Perhaps one of the things for which I’m most grateful in having completed my MFA is the time it forced me to spend looking inward. For as much time as I was asked to consider the writing of others, I was also charged (however directly or indirectly) with the onerous task of contemplating the words I was putting on my own pages. Questions of identity and direction and motivation and style and so, SO many other facets of being a writer really beat me up for a while—indeed, they still do. I realized fairly quickly that, in order to grow as a poet and writer, I truly needed just such a struggle. I still need it. And I think you need it too.
One particular lesson I was able to take from the whole experience was a healthy and comfortable understanding that I am more than just a poet—I’m a storyteller, which to my mind must mean I’m a writer. How did I come to this grand epiphany? Like I was passing a kidney stone.
If that’s an experience you’ve ever lived through (and a hearty dominus vobiscum to you if you have…), you know it basically happens in four stages: Time and Pain—which are interchangeable and often compete to see who wins—Medication, and Relief. For me, the Time and Pain components remain chronic. They’re afflictions I’ll always live with (and so will you. Get to know them. Get comfy, and remember what Hemingway had to say about writing). The Medication phase? Well, I think we all self-medicate from time to time, some of us more dangerously than others. But for the sake of our argument here, I’ll simply say the MFA process was just what the doctor ordered. (Think of it as a hands-on, guided self-help approach to finding a cure.) And finally, Relief. Perhaps the most important wrinkle of the Relief phase in my case came in the realization of my own self-doubt. Realization accomplished, I was able to confront it, accept it, and deal with it. Here’s how:
That I am a storyteller and therefore a writer came from the realization that more and more and more my poems were becoming long, involved narratives instead of the more incisive, insightful little droplets of now I prefer to write as a poet. I was forcing huge, sweeping biographies into awkward lines and forced stanzas, wondering why my less-than-heroic couplets were not doing more to explain how or why A, B, and C were furthering the lives of characters X, Y, and Z. In much the same way we cure polio with a watered-down version of polio, I cured my narrative poetry problem by…writing narratives. I simply started writing stories.
I wish I could say this epiphany came to me all on my own. It didn’t. It took a friend to have the decency and the courage to look me in the eye and say, “Stop hiding the bottles and admit it man! You have a problem!” Thank goodness I was already in the midst of my Queens MFA—the writer’s equivalent of a 12 step program. “Excessive Narrativity with Acute Versification Resistance” isn’t a diagnosis you’ll find in the DSM-IV or on WebMD, but it’s cure, “Write a story,” (actually, the exact advice was, “Dumbass! Just write a story already!”) was hands down some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.
Moral of the story? If you’re feeling like you’re in a rut, perhaps crossing genres just might be a cure for what’s ailing YOU.