Writers write, right?

My friend Russell Terry contributes to the ELGL (Engaging Local Government Leaders) blog with writing tips in his column Writing with Russ. Being a talented writer, and formerly a lead tutor at the UNC Writing Center, he chimes in with heady content on the subject of writing. Once upon a time, while researching a post, he tweeted out:

Having a strong opinion on writing, I disagreed. We had a brief exchange on Twitter that metastasized into an email exchange and then his post on ELGL. I am now formally returning his serve with my position (and cross-pollinating two fine blogs!).

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As the illustrious Omar Little from The Wire says: a man’s gotta have a code. A code of mine: writers have a burning, burning desire to write. In short: writers write, right? If you don’t have that fire in your belly, well then: you ain’t ever gonna be a writer. As an old college professor once told me: the world doesn’t want you to be a writer.

Tracy Kidder lectured once about a writing mentor of his from Iowa. While pursuing his MFA, Kidder had a professor (whom he left nameless) visiting from New York City, who, lost in Iowa City and drinking heavily amidst the cornfields and undergrad scene, left Kidder with a jewel.

The guy barely taught and was mostly at the bars, but Kidder would tag along to glean whatever genius overfloweth. In his cups, Mr. Famous Writer referred to writing as, “the terribly lonely business of getting down to it.” And he has a point. Writing IS the terribly lonely business of getting down to it.

Writers write, right?

Few things are more isolating than going deep into your head and to hunt words. I once had the honor of working with Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States. Another august font of wisdom on the craft, Hass famously said, “Writing is hell. Not writing is hell. The only tolerable state is having just written.” I feel Hass. I don’t always feel the icy breath of death whispering at my neck, “If you died today, you know you haven’t written a poem in like a month. Loser.” But I do feel that feeling often, and I hate it. Only finishing a day’s dose of writing wards off the chill.

The compulsion to write may not always be triggered by that inner need. Russell notes the need for craft in “mundane” (for lack of a better word) writing. I agree with Russ that anything written should be written well, even dry and procedural government texts (or contractually-obligated tenure portfolio self-evaluations).

Russell also claims that Whedon may only be referencing what we’d call “creative writing” and thus any axioms or quotes regarding “writing” are privileging this type of writing to the exclusion, and probably denigration, of other forms of writing. I don’t want to insult any writing that is related to employment (and as a poet, I most certainly do not feel like writing must be remunerated to be considered “writing”), but I lament that the majority of my writing has nothing to do with my creative pursuits: poetry, sportswriting, or creative essays such as this blog.

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A quick background: I teach writing for a living as a community college English teacher. I am victim of the old cliché: boy meets poetry, gets MFA, becomes a teacher to pay off school loans—they’re not exactly hiring at Poet Corp with a hefty bennies package and a 401(k). I probably too easily polarize the teaching writing (academic composition) and the doing writing (poetry, creative writing) to the detriment of “mundane” writing.

Writing is yoga and play and mana all rolled into one.

My brother-in-law, Matt, is a composition aficionado. By composition I mean just that, composition; and by aficionado, I mean, wizard. He has a master’s in Rhet/Comp, taught at 4 and 2-year colleges and is currently leveling up that MA to a PhD. Matt is gonna teach the living crap out of some undergraduate composition. He’s current on the craft, well versed in the theory, and, frankly, just knows what’s up. He’s so down with comp he’s even willing to shares his condescension regarding us MFA’ers beefing into his turf.

He has a point. MFA’ers are mostly teachers by accident. Teaching college writing is a side-effect of getting the degree, it’s rarely ever a goal. Most of us Creative Writing-types get the degree ‘cause we all think we’re gonna be the next Raymond Carver or Sharon Olds. Only after a few years of playing at writer do you realize you’re saddled with debt and a (semi?) useless degree. Plagued by at least wanting to do something rational with your writing degree, you become a community college teacher. Community colleges will employ anyone with an MA and a pulse (and it’s better than Starbucks (or UPS, or pizza delivery) or whatever).

That isn’t to say I don’t love composition. I have strong feelings about, and an idiosyncratic but passionate relationship, to the craft; but writing to me is creative writing.

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Writing is yoga and play and mana all rolled into one. If I go too long without poet’ing, I feel all bottled up and gross inside. I often feel I am “wasting” my writing on comments for student essays, work e-mails, committee reports, etc. etc. But I “have to” write those to pay my mortgage and feed the wee bairn. That is: the world, or rather surviving in it, makes you write that kind of stuff. And that runs contrary to my old professor’s the world doesn’t want you to be a writer because, in fact, the world does want you to be a writer. Just a dry business-and-bullet-points writer.

You do have something to say. And chances are you really want to say it.

Society doesn’t give anyone the time, space and kick in the ass to write their personal projects. Anyone who wants to do that writing has to fight for a room of one’s own. And I mean room in both Einsteinian ways: time and space.

Though Russell does concede my point. His parenthetical in the third stanza seems to agree with me. If you sit in inactivity long enough, in front of a blank page long enough, you will quiet the monkey brain long enough to discover that you do have something to say. And chances are you really want to say it.

I subscribe to the “radio tuning” metaphor for inspiration. If you, ritually, sit in the same spot at the same time and just write (even Peter Elbow gibberish)… you’ll be tuning in the muse. Sure, at first it will be so much static and dreck, but every now and then, you’ll get the signal strong and you’ll flow.

You either need that flow or you wither; or you don’t.

To Boldly Go…

Like a bullet ant, quinceañera or fermented goat’s milk, Star Trek has mystical initiation powers. My older brother, Geoff, and I shared a bunk bed until he graduated high school. As children, we were sent to bed together except on Saturday nights. Growing up, a rite of passage in my house was staying up late enough to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents. Shortly after 2nd grade, my brother was given permission to cross that threshold while I trundled off to beddy-bye. Star Trek was for “grown ups,” it was mature and complex and I wanted in.

It would still be a year before Data’s head, Jack London and my own initiation, but when I was 8, my father took Geoff and I to a Star Trek Convention at the Egan Center in Downtown Anchorage. My father was always a big Trekkie. Over the years, I’ve heard him talk about watching Star Trek with his family. As a preteen growing up in the Pax Americana suburbs outside Philadelphia, he described the show as a milestone for him. I remember him recounting his reaction to “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the episode in the final season when Kirk kisses Uhura. Americans just older than my father had Kerouac and Frank O’Hara, but Star Trek was his form of counter culture, his gateway to questioning the status quo. Star Trek not only opened his mind and imagination, but, with all its vessels and vehicles, Klingon Birds of Prey, Federation starships, etc., the show also provided a future. He loved the spaceships, built their models and eventually became an engineer (the career that took him to Alaska).

I think George Takei was the big name that day at the Convention. I have no idea, as I don’t remember anything Trekkie at all. This was 1991, so I probably rocked my florescent yellow Hammer pants with pride. I can imagine Geoff old enough to soak in all the nerd-dom, but I was just excited to go out with the men. The actual Star Trek ephemera sloughed off me, as I couldn’t tell Guinan from O’Brien, but I specifically remember heading to the 5th Avenue Mall afterwards. We stopped by Kaybee Toys and I bought a pack of Marvel cards.

Aside from the best food court in Anchorage, the 5th Avenue Mall was the place for geeky kids in early ‘90s Alaska. It had the aforementioned Kaybee Toys, Walden Books, and a comic book store. I assume my dad just wanted to placate his ansty kids with a burger and commerce after a long day, but his decision, accidental or not, was integral for a burgeoning nerd.

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Somewhere in a dusty storage unit in Tucson is a collection of large white binders my father brought home from work for me to store my Marvel card collections. Among Beanie Babies, old yearbooks, prom dresses, and a 100 CD-changing stereo, those binders stand a testament to a child’s capacity for obsession, patience and focus. Throughout elementary school, I collected all of the Marvel cards series: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, before broadening my horizon into the multiple sets of Spider-Man and X-Men cards. Through all of this accumulating, from my initiation with Series 2 Fin Fang Foom through the gorgeous Mark Bagley Spider-Man set, these cards ignited my imagination.

Though I would soon become an obsessive Marvel card collector, at the time of the Star Trek convention Series 2 had just been released and I had, up until that point, only acquired cards by babysitting other kids’ collections during recess. Isaac Thornton would pay me the odd common for keeping his cards safe under the stucco awning and drumming up trades. I was a good little trade broker/bodyguard and Isaac was a responsible employer, if not a generous one. I remember Isaac with all this expendable wealth, too many commons than he knows what to do with, and a mad desire to climb the monkey bars or go sledding. So he had me watch his collection while he played at recess.

Between brokering deals for Isaac and trying to stay warm, I would flip through the collection awed at these characters I’d barely heard of. Sure, there was Spider-Man and the Hulk, everyone knows them, but Isaac had a rogue’s gallery of esoteric heroes: Gambit, Venom and the Super Skrull. Of all of the cards, I was especially in love with Fin Fang Foom. He was an ancient Chinese dragon and on his card, his stats (strength, endurance, etc.) were off the charts. Though Isaac had two copies, I knew he could leverage one of those Fin Fang Fooms into something juicy, maybe even a hologram, and I was never getting one unless I bought my own packs and got lucky.

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I crossed the threshold walking into Kaybee Toys that day. My desire for Fin Fang Foom inspired me to buy my first pack of trading cards. It also steered me, not only into my first comic book obsession (The Dragon Seed Saga was running in Iron Man that fall and I got one of my first comic books, Iron Man #275, the conclusion of the Saga, for Christmas that year), but, more importantly, into a lifelong obsession with fantasy, imagination and nerdery, a nerdery chiefly defined by collecting cards.

It wasn’t just the varied activities of card collecting (buying, trading, the accomplishment of finalizing a set or the gamble of cracking a pack) that appealed to me. These cards were a gateway drug to their comics and thus a capacity for wonder. In my imagination, a goofy kid from a small town became Spider-Man grappling with the moral implications of stopping a serial killer, or Wolverine dealing with his loss of adamantium bones. Like Star Trek for my father before me, comic cards were talismans, portable totems of the wider world of adventure and heroism. Every time I leafed through my collection, my subconscious combusted with complex narratives and images.

During all of this collecting, I only briefly dabbled with non-comic cards. I briefly tried NBA and NFL cards at the advent of the hobby, but neither triggered my fancy like the spandex-clad characters of pulp soap operas. Comic cards owned my imagination, that is, until Magic: The Gathering.

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My father’s undying love of Star Trek got him to accidentally establish The Next Generation as a rite of passage for his children. And his decision to take his two boys to a Star Trek convention, that intergenerational nerdery, was both baptism and confirmation. That day was the first day of the beginning of my adult identity. It was the first day I bought a small plastic-packaged, randomly grouped pack of cards. I was excited. Anything could be in that pack. I bit my tongue, tore the crinkling plastic and hoped for Fin Fang Foom.