After a lot of miles, three very tiring birthdays, friendships made and broken, projects begun succeeded and then abandoned, and a number of rejections and acceptances from magazines all over the country, I’m finally on the road back to school.
The break has been educational in a way that classes obviously never could be. I’m finally able to see areas in my writing that need to be improved upon that while in art school, I didn’t even know existed– much less that were in need of more of (or, really, less of) my attention. The problem with going to art school when you’re 17 or 18 is that you’re coming out of high school and young people, I’m sorry, don’t know a goddamn thing about goddamn thing.
In my case, this was an especially important factor. I started participating in “the literary scene” when I was fifteen and I was recruited to the staff of a professional-level web magazine whose focus included the newly awakening beast of slam poetry. To make matters worse, I also shortly began getting acquainted with things here in Chicago on a personal level– about twice a month, I was able to interact face-to-face with poets and fiction writers who were already on cable or had books or whatever, things that back then meant a great deal to me. I was very naive in those days and often approached writers who were no older than I am now with a kind of reverence that normal kids my age would have had for Eminem. I read a couple poems and sent people a couple of stories and the writers that I admired were almost unanimous in their praise and encouragement of me. This was probably second nature since a lot of them were teachers when they went back to their home cities though it’s possible that I also had a little bit of talent as well. That little bit of talent and the boost of self-esteem from my heroes’ supposed mutual appreciation for my work came with me to art school. My classmates and teachers there were also very encouraging and were willing to follow me down whatever experimental rabbithole I could think of. I got a couple of reading series (only one of which I actually put effort into but either no one would point that out or no one noticed), a couple of spots reading for other people, won a few contests, a couple publications and a reputation almost immediately. There were a few tongue-in-cheek jokes about my outrageous ego from people who were comfortable with me enough to make them but those same people were usually the first to give me a good headpat or two and send me on my way. I got called “hyper-intelligent” and “hipster intellectual” back before those words were insults. Walking into my department for business or to run tasks for my shitty little student job, I was always greeted with big hellos. Fellow students and teachers alike were willing to pretend that my pathetic little “career” (a couple publications and some performances, really) was something impressive. Despite my notoriously awful attendance record (late nights out drinking with out-of-town writers) and my almost total non-participation towards the end (I seldom turned in weekly assignments and never bought books), I still got As across the board. I was coddled to no end.
What resulted from this environment is fairly well-documented. The problem is that if a person spends the better part of seven years being told that they’re the shit and treated as though actions have no consequences, they’re going to start behaving that way. I put school on pause because even with all this going on, I thought that the environment wasn’t conducive to quality writing. It wasn’t that people weren’t praising my work enough, but that they weren’t saying the right things. Something in me told me that this wasn’t doing me good.
I returned to the writing clubs of my youth, only to find that my enthusiasm had fermented into cynicism. The quality of writing mostly hadn’t changed but the passion that I felt for their craft wasn’t there. I started feeling empty about the whole thing and watched people who had only just come to the literary scene as bright-eyed as I had been with a kind of bitterness. I was sure that they’d find out what I had, that the whole social aspect of it was kind of empty. I watched audiences praise absolutely awful poems and I began to suspect that maybe I was absolutely awful too. I started putting all these weird burdens on my work, trying to make them “do something”. I had decided that if I was going to write a _____ story, I was at least going to write a crazy _____ story. I was angry that other people didn’t seem to want to stand out and be different, that so many people just wanted to “be writers” and get laid. I found other people that felt the same way (people that all claimed to think I was awesome too, go figure) and I harangued them with my rhetoric. We opened up a venue and I found myself inundated with the kind of qualities I had intended the place to be the opposite of. I got depressed and angry and abandoned all of it, all the writers, all the writing, turned to rock n’ roll because rock n’ roll is the Thanksgiving of artistic media: you’re just going to get drunk and have some laughs and pass out, and even if the mashed potatoes are pretty bad, they’re still just mashed potatoes.
In all of this, having interacted with literally thousands of people in the arts, at no point did anybody look at me and ask me “who the fuck are you?” I suppose it wasn’t really anyone’s place but there are a number of people who could have and would have been perfectly in the right to do so. There have been a few comments as constructive criticism– one man in particular, I should have listened to. But what I really needed all of those years was a good hard shake and there wasn’t anybody who was going to give it to me. That kind of thing probably has to come from within and over the last few months, I’ve been trying. I’ve wished more than anything that I could be back in my innocence– know dick all about how many literary magazines there really are in this city alone and how many people really read them, be impressed by everyone with a chapbook (self-published though it may be). More than that, I want to not give a damn about it all because while writing is one of the few things that makes me feel complete and serene, “being a writer” as most people think of it brought out a very unpleasant part of my personality and made me unhappier than I thought myself capable of being. I want to just do what I’m meant to do and I want to do it well for as long as I’m on this planet.
Which leads me, quite inexplicably, back to school. I’m actually willing to listen now to what people are trying to tell me– not just willing, but eager. I’m looking forward to having to be somewhere to talk about literature at 8am every Tuesday no matter what the hell I’ve been doing the night before. For once in my life, I might actually go to bed at 10pm this summer. I might go to symposia with professionals instead of just the afterparties at bars I’m not supposed to be in. I might not use my resume to get laid. I don’t want anything to do with the glamour, keep it away from me please. It’s all about technique from now on. The rest of the bullshit, darling, you can keep.