We were completely surrounded by critics

Dear Milo,

Raining? Sunny? Doesn’t matter; have no intention of going outside today, or at least, not beyond the courtyard. Today I have nowhere to be and I’m catching up on freelance work, cleaning off a desktop, doing laundry, taking out the trash, having space and time to reconnect the dots. I really needed this. Nothing makes you appreciate a day off like the exhaustion of rehearsal.

But it’s more than that; it’s the exhaustion of moving to a new country, the Polish language intensive, the graduation and the thesis, the final semester, the stress and sadness of leaving friends behind. I was and am well and truly worn out. Succeeding at something can be just as crazy as failing at it, and those two states can seem remarkably similar.

What’s the problem?

“I was trying to explain what the problem was, but what was the problem? I felt tears well in my eyes. We were completely surrounded by critics. The critics had opinions about everything, from the distribution of literary prizes to the advantages of a macrobiotic diet.

At some point we headed back into the rain. Although I had quit smoking six months ago, I paused to bum an American Spirit from a conveniently situated critic. “I thought you quit,” my agent said. ”

-That’s Elif Batuman, in the Guardian, on the stresses and crazinesses of having one particular dream come true; “Life after a Bestseller.” Via Explosion-Proof‘s site.

Getting what you want can be rough.

These bumps in the road are part of what the experience will contain, I understand, and I am getting used to it. I am grateful to everyone who’s been helping me navigate. You don’t have to look pretty in the ring; you just have to stay standing.

To get myself through said bumps, I have been writing lots. I did silly things, like creating (a year late) a properly designed triple-tracking submissions spreadsheet. I did some work in genres that have been neglected due to the prevailing influence of Planet Poetry. And I even found, under my computer cushions, an old post I’d been meaning to post since May.

So here’s something I wrote when I knew I was coming here but hadn’t gotten here yet. It’s a bit droopy, but perhaps you can understand, given the circumstances.

Monday, May 30

I have decided, in preparation for my impending trip to Poland, to begin writing more expansive entries, and to accustom the three and one-half readers and the 0.75 writers of this blog to longer doses.

Since I last wrote, much has happened, including a health clearance, a visa, much official Fulbright paperwork, the purchasing of a plane ticket, and the decision to go to Pittsburgh for language school in June and July. All is in readiness, except for me. I will be in Pittsburgh through June and July—I will return to Baltimore briefly two weekends in July, for Parallel Octave events—and I will fly to Poland on July 20th. It’s done. Oh, also, I graduated from the MFA.

Easy as falling off a cliff, leaving town in two days. Momentum. Grading. Packing. Putting life into boxes. Loose ends.

I have two students in my IFP section with superficially similar names. I also have handwriting that resembles agitated ants. When reading handwritten notes for my students’ portfolio letters, I mistook one student’s name for another, and began writing, “Your work explores ambiguity.” This seemed wrong. Wishing to elaborate on it, I could not think of a single instance of ambiguity in the student’s work. I eventually realized I had mistaken the one name for the other. (Hello, Paul Muldoon! “As I knelt by the grave of my father and mother…”)

Reading Passage to India on Kindle for Mac in the portfolio-letter interstices.

“ Mrs. Moore pushed up the shutters and looked out. She had brought Ronny and Adela together by their mutual wish, but really she could not advise them further. She felt increasingly (vision or nightmare?) that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made understanding man. And to-day she felt this with such force that it seemed itself a relationship, itself a person who was trying to take hold of her hand.”

-E.M. Forster, Passage to India

Why does anyone read Virginia Woolf when there is Forster? What on earth is the point of Woolf? If I am ever brought to appreciate her—to love her, as some people purport to do—I will be very surprised.

My parents are in town this week, after graduation, staying at the Peabody hotel where T and J were married a few weeks ago. I’m having lunch with them later. (Actually, catching up with T. later too.)

They are all very forgiving people, and understanding of the haze of boxes and packing tape through which I presently (PRESENTLY??? come ON!!!) see the world. It’s good to see everyone. I am very happy that my parents have come, and my brother, and M, in such close succession.

I must be about to do something important, I suppose, if everyone drags themselves out here to see me. I feel like a ship, buttressed with too many biscuits from Melville’s Aunt Charity.

The thought of Poland hangs over everything like a parachute flung into the air. It is going to descend. Soon.

I must take the train to Pittsburgh (language school) either Wednesday or Thursday. I must be responsible and organized and not forget anything. I am stressed out, and I respond to this by spasms of flailing organizing activity related to Parallel Octave.

Really, this is how I respond to stress. A2 asked me what I do to relax, a few months ago, and I said, “Send emails.”

My grandmother fell and broke her hip the day before my graduation. She is all right, but in a nursing home, in recovery. I am relieved that it is not worse, although I know this is going to be a difficult rehab process.

So far? So soon?

[we now return you to the present]

I read this and remember how hopelessly stressed out I was, trying to get here and get everything done to be here, and I am sorry for my past self. I wish I could let her know that everything was going to work out.

And here I am, now, and…well…I’m not sure that things have “worked out” exactly, as much as “unfolded in a confusing and unpredictable manner.”

But I am here. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, and I will work something out. Every Fulbright project experiences bumps and changes. Mine will be no different. Surely another QUOTE will help. How about something funny? How about Kevin Brockmeier’s reminiscences of his own MFA workshops?

“Now Mr. Brockmeier here is going to start us off by saying what he likes best about this story. See if he doesn’t.”


“For me, writing a story is like building a table. You’ve got a certain number of parts, and once they’re all in place, you’re basically finished. You, it’s like you’re drawing a picture with a Spirograph. There’s no reason you couldn’t go on and on like this forever.”

“Of course I walked. I start driving a car, and the next thing you know I’ll be carrying a gun.”

“Anyone can see the problem with stories like ours. They’re not authentic enough. Where’s the heroin, I ask you; where is the heroin?”

Kevin Brockmeier, “Why to Take Notes,” in the LA Review of Books–memories of things people said to him in workshop during his MFA.

I relate strongly to the “drawing a picture with a Spirograph” bit. Round and round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows.

Regardless, I promise you and myself to keep the stiffest of possible upper lips, and to respond to all the madness with the same wide-eyed Hart Crane “spindrift” seal-face stare that I have been using all along. In other words, Winds of Change, I’ll see your ten, and I’ll raise you twenty.

I remain,

“but in spite of all temptations…”