Thursday, March 18, 2010

On Writing Outside the Establishment

Elegant Choice and I have a fond disagreement about cover letters: he thinks I should make note of the fact that I have no formal education in my cover letters, and I REFUSE. Refuse! "It's so unusual to have no education that it's worthy of mention," he says. "It would be the same if you were a pig farmer." I wanted to be a pig farmer, briefly! I tried to make my mother buy a pot-bellied pig from Charles Manson for my twelfth birthday. If she had done what I wanted, my cover letters would be so much more interesting today.

And it's true, people do love an author bio that's all, "Kevin Crood-Mons has worked as a garbage collector, a taxidermist, a pretzel vendor, and a blood-bagger." But I always thought those bios played to the worst instincts in readers--snobbery, voyeurism, and total incredulity that a Blood-Bagger could ever have ascended into the Literate Class. As far as I can tell, the only truly necessary qualification for the Literate Class isn't money or background or even education, but intellectual curiosity. Granted, people who are intellectually curious tend to pursue more schooling, but some of us have...problems...paying attention. Some of us get a monster in our stomach when someone starts to Explain. Some of us have ass-imps that make us unable to sit still. And some of us, when asked to write a Serious Paper, end up writing, well, something like this!

(Me: Before you say anything--no, I don't have ADD. My brother has ADD, and he got kicked out of Montessori for escaping to the basement and peeing secretly all over the floor.

You: Well, everybody's different--you can have ADD without peeing secretly in a Montessori basement.

Me: Shut it, no you cannot! Peeing secretly in a Montessori basement is a primary ADD symptom. I read it in a college book.)

My other issue is one of authenticity: how uneducated am I really? How far outside the academy am I really? I'm not a gross coarse dwarf in a jewel mine, shut away from sunlight and Blonde Jesus--I know what's going on. I read much of the same material that MFA students read. Can you really say that you're outside the academy if you spend your days poring over books?

What I'm mainly missing, I know, are mentorship and connections, things that I would love to have. I'm sure I would thoroughly enjoy an MFA program--all that time and all that talk. I'm not opposed to MFAs on principle; I just lack money and an undergraduate degree, so an MFA is out of reach for me at the present time. Is it really so unusual, in the current climate, to have only a high school diploma and be pursuing poetry "seriously," whatever that means? Anyone else out there? I admit I never even thought about it until last year, when I was a finalist for a Ruth Lilly fellowship and a Discovery Award, or a Discovery/Boston-Nation Prize Review Award, as I like to think of it. I knew for a fact that I wouldn't win either of those things, but when I looked up the winners and saw how heavily credentialed they were, I had a sad sinking feeling. Not an "I deserved to win and they didn't" feeling--they were very talented and I firmly believe that we're all in this together--but a sudden understanding that I was at a disadvantage in certain ways. That had never occurred to me before, because I have the mind of a child.

Any thoughts? I have to get back to the pigs.

22 comments:

Phoebe said...

Hi there. MFA poet here. You're doing better than I am (I've all but given up on poetry). The mentorships are nice, but "all that time" =! "all that time writing." I've written more productively, and in an more engaged way (because I can read and write what I want, really, I think) since graduation. And in terms of quantity, I've written more since graduating, too. But alas, almost all fiction. Oh well.

A friend of mine (who is still in the MFA program I attended) recently said how she felt like the MFA was a lifestyle choice about living easily and, essentially, having lots of time to party. I know plenty of people who spend more time partying than writing during their MFA experiences. Which isn't to knock partying. I love partying. But an MFA does not make one a writer. Writing makes one a writer.

Phoebe said...

(And, honestly, I find the current trend towards similar educational background and lifestyle choices in literary writing to be a little disturbing, in a vague, wispy way. I think it creates a world of economically privileged people writing about economically privileged situations for other economically privileged people. Which is okay when we're talking about individual poems, but boring as a literary movement. But I'm cynical. Obviously.)

Suzanne said...

Do you have any idea how many idiots I know with a college degree? Just sayin'. I don't think education or lack of education should be mentioned in a cover letter. Especially once you have some publications to list. Just my two cents.

ps My oldest son has ADHD and may or may not have peed in a corner once, he may or may not have made his teachers chase him all over the athletic field when he escaped from class. I'll never tell.

Shannon said...

I think a solid stack of thoughtful writing, especially writing as good as yours, can easily serve as an equivalent to a degree. Especially if your portfolio goes back years and years, because then it can show that you're dedicated. I know that is not a problem for you!

I am on your side with not mentioning lack of formal education in cover letters. If you say "I have no formal education" then the rest of the letter is going to be about why that is, not how awesome you are and why your poem should be printed.

I "network" at talks I go to about stuff I write about, but I think the internet is probably the best option for networking. Judging by the number of people who read your blog, I don't think networking is something you need to worry about. My professional "network" is made up mostly of personal friends who have the same interests as me. I can think only thing of one "reference" I know through college.

Shannon said...

Oh, and college "mentors" are overrated. A few lucky folks get great ones, but I found that a lot of the really smart professors you'd most want to talk to are way too busy to acknowledge your existence unless you are TAing their class or grading their papers. Academia! I'm glad I didn't pursue it.

Shannon said...

And one other thing-- the basic class requirements for any nonprivate college (English 101 etc) will totally snuff out your will to live. If you ever do decide to shoot for an MFA, I highly recommend taking the intro classes at a community college or online. I would go apeshit if I had to be in an English class with a bunch of 18 year olds.

Tricia said...

Phoebe! I need to add your blog to my list; I read it all the time; I like the eating pictures.

I've written more productively, and in an more engaged way (because I can read and write what I want, really, I think) since graduation.

I've wondered about that, because I do get to choose what I read and when I want to read it, which means that I can pursue subjects exhaustively without also having to attend to required reading. That's extremely valuable to me.

I think it creates a world of economically privileged people writing about economically privileged situations for other economically privileged people.

The flipside of that is that there are expectations about the kind of poems an Advantaged Person should be writing, just as there are expectations about the kind of poems a Disadvantaged Person should be writing. We're comfortable when a super-educated person is writing poetic explorations of Moby-Dick, but when they start writing anagrams of Wonder Bread ingredients we get confused. We're comfortable when a Disadvantaged Person is writing about Disadvantages, but when a Disadvantaged Person starts writing about, like, ornamental varieties of ivy, we get uneasy. This is bad for everybody.

Tricia said...

Suzanne--whew, I'm glad you agree. VINDICATED.

My mother turned her back on my brother once, and when she turned back she saw that he had climbed to the roof of the house. Twenty seconds, perhaps, had elapsed. I was the best-behaved child in the world by comparison, and you KNOW how awful I am.

Shannon said...

Finally (this is what I am doing instead of working) the feeling that all your contemporaries are more qualified than you will never go away. For example, you have had way more writing published with a byline than I have. I've never been published outside of my little academic magazine nobody reads. I'm jealous of you!

Tricia said...

Shannon, I am grateful to hear a Kremlinologist offer her opinion. Kremlinologists know what is going on.

I am on your side with not mentioning lack of formal education in cover letters. If you say "I have no formal education" then the rest of the letter is going to be about why that is, not how awesome you are and why your poem should be printed.

YES to this. I mean, if I get a monster in my stomach when other people Explain, imagine the monster I get when I try to do it myself.

And YES I am dedicated, I am a pure laser of intensity

Tricia said...

P.S. Don't worry Shannon, I will publish you in my well-respected magazine Articulated Animal Bonez

Phoebe said...

Tricia, do it! I <3 readers, especially awesome-mefite-writer-readers.

I've wondered about that, because I do get to choose what I read and when I want to read it, which means that I can pursue subjects exhaustively without also having to attend to required reading. That's extremely valuable to me.

I think that's one of the biggest benefits of being an autodidact artist. It sounds hokey, but you have more of a chance to broadly explore your passions without outside biases forcing subjective opinions on those passions. You decide what's valuable and worth attending to. In my MFA program, the same writers came up over and over again. And I mean, they're good (Bishop and Plath and Rimbaud and Justice) but I would not have dedicated so much time to them, and would have read more widely and passionately, given the option. Also, now I can't read Bishop or Justice without knee-jerk sneering. I have no idea what my actual opinion is of their poetry! That's lame!

The flipside of that is that there are expectations about the kind of poems an Advantaged Person should be writing, just as there are expectations about the kind of poems a Disadvantaged Person should be writing. We're comfortable when a super-educated person is writing poetic explorations of Moby-Dick, but when they start writing anagrams of Wonder Bread ingredients we get confused. We're comfortable when a Disadvantaged Person is writing about Disadvantages, but when a Disadvantaged Person starts writing about, like, ornamental varieties of ivy, we get uneasy. This is bad for everybody.

Definitely. Unfortunately, this was pretty much enforced in my MFA program, too--that there were Right Things and Wrong Things to write about (and also Write Things and Wrong Things to read--I had a lot of anxiety every time someone would ask me what I was reading, mostly because I knew it wasn't the sort of stuff I should have been reading according to the academy-that-was-my-school).

I LOLed at your ivy example. The husband (likes poetry, not a poet, thinks a lot of the poetry I read in school was silly) likes to remind me that "Poetry isn't about FEELINGS. It's about GARDENING!"

Tricia said...

Yeah, I get to read as much YA as I want! And I read so much of it, suckers!

We should totally invent a Disadvantaged Writer who writes exclusively about ivy. (His book will be called GroundCover, obviously.) It'll be just like Ern Malley; we will be famous within the year.

Suzanne said...

Yeah. I may or may not have a lot of experience with the roof scene. (WTF? I mean, really?)

Anyway, I know you were such a good girl, because I have a daughter now, and she's like sugar.

Plus you are a damn fine poet, and that cuts you a lot slack in my book.

wv: traliz

Tricia said...

Suzanne, it calms down a bit, I promise--my brother hardly ever climbs up on the roof anymore.

That's how good I was, as good as sugar! It wasn't until I was an adult that I became so bad.

Suzanne said...

Tricia,
He turns 19 on Sunday, and I can assure you that you are correct. It's nice to look back now and think of him as adventurous and a free spirit. Although It's bit odd to hear him correcting his little brother & sister, you know, having his voice be the voice of reason. Odd, but good. OMG I am hogging your whole thread with this segue.

The establishment sucks. Stay away from them!

Tricia said...

No, hogging is the best! This whole thread is just four people having a good time. If we all had PhDs we would probably be biting each other.

Admiral Farragut said...

This appears to be the porcine post -- hogging, pig farming. While I am not a poet nor to I possess an advanced academic degree, I did raise a pig once. As messy and smelly as literature courses and for the same reason. You have to put a ring in a pig's nose to keep him from rooting his way out of the pen which is similar to the way course requirements keep your reading painfully "penned." Of course, when you're finished with pig farming you get to eat the pig. You can eat your diploma too, but it won't taste like bacon.

Tricia said...

I have always loved the image of a ring in a pig's nose: a circle in two circles in another circle, in a circle in another larger circle.

In other words PIGS ARE ROUND

Admiral Farragut said...

Incidentally, everybody in the counterculture of the '60's knew that Charles Manson was THE man to see for a quality pot-bellied pig. That's why they kept writing "piggies" on the walls of those houses: it was advertising! The whole Tate-LoBianca thing was a publicity campaign gone awry! Marketing Directors can be such far-out cats.
Verification: "lugirap." I make no comment on this but it sounds like a helluva product.

mariegauthier said...

Every time I read the bio notes of some prize-winning poet, my stomach hurts a little. There's no way in creation I could ever afford to go back to school--though there are some low-res programs that will waive the BA requ. if your work is good enough. But it's just not in the cards.

But I think there are many ways to be a poet, and the most important ones have nothing to do with formal education: real love and support of the art, of poems & poetry. Sometimes I think it's the autodidacts keeping the book business afloat.

I wouldn't dream of vaunting my degreelessness in a cover letter, however.

Tricia said...

Honestly, one of the few things that keeps me afloat financially is the fact that I don't have a student loan payment. Of course, that's also the thing that prevents me from making any money. QUANDARY

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