Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously

About a week ago Ryan Boudinot published an article in The Stranger called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. It’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and plenty of people have plenty to say about it. It’s an anti-inspiration article. And it’s helpful to consider it in context. Mr. Boudinot had just emerged from that particular kind of hell only a teacher of creative writing knows. A good teacher has the ability to ferret out the tiniest kernel of good writing, to focus on it, nurture it, and help it bloom. Sometimes the fruit of all that labor is turning a promising writer into an amazing writer. And sometimes it’s just turning a terrible writer into a passable writer. On a good day, this kind of work is its own reward*. But nobody has a good day every day.

And no doubt, it was a massive relief for him to take off that teacher hat and say the things a teacher can never say. Things like:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • You don’t need my help to get published.

I’ve read some pretty execrable things in my time and thought to myself, “There is no way that I can even begin to help this writer improve.” I once spent hours on an email explaining to a young writer why I wasn’t going to review her book. In fact, I spent longer on that email than I would have on a review that trashed the book, because that book was godawful, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, “Your book is godawful. No amount of workshopping will save this book.” I should have just stuck with the form letter, because this godawful writer has written ten more novels than I have, and she’s found a publisher who will print them. And at the end of the day, being a good writer isn’t the thing that gets you published. Ass in chair and persistence is.

I agreed with some of the points in the article, and its snarky tone was rather amusing. But I also knew it was a really horrible thing for me to read. Especially this bit, which really cut me to the quick:

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

Inside every writer is that little niggling voice of self-doubt, that little voice that says, “What if I’m just a hack? Why bother? Maybe I should just take up accounting instead.” The difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is the ability to modulate that voice. Harnessed properly, that voice drives me to improve my craft. But left to its own devices, it grows into a monster that prevents me from picking up the pen at all.

Good writing is much harder to quantify than good accounting. It’s the subject of much debate in academic circles, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste. You don’t need an MFA to have an opinion about a book, or even to get one published. In fact, you don’t need to be a good writer for your book to sell like hotcakes. You just need to put your ass in your chair, to keep writing, and to find your audience.

Mr. Boudinot never told me I don’t take my writing seriously. He didn’t need to. My own little niggling voice of self-doubt did it for me. Because clearly, if I haven’t published The Great American Novel by now, I must not be taking my writing seriously. Never mind that I’m a poet and not a novelist. Never mind that I’ve been writing steadily since the age of 9, that I was the kind of kid who spent her afternoons in the library after school. Never mind that publication doesn’t necessarily correlate with “taking writing seriously.” If anything, I take writing too seriously. Sometimes I take it so seriously that it paralyzes me. Like so many writers before me, I’ll get ahead of myself and start thinking about my audience instead of focusing on the real reason why any of us write: for that fleeting, perfect moment of having written.

I woke up this morning with my usual fortnightly bout of existential angst. Any writer with her salt knows what I’m talking about. It goes something like this: Why bother trying to be a better poet when so few people even read the stuff? Maybe I should just try to be a fiction writer instead. Maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should just give the whole thing up and become an accountant. What on earth am I thinking trying to change careers at this point in my life? Why can’t I just be satisfied with what I have? Why is being a writer so important to me anyway? Am I just a hack? Am I just in denial about being a hack? Does any of this really matter? What is the point of existence? Do I even really exist? And who is this “I” who worries about whether or not I exist?

I can’t blame any of these thoughts — or the resulting angst — on Mr. Boudinot. Experience tells me that they will pass, and that my confidence will return. I’ll keep plugging along with my morning pages and my drafts and my submissions to literary magazines with tiny readerships. And I’ll do it for the best reason I can think of to keep writing: for that fleeting, perfect moment when I think I’m any good at it.

* Which is good, because the monetary rewards aren’t much.

Photo of broken pencil courtesy of Marle Coleman under Creative Commons license.

Woman-Only Spaces on Gender Focus

Gender Focus recently published an article about woman-only spaces which sprang from controversy surrounding an effort at McGill University to implement woman-only hours at the campus gym. The editors asked me to add a few words about my own experience of woman-only spaces. They appear at the end of the article: http://www.gender-focus.com/2015/03/10/mcgill-women-only-gym-time/

Forget Mints On The Pillow: Marriott Leaves Envelopes So You Can Tip The Maid

I’m really glad to see that Marriott is prompting its visitors to tip housekeeping. This is something I have been doing for more than a decade. Tipping doesn’t really solve the problem of income inequality or the sexist and racist assumptions about whose work has more value in our society. It is however a way for me to express my gratitude as an individual to people who may not be used to having their work appreciated or even noticed. I and my ancestors did similar work at one time. But even if you come from a long line of bluebloods, it’s possible to take a moment to stop and appreciate something you may take for granted. Imagine a world where no one took out the trash, vacuumed the floor, scrubbed the toilets, or made the bed. That’s not a world I want to live in.

Using Haters Wisely

A clever way to repurpose hate speech into something helpful to your cause. It reminds me of the Repent Now letters I used to post on my old site about paganism.

Dances With Fat

Haters Walk on WaterCivil rights change always happens against the vehement objects of those who cling to the old beliefs, typically for whatever it buys for them – privilege, a false sense of superiority reinforced by social contract, fear of change, there are plenty of reasons.  In fat civil rights that brings us fairly quickly to haters, a group of people who are so upset that there are fat people who won’t hate ourselves and spend our lives dieting and professing our inferiority, that they dedicate significant amounts of their own lives to obsessing about us and everything that we do.

In fat rights activism for the foreseeable future there will be sad people who spend their time spewing hate and bigotry trying desperately to feel ok about themselves by putting others down (and, based on the ridiculously overwrought death threats I receive, playing a lot of Call of Duty.) Each of us…

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In Gratitude to Those Who Come to the Garden

This month, the number of people following my blog topped 500. I’d like to express my gratitude to all of you — the people who visit, the people who follow, the people who take the time to comment, to click, and to share. Writing is about communication, not just self-expression — there’s no point in doing it if it’s not reaching anyone. Here’s a Pinterest board I created just for you.

Never Before Seen Tiananmen Square Photos Found in Shoebox

Fascinating family artifacts from the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests in China. I remember hearing about them during the sturm und drang of my own late adolescence. How surreal to contemplate them again with the perspective half a century gives — and to contrast Tienanmen with the Arab spring.

The China Girls

It was a black film canister, rattling around the bottom of an old Naturalizer shoebox labeled “photos.” I opened it, wondering if it was a roll of unused film. Instead, I found a twist of white tissue paper wrapped around tightly rolled black-and-white negatives. I held them up to the light. At first I saw…legs.

Tiananmen legs

Then, people with bicycles.

Tiananmen bicycle people

Wait, that looks like the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Is that Tiananmen Square? With banners? Tiananmen monument

Next, a white form rising above a crowd, holding…a torch?


Oh man, is this what I think it is?

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Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality and What You Can Do to Preserve It

Image of a Network Neutrality icon released into the public domain on WikiepdiaAs far as I can see, the only people arguing to allow ISPs like Verizon and Comcast to start charging for preferential bandwidth and download times are paid shills and free market fanatics. This issue, commonly referred to as “net neutrality,” might seem to be the domain of techies and webbies, but it has real implications for every human being on the planet.

It might be easy to forget in this age of the widening wealth gap, but the promise of  the web wasn’t just Step 3: PROFIT! The promise of the web was the free and democratic sharing of information. This is the promise that made it possible for people to start successful businesses without the massive cash required in the world before the web — businesses that employ people who then have the money to spend on things like food, housing, and maybe even toys for grown-ups. This is the promise that makes information available to from anyone to anyone, all at the same speed — and if you think that’s not important, consider the Arab Spring. This promise makes it possible for a blogger in the Bronx to bypass all the gatekeepers and editors of traditional print media and broadcast a story the editor of the New York Times might not want to run. This promise makes it possible for an engineer with a dream and a dime to build a better widget and sell it out of her garage — that’s how Google started, after all.

As traditional media outlets have moved their news online, as the web development industry has matured, and as more and more people have plugged in, independent voices and businesses have already begun to lose their edge. Little websites get crowded off the front page of search engines in favor of stories in the New York Times and CNN. Independent sellers of all kinds of goods — not just books — watch more and more of their business get sucked into the maw of Amazon. But even while all the carnage (and innovation) of a free-market system happens, Net Neutrality preserves some modicum of a level playing field. That’s because nobody gets to pay Internet Service Providers — the folks who build and maintain the roads of the Information Superhighway — huge amounts of cash to ride down a special high-speed road. LittleWidgets.com arrives at your computer (or phone, or tablet) at the same speed as HumongousWidgetsIncorporated.com. Net Neutrality is what makes that happen.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government body standing between industry lobbyists and Net Neutrality. And the FCC is once again considering rules changes that would kill Net Neutrality. It’s not too late for you to make your voice heard on the issue:

And if you’re still confused (or need further convincing) I offer you:


Boston Area Poetry Readings for May and Beyond

Light lights in air blossoms red
Like nothing on earth
Now the chains
Drag graves to lie in
This is May Day! May!
The poor’s armies are veining the earth!
Louis Zukofsky

Here’s the latest listing of poetry readings in Boston and eastern Massachusetts, just in time for Beltane and May Day. The Mass Poetry Festival is also taking place this weekend in Salem. It’s a weekend smorgasborg of readings, workshops, events, and exhibits that takes over the downtown Salem area, all for the cost of a movie. And parking is plentiful and cheap. Schedule and information here: http://masspoetry.org/category/2014-festival/ 

I also recommend the readings taking place on both sides of the river Monday, May 5 at Newtonville Books and the Blacksmith House in Harvard Square.

Thanks as always to my friend at MIT Press for compiling this list. Leave a comment if you would like instructions on how to be added to his mailing list.

Thursday, May 1, 2:30 pm
Arthur Sze
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.

Thursday, May 1, 4:30 pm
Jessica Bozek, Christina Davis, Jill McDonough, Anna Ross and Rodney Wittwer
The Bookstore @ The New England Institute of Art
10 Brookline Place West

Thursday, May 1, 7 pm
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Calamus Bookstore
92 South Street #B

Thursday, May 1, 7 pm
Susan Rich, Ann Easter Smith, and Rhina Espiallat
The Tannery Series
Jabberwocky Books
50 Water Street
Newburyport, MA

Thursday, May 1, 7 pm
Carrie Etter and Jennifer Militello
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street

May 2-4
2014 Massachusetts Poetry Festival
This event has many superb poets and the schedule is too lengthy for this email. Please find it online by using a search-engine “Massachusetts Poetry Festival” for detailed schedule

Friday, May 2, 11 am
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Reading and discussion with a seniors group
Sponsored by the Greater Boston area Jewish Community Center
Center Communities of Brookline, Hebrew Senior Life
1550 Beacon Street
Open to public

Friday, May 2,7:30 pm
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Reading at Temple Sinai
50 Sewall Avenue
Open to public

Friday, May 2, 8 pm
D. Foy, Robin Stratton, and Christopher Reilley
Dire Literary Series
Out of the Blue Art Gallery
106 Prospect St.

Sunday, May 4, 12:45 pm
Faye George and Dimitris Lyacos
Poetry: The Art of Words/Mike Amado Memorial Series
The Plymouth Center for the Arts
11 North St

Monday, May 5, 5:30 pm
Jill Walker Rettberg
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
East wing of Building 14
Room 14E-310

Monday, May 5, 7 pm
Linda Lamenza, Margie Flanders, and Margot Wizansky
Newtonville Books
10 Langley Road

Monday, May 5, 8 pm
James Arthur and Tung-Hui Hu
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

Tuesday, May 6, 7 pm
Renaltta Arluk
An evening of words, prose, and melodies featuring local poets sharing their personal stories about climate change and mourning mother Earth. Inspired by Inuit spoken word artist Taqralik Patridge, whose words are at the heart of SILA.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave
Free and Open to the Public

Tuesday, May 6, 6:30 pm
Seán Ó Coistealbha & Tomás O’Leary
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway
(garage entrance is from Broadway, between playground and high school)

Tuesday, May 6, 7:30 pm
Lisa Starr and John Holgerson
For the Love of Words
Unity Church
13 Main Street
North Easton, MA

Thursday, May 8, 7 pm
Don Wellman and Tam Lin Neville
Cervena Barva Press Studio
At The Arts for the Armory
191 Highland Avenue

Thursday, May 8, 7 pm
Mary Bonina
Flint Memorial Library
147 Park St.
North Reading

Friday, May 9, 7 pm
Frannie Lindsay, Barbara Crooker and Amy Hoffman
Chapter and Verse
Loring Greenough House
12 South Street
Jamaica Plain

Sunday, May 11, 3 pm
Cecily Parks
followed by Mothers’ Day Tea
Poetry at the Library Series
Concord Free Public Library
129 Main St.
Concord, MA

Monday, May 12, 8 pm
Peter Campion and Tomás Morin
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

TuesdayMay 13, 7 – 9 pm
DAY ONE: readings, remarks, and riffs in honor of Professor Emeritus Fred Marchant and to support The Suffolk University Poetry Project
C. Walsh Theatre
Suffolk University
55 Temple Street

Wednesday, May 14, 6:30 pm
Louise Callaghan and Mairide Woods
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway
(garage entrance is from Broadway, between playground and high school)

Wednesday, May 14, 7 pm
Jan Schreiber & Wayne Clifford
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Jabberwocky Books
50 Water Street (in the Tannery Mall)
Newburyport, MA

Thursday, May 15, 7 – 9 pm
Ken Lee and Debora Pfeiffer
Rozzie Reads
Roslindale House
120 Poplar St.

Saturday, May 17, 10:30 am
Elizabeth Doran, Carla Schwartz and Tara Greenblatt
Wake up and Smell the Poetry
77 Main Street
Hopkinton, MA

Saturday, May 17, 3:45 pm
Mary Bonina
Tony Brown and the Duende Project
Brockton Arts
Fuller Craft Museum
45 Oak Street
Brockton, MA

Saturday, May 17, 6 pm
Peter Shippy, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and others
Mr. Hip Presents: Reading Series at the UFORGE Gallery
767 Centre Street
Jamaica Plain

SundayMay 18, 2 to 4 pm (note earlier start time)
James Arthur, Audrey Henderson, and Sheile Whitehouse
Calliope Poetry Readings at West Falmouth Library
575 West Falmouth Highway
Falmouth, MA
Donation: $5. Refreshments provided

Tuesday, May 20, 7 pm
Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Preston Hood, Lamont B. Steptoe
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street

Thursday, May 22, 7 – 8:30 pm
Haiku Reading by members of the Alewife Brook Haiku Group
Community Room, Robbins Library
700 Massachusetts Avenue

Monday, June 2, 7 pm
Margaux Novak, Robin Pelzman, and Lani Scozzari
Newtonville Books
10 Langley Road

Sunday, June 8, 12:45 pm
Jacquline Maloney and Molly Lynn Watt
Poetry: The Art of Words/Mike Amado Memorial Series
The Plymouth Center for the Arts
11 North St

Thursday, June 19, 7 pm
Hanna Andrews, Eryn Green, Stefania Heim
Small Animal Project
Lorem Ipsum Books (note new location)
1299 Cambridge St

Saturday, June 21, 10:30 am
Teresa Mei Chuc, Elijah Imlay and Ergo Canto
Wake up and Smell the Poetry
77 Main Street
Hopkinton, MA