. In that moment, faced with a blank page—or worse, a page filled with those same inanities that seemed quaint and cute at the bar—we are alone. Our adversary is our self. Whether creating new material or editing what we’ve previously written, what we embark upon is a staring contest with the mirror. Though necessary, it can be infuriating exercise.
When I first arrived at Antioch, I was lost. I felt like I did not fit. I stood in the quad and smoked cigarettes dolefully (this is the only way to smoke cigarettes if you’re a writer) and gazed at my fellow students—watched them gesture wildly, pull out books from their satchels to hand to one another, or hug generously and often. I stood in the shade of the tall evergreens overhead, watched the ants march single file between the cracks of the pavement. My social skills are the stuff of myth—though my resume once boasted that I am a “people person,” this was a blatant lie. I am a character person. I can concoct all sorts of ways in which people on a page might interact with one another; when it comes to actual humans, I am about as social as a surprised koala.
Over the course of my first residency—an intense ten days of seminars and readings and workshops—something happened. I found myself among a chorus of clamoring voices. A tribe formed between strangers. We spoke the same language. Not English (though that, too), but curiosity in the ways in which we communicate ideas. Word nerds thrust together for a short period. Prying ourselves apart at the end of those ten days was less a tearing of band-aids and more a peeling of skin.
When I joined the staff of Lunch Ticket, first as a Creative Nonfiction editor and then as Blog Editor, this feeling of community intensified. Though, our geographic locations and the nature of a low residency MFA program meant that the members of my team and I rarely met face to face, we formed a bond based on trust—trust that we would treat each other with respect and frankness. We learned one another’s strengths and insecurities, and carved paths to the parts of one another’s minds we felt were yearning to be tapped. Perhaps a word emerges in an essay, a tick that a cursory read would simply ascribe to carelessness. But a careful colleague sees this word, this tick, as a glimmer of possibility, a glimpse of meaning below the surface of the writer’s intent.
Though I surrender my post as Lunch Ticket Blog Editor with a heavy heart, I can offer this bit of advice: if given an opportunity to join a collective of writers in any capacity, take it. Jump at it. Continue jumping throughout, reeling with joy, swimming through the words of others. Open your arms to the vulnerability of laying the fruits of your lonely labor out on a platter, of giving these fruits willfully to your peers, a sampling of the goods your thrashing mind has produced.
Three things happen when you share your work. The first is that your work leaves the confines of your cozy brain—an open feedback loop of never-ending doubt or confirmation—and seeks refuge in the interpretation of others. In spite of ourselves, as writers, we have ideas about what we mean to say. And ideas are the enemies of creativity. It’s best to free yourself of these cognitive chains as soon as possible. Out in the open world, words find their true meaning, for it is in the reading that words gain significance. You may have induced the fall of timber, but, as the clichéed adage goes, there must be someone present to hear the echo lest it go unnoticed. The timbre of your timber remains a mystery until Becky with the good ear describes it to you. A woodpecker’s cadence. The ticking of a scarab. The gentle spread of moss on dampened tree stump. Listen for this hallowed resonance, let it wash over you, then speak to it. Yes, receiving criticism, even well-intentioned criticism, is difficult. We, as writers, would like to believe in our own precociousness, in our unique outlook, in the idea that people just don’t get us. But we need those people—readers—to show us the image we project onto the page. We are the light. They are the screen.
The second thing that happens when you share your work is that it loses its preciousness. Your words are no longer yours. They belong to the collective, poured into a river of creative knowledge. That section you wrote about your mother, the one that caused you to dam your tears and drink, like, five cups of chamomile tea (or five tumblers of bourbon)? It’s nice writing, but perhaps it doesn’t belong in this particular essay. Seen through the critical eye, an eye loaned to you by a gracious friend, your work becomes just that—work—rather than a beloved baby you’ve nurtured since what was likely a painful and uncomfortable labor. Your words are reflected back at you, inverted, almost the same, but not nearly as dear: changed just enough that they seem new, given to you by a stranger. This distance—of your essays or poems leaving you and traveling back via kindly intermediary—is precisely what you need.
The third, and perhaps most important, thing that happens when you participate in peer editing is that you read a whole lot. This is what I’m most grateful for—for the vulnerability of my peers, allowing me to see their work before it is ready for the world, half-finished, surrounded by scaffolding, rambling, barely formed but delightfully un-self-conscious. You get to see the progression—the messy blood-and-sweat covered rawness of new words to the gleaming landscape that eventually emerges—and you get to marvel that this beautiful tapestry of thoughts came from humble, often awful, beginnings. And you become a better writer. In spite of yourself, in spite of your pride and your ideas about what you are and how you write, you become a better writer.
* * *
I’ve just returned from my fifth and final residency at Antioch University Los Angeles. Knowing that this would be my final residency as an MFA student, I stretched the limits of my endurance—sneaking naps in secret nooks around campus—and attended as many seminars as I could. Guest lecturers poured their hard-earned wisdom into our willing brain buckets. We learned about the absurd world of prose poetry. We learned of the oft-forsaken craft of punctuation. We were given a set of tools to embark on the fraught path of self-publishing. We sat in a room and bemoaned the woeful state traditional publishing, forcing ourselves to admit that most of us will probably, as writers, have to supplement our income through other means—we obstinately refused to abandon our quests. I drank it all in, alternately scrawling words in my notebook or sitting quietly and listening.
On the penultimate day of residency, half asleep and reeling from the maelstrom of lesson that churned in my mind, I stalked into a seminar by guest lecturer Fred Moten—a Los Angeles-based poet and lecturer at University of California Riverside—entitled “Under Common Ground.” The description for the seminar sounded terribly abstract, even to my poetic ear. The seminar promised to discuss the concepts of “repurposing and disavowal,” and to confront the “double edges of refusal of burial.” I was at a loss, but the lecturer was a poet, so I wandered in nonetheless and took a seat near the back. Fred Moten sat in front, behind a small desk on which he had set up a small Bluetooth speaker; he spoke softly but forcefully, choosing his words with the type of care we should all have. “How can we be human in the world?” he began. What followed was a discussion on race and humanity that I cannot possibly reproduce here; I can only say that his words resonated in the way I once thought only poetry could—reaching to the very heart of truth.
At the end of the seminar, Fred asked if we wanted to hear some music. Heads nodded excitedly. Fred pressed play. James Brown filled the room, but not before the signature sound of a crowd clamoring before the start of one of his songs—a live recording. Next song, same result: another crowd, James Brown’s voice rising up as if borne of the collective. Next song, new singer, same result: voices rising and falling, organic and delightful, a singular voice emerging from the din. The lesson? Art is never the result of a single person’s creative endeavors. It emerges by virtue of the collective space we occupy, as the result of minds working together, placed together for a common purpose—art is communal.
I am grateful for community.
I am grateful to be a part of the din.
I am grateful for you, kind reader.