The story was told by Milton, a teeny-tiny wrinkled old man, big-toothed and with skin like carved wood. The story started with him coming-to after a long run of heavy drinking, and looking for a place to hole up.
First he went to his mom’s house. After knocking and knocking, she opened the door just as wide as the little metal chain would allow. She told him to go away, that she didn’t know anything about him anymore.
Next, he went to the town jailhouse, because at least at jail they gave you place to sleep and three meals a day. When the jail keeper told Milton he couldn’t lock him up if he hadn’t done anything, Milton took the bottle out of his pocket and smashed it on the floor. Now, he said, he’d done something. But the jail keeper just shook his head. He handed Milton a broom and a dustpan, and told him to clean the mess up. “We don’t want your kind in jail.”
So Milton went down to the little park where all the winos and hobos hung out. At least they wouldn’t turn him away. But those winos and hobos saw Milton coming, and they got up and walked away.
All alone, Milton decided to sit on a bench and feed the pigeons. “But those pigeons looked at me… And they shook their heads and they walked away.”
I loved this story so much that I memorized the way Milton told it, the rhythms and intonations of his Louisiana accent mesmerizing my Californian ear. The story had humor, yes, but also a structure of repetition and a tall-tale sensibility that captured something more emotionally accurate than any concrete truth could. Milton was the most honest-to-God gifted storyteller I’ve ever known, and every Wednesday night he’d hold us all rapt with his tales.
Then, the following night, I’d be back in my Creative Writing workshops, listening to the disaffected depictions of a Bukowski wannabe’s debaucherous exploits.
By the end of my Creative Writing degree, I wasn’t writing much.
I’ve read the MFA vs. NYC debates. Is it terrible to admit I found them boring? Is it terrible to admit I felt guilty for finding them boring? I dutifully slogged through them, trying to force myself to be interested, but I found the binary so inherently exclusionary that I could barely stand to keep reading, the debates so wearying that I didn’t even have the energy chime in and write about that weariness. After a half-hearted tweet asking if it were possible for writers to exist outside of the binary (which received one reply and no favorites), I decided to stay silent on the whole matter. Until I read Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC.”
San Francisco State is a commuter college. It’s located at the end of the BART line, a forty-five-minute, twelve-dollar round-trip ride from Oakland, where I lived while attending the university. With a sizable adult population, SF State is sympathetic to working students. During my five years there, I was able to consolidate my classes into two or three days, which allowed me to both save train fare and work on non-school days. When I started my studies, tuition was a cool $900 per semester (it’s now tripled), and I was able to finish my whole undergrad without taking out any loans.
I point this out to say that SF State’s Creative Writing program is about as far from the Ivy Tower as one can get. During my time there, I had a couple queer professors, as well as some professors of color. We read Jean Toomer’s Cane, Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual, Eileen Myles’ Cool For You. By most people’s standards, the student body would qualify as a robust portrait of American diversity.
I was excited to go to SF State. I’d spent my teenage years as a literary misfit, floating around the edges of the local slam poetry scene. While racially and socioeconomically diverse, the slam scene was still male-dominated and, well, scene-y. My drunken, punk-rock confessional poetry was politely tolerated, and I was stoked just to hang out with other kids who were writing. But college, I told myself, was where the serious writers would be. At SF State, my writing would be judged on its merits, not how well I could beatbox or drop Nas lines (let’s be honest: not that well). All that would matter in college would be the strength of my words. Kinda like the Army.
But that’s not what happened. Even at unpretentious SF State, there was a dominate culture. This time it was middle-class, white and male, and the writing style that prevailed in the workshops reflected that: cool, detached, post-modern, jaded. There were a lot of kids from the suburbs who wrote nihilistic musings about barren, numb interpersonal relationships. There were a lot of dudes who hung outside the Humanities building chain-smoking, and I got the distinct impression that these guys believed binge drinking and having a lot of meaningless sex gave their writing depth.
By the time I reached SF State, I was anything other than cool and detached. My defining life experiences had been: watching my uncle die of AIDS; watching the boy I loved ruin his brain with drugs; watching myself almost ruin my own brain with drugs; and growing up in a working-class community of color whose reality I never saw reflected in the books I read and the television I watched. There was nothing understated about these experiences, or me. I was an explosion, a train wreck, and my writing reflected that. My poems were sloppy and unsophisticated, but I liked to think they burned. I was eager to learn how to become a better writer, but I also craved validation from the real writing world. I harbored the immature assumption that a “real” writing world existed, and that it existed in academia, and that as the real writing world, academia wouldn’t mirror the scene-y valuations I’d encountered in spoken word.
My poems got lukewarm feedback at SF State. They weren’t the ones that put the other students on the edge of their chairs. They weren’t the ones that got published. Those poems were subtle, controlled, depicted middle-class constraint and disillusionment. Some of those poems were quite good, but there was more out there. Right?
Maybe the other writing out there wasn’t good writing. For as much as I hadn’t fit in among the slam poets, I thought it odd that none of my courses once mentioned the hip-hop and spoken word movements booming in the Bay Area at the time. If you’d come straight to SF State from the suburbs—which most of the classmates had—you wouldn’t have even known these others wordsmiths were out there, working with language in innovative and dynamic ways. And it seemed most of my classmates didn’t know. It seemed most of my professors didn’t either, or if they did know, they looked down on these genres as lowbrow.
I was young and insecure, and I didn’t know how to sort out the explicit lessons on craft from the implicit valuations of voice. They were all tangled up, and I started to think that maybe my poems didn’t burn. Maybe they shouldn’t burn. Maybe I needed to focus more on craft and polish. Maybe I needed to tone my poems down, make them quieter, understated, pensive. Maybe, I wrote at the time, I needed “to make my pulse fit / the kind of rhythm / that’s easy to clap to.”
Something strange happened when I read Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC”: I related.
I say it’s strange because I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, I didn’t pursue an MFA, and most importantly, I’m not a person of color. But while I couldn’t relate to the overt racism Diaz depicted during his studies at Cornell, I could relate to the alienation. I could relate to the naïve hope that academia would offer a community, and I could relate to the disappointment at the stifling reality found there instead. I could relate to the sense of being in possession of stories that people weren’t interested in hearing.
I could relate to Athena and her silence.
I muddled through my undergrad years. I spent less and less time on campus, went to fewer literary events and readings, submitted to fewer chapbooks. I said it was because I had to work. But given that I now work full-time and still manage to crank out a few thousand words a week, I’d say this was a cop-out.
After graduation, I stopped writing altogether. While my classmates went on to apply for MFAs, I moved from part-time to full-time at the restaurant where I worked. I went to a writing group for a while, then stopped. I went to readings for a while, then stopped. My excuse was that I worked most nights. Again, a cop-out.
Really, I didn’t know what to write anymore. I wasn’t sure I had anything worth writing. I’d gone to college, the place where they know good writing, and my writing hadn’t been valued as good, just as it hadn’t in the slam scene. Maybe I wasn’t sophisticated enough. Maybe I was too lowbrow. I preferred Milton’s head-shaking pigeons to pretty much everything I read in workshops. What did that say about me? I wasn’t deep enough to “get” real literature, and I wasn’t cool enough to fit in with the outsiders.
So I stopped writing. I let myself fall silent.
It took four years of wandering through that silence to start writing again. I started in travel blogging because, hey, who can fuck that up? I wrote without worrying about making my writing deep or important or hip. I got into a nice rhythm and garnered a readership. People seemed to appreciate that I wasn’t trying to monetize, that I was just writing to write.
I started to write service articles—paid articles. I published a couple of first-person narratives, also paid. I received a small stipend for a research project that took me to Cambodia. Maybe I’d been in the wrong genre—nonfiction was where I belonged. I plugged along, got some good clips, and then abruptly decided to move across the planet and write a book. I was going to make it as a writer.
As a full-time writer, though, I had to worry about what was publishable. If I were going to “make it,” I’d have to find the right way to package my experiences and make myself palatable to the literary world. “Weird lonely girl moves to Asia” didn’t exactly have a sexy ring to it. I read the leading websites and encountered a lot of great work, but the stories didn’t match my own. After a lifetime of being a misfit, I discovered I wasn’t any good being palatable. Instead of the time and freedom to write, pursuing a writing career created another kind of silence.
It took having all that blow up—going broke and giving up on the book and giving up on a writing career—to finally gain my confidence back. I’m now a kindergarten teacher who writes at night. I don’t have my ego or finances wrapped up in my writing, and I’m geographically isolated from any literary community. I sit in my bathrobe on my side of the planet and peer in on the MFA-NYC binary with an almost anthropological interest (are n+1 tote bags really a thing?). This distance allows me a crucial freedom, and in that space I’ve been able to incorporate all the great stuff I learned at SF State—lessons on craft, critical reading, exposure to a breadth of styles—and apply it to my own voice. Existing outside the literary world is the only workable way I’ve found to interact with it.
During my undergrad, I kept telling Milton I wanted to write down his stories. But I never did. While I was in my final year at SF State, Milton passed away, old and sober and well-loved, and all his stories passed away with him.
I suppose if this were just about Milton, it’d be easier to write off. So sad that this one old dude never got to tell his stories to a wider audience. But my discomfort with the MFA-NYC debate is broader than just Milton or my personal struggle with post-college writer’s block. My discomfort is with all the stories that don’t get heard or even told in the first place. It’s with the way certain voices get over-represented, and other voices aren’t even given the skills with which to fully develop, and with what even gets valued as a skill. It’s with the experience of being in possession of those untold stories, about holding them up against what Diaz calls “Literature with a capital L,” and wondering where they fit.
Reading Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC,” I finally understood what had happened to me during my undergrad. Diaz’s depiction of alienation helped me to understand my own. Which is why I’m bothering to write this, in the slim hope that it might help some younger writer out there feel a little less weird and misfit-y. Not all writers exist in the MFA-NYC binary, and not all writers want to exist in the binary. For some writers, trying to exist in that binary means losing a crucial bit of themselves, the element that makes their writing burn.
Here’s where I’m obligated to say that not all stories from the MFA and NYC worlds are self-indulgent, uber-hip academia mumbo-jumbo. Of course they’re not. There’s amazing writing that comes out of those scenes and many excellent writers and many downright excellent people who work within them. But the point is, they’re scenes, and they’re not the only scenes, and certainly not the only scenes where quality work gets cranked out. The MFA vs. NYC debates imply that they are.
When I announced that I was moving back to the States to go to grad school, I was surprised by how many people assumed I was going for an MFA. They in turn seemed surprised that I’d pursue something as pedestrian and employable as a Masters in Education. But it isn’t just health insurance, unionization and a desire to foster voices the binary underrepresents that are motivating me to teach. I also suspect that my writing wouldn’t survive another foray into academia. I’ve had worked like hell to overcome my self-inflicted post-college silence and I don’t want to risk another silence.
I’d like to be able to tell you a sunny story about how I now have boundless confidence in my own voice. I don’t. I’m constantly doubting myself and my words. I’m unable to interact with any literary scene, academic or otherwise, without compromising to that scene’s sensibility. I lose myself too easily. I’d like to say I’ve learned a deep and abiding self-worth. I’d like to say I don’t feel myself teetering on the brink of silence all the time—or as Milton would say, swinging from a greasy rope, with no knot in it. But more than that, I’d like to stay truthful and unhip and in my own little bubble, outside the binary.