It’s so easy for me to take an uncharitable view of the last 21 years and zoom in on the goals I haven’t met.
A sort of obsessing that can be genuinely damaging.
If I do it long enough, I feel like George Bailey, surveying Potterville, with the full horror of it beginning to dawn on me:
(That’s actually a pretty good depiction of how I felt at AWP in Chicago, last spring, and Unmetgoalville was pretty much why, although I also get awfully used to my little town and don’t necessarily function well in towns larger than 17,000 or so, at least not without some self-coaching. Pitiful, really, given that 17,000 is how big Mt. Vernon is, where I went to high school–if you’d told 17-year-old Marnie that 47-year-old Marnie would have a hard time feeling comfortable in Chicago, the teenager would’ve laughed, since she regularly drove in the Windy City whilst visiting her brother.)
And here I am, coming across the teaching job that doesn’t even seem to recognize me.
“But I’m a full professor,” I yell, chasing the poor ad hoc position into the bar where she faints.
“My life’s not like that,” I says to myself. “Really it’s not,” I assure myself on a cold, rainy, November afternoon. “I’m not Muncie Jones.”
Whereas, of course, I am in some ways. Indiana Jones’s sister Muncie wasn’t intentionally a play on Virginia Woolf’s Judith (Shakespeare’s sis), but that had to be lurking in my mind somewhere.
However. Now that I’ve seen Shakespeare’s Will, I can’t think of any woman in Shakespeare’s life without thinking of Tracy Michelle Arnold.
Which is where things take a turn for the better. Tracy portrayed Anne Hathaway with a phenomenal range of vulnerability and fierceness. (Now that I’m reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, everything has something to do with vulnerability.)
There is fierceness in this family of women–the Jones family, the Shakespeare family, my own family.
A lot of my life, that fierceness has come out in less-than-productive ways. It may be why I liked playing with fire.
In my middle age, I am finally, finally learning to channel that fierceness into focus and grit.
One of my role models is Jenny Shank, who first caught my eye in Poets & Writers (Jan/Feb 2011), when she wrote about being a “Ham-and-Egger,” a phrase she got from Don DeLillo, which she defines in this way:
“I love that phrase, ham-and-egger. It’s how I think of myself as a writer. I’m not going to dazzle anybody with lyricism or structural ingenuity. But I put my head down and work and sometimes a story comes of it. I ham-and-egg my way through. It took me a long time to figure out that not every writer has to be brilliant.”
She also writes about sobbing during a Fellini movie because it reminded her “of my childhood dream of becoming a writer, one that I haven’t shaken for three decades, a dream that I almost gave up on a number of times, even though I still continued to write.”
And if the subject matter itself weren’t inspiring enough, she referred back to Fellini and said “Okay, so I’m not an orphaned Italian hooker in a ratty fur. But inside, aren’t we all orphaned Italian hookers in ratty furs?”
I know I am.
And I sobbed and sobbed later that spring in 2011, two different times (I don’t sob much, so I remember them). One time was taking a detour on my way to work, to go sit in the gorgeous St. Luke’s in Plain, Wisconsin and pray–this was in the midst of Wisconsin’s Arabesque Spring, when we were protesting in the snow. I felt as though the job I’d worked so hard at for 20 years was just being spit on and ground into the mud by the heel of a governor’s anti-union, anti-education Act 10.
The other sobbing happened when I got my rejection from Wisconsin Wrights. I’d submitted a revised version of Gashouse Love, a full-length play I started writing in February of 2003. I got a full typed page of comments that told me pretty thoroughly the play didn’t work. That was the bad news. But there was plenty of good news in that page–the anonymous commenter took the play very seriously, was clearly hooked by it in several ways, and very much seemed to want it to work. The sobbing came from having put in a lot of hours revising, all those hours COMING TO NAUGHT (that’s how it felt at that moment), but mostly a sense of exhaustion (see previous paragraph’s sobbing) and utter bafflement–I had almost no idea at all how to make the play better, but any little hint of how to revise carried with it a tag of THIS WILL TAKE HOURS, WEEKS, MONTHS, POSSIBLY YEARS OF WORK.
But I didn’t give up. I didn’t. I almost can’t believe it, but I didn’t.
I am sure I had the phrase “ham-and-egger” in mind.
I’d spent most of the summer of 2010 working on the poems of Speakeasy Love Hard. Gashouse Love has three generations of a family dealing with what they call “the flapper girl poems,” and I knew those poems needed to exist in full, regardless of how much showed up in the play.
The anonymous commenter for Wisconsin Wrights said the poems needed to be in the play more, and I didn’t know how to do that. I know a little more, now.
The poems from 2010, whose origin was a play begun in 2003, finally went public in the fall of 2012. It was a wonderful evening. One of the outcomes of getting to hear Sarah Day, Ashleigh LaThrop, and Nate Burger read those poems was that I felt as though a nuclear reaction had gone off in the middle of Gashouse Love.
Is the path to revision any clearer? No–but I’m excited to work on my writing plan for the rest of this semester/academic year, and will include in it “Listen to recording of Speakeasy Love Hard multiple times, with friends, taking notes and getting feedback on revising Gashouse Love.” I’m giddy with the thought of it because that play needs those poems. All of them.
Forever is how long I’ve heard you have to focus less on publication and more on enjoying revision. Could it be I’m finally there?
Not that I’m giving up on publishing. I’m not. But I am compartmentalizing and strategizing. Here again, Jenny Shank’s article was helpful: she says she invented “Johnny Business” as a way to compartmentalize the publication goals. It seems to me he lives in the same neighborhood as Michael Perry’s muse–Perry says his muse is the guy at the bank who’ll repossess his house if he doesn’t write more and get paid for it.
All of this is validated in creativity studies. In a textbook on creativity (would love to teach or take a class using this as a textbook!), Mark Runco summarizes several sources on persistence and calls it “a prerequisite for creative accomplishment,” saying that “important insights often demand a large investment of time.”
“A decade may be necessary for the person to master the knowledge necessary to understand the gaps and nuances of a field.”
[Or in my special, special case, a decade OR TWO.]
Runco quotes Arthur Cropley (one of his books charmingly has a picture of a chicken and an egg on it) who says, “In addition to possessing certain personal traits, creative individuals are characterized by their willingness to expend effort.”
Runco follows that up with a nice reiteration: “That is a good definition of persistence: The willingness to expend effort.”
Jenny Shank’s efforts are paying off–her most recent book, The Ringer, won a High Plains Literary Award. I’m so happy for her!
And Muncie Jones? Maybe she hasn’t spent as much time dodging poison darts as her hotshot brother. But she’s hanging in there. She’s been teaching four sections a year for 21 years, and sure, in one way, you could say that job has has ground her soul down to nubbins.
But you could also say it’s been really helpful ballast, and that her hot air balloon, her ship, her (whatever transportation mode requires ballast), is about to dock somewhere truly exciting.
It’s like what Jenny Shank calls “a lawn sprinkler of hope that just sprays randomly around without any direct target.” That’s not cold, gray rain on my window. That’s hope.