Writing Sporks

Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty.  A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids.  Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged.  All things I resist.

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from...

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from U.S. Patent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder.  What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)

No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.

When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).

I knew early on that I had a knack for writing.  The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher.  I didn’t work that hard on it.  I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school.  In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”

After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals.  My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career.  A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.

But the awards did not come.  Nor did the acceptance.  I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because  I was special.  I had an M.F.A., after all.  I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions.  I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.

So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet  seemed foolish too.  I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family.  I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write.  Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).

But writing always nagged me.  A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks.  Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one).  I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center.  That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations.  Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade.  He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.

Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical.  It was granted.  I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences.  Approved.  I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.

Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation.  To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate.  Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections.  It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up.  What other profession requires enduring so much rejection?  Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.

So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life!  The bohemian lifestyle!  The freedom of the life of the mind!  Nope. My life is difficult.  I have two sons with autism.  My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt.  All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse.  Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that.  My sons are happy and innocent and young.  I’m married to a wonderful woman.  My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.

However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.

Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.   I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better.  I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.

There are many quirks to the ADHD mind.  One is hyperfocus.  A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus.  I can focus intensely.  I am a voracious reader.  I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity.  I just can’t often control what that activity is.  And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time.  I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.

I’ve learned to trick my mind.  If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep  the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.

DSC_9567But the thing I am never good at is tedium: paperwork, paying bills, doing laundry, or submitting work for publication.

Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”

Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time.  When I write I gain nourishment from that focus.  The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk.  A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.

Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay.  There can be no other explanation.  How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards?  How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough?  On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.

The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office.  It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway?  Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?”  Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event.  I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”

Death of Socrates, 1875

Death of Socrates, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing.  He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.

The Absent-Minded Professor

It’s inevitable, this subject, this joke.

One of the questions I address in my FAQ is “How did you ever become a professor with AD(H)D?”

I started teaching in graduate school, as a graduate assistant, at the ripe old age of 23, barely older than my students.  I taught three sections of freshman composition the first year and it was exhausting.  The first time I sat down to grade papers it took me five hours to grade five papers, and not for lack of focus.  You see, a myth about English professors is that we spring from the womb with a fully developed understanding of grammar, right down to the participles and appositions.  Not true.  In fact, I earned a C in my News Editing class as an undergraduate.

My first semester, I would read a paper, and know how I would change it to make it better, but I would be at a loss on how to explain that to a student in a way that wouldn’t be longer than the paper itself. I have a knack for language, but it’s a knack for imitation, not a knack for studying grammar books.  My only real grammar instruction was seventh grade English, taught by Mrs. Grettum, who would would accuse us of stealing her glasses when they were on top of her head.  I’ve taught myself about grammar and style through the years.  I’m still learning.

I also picked up some classes to teach at the community college while still in my master’s program.  That’s when I developed my complex relationship with grading papers, in that I have a complex about grading papers, in that I do not like to grade them.  The greater the number of papers, the harder it got to get started. (It turns out, as I recently discovered, it’s best to grade them together with the students.)  I eventually got hired at my current institution, first as a part-timer (meaning “temporary,” because I actually worked overtime), then as visiting professor (even though I wanted to stay), and finally as tenure track.  I earned tenure in 2005 (not a life-long guarantee of employment; there are plenty of ways to get fired and I’ve worried about them all).  My current rank is Associate Professor, and I can apply for full Professor in a couple years.

I have had a lot of difficulty with my relationship with work, mostly stemming from this automatic resistance to grading papers. It’s pretty common among writing teachers; it’s our burden, and we always lend each other a sympathetic ear, but I made avoiding it into a high art form.

One interesting thing I’ve noted throughout the years is that it is easy to be mediocre, if you’re okay with that (I’m not).  For an average teacher, just getting by, it’s true that students won’t be happy and that person won’t get promotions, but no one is going to fire this person for being mediocre or even mildly incompetent.  If I really wanted to, I could get by on minimum work: using the same syllabi and assignments every term, putting minimal effort into grading, doing as little committee work as possible.  If I did not want to get promoted, I could easily become complacent, somewhat invisible to the administration.

Beyond promotion, though, I have always wanted to do good work.  When I was younger, I wanted to do the best work, but now I will settle for highly competent.  Nearly all of my colleagues have at least some degree of professional interest and most of them have a high degree of interest and competence.  In fact, the cases of incompetence I’ve known about were largely due to secondary issues: senility, mental illness, other illness that reduces a person’s ability to work.

I have never borne my failings very well.  The way AD(H)D plays out in my professional life is clear to see: trouble following through on projects, trouble sustaining interest in projects long-term, trouble with routine work and meeting deadlines.  These habits mean there’s a wide gulf between what I see myself capable of and what I accomplish.  My life requires some degree of regular, consistent effort on my part, and if there’s one thing I’m consistent about it’s inconsistency.

The persona that emerged from these symptoms was someone I did not wish to be.  He did things at the last minute, often arriving at class unprepared and just winging it, or giving out handouts that had last semester’s dates on them, or just letting students go early.  He let papers pile up ungraded for weeks and then graded them in a rush, with limited or sometimes no feedback.  He would promise too many things to too many people, get involved in too many projects, and get things done very late or abandon them until someone else did them.  He became expert at crafting convincing excuses. When life got really overwhelming, he hid out in dark rooms alone for hours at a time.

Back then I could not understand my behavior.  I would have to make excuses because I didn’t know the real reason for my procrastination.  I could not explain it.  I could not imagine telling my students or colleagues the real situation:  I wanted to do the work, I thought about it the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

I stayed employed.  I honestly think that part of the reason is that when I came to my current university, the school was in the final throes of a long downtrend due to mismanagement, and there was little accountability for professors.  As long as no one complained too loudly, I was left alone to do my work.  When students did complain, the authorities usually gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Some of my colleagues tell me that I was not all that bad back then anyway, but I have a hard time believing it. I knew I was doing sloppy work.

This semester I tried something new.  Armed with my new ADHD diagnosis, I just put it out there to students.  I told them on the first day that I have ADHD and that it’s not an excuse, but I have some quirks.  I told them that I forget names, so not to be offended, and that I forget to do things that I say I’m going to do, so they should remind me.  I spend lots of time working individually with students, and that sort of narrows the distance between us.  I ask them about their degrees and what they’re doing, and for the most part they are grateful for the time and attention, that I take them seriously.  I find, too, that I do take them seriously when I know something about them.  (Otherwise, their quirks just seem annoying to me.)

They’ve taken it in stride.  They laugh when I stop in the middle of a sentence to say “Look, it’s snowing!”  They do remind me of things I forgot (which are fewer and fewer) and I am thankful for the reminders.  A couple of students have told me they have ADHD as well, and we’ve talked about strategies together.  Contrary to a popular myth, no one has asked to “get away” with not doing work because of ADHD, though.  Through the years, I have probably structured my courses to be ADHD-friendly, because I teach them the way I would like to learn—things that make it good for most students, though: a clear structure and schedule, things presented visually as much as possible, one-on-one meetings, varying class activities that get students involved.

So, the big question.  How did I ever get to be a professor?  No one else would have me.

Ph. Duh

I am the proud owner of two incomplete Ph.D.’s.  I did all the coursework for a Ph.D. in “critical studies in teaching English” at Michigan State and I am ABD (“all but dissertation”) in academic leadership in higher education at Western Michigan University.

There are three segments to most Ph.D. degrees: coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation.  I’m pretty good with the coursework part.  I’m good at reading and discussing ideas in seminar (which comprised most of my coursework) and, although I always put the writing of the paper off until the last minute, I can crank out a pretty good seminar paper in a few days at the end.  They usually end up at 20 pages or so.

I find the reading and discussion that goes on at seminar invigorating.  The only trouble I have is keeping up with the reading.  Not that I can’t do the reading; I can read a novel in a day if I get hooked.  But if the reading gets too tedious, my interest wanes severely, and it is drudge work.  That, and writing the paper at the end.  I torture myself to get it done.

However, the comprehensive exams and dissertation involve more self-directed study, so, big surprise, I floundered.

In academia, the Ph.D. is a rite of passage and a sign of basic competence.  I started the Ph.D. so that I could get a tenure-track teaching job, and it worked: the fact that I had been accepted into the program at MSU was a positive factor during my interview process at Ferris State University.  (I have an MFA, which is supposed to be a terminal degree, although there are many Ph.D. programs in creative writing.)

I couldn’t do the comprehensive exam at MSU, though.  It involved a reading list of about 110 scholarly books and a long weekend of writing.  I couldn’t even get started on the reading list because it seemed impossible: I couldn’t even decide on a notetaking protocol.  So I quit,  just sort of faded from campus.

When I started my second Ph.D., some of the students in my group seemed like they belonged nowhere near graduate school.  They had trouble with basic concepts in the reading and even more trouble expressing themselves clearly.  They had simplistic models of how the world worked, and they often reacted to complexity with resistance and derision.  In fact, I could not believe I was in graduate school with professional adults who considered any slight reference to feminism as “male bashing.” It seemed like  Ph.D. lite, and I even considered the value of continuing past the first semester because the classes seemed so easy.

I continued for three main reasons:  to add “Ph.D.” after my name, to defer student loan payments, and to hopefully land an administrative job with a bigger salary to pay off said student loans.  If the administrative job didn’t turn out, I thought the Ph.D. would help my promotion process in my current job.

It turned out none of those things were enough to make me finish.  As part of some of the classes, we did extensive reflection and self evaluation.  I scored high on creativity and innovation and quite low on practical skills like “follow-through.”  That seemed kind of unbalanced for a career as an administrator.  I also realized my motivation for the whole degree was to run away from problems: defer student loan payments and stop having to grade papers.  And I got promoted without the Ph.D., because of my terminal degree.

In my studies I specialized in faculty development, which means helping faculty become better at what they do.  Being at a teaching institution (as opposed to a research institution), that meant teaching workshops.  I had done many workshops on teaching with technology, and enjoyed that.  However, when I talked about pedagogy I felt like an imposter.  In my teaching, I’ve always been good at coming up with ideas and structuring a course, and not so good at grading papers and getting photocopies done on time, etc. (ahem, follow-through).

Also, doing the workshops was not really the administrative part of faculty development.  The administrative part I experienced involved some significant battling of wills, underhandedness, selling principles short in the name of expediency, all things I despise.

So I got through the coursework and even the comprehensive exam and started on the path to dissertation, but with much lower motivation than when I started.  However, I had a golden opportunity: I had a dissertation topic  handed to me.  I got along with my dissertation chair very well.  She was becoming a strong player in the scholarly community.  She had national data from a grant project that needed additional analysis, and offered it to me as a dissertation topic.  This was timely and important work that would make my name in the field.  Her co-investigator on the research was a pioneer and luminary in the field.  Moreover, since I would be using existing data, I wouldn’t have to do any instrument design or data collection.

Despite some setbacks, then, I was on the fast track to becoming known in the field.  If I could just do the work.

I couldn’t.

I had some initial success at getting the proposal written, but then I got bogged down.  I couldn’t find the time to work on it.  Weeks turned into months.  A few months turned into a year and a half.  The longer I stalled, the harder it was to get anything productive done.  I thought about it all the time, but didn’t get any significant work done beyond the real progress I had made in the first two months.

I had plenty of support, so that was no excuse.  I took a dissertation seminar that my chair led.  When that finished, I sat in on another semester of seminar, which my chair graciously let me attend unofficially.

After awhile, my chair decided to move ahead with the data, and we looked to another topic.  But I saw the writing on the wall and officially abandoned my degree soon after that.

The irony is that some of the people I thought did not belong in graduate school at all had finished.  One woman who I thought would never have the capacity for a dissertation finished it quickly while working full time and while supporting her young son through cancer treatment.

I of course felt humbled and despondent about the experience.  My own idea of what a Ph.D. was changed.  It’s hard to admit to colleagues that I have abandoned at ABD stage and most likely will never finish.  Some of them see me differently now.

Getting a Ph.D. is not purely a measure of intelligence.  I know.  My ACT and GRE scores qualify me for membership in Mensa, which means I measure in the top 2% IQ in the nation.  Some of my fellow students who barely made the cutoff for GRE scores finished their Ph.D.’s in only three or four years.  But, I saw these students develop from workers into scholars, while I seemed to regress.

Indeed, I have felt like I’ve gotten dumber and dumber as the years have progressed.  I graduated from high school as a star student, ready to take on the world.  I performed poorly my first year of college.  I got through a BA and an MFA degree and somehow landed a teaching job at a state university, but have not stood out in any form.  I got award after award in high school, but nothing since.  My writing career has been met with rejection after rejection, which is normal, I’ve heard, but I don’t respond to it well.

Getting a Ph.D. requires intelligence and focus andpersistence, as does success in most fields.  I have no balance among those elements.  Once I latch on to something interesting, my hyperfocus kicks in, and I perform well.  Once something happens to diminish that interest, nothing, not even fear of shame or risk of losing my job or risk of going bankrupt from unpaid student loans, makes me finish it.

I’ve been reading the literature on gifted adults recently and think I fit in that category.  There are the gifted super achievers, who have their own issues, but I fit in the gifted underachiever category.  I had every predictor of success in high school, and have struggled to make my modest career.  My recent experience with cognitive testing has reminded me of the idea I had of myself one time: that I had strong potential and that I would do something important with my life.  My idea of “important” has changed, though.  I do important work in ways that differ from what I once imagined: help out struggling students, give advice to friends, be a good father and husband.

Despite all that I have, though, I have trouble feeling fulfilled, at least professionally.  Writing makes me feel fulfilled in that way.  Being a successful, full-time writer has been the dream I come back to consistently.  It’s not so much seeing my work in print, as the feedback I get.  I had a poem published in a broadside around Big Rapids by The Michigan Poet.  For a few weeks, I had all sorts of people say “Hey, I saw your poem at Pepper’s.  Neat!”  That, to me, is fulfilling.

So is blogging.  The handful of comments and likes have been helpful.  So please, comment.  My vanity will be restored for another day if you do . . .

Sonnet of Ipecac

The late great Herb Scott taught me a lot about poetry during my days at WMU.  Two things he said always stick with me.  “Everyone has their throwing-up poem,” and “I’m not interested in poems about not being able to write poems.”

The second bit of advice came to me about the first poem I wrote at the start of my MFA degree.  I wrote something about sitting at my table, staring down into the street and trying to get the wheels turning.  But it points to a tendency I notice about writers and what they say in interviews and such and how they are different in person.

Most writers are concerned with the difficulty of producing great writing.  Most writers therefore struggle with resistance and motivation.  Most writers I’ve met, especially the struggling poet sort, are interested in talking about the difficulty of finding time and energy to write.  But few of them are interested in writing about losing the battle.

If one starts talking about losing that battle, the conversation slows, eyebrows raise, and suddenly everyone needs a refill on their glass of Chianti.  Most such conversations take place at writing workshops and conferences and people go to such events to pump up their motivation and kiss up to the stars.  They are not interested in conversation about the real specter of failure and the hard questions one has to overcome to keep writing: What if you can’t finish?  What if you can’t publish your work? What if you produce your best work and no one cares?

In every group, there are the haves and have-nots, the cool people and those-who-eat-lunch-alone.  At writing workshops and conferences publication credits are the currency.  Everyone who attends believes they can attain such “riches.”  And if they don’t, they start blaming everyone else:  Editors are too fickle.  The reading public is too small.  Americans are dumb and don’t read any more.  Wall Street bankers killed the economy.

So Herb’s advice has troubled me.  Failure is not an option, especially as a subject for writing.  You can be self-deprecating and funny all you want, but don’t breach that subject of the pointlessness of most of writing endeavors (unless you are already a success and are complaining about how hard it is to be a bigger success; then you can have your essay published in Poetry).  If one views publication in the right journals and presses as the true measure of literary success, the odds are spectacularly against you, approximately equal to winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the same moment.

Some get out of this predicament with the bohemian mentality, which tends to take the long view and ignore the present.  They point to examples such as Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, who published almost nothing during their miserable lives and are now hailed as literary geniuses.  I say what’s the point of literary fame if you’re not around to enjoy it?

But I will write about failure because it is interesting.  By any measure of literary stock I am a failure.  I’ve published four poems in seventeen years.  I’ve published a handful of 250-word book reviews and one short article in a national magazine. I’ve written thousands of words on five different novels and abandoned all of them.

I think the reason for my failure is the lack of follow through, which should be no surprise to AD(H)D-ers.  I told a friend, a successful poet who has urged me to submit more work that my success rate for publications is about 30 rejections for every publication.  “That sounds about right,” he said.

The thing I’ve learned is that writing and marketing are two very different things.  Writing involves the whole creative self, the flow of ideas, the long view, the high ambition.  Marketing involves writing a lot of cover letters and keeping track of things you send out and deciding things are done enough to show to an editor and to expose oneself to the long wait which 97% of the time ends in rejection, and mostly indifferent rejection, the form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not right for us right now.  If you’d like to subscribe to our journal . . .”

Blogging has been exhilarating. I publish immediately after finishing a piece.  My standards for “finished” are lower because, well, it’s a blog.  In my world, academia, it has almost no sway.  Blogging is at best a curio, the literary market equivalent of meeting a writer you admire and discovering he has extraordinary halitosis or collects bottlecaps.  No one in academia really cares too much.

But I have readers!  I have my stats page.  Some people comment on my writing.  I need that kind of feedback, especially the positive sort, the little mental boost to keep going.  Mostly I despise that part of me: my vanity.  But here I will use it shamelessly.  It keeps me going.  There’s nothing like spending part of a day putting words and sentences together and then finding out someone likes you for it in the same day.

I have often introduced myself as a “recovering poet,”  which was my cover story for “failed poet.”  I tend to think now the failure is in the 10% of work that I haven’t done in the publishing process: sending my work out.  Relentlessly. And that’s due to the poor wiring in my head, rather than neurosis.

And now, a poem about throwing up:

http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/levine/gin.php

Phil Levine by David Shankbone, New York City

Image via Wikipedia

(By Philip Levine, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, and one of Herb Scott’s teachers.  It’s the circle of life!)

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.