After a number of years of drinking myself in and out of several community colleges up and down the California coast line, I had finally earned the sufficient number of credits the state of California deemed acceptable to complete my General Education. No more Astronomy at Mesa College, or Speech 101 at College of Marin for this aging academic, it was time to get serious. No matter how entertaining taking classes called, the History of American Folk music, taught by a mildly insane hermit in some basement at San Francisco City College may have been, it was time to realize that deciding not to return to classes after spring break because I was too “tired” may not have been the best idea, especially, if I was to seriously consider the concept of what people call a future.
It was 1997, five years after I had graduated high school. I was twenty-three. I had friends who had already fulfilled their collegiate responsibilities and completed the arc from Graduate/Berkeley/Psychology/Cum Laude to despondent coffee barrista. I knew that completing forty credits in five years was not a feat to brag about, and that I was through with terminology like academic probation, suspended driver’s license, and drunk tank. I never wanted to ask a pasty-middle-age-woman, “ Are these credits transferable?” through a dirty glass window again. I needed a goal, a purpose, a major.
I had amply turned my 1.9 GPA around to be accepted to San Francisco State. I had filled out the applications, accepted several Pell Grants, all I need to do was fill in the bubble under the major category. I scanned the list: Accounting, Astrophysics, Biology, Corporate Finance, and so on, until I saw it. The answer: Creative Writing.
This was my chance to become Jack Kerouac and change the way Americans saw America. A few poetry classes and I’d be Walt Whitman. What was Tobias Wolfe doing that couldn’t be taught by an overworked, unrecognized graduate student. Answer: Writing Short Stories 101 (workshop class) I filled in the bubble and was ready to begin the first leg of my literary E true story. First stop a Borders book signing, an appearance on Letterman, New York City record release parties with Jonny Depp.
The reality was a stack of journals crammed with self-loathing poetry camouflaged as passion, a few poorly written short stories about drunken episodes in Mexico and “the road”, and a play that was so embarrassingly bad that I can’t believe I am mentioning it. Something about a bus ride, characters breaking through stereotypes and over coming class issues that keep them apart. Everything I wrote was cliché, autobiographical, and poorly punctuated. (I am since an Ivy League graduate and an English teacher, but that damn punctuation still haunts me, as is evidenced by this very Blog.)
But I will say this I worked hard, and I thought I was changing the world. In two years I earned my BA with a 3.8 something, while working 40 hours a week at a series of restaurants scattered throughout San Francisco, and held my own when it came to partying. But did I learn how to write?
The point of this entry is just that: Can we learn how to write? A friend recently said, “Man you have totally evolved. You have become such a good writer. I am amazed at how well you can take what's going on in your head and put them into words, whether that be on paper or in cyberspace. I think the last few years I really watched as you battled to find a voice. I am hearing that voice.” Although it may seem like I am simple stroking my ego with that a quote, I think it raises a good question: How did I go from writing a poem called Mr. Greedy Man to actually connecting with a reader? How did he recognize my voice and where did it come from? I can safely say that writing was not what I learned those two years at SFSU. Sure I learned a few little tricks. I read a great deal of work I never would have otherwise. I had a few professors that showed me a different way to look at fiction, but I did not find my voice. Where is it coming from now, and how can I help it become louder?
As an English teacher, I spend the majority of my day selling writing to thirteen year olds. I am not only peddling ideas like: organization will help you write your college essay, although that is part of it, I am teaching them to see the poetry of life, to recognize it, process it, and write it down. I have learned to see writing not as a product but as a process, an act, a prayer, an existence. I think it is this transformation that has helped me improve my craft. In college, I was only after the product. I wanted the perfect line, the accessible poem my “fans” could swoon over. I wanted to write the flawless novel so I would be: recognized, praised, admired, and respected. Most of all I wanted people to read me, look inside and find something worthwhile buried in there. I was writing to be loved and to be told that I was talented. I wanted to write to be famous. Immortal.
Things have changed. A bit. I cannot sit here and say those things are still not important to me, but I am starting to see that writing is not a ladder to fame, writing is simply an act I have no choice doing. This is what I am teaching my students. We do not write to always produce something. We write because we have no choice. We write because it feels good to watch the words spread on the page as fast as we can write them. It feels right to be able to uncover the poems in the world and present them through words. We write to write. And the more I do it, the easier it gets. It helps me think, it helps me meditate, it helps me. Period. The more I do it the louder my voice becomes. I never enjoyed writing while I was at SFSU. It was the difficult task I had to endure while I was waiting to win the awards and accolades. Now, there are very few things I like to do more than to sit at these keys and write. It doesn’t matter what the topic. Just set it in front of me and watch me go. I turn phrases in the shower and on the can. I have written several novels in bed before I fall asleep. it is alwasy on my mind. I never stop writing.
Maybe something worthwhile will be produced on this Blog, or maybe I'll find it on the files complicating my hard-drive. After all it is not too late to write our generation’s Tropic of Cancer…
In the mean time, I search for words everywhere.