Monday, May 17, 2010

Thick Skin

Before I can begin processing and making sense of all that happened in Spain, I must release some fury and frustration concerning this MFA program.

What makes a good writer? I ponder that in a deeply philosophical way on this evening as I continue to itch and peel away the damaged skin on my sunburned legs from two weeks ago while kayaking in the Mediterranean without sunscreen. What makes a good writer is weighing heavily on my mind after just receiving scorching feedback from you on my non-fiction pieces. (I should have applied sunscreen and tossed back a few shots of tequila before reading your comments.)

A phrase from a week of basketball camp drifts back to my mind, suddenly, that could be applied to any practice or discipline. Nothing at all about basketball stuck with me, but the phrase, "perfect practice makes perfect" always has. Not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. How can this be applied to writing? Would you agree that the regular, consistent practice of "perfect" writing is what it takes to achieve excellence? Or publication?  Or at least a good grade from you? I can accept that. If nothing else, two semesters of this program has forced me to establish regular writing times that I otherwise would not have been disciplined to do.

What I cannot accept, however,  is you comparing me to other classmates to illustrate just how far I fall short of their brilliance. I've already ascertained that I am surrounded by many more talented writers than myself. Why am I paying you a ridiculous amount of money only to be told something I already know? Your job is to encourage, coach, help, facilitate, lead, model, and be an example. In theory, this particular program is promoted for being "encouraging and supportive."  I find that to be true based on the feedback from my classmates, but  not  from you. In fact, I've learned a lot more from my younger, perky, fresh-faced 20-year-old classmates than you who has been "teaching" here for a thousand years. Why haven't my 11 classmates and I been meeting at Borders once a week for three hours between January and April to workshop  and suck down cappuccinos instead of paying you who haven't said more than three sentences about my work or anyone else's all semester?

I realize that I haven't been able to process and integrate all the changes and revisions in my work that were suggested to me by my classmates and you.  I'm still learning and growing and developing as a writer. I'm sorry for making you look bad. But consider the possibility that your teaching style could use some adjustment as well. As in actually doing it. You're not the first one to tell me I'm "not getting it," or that I'm "not catching on." I'm not about to let the one opinion of you discourage me.  Measurable learning and growth is not always neatly reflected during your convenient time frame of three months. Accusing me of "not getting it" is like glaring at a sunburn and demanding that the skin regenerate immediately. As much as sunburned person would like instant healing, it takes a long time for those surface level epithelial cells to heal, just like it takes time to process and integrate all the complicated metaphors and figuratively language you wanted to see in my writing blossom forth. Growth and development happens in stages. Sometimes you have to peel back several layers before you get to the juicy, pink, raw stuff.

You say I'm holding back. That my material is all reportage and not enough of me. Don't you realize that my background is in journalism? Of course I'm finding it difficult to integrate myself into my writing and you aren't helping. Chatham, you chose me, but I'm losing patience with you. Go ahead and have your little private meetings in your ivory tower with the program director to discuss how you're going "to solve a problem like Leslie who just can't get it." I may decide to pack my bags by the end of the month and head south where my talents and gifts will be more appreciated and valued.

If the one thing you wanted was to instill in all your students the ability to withstand criticism and thick skin, you've succeeded! Congratulate yourselves.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

thoughts and musings in anticipation of Spain

Spain will change me, I'm told. I don't dispute that, but exactly how, I don't yet know. I've been asked to consider exactly how I think I will change and I'm finding it almost impossible to answer. Right now I'm more anxious about the red-eye flight, the process of traveling that could be fraught with every imaginable obstacle during international travel. Will I be robbed of my passport and money? Deal with illness? Once we are all safely at our destination,  the games may begin.

Just before moving to Pittsburgh from Kansas, I was invigorated and desperate for a change of scenery. I couldn't wait to start classes and meet new people. Then I arrived and dealt with challenge after difficulty after obstacle. I proved to myself that when pushed and shoved and held under the fire, I had some degree of endurance and capability.  Just before any new experience, whether we're preparing for marriage, moving, death, living independently, or job, we can do everything we can to think we're prepared, but we still don't know what's around the bend. Any new experience teaches us something new about ourselves and that new self-awareness is a gift.  The more new experiences I have, the more I find myself increasingly drawn to  people who also regularly put themselves in new and different places and situations.

I've never traveled to another country for  Christian missionary work, but I've heard countless stories from those who have testify that they were radically changed by the people to whom they were ministering. I think the same principle applies to Spain. This is not a vacation, but an opportunity for Spain to teach me something about life beyond  the comfort and familiarity of America.