Thursday, March 12, 2015

Panicking over Poetry (otherwise known as the time I was a doofball and sabotaged my own dream)

When I was twenty-one and fresh out of college, I started an MFA in poetry at the University of Memphis. I spent an interesting year writing some poems. I got to meet a few cool visiting authors and poets.

I dropped out at the end of the year.

The end.

Flash forward 25+ years.

If you asked me, even a couple of weeks ago, about this small chapter in my past, I would've made light of it. I am not the kind of person who feels regret. I figure that things happen the way they happen and there's not much you can do about it now. The Year of Poetry always seemed kind of silly to me.

In fact, I used it in what I thought was a self-deprecating, humorous way in my official author bio:

See here for this nice snippet from the back flap of my first published novel:
Jody Casella majored in creative writing at Rhodes College and started an MFA at the University of Memphis. Then in a moment of fear at the sheer impracticality of being a poet, she quit writing, earned an MA, and started teaching...

Over the past few months I've been purging my house. It's been a fascinating and sometimes horrifying trip down memory lane. Opening closets and digging through the basement, the garage, the attic, is an excavation of the past. Stuff that fits well in other rooms, other houses, other periods of your life, but no longer fits the life you have now. Things you thought you should like-- a set of too fancy china. Pressed white tablecloths. Ha ha. I am not a pressed white table cloth kind of person. You have to IRON white tablecloths. And I don't iron. (PS. Adios to the freaking iron.)

All of this tripping down memory lane has got me revisiting past selves too. The Self, for example, who made the decision to quit the MFA in poetry.

When I lived in Lexington Kentucky, I worked as a teacher of academically gifted and talented 4th and 5th graders. My job was to formally identify kids in giftedness and create suitable challenging academic plans for them.

Something I know about academically gifted kids is that no matter how smart they are --and some of these kids were at the prodigy level -- they will eventually hit a wall. The barrier is something new-- an idea, a problem, an experience-- that does not come easily to them, something they have never seen before and can't immediately comprehend.

This is a scary encounter for a gifted kid. These kids have been told all of their lives how brilliant they are. So when they hit the Wall, they panic. They have no strategies for dealing with a challenge. I've seen kids burst into tears trying to work on a math problem. I watched a kid have a tantrum--the lying on your back/kicking on the floor kind-- when he couldn't understand how to fit together pentominos.

It seems ridiculous. But what's going on psychologically is the kid is calling into question everything she knows about herself. If she can't understand this stupid math equation, how smart is she after all? The trick is to teach kids how to work through frustration, how to tackle problems, how to practice-- when they've never had to do that before.

I taught these gifted kids for seven years. I watched some of them hit walls and freak out. I watched many hit the wall and find a way to go around it or knock the damn thing down. Most of the kids never hit a wall. But they would, eventually. And I told them and their parents to be prepared for the inevitable.

I never ever ever thought about any of this in relation to myself. I was not a gifted student when I was in school. I struggled daily through math and science classes. I had to study hard for tests in every subject. The only area where I excelled was writing. But that had nothing at all to do with school. I wrote on my own. Journals. Stories. Two novels before I was fifteen that I did not show a soul. The few people who knew what I was doing, said I was a good writer.

Writing was my talent. When I went to college, I majored in it and knew that I was one of the best writers in the school. My writing got very little criticism. And then, I started my year in the MFA in poetry program....

At first it seemed like I would glide along as I always had. The professor, a brilliant poet named Sharon Bryan, chose me as one of her first students to fill her brand new program. I got a scholarship-- full tuition. Plus, a decent stipend for being the managing editor of the literary magazine.

I shared an office with Sharon. The workshop classes went well. All praise for me-- no shock there-- I had talent, remember? But there was a bit of uncomfortable nudging. Sharon saw me "working" on my poems in the office we shared-- how I dashed them off in minutes before a class with minimal thought. How I never revised anything. When she gave me suggestions, I blew them off. The poems were perfectly fine the way I'd written them.

She pushed me in the other classes too. Analyzing poetry, dissecting line breaks and rhythm, figuring out how poems were put together and choices the writers made. I didn't always understand what was going on. I had to think about writing in a way that I'd never had to before. Papers that I was used to throwing together the night before, were suddenly things I had to tackle earlier, and possibly.. gasp.. revise.

University of Memphis was considered easy. The program, one of my previous professors told me, was beneath me. And there I was.. struggling. I was supposed to have this natural talent--writing was the ONLY thing about myself I was proud of, sure of, and suddenly I wasn't sure of it anymore.

So. I quit.

What the hell was I going to do with an MFA anyway? Teach poetry?? HA. What a silly job. And poetry. Jeez. What a ridiculous subject to focus on. Nobody even reads it. Was I really going to devote my life to writing little poems and hoping some literary magazine that has a circulation of like, 50, will publish one and possibly pay me 20 bucks?

Yeah. No thanks. Time to grow up, Jody and put away childish things. You want to be a writer? Well, regular people don't get to be writers. And you're not as good at it as you thought.

I didn't write another word for the next five years. Within a year, I was married and teaching high school English. My husband and I bought a house. We started our family.

Something I scrounged out of a closet recently was a folder of old grad school poems. They weren't bad, but I could immediately see how they could be better. The year I was at U of M, I worked harder than I ever had on my writing. I had some amazing experiences too. I had dinner with Seamus Heaney. I had a funny conversation with John Updike at a party. I met Richard Russo and WS Merwin and Marvin Bell and Barry Hannah and Pattiann Rogers.

What would have happened if I hadn't panicked and dropped out?

I'm not saying that I would've become a poet. Still, two more years of careful study on my writing, the interactions with classmates and teachers and visiting writers, the nudging, the pushing, the challenging-- it sure as hell couldn't have hurt me.

But I was the kid having the tantrum on the floor.

I don't have regrets. But man oh man, I wished there'd been someone there to scoop me up off the floor, dry my tears, and say, It's okay. You can figure this out. Listen, writing is your talent, and you are good at it,  but that doesn't mean you don't have to work on it too.

Get up. Climb the damn wall.


  1. I relate to this deeply. I didn't realize until I was in my late 20s that having to work at something WASN'T a sign that I should quit!

    1. It's weird that we don't realize this. Also, I think that sometimes we sabotage ourselves because we say we are "lazy" when really, we are afraid -- of trying and failing. OR trying... and succeeding. That's scary too. Glad to know you are back on the path, Brenda.