Friday, July 03, 2009

How Studying Creative Writing Changed Everything: Part 2

I don't think my first story in my first fiction-writing class was any good—I believe the assignment was to take a mythological theme and write a story based on that...I chose, no surprise, the story of the Phoenix, and wrote about a mysterious sexy guy on a motorcycle named Caley who was adored by the narrator, a young Southern version of yours truly (who liked to listen to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald). Caley was hit by a car, was seen running his bike off the road numerous times, laying in the road awash with wounds, but then there he'd be the next day, not a scratch on him. It was a sweet story, and awful probably. But I'd done it. I'd written something from beginning to end, in a voice, in character, and even more than that, I started to understand something about my own interiority in relation to language.

I'd found a way to have a conversation with something that wasn't quite here but paradoxically more here than anything else I'd encountered. And I started being an observer—of what and who was around me, what and who was living inside me (there were a lot of people in there), of my past and the narrative patterns it consisted of, and this thing called the imagination.

The act of writing in a more intentional way, studying it as a craft (rather than just writing in my journal), felt like this: When a drawer comes off its runners and you jiggle it around and get mad and swear and, finally, because you're desperate, you slow down, take a few breaths, and feel around, you get a sense. And miraculously the edges of the drawer click into place.

I'm not sure what I am in that metaphor. The drawer? The frustrated person jiggling the drawer around? Either way, when I took that first class—in which reading and writing about books was part of the homework, and writing stories and reading my classmates' stories was the other part—something definitely "clicked into place." And I stopped fighting it. My desire to do it got bigger than my fear, as I've said before.

I took fiction. And memoir. And literature courses. I worked on the first issue of PC's national lit mag (Alligator Juniper, which just weeks ago won the AWP Director's Prize for Undergraduate Literary Magazines for the third time in its 13-year history).

I found mentors in my teachers at the college, and consciously understood for the first time what it meant to be a student. I listened to them and followed their direction without pause, because I was in love with language and story, with the flexibility of paragraphs (which could, I discovered, consist of exactly one sentence if I wanted it to), with Lorrie Moore and Raymund Carver, with short story collections and lit mags. I wanted to make people feel what they made me feel. I wanted to be good. Really really good.

I knew I wasn't done being a student, and to keep being one, I'd have to be graduate-school bound, MFA-bound, more-teachers-more-books-and-new-colleagues bound.

So, ironically (given where my very first short story took place) I headed to the Deep South.

(More tomorrow in Part 3! Promise, that will be the last "part.")

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