My Writing Life, Act One

I started writing a letter to the three individuals previously mentioned who will be writing me letters of recommendation. The purpose was to introduce the programs I’d be applying to, state clearly my purpose in pursuing an MFA, and explain a bit of my background.

None of these three recommenders knows me personally very well, only my writing. Rather than have three separate, long phone conversations—with each one offering them different information, and leaving each recommender to take away some unknown details while forgetting others—I’ve ended up writing one long letter. It describes my writing life, and the reasons I want to pursue an MFA, and what I intend to do with it. For those that don’t know me well, it is a good introduction. For those that do know me well, this should confirm your suspicions.

Best not to think of it as a long-winded letter. Consider it a short-winded memoir.

In some ways, I was born a writer. No, really: most Jewish boys get a fountain pen for their thirteenth birthday; I got mine in utero. The thing bled ink everywhere (I think it was not meant for the left-handed) and when I was born everyone thought I was a squid at first.

Seriously though: there have been a few key moments in my life that marked me as a writer.

First, a vague memory of being three years old and attempting to climb my father’s bookcase in our Englewood, New Jersey home. The entire thing fell on top of me, and I was buried alive under a mountain of old physics texts and golden age sci-fi. Luckily no one was hurt.

Then, our Friday short story writing in Mrs. Noll’s second grade class in Mission Viejo, California. We had the newsprint paper with guidelines only on the bottom half of the horizontal page; the top half was for illustrating—another skill I developed in that class. Competition was fierce and my peers were all talented, but I prevailed and had my story read aloud by Noll herself.

In seventh grade I wrote my first real short story, an eight-pager about an escaped slave named Jedediah Freeman. Fueled by success, a flurry of writing ensued, including a story that imagined a protagonist who was twenty years old and a world traveler. I wanted him to be from the middle of nowhere, so I looked at my Rand McNally map of the U.S. for a city in a small font, in a state I hardly ever heard about, and chose Green Bay, Wisconsin.

By age fifteen I had my first experience with an actual workshop. No, I’m going to have to stop joking for a minute here—I went away to summer camp at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts—and took a youth creative writing class with Bruce McAllister, then a professor at University of Redlands MFA program, now my writing coach and one of my recommenders. I bonded with fellow budding writers—I remember going for a hike with some of them down to a waterfall in a ravine, and announcing to the world at the top of my lungs that I was a writer. My proof was in the story I had submitted for critique, about a half-elf who was torn between good and evil, and was on a quest to learn everything in the world that there is to know so he could make an informed decision. He was loosely based on my Dungeons and Dragons character.

(This, coincidentally, was also around the time the “alternative” music scene broke and my world was inundated  with plaid shirts and Doc Marten boots, and my favorite bands were Pearl Jam and Nirvana, perhaps presaging my eventual move to Seattle. Note: I still listen to Pearl Jam, and at age 32 sometimes pretend in the car to sing like Eddie Vedder.)

I spent my senior year of high school on a Kurt Vonnegut and Allen Ginsburg kick.

I went away to college, perhaps too young, perhaps not. I took courses in rhetoric, the history of Western music, ancient Greek art and architecture, environmental issues and policymaking, linguistics, philosophy, creative writing, the Arabian Nights, and in folklore, folklore, folklore… and then I declared myself an English Major.

It’s true, most of my fiction writing fell victim to term papers, and eventually to press releases.

I dithered after graduation, continuing to live in the Berkeley co-ops where much of my education took place, and alternately cooking in gourmet French restaurants and working in cafes and four different bookstores. I cooked first at Jupiter, a popular brew-pub and pizzeria in Berkeley, but quickly graduated to La Rue, a new French restaurant that had just earned three stars before closing its doors abruptly and forever, only three months after it had opened. I moved on to Gregoire, my fondest cooking memory, though I was of course miserable at the time. I remember being offered my old job back at Shakespeare & Company bookstore on Telegraph Ave, an easy paycheck sitting behind a counter and occasionally shelving books or helping a customer. They’d pay me $9 an hour, a dollar more than I was making getting burnt and blistered in the tiny kitchen. I approached Chef Gregoire about a raise. I’ll never forget what he said. He took me out to the alleyway where deliveries were brought in.

“I like you, Zakie.” Imagine a French accent here, if you would. “I wish I could give you a raise. You have good attitude. But you are not the fastest worker here. If I give you a raise, I need to give Bill a raise, and Mischa a raise. And I can’t afford this.”

He gave me a hard look. “Do you want to have a kitchen of your own someday?”

“Well. Sure. I mean, I’ve thought about it.”

“Bill wants to have a large kitchen someday. Open air, so the guests can see him cook. Mischa wants to have a little bistro of her own.”

He checked his watch. “You can stay here as long as you want. I don’t know what it is you want to do with your life, Zakie. But whatever it is, you should do it.” Gregoire slapped my shoulder and winked at me, then trotted back inside. I took the job at Shakespeare & Company. I tell everyone I was a cook for Gregoire.

Three years after finishing my undergraduate studies, I got tired of odd jobs. I decided to have a go at a career. Maybe it was a lack of imagination, or maybe just a lack of good mentors, but I found myself having to choose between becoming a teacher or becoming a writer. Problem was, I hadn’t written anything in a while. I love to teach, and I even began the process of applying for an secondary education grad program. Then another dim bulb flickered in the basement of my mind: what about book publishing?

I worked for Heyday Books in Berkeley for three years, first as an editorial intern, then as a sales and marketing assistant. I remember the interview with publisher Malcolm Margolin, a sort of Yiddish Gandalf and elder statesman of California letters.

“Why do you want to get into a dying industry? You do know it’s dying, don’t you? I hope you don’t have any illusions.”

“With all due respect, Malcolm,” I said, “I’m twenty-five, and I think I’m still entitled to my illusions.”

When he was done laughing he offered me a handshake. The job was mine.

Just three months into my first real job, my supervisor left, and I was tapped for the vacancy. I spent nearly three years as the marketing and publicity director for a small but formidable nonprofit chronicler of California arts and cultures. I promoted my titles with zeal and had tremendous freedom to pursue zany ideas. In one instance, publicizing a book about the history of baseball in California, I used Malcolm’s connections to get a letter through to the governor, and for what it’s worth, Arnold himself proclaimed that September “California Baseball History Month.”

I spent a rocky two years after that at Ten Speed Press. I was surrounded by a golden aura when I was hired, lavished with a ridiculous salary, and eyed as the company’s next head of publicity. I was put in charge of handling publicity for What Color Is Your Parachute?, the classic job-hunter’s bible, then in it’s thirty-something’th annual edition. I was handed all the irreverent or wacky titles no one else wanted—books like What Shat That: A Pocket Guide to Poop Identity and The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins—and I also got a reputation for being able to handle the most difficult authors. But the company was going through changes—it would be bought out by Random House in just a couple years, and for now the leadership wanted someone who could meet quotas and not rock the boat, rather than someone who could generate ideas and enthusiasm. I left on dubious terms, but luckily had a new adventure waiting for me in Seattle.

I met my wife through the online dating service operated by the satirical paper The Onion. Angie was a grad student at UW, a Minnesota gal studying to be a nurse-midwife. I left my job, my friends, and my home of twelve years to try living with this wonderful person. I tried getting a job in publishing, but unlike the Bay Area, the Puget Sound region is anemic when it comes to vibrant publishing scenes. I started doing freelance book publicity, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.

As for writing, well… I was in a speed boat and fiction was a fast-receding shoreline. I had even stopped reading it for a time; I was turning to nonfiction—the enemy—and skipping the short stories in my New Yorker subscription.

Angie graduated and got a job with St. Joseph, so we both moved forty-five minutes south to Tacoma. That fall I decided I had had enough of freelancing; I wanted a real job, with a steady paycheck and an bustling office of people with whom I could interact. Also, that fall the recession hit. I was unemployed for five months, during which time I created the Tacoma Job Club, a social meetup group dedicated to networking, commiserating, and sharing job-hunting resources. I borrowed the idea from Parachute. Wolves hunt in packs, I reasoned, and so should we. I landed a job the following April and passed the torch to the next Job Club mediator.

I was now the communications manager for the local tourism bureau. A trend emerged: they were dazzled by my wit, my confidence, and my creativity. They wanted that. Or they thought they did. But really I was more of a hood ornament, and the actual job proved much tougher. There were politics involved: I had to be careful in my press releases and talking to people in general, for anything I said could be misconstrued by someone out there as a slight against Tacoma. I was no good at this. I work best when I have free rein to pursue my ideas—I said as much to my boss—and though my coworkers all wrote “creativity,” as their most important value at our team retreat, I’m not sure they understood what that meant. To them “creativity” was a brand, a commodity, an identifier, and not the fearless exploration of whole wide ridiculous world that it is.

Anyway, I’ve never been accused of being a conformist. I alternated between trying to learn and play by their rules and then bristling at those rules, but I was not about to change the company culture. The following March I was let go, with no warning and no real reason. I had glowing mid-year reviews, and my boss told me she’d be happy to write a recommendation for me. But I was asked to pack a box of my belongings and leave that minute.

I spent two weeks playing video games, with Angie’s blessing.

During that time, my frustrations didn’t boil over so much as coalesce. I knew I was no good at regular jobs. Call me arrogant or superior or self-righteous; I just can’t work well when I’m taking orders. Not for long. Not for a job I didn’t ultimately care about. When I had interviewed for that job, my boss had called Malcolm for a reference. Malcolm told her something that helped cinch the job for me. He told her, “Zak is a racehorse, not a workhorse. Use him wisely.” I think Malcolm was right, but I also think I had changed in the years since I worked for him. I can be a workhorse. I’ve been known to shoulder massive burdens and carry jobs to completion with laser-like focus—but I need to own the job. It has to truly come from within me. The racehorse is the real automaton in this revision: a show-off, a speed demon, in service to a paycheck and an ego. The workhorse in me serves only one master: a job that needs to be done. The racehorse is merely clever. The workhorse is the creative one who will go the distance.

Another thing occurred to me as I played Spore on my computer those two weeks. My thoughts kept drifting back to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I kept answering, “a writer, an artist.” As I sat there inventing onscreen microorganisms that evolved into mammalian critters that had to fight to survive on a planet filled with other, more nasty critters, I continually shelved that thought and set to work trying to think of jobs I could inhabit. Marketing manager. Senior copywriter. Brand strategist. Communications coordinator. Or try a different route, and go back and be a book editor. Acquisitions editor. Copy editor. “But what about writing?” my brain asked me. My little omnivore was getting its ass kicked by a nearby tribe of carnivores. “And what,” I asked my brain. “Go to grad school? Go forty grand deeper into debt for a career whose pecuniary advantages are much like those of my cute but doomed little omnivore here?”

The first thing I discovered, when I indulged my curiosity and googled a few well-known MFA programs, was that a number of these programs were fully funded. Interesting. They’ll actually pay you to go write.

“I can’t just drop everything and go to grad school—what about Angie? What about her job?” The little creature just bobbed onscreen and wagged its little pompom. A larger creature with three legs sauntered by and ate him.

Then Angie told me she’d be willing to relocate. Her own contract was up in fall 2011, and besides, they were having issues of their own at her workplace; morale was ebbing and she was inching toward leaving. Plus we were in Tacoma, a place neither of us loved. It was good enough; I certainly learned all there was to love about Tacoma during my year at the bureau. But with that job over, I had no reason to drink the Kool-Aid. Tacoma, City of Destiny, was not the place we wanted or needed to be.

“But it’s irresponsible,” I argued in my dialogic imagination. “I can’t be a writer. I’ve worked with writers. They all have day jobs. None of them supports themselves as a writer.”

“What’s irresponsible,” said Brain, “staying in jobs you hate and giving nothing of yourself back to the world? Always withholding yourself, just so you can maintain some childish notion of responsible adulthood?”

“But I haven’t written anything. Not in a long time. Not fiction anyway—not even creative nonfiction. Just press releases and marketing materials.”

“So write.”

“But I’ll be up against applicants who are far more advanced than I, who’ve been writing fiction nonstop since they were toddlers.”

“Well,” Brain sighed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s a steep hill to climb. Might even be impossible. But it’s a brilliant tactic. Nobody can put you in the corner if you put yourself there first.”

I’m applying to thirteen schools. I may yet try to narrow it down to ten, but due to the somewhat subjective nature of MFA admissions, this seems like a safe bet.

When Brain tricked me and won that argument, I stopped playing video games and created a blog for my writing. I wrote every day, pouring out whatever poured out. Sometimes it was diary-like entries, other times it was literary ramblings. I dusted off an old project I had shelved years ago, a script for a graphic novel that I think has promise (and which may become its own novel). Every day for four hours or more, I wrote.

By June, the idea of applying to grad school was being repeated every day, out loud, not just to Brain, but to Angie and to my blog audience, which had grown beyond just my friends and relatives to include some strangers as well. I was beginning to research programs, and make note of application requirements. I signed up for membership at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, a nonprofit writing community offering classes, workshops, and readings. I looked up my first writing instructor from Idyllwild and hired him as my writing coach. I made contact with my favorite client, herself a writing teacher and erstwhile publisher of first-time novelists. I knew I had an uphill climb, but I’m thirty-two years old, and I’ve got energy, and I’ve got ammo.

The schools to which I’ll be applying—and to which you’ll send your letters—all meet four basic criteria:

1)     They are in places where Angie and I want live (with the possible exceptions of Iowa City and Irvine; both are great programs in places that Angie and I would gladly put up with for a couple years; moreover, Irvine is near the town where I grew up and where my mother and stepfather still live)

2)   They are all fully funded programs; they all offer full tuition remission, plus stipend, plus teaching assistantships, plus an assortment of possible post-grad fellowships

3)   These are all top programs: in reputation and ranking, yes; but also with respect to my interests—strong in fiction, with notable faculty and alumni, and brand names that may open doors for future teaching positions (less important but still helpful)

4)   They are all in states that have laws and cultures favorable to nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives, with a positive job outlook for health care professionals

The schools are (in order by deadline): UC Irvine, U-Mass Amherst, U-T Austin, Cornell, Brown, U-Mich Ann Arbor, Syracuse University, University of Iowa, U-Montana Missoula, Johns Hopkins, U of Oregon Eugene, and U-Wyoming Laramie.

In the past six months, I hope I have shown how deeply committed I am to writing, as a craft and as a life. Now I need to learn the craft better. It shocked me, when I dived back into it, how shitty my writing was at first. Just because I have an English degree from UC Berkeley and can talk literature with the best of them doesn’t make me a good writer. I’m making a lot of mistakes. But six months ago my fiction writing was maybe like a twelve year-old’s. Now, hopefully, it’s more competitive with that of a college graduate. God, I hope.

The past six months have been humbling in other ways. At Hugo House, I was in a class first with Ryan Boudinot, writing short stories, and now am in another with Nancy Kress, workshopping our fiction. I admit I had some residual feelings of superiority—I am unusually smart, creative, well-read, well-traveled, and well-rounded—but I was blown away by the quality of feedback and critique in these classes. More than that: I was embarrassed by my own averageness as a contributing workshopper. My comments have been okay, but not always on target, and sometimes completely misguided. Other students in my current workshop say things that find me nodding vigorously in agreement—why didn’t I think of that! That’s so true! It’s so clear!—and furiously scribbling in my notebook.

Well, surprise: I am also learning to be a better workshopper, a better critic, and a better classmate. I am so committed to learning my craft, I am finding it remarkably easy to suppress my ego and just learn from my teachers and classmates. I still have ambition and a healthy self-regard—I do envision myself as a successful novelist, able someday to earn a living off of royalty checks from decent mid-size print runs of books that never go out of print. Maybe we’re all still entitled to our illusions. I recognize mine: I’ve been in the industry, and I still imagine myself a success in the traditional manner. But I’m also open to new definitions of success.

I know these MFA programs breed a certain kind of writer, and I am happy to learn and be associated with other literary fiction writers. It will give me a core mastery of craft that I will need no matter what forms of art I pursue. I do intend to be a novelist. I think I have a style and voice, still emerging, that will be enjoyable to read. Pleasing readers is important to me, easily as much as teaching them something about life (what little I know). I have no doubt that someday I will return to cartooning and illustration—maybe I will write and draw my own graphic novels, or publish children’s books—and that will mark another phase in my development as a writer.

But at the moment, I can’t learn much more by continuing to pay a writing coach or by attending classes at Hugo House. Both are an enormous help, but will only take me so far. I need a community of peers, and instructors who are accustomed to dealing with the talented, the creative, and the ambitious. Instructors who, as Bruce phrases it, put me in touch with my inner genius. I also need time, above all. Two or three years should do it.

E-books may be the wave of the future. Author contracts may begin to stipulate a great and greater shouldering of the promotional burden, and for a smaller percentage. Retail book-selling may vanish altogether (God forbid). And the expanding universe of low-overhead, high-prestige MFA programs may one day contract. But I still have my illusions, and I know there will always be a need for writers of fictions, and for now I’m happy to take advantage of a culture that still acknowledges some people have the need to write, and accommodates us.

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  1. Ooh, I hope you get into Brown! That would be so fantastic.

    Also:

    A bit of wisdom that I grabbed from a TV show* but still appreciate:

    It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up a ladder you don’t.

    So, you know – forward ho!

    *The Office (UK, of course)

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