When people ask me if I have any guidance about heading off to obtain an MFA in Creative Writing, the first thing I want to say is, “You’ll need to learn how to breathe.” Of course, I don’t say this, because obviously if we are having a conversation, this concept has been mastered.
Breathing comes to mind though, in part because for a slice of the program, I travelled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has an altitude of 7,199 feet. The air is thin; the breathing ain’t easy.
I will not write one negative word about Santa Fe lest Georgia O’Keeffe sends out the coyotes after me, but I will admit that Santa Fe is like a vampire for me, and not in a Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of way, but in a way that seems to leave me drained of all that is good and hopeful and curious and creative.
I don’t know if it’s my tendency to be respectfully suspicious of nature, or if it’s because besides giving birth, going to graduate school was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done, and Santa Fe’s setting evokes that. Nevertheless, learning to breathe through that difficulty because of the desire to bring something beautiful into the world, is a good skill to have in one’s toolbox.
The second piece of advice I would give is to look for the poets. Poets will for sure help you breathe. I haven’t done any scientific research or anything, but the air is not harsh around poets. In fact, the air literally shifts when they’re around. Such was the case when I met Jill.
I had just stepped off the plane and was heading toward baggage claim, planning on grabbing my suitcase and then taking the next flight back home when Jill spoke first: “Are you studying at SPU?” she asked in her Southern drawl. Never in my life had I understood how Anne of Green Gables and Diane of wherever else on Prince Edward Island she was from had become bosom buddies right from the start until the moment I met Jill.
“Yes,” I said, and for a second, it felt like I could breathe again.
This did not mean it got easy. There is a scene in the book The Princess Bride where Inigo and Fezzik – best buds for life – help each other down a set of very dark, very steep stairs with all sorts of terrifying, life-ending challenges (real and imagined). They’re searching for the Man in Black, and there’s no guarantee that the end of the staircase will lead them to him. There’s no guarantee they’ll make it to the end of the staircase alive.
Fezzik confesses by accident of poetry (they were playing a rhyming game to take their minds off the darkness before them) that he is afraid. Inigo, who is also afraid but won’t admit it says this:
‘Look: we can’t go back and we certainly don’t want to stay here, so we just must keep on going as we were before these little things happened. Down. Down is our direction, Fezzik, but I can tell you’re a bit edgy about all this, so, out of the goodness of my heart, I will let you walk down not behind me, and not in front of me, but right next to me, on the same step, stride for stride, and you put an arm around my shoulder, because that will probably make you feel better, and I, so as not to make you feel foolish, will put an arm around your shoulder, and thus, safe, protected, together, we will descend.’
‘Will you draw your sword with your free hand?’
‘I already have. Will you make a fist with yours?’
‘Then let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.’
And so it went with Jill and I. We had ourselves an adventure.
We met early in the mornings to walk, each telling the other, “It’s OK if you need to slow down,” and neither of us needed it, or we forgot that we thought we’d like to, because we’d remember a story to tell the other. The lavender in the air reminded me of something, and my story reminded Jill of something else. We’d walk, Jill looking out for snakes and probably scorpions though she didn’t tell me, and we’d talk – the air never changing but I wasn’t as concerned about my next breath – just the next story Jill and I would figure out together.
I think graduate school, as with all adventures, means not so much conquering those negative voices, weaknesses, and faults, but rather, learning to walk – and breathe – with them; perhaps it means to put them to good use. So my third and final piece of advice for those interested in pursuing such an adventure is to consider a costume change.
The advice is not mine, the words come from another poet, Jeanine Hathaway, author of Long after Lauds. She gave Jill these words and Jill passed them along to me: “Sometimes, “Jeanine told her, “we have to put on a costume to write, to distance ourselves enough to write well about what is closest and most real in our lives.”
What was closest and most real to me during those residencies was the thought that I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was too old, too ignorant, too sensitive, too shy to write. I missed my children. I hated Santa Fe. I wasn’t really fond of myself. All of this – real or imagined – made the act of writing like pushing a boulder across the page with my Staedtler pen.
Distance sounded good. A persona sounded good. A costume change sounded delightful.
For the next residency, I packed clothes and planned outfits not just for the weather, but for tone, and mood. A navy blue scarf with white polka dots for when I was afraid to stick my neck out. The scarf allowed me some protection and comfort so that I could try, even if I was afraid. A graphic t-shirt with a picture of a weight-lifting snowman, a gift from my husband representing my favorite This American Life episode, and a reminder to have fun creating a story from the truth, or, in order to handle the truth better.
The clothes helped me distance myself from myself, and in turn, explore memories and ideas on paper and see what it is I could do with them. I wrote an essay about a recipe for bread that I found in an old cookbook of my Grandma Ayanoglou’s after she died. The cookbook is more like a pamphlet, and I am certain she never used it – my Grandma’s recipes came from her heart and her memory – which is why I took it. I wanted to make something that never had been made before in my family, even if I needed to follow the directions in order to do it.
I wrote another essay in the second person called, “How To Have A Baby.” It’s the story of my Aunt Lucy’s death and my daughter Harper’s birth – events that occurred within 10 days of each other – and it’s the story I couldn’t narrate, and found much community and encouragement when I gave the story to readers.
Jill wrote a series of poems called, “The Professor Poems,” after that initial conversation with Jeanine. The Professor, Jill writes in an essay for Relief Journal, “is the crafted persona of a professor/mom and the granddaughter of a Creole farmer.” In one example, The Professor prepares lunch for her daughter.
The Professor makes her daughter’s lunch:
and shapes the sandwich
with a knife, cuts a heart
from its center. Each day,
she considers other shapes –
a flower, a face, a fish.
Each day, her daughter opens
the brown bag and unwraps
the heart of ham and cheese.
Bread knife in hand, the professor
imagines her daughter clutching
the lunch as she wades
through hallways where bullies
may smell the innocence
and follow. Each day, the professor looks
to the lunch bag, it’s brown poker face hiding
the heart her daughter will unwrap and eat
in slow, deliberate bites.
Jill writes, “while those personas comprise elements of my identity, they are also constructs that allowed me to be both emotionally present and distant enough for the experiences and the poems to do them all justice.” In another example, The Professor finds her grandmother’s heart in her response to a student’s challenges.
The Professor, Her Dead Grandmother, and the Student
From the podium, the professor stares
at the boy who’s not buying it, the boy
who leans into her lecture and shoots back
stares with his canon-black eyes.
Determined, the professor plods
toward his rigid questions, lets them lure
her answers into saw-briar thickets and quicksand swamps.
At every dead end, she soothes the bruised responses,
then wonders, What to say now?
Another few miles of this, and she will fumble
for the hidden dagger, the cold metallic sentence
she will hurl at that smug smirk.
But her grandmother surprises her and slips past
time, through the classroom’s closed door
to lay her warm dead hand on the professor’s shoulder.
Put that away, child, her grandmother whispers.
Say: Come and sit a spell.
Say: Son, come and tell me where it hurts.
“I am learning to follow and create the voice that helps me to be brave,” Jill explains.
I wonder now if that’s what happened in the Albuquerque airport. Jill spoke, and I spoke back, and together we trudged through thin air. Together, we made each other brave.
To Discuss With a Friend or for Personal Journaling
- Who is someone in your life that “helps you breathe,” or, keeps you walking and pursuing what you hope to bring forth? How does this person do that?
- What kind of persona can you put on in order to complete that next poem, essay, or short story? How can this character help you?
Photo by Mark Gunn, Creative Commons via Flickr. Poems by Jill Reid, used with permission of the author. “The Professor, Her Dead Grandmother, and the Student” first appeared at The Missouri Review. Post by Callie Feyen.
A Writer’s Dream Book
“Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.”
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine