“If you get to dragons, you’ve gone too far.”
Perhaps you misunderstood. When I encouraged you to write what you know, I didn’t mean Tell me what’s popular on Primetime. While True Blood was in its heyday, I couldn’t turn a page without tripping over hipster vamps in skinny jeans, bar fights that ended with sex on pool tables, fangs—so many fangs. I wanted to write in my bloodiest ink on all your margins: Vampires suck! Which, of course, they do. Then, The Walking Dead. Still, The Walking Dead. They’re zombies—yes, I know. But your rules are slightly different. Your zombies only eat the feet of the living, and your Rick is named Wizard Man, and your Michonne is named Aura, and Wizard Man’s son loses an ear instead of an eye. When I told you it’s important to be passionate about your subject matter, I didn’t mean Get high watching HBO and rewrite your favorite scenes from Game of Thrones. I will read about your dead grandmothers, all right? I will read about how you and your dog share a telepathic connection, OK? I will even read about your first heartbreak in eighth grade and how you still obsess about him, check his Facebook page at least ten times a day, then list his status updates verbatim to push your word count that much closer to the minimum. But these goddamned dragons: how can we vanquish them once and for all?
“Self-publishing is the new Yale Review.”
Why should I wait for a gatekeeper to open the gate? Walt Whitman self-published, and now it’s my turn. Editors just don’t get me—just like they didn’t get Walt. When I was a musician, I made my own CD to give to deejays and radio stations. In fact, here you go, Professor. Here is a CD of my band, a gift for you because you have been so encouraging. But you are old, from another generation, with a press ready to publish your next volume. And—as I wrote in my student evaluation—you are way too hung up on spelling and grammar. The people who like my work write in abbreviations and emojis. When I was in the band, I had to depend on the drummer and guitarists. But, with my writing, I can strike out on my own! I am going to print copies of my book, put boxes of them in my Toyota’s trunk, and travel the country to read in bookstores, barber shops, bars, even street corners. People really need to know what I have to say. And when my book catches on, I’ll get to keep all the proceeds. Why should I split the profit with a press? I’m like Prince—he left his label. I’m like Snowqueen’s Icedragon (aka E.L. James). Maybe my book will be made into a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m not saying you’re a snob, exactly, but it’s like that joke you always tell in class. A freshman at Yale walks up to a professor and asks, “Where’s the library at?” The professor says, “Young man, here at the Ivy Leagues, we don’t end our sentences in prepositions.” And the freshman says, “Let me rephrase that. Where’s the library at, asshole?”
“Does this Ph.D. program make me look fat?”
It’s like I’m picturing myself in all these scholarly classes, where we’re not just writing our own stuff but we’re writing about all this other stuff that other people wrote, and I can feel my ass expanding in my chair. It’s like I’m sitting on a cushion, but it’s not a cushion anymore; it’s my own ass going double decker underneath me. Now don’t get me wrong; I really want to learn more about the tradition I’m working in, and you know, jobs! Plus, it would be cool to have people call me “Doctor.” Like at restaurants or on airplanes, I bet I could get a much better seat, but then that’s more sitting in a chair, you know, and something about it makes me feel—bloated, like I need to do a my-words-only cleanse. Get back to basics. See if I can still kick my leg over my head. Because we’re not just talking about the Freshman Fifteen here, which you could get off with a treadmill three times a week and a switch to Zima Light. We’re talking about four, five, six years of my life. That could be like three dress sizes. I have this friend—no lie—and she was getting a double-doctorate—one in law and one in literature. She started perming her hair because she said her face didn’t look as full if her hair was really big, and also she had this idea that she didn’t have to comb it anymore if it was curly. Way wrong. By the time she took her comprehensive exams, she was basically living in a housecoat and a pair of slippers my grandmother wouldn’t be caught dead in—and she’s dead. And we were all like, Lauren, my God, why is everything in your closet covered in cat hair and ink stains, and more importantly, why is everything in your closet a sarong? Higher learning is one thing, and I want to do it, I really really do, because I know smart is sexy, and I mean, what are my options with a Master’s degree and no actual work experience? When I think about that life, working every day in relative isolation to master some obscure aspect of an already overpopulated field—I think I could be happy, at least some of the time. So why in all my dreams do I have cankles?
“Talk academic to me.”
Your assessment is so fine I could stay up all night refining rubrics with you. We’d drink tea from oversized NPR mugs—not using the grips, though—oh, no. We’d clasp that warm ceramic with both hands, gaze owl-eyed at each other in the wan fluorescent light. Somewhere, in the distance, the whine of an errant copy machine, a printer, faintly smoking, jammed. Later, we’d hash out the faculty meeting agenda like a couple of fool kids—two speckled composition books splayed open on the desk, but only one Microsoft Surface shared between us. Forget the minutes from last time; I want hours of languid evaluation with you. Let’s make every bullet point a paragraph at least: state, restate, then summarize the statement. Recursion feels so right, doesn’t it? Let’s worry away the line between excellent and very good until our categories collapse, breathless, into a single outstanding. I love the way you write to-do lists on your hands, and when your palms sweat, you leave ink-smears everywhere. I love the way your office door is so smothered with fliers it looks like a car left too long in a Publix parking lot. I love, most of all, the way your lanyard jingles around your neck with its 500 keys. That’s the melody I long for as you wander through the halls, checking your mail, calling Tech Support about another computer snafu. And when I finally catch sight of you, satchel and all, I cry out for your superior lexicon, and again for your white-hot perspicacity.
“I didn’t want you to understand it.”
The thing is, I’m all about ambiguity and vagueness. If I wanted to make a point, I’d write a speech. I like keeping you ill at ease—doesn’t that make me smarter? I could tell you what I’m thinking if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. Do people understand Ulysses first read? Just think of me as the modern-day James Joyce. I am one big footnote—and the more I talk, the more I keep putting my footnote in my mouth. I’m a writer, not a talker. Think of me as a sullen abstract painter, but with language instead. Think of my poem as a word salad, or, better yet, a box of Legos strewn strategically throughout the toy box that is my mind. I knew you’d like my mind’s toy box. I can rattle off metaphors and similes all day, but that’s not the way I approach my art. I prefer abstractions—Love, Death, Soul, Fear—preferably with capital letters, the way poets wrote in the old days. If you don’t understand my poem, I don’t understand how you could give me a C.
“I thought this seminar was attendance-optional.”
So, I wasn’t in class the day you discussed the attendance policy, and I missed the start of the other class when you asked if we had any questions about it. I also took a long break that day you reviewed how to calculate our final grades. And I know you said we can email you at any time throughout the term or come to your office hours, but I just didn’t want to disturb you. I’m courteous like that. I wish I didn’t even have to email you now, but final grades just posted, and I don’t understand how I could have failed. I did most of the work, and you said one of my poems had “a lot of potential.” In your note on my midterm, you mentioned that I was going to fail the class if I missed any more meetings, but I did only miss three more after that, and I had very good reasons—first, a pre-planned trip to Ohio to see my boyfriend; then, my parents came to town unexpectedly so I had to clean up; and the last one was hangover-related and really couldn't be helped. Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted me there. I really like you, Professor, and I feel like I learned plenty only coming half the time. But now I’m going to have to take the whole class over again and pay more money and maybe even go on academic probation. I know you’re probably going to say it was all in the syllabus or why didn’t I mention any of this before finals week, but I had to leave the exam period early because it was the only time Kim at Pretty Nails Plus could squeeze me in. And besides, you smile so much I didn’t think you’d be such a hard-ass about this one little thing.
“Retention is the new black.”
We get more money from the state if you can keep them here. We get more money from the state if you can get them out in four years. How can we help students feel welcome? Can you take them to lunch? Text them encouraging quotations about education? About life? Our students work dead-end jobs. Our students are parents. Our students are poor and hungry. You, on the other hand, have a job with us. You are lucky. You, like customer service reps, are a student’s first contact. We need you to be bright and encouraging, but also make sure students pass our assessment tests. We need you to be warrior mentors. We need you in your office giving each student line-by-line feedback. We need you to understand when our students are late, when they can’t come at all. We need you to teach them even when they aren’t there. You’ll figure it out. You’re an educator after all! We so appreciate all your hard work, but you’ll have to work even harder for this institution to survive. I will be out of the office today engaged in best practices, schmoozing with the trustees.
“But it’s a poem, so anything goes.”
Metrics, schmetrics. Forms—traditional or invented—are boring. I think writing down poems at all might be too constraining for me. I like free-styling, saying whatever comes into my head. Then, my poem floats away like a ghost balloon. I’m all for impermanence. Mortality is real. A poem in the Norton Anthology? Hey famous writer, good for you, but you’re still dead. I say live and let live. I am up for anything. Though, honestly, workshop is dumb. It’s just a bunch of opinions volleyed back and forth. Who can truly judge? Not me. Not my classmates. Not editors. And certainly not my professor. If you ask me, she takes poetry way too seriously. I told her to “get a life,” and she told me my phrasing was cliché. I like clichés. I like typos and tiny fonts. I even like handwritten poems (which she won’t accept), so you can see the personality of the writer. I know a thing or two about handwriting analysis, and my prof’s comments are written in wacky script. In addition to contradicting herself—her students can’t write by hand, but she can—I would say she’s probably borderline or agoraphobic. When I told her on the last day of class that in poetry “anything goes,” I thought her goofy head would explode.
“Concrete nouns are a trigger for me.”
It’s not just that I love love and fear fear—though I do. It’s not that I’m annoyed by life’s little inconveniences and turned on by anyone with obvious sex appeal—though that’s all true, too. The thing is, I have actually been clinically tested, and it turns out I have a verifiable, medically recognizable condition: an aversion to showing details. I have a picture of the paperwork on my phone. Do you want to see it? The thing is, ideas aren’t a problem for me because they’re just in my head, you know. But, when you start asking us to write down all those people and places and things, it gets a little too real for someone as sensitive as me. Like that day you had us draw a concrete noun out of a hat and try to describe it in words. I got “fire truck,” and I could picture how it was red and shiny like an apple, which made me remember the time I choked on an apple slice in third grade. You told us to write down whatever we saw in our mind’s eye—“follow the thread from one concrete noun to the next.” But I felt like I was choking all over again, so I couldn’t do it. My therapist says I don’t have to. Concrete nouns are just too dangerous. In fact, I was on a waitlist to get a service dog, but since they’re so real, too, and I could turn out to be allergic or get bitten or not like the way the dog smelled, my therapist nixed that. She told me when I get anxious, I should visualize walking Hope instead.
“Make 12 simultaneous submissions and call me next year.”
Yes, Fellow Writer, I do know what it’s like. I’ve been discouraged, too—weeks and months, years sometimes, of solitary work without reward. Always, the rejection letters seem to come at once, stuck in the mail slot’s throat or clogging your inbox like hair in a drain. How they startle with their vague barbs—We appreciate what you sent, but we won’t be publishing it—not to mention their misleading sentiments—While we don’t want this under any circumstances, do you have something else just like it that you could send for consideration right away? So, yes, Fellow Writer, I feel you. In fact, I’m already steeping a pot of empathy tea, keeping it warm in my best commiseration cozy. That’s when you say it, like the trick-or-treater who gives up before nightfall because the house next door wouldn’t give him a full-sized Hershey bar: “I only submitted once, and it was devastating. I don’t think I can go through that again.” Are you seriously sniffling right now, Fellow Writer, while you recount how you bought exactly one stamp, uploaded precisely one file, because you knew Ploughshares was going to love your story, and you never imagined what you would do if they passed? Tell me this: Were you always picked first for every team? Did you earn an A+ on every test, a blue ribbon in every race? Are all your medals made of gold? Because if that’s the case, I think you better buy a lottery ticket at the corner store, and while you wait to cash in, contemplate a different career. This is you throwing in that barely used towel, damp at the corners from a few virgin-rejection tears? Well, this is me—3000 rejections strong—pouring out that tea and uncorking a bottle of something stronger.
“URGENT! Sort of.”
We need your report by tomorrow at 5 p.m. though we will not read it until next year, long after you’ve forgotten you submitted it. We need your W-9 before we can direct deposit your paycheck into your account. Please allow six months for processing. We know you need that W-2 to file for your taxes, but legally we have three more days before we must provide one to you, and we can ask for an extension. The dean will be here shortly—she is running late, or perhaps she forgot about you entirely. Let me check her book. She’s at lunch right now, and she enjoys a cocktail and dessert. It’s not in your interest to hurry her. Hurry up, then wait is the bumper sticker on her Volvo.
“Why would I buy the book if I can get the e-book for free?”
And why would I bother buying any book at all? One—they are heavy and weigh down my satchel, so I look like a hunchback. Two—I am not used to reading anything on a dull flat paper. I like scrolling rather than flipping a page. Books don’t light up the way my screen does, so how am I supposed to read in the dark? I’ve heard stories about kids under their bedcovers with flashlights, but that sounds so awkward. Maybe the flashlight/forbidden book tales are apocryphal? Three—I can pretty much get anything I want through Google Books. It’s like the library used to be in the olden days. And four—anything half decent will be made into a movie or Netflix series, won’t it? I don’t mind paying for HBO or HULU. Have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s so great! The dystopian government burns all the books, which is supposed to be scary. But scarier, I think, is when they cut off the Internet. I mean, then there’s no way to even know how hot it is outside.
“Keep your eyes on the Pulitzer Prize.”
When I was in sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be famous. I was horrible at sports. I had a tinny singing voice. I couldn’t remember my lines for the school play, so acting was out. I was a so-so watercolorist. I was afraid of microscopes and Petri dishes, so a scientific discovery was nowhere in my future. I loved to eat, so no modeling for me. I went to the library and flipped through the Guinness Book of World Records, hoping to find a singular way I could excel and shine. It was there in the stacks that I saw a “Pulitzer Prize” sticker on Collected Poems by James Wright. I loved prizes, and I loved the word Pulitzer, which sounded like Wurlitzer. I also loved jukeboxes, the big gold W in a diamond shape at the base. I even loved Lilly Pulitzer clothes, though I couldn’t’ afford them. So I decided to write every day until I could get someone to read what I’d written. Until I could get an editor and a publisher. Until I could write my self-deprecating poems, exploiting all my flaws, secretly hoping I would write a book the Pulitzer Prize Committee would cite as perfection.
“If you are still reading this, you were born before 1984.”
Have you written a check in the last six months? Endorsed a check? Do you know what a check is? Have you ever gone inside a bank and stood in line between the velvet ropes, fiddled with the pens at the counter on their leashes of little beads? What about the post office? Have you ever been there? Do you know where to print your address and the address of your parcel’s recipient? Do you know the price of a stamp? Have you ever sent a postcard? Did you know there are different, less expensive stamps for those? Circle any words on this list you recognize: deposit slip land line Steno pad pencil pouch Rand McNally road atlas Can you read cursive? Can you write cursive? Have you ever gotten newsprint on your hands? Have you ever used chalk to write on a board or draw on the sidewalk? Have you ever watched a movie all the way through without sending a text or Googling one of the actors? Do you subscribe to any magazines that come in the mail? Do you know where your mailbox is? Didn’t the landlord give you a little copper key when you moved in? Do you remember rolling down the car window with a handle? Do you remember turning a key to unlock the car door? Can you change channels on your television without a remote control? Do you only watch television on your laptop now? Do you not have a laptop anymore because iPads are sleeker, lighter, easier to carry? Have you ever found your way anywhere without a GPS? When was your last paper cut? When was the last time you held a book in your hands, felt its hard spine, touched the raised print on its cover? If you are finished with this survey, please place it in the enclosed SASE. (Do you know what SASE stands for? Are you looking it up on your phone right now?)
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Collaborative Bio: Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in many literary journals, including Arts & Letters, The Bellingham Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, The Louisville Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, PoemMemoirStory, Prairie Schooner, Quarter After Eight, So to Speak, Story Quarterly, and Tupelo Quarterly. Their first co-authored book, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, is forthcoming in March 2018 from Wild Patience Books. They both teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.