“Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” – Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957
After college — my four, glorious years inside the bubble! — I knew I wasn’t ready to commit myself to writing. It would be too insular. The words might have been there, but the experience to give them weight was not.
I was away at school when the twin towers were struck and, while deeply affected, I can’t help but remember a short essay I wrote a couple weeks later. Responding to an article that suggested “postmodernism is dead” because the attack crystallized the notion of good/evil, right/wrong, I countered that postmodernism is more important than ever. The attacks, while clearly wrong and evil, were a part of a larger story. In the larger story, the roles aren’t as clearly defined. At least, that’s what I had argued at the time.
Generally speaking, my views haven’t changed. My politics and my values are the same. But now those views, politics, and values are much more grounded in my experience. They are worth more to me, and I’m better able to articulate them.
Part of the process of applying to MFA programs is selecting 20-25 pages of work. I’m rereading these stories, so close to my heart, that I completed my senior year at college. They’re all set in the neighborhood in which I grew up (and in which my mom and stepfather continue to live), and while the characters and situations are fictional, the backdrop is not. They visit the same corner deli that I did; they walk to the same park that I did. They look at the same polluted, muddy sky that I did.
But as I reread them, adding and removing commas when necessary, I think again of the bubble: that narrow, dome-shaped lens through which I viewed, analyzed, and came to understand (or so I thought) the world.
Maybe I would have succeeded, getting my MFA immediately after college. Maybe, by now, I’d have a book published or, at least, a few short stories. Maybe my world view would have expanded just through that process of growing older.
I doubt it though.
I wouldn’t have worked in an inner-city Catholic School and learned how to keep score in volleyball.
I wouldn’t have student-taught in an inner-city public school and learned that “Don and Marge” (our euphemism for happy hour at Don Pablo’s) can be a girl’s best friends after a really long day.
I wouldn’t have taught preschool students in Kentucky, caught lice, and witnessed the death of a hermit crab at the hands of a sweet, troubled boy, helping me to realize my own limitations.
And I wouldn’t have worked at the public library while teaching nursing students the art of writing APA-style. Both of these settings have allowed me to encounter people and perspectives so different from those that I would otherwise encounter.
All of these experiences, all of these pieces, are a part of me now. My 9/11 essay, today, might have the same central argument, but it would be grounded more in reality than academics. My stories, today, might still have an 8-year old protagonist, but her mother would have more dimension because, now, I’ve met that mother.
Writing is a process that involves getting our ideas out and coming up with a plan. If we try to get everything out at once, that’s when we experience writer’s block. Ideas are too big to get out in one push (in class, I draw a giant head with a big brick inside: “It’s impossible to get it out at once; break it apart and then reform it into something even better.”) So I’ve been getting this idea out, piece by piece, ever since college.
It’s just taken me a while because I usually see the forest before the trees, and this forest wasn’t ready until now.