Vol. 44, "Aboutness"
I have begun my MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. It is one of a handful of low-residency programs, which allow writers (and other students, I assume) to obtain degrees while maintaining their current lifestyle. In other words, you don't have to "go away" to school. There's no dorm life and no relocating and no extended bouts of homesickness. The program centers around "residencies"—in this case two weeks twice a year, and "project periods"—in this case four five-month periods in two years. At the end of June, I attended my first residency.
I put off attending this program for a year. Surely I can't do it now, I thought when I was first accepted, my daughter is only 6 months old, and I have no idea how I'm going to maintain this motherhood thing and find some income. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to the residency and saw a little 10-month-old baby hanging out in the courtyard with her grandfather. This was her second residency! Her mom was both earning her MFA and breastfeeding so the baby went to school when her mom went to school. Over the course of the two weeks I heard various stories of babies born during the program, or of women, like me, with young children at home. And many, with more than one child, and a handful with infants younger than my daughter.
The second reason I delayed the program is because I wanted someone else to pay for it. My second deferment came just after I returned to work and I wasn't eager to shake up my life while I was settling into a new routine. Besides, I found a sexy new program that was closer to home, also low-residency, and they had money to burn. I put off starting the Antioch program again, and applied to Bard (a program that seems really interesting for artists in all disciplines—the Milton Avery College of the Arts, or something like that). Bard didn't even send me a response to my application. So, by the time Antioch contacted me a third time to let me know the next residency was coming up and to ask if I would be joining them, I finally said "yes."
So far, it seems that Antioch is the perfect program for me. I am an independent thinker who likes to create my own path and Antioch prides itself on developing writers who write like they want to write, not like Antioch (or Antioch's teachers) wants them to write. Rather than providing a heavily demarcated blueprint for achieving an MFA, the Antioch program offers a smorgasbord of options, and says—here, choose. You pick your path and do what best applies to you. We picked the seminars we wanted to attend, we picked our mentors, and we picked the projects we wanted to work on during the project periods. I feel as if I've happened upon a great resource that's going to encourage me to move forward as a writer in exactly the ways I desire to move forward.
There were a few seminars that spoke precisely to issues or conflicts I was having in my work. One of these seminars was ABOUT: An Examination of Topics, Structural Strategies and Expansion of Poetic Range led by poet (and creator of the Antioch MFA program) Eloise Klein Healy. The homework for Eloise's lecture was to review your work in the past few years and note the themes and topics. In doing so, I discovered I had a repeated theme of unhappy—and often oppressed—female characters whose stories ended with death—either the character commits suicide, or is consumed, or kills to save herself.
Well, I had to ask myself, what is that all ABOUT? I have been aware that I like to work with certain themes, but I would have never believed that my work would fit so neatly into one description. As I looked at the stories, I realized my work is often about how I perceive women's position in society and how that position chafes against my sense of personal power and justice. Each story is a unique and fresh (hopefully) take on the same theme. And until I stop wrestling with this question, Healy's lecture argued, this is what I will write about.
Why is it so important to understand the "aboutness" of your work, you ask? Well, sometimes, when we hit a brick wall with a piece, it's not for technical reasons or lack of imagination, but because whatever topic we are confronting has not yet been resolved within ourselves. It reminds me of a favorite quote of mind (I don't know who said it): "When the matter is ready, the form will come." Conversely, Healy argues, when the matter is not ready, the work will stall.
I have a particular story that I happen to love, that no one seems to particularly like. I've tried a few times to get it published, but no one expressed any interest. I finally got it accepted to a journal by pair of editors, but only if I agreed to rewrite it. Then, after the rewrite was accepted, the guest editors' editors rejected it! This story just couldn't get a break. But as I sat in the ABOUT seminar and thought about what my work is about, I realized that story was nothing more than a self-pitying rant. I never intended for it to be anything more than a complaint, so of course no one was interested in that!
Furthermore, I've come to realize, that self pity was a moment's emotion, not a reliable expression of myself. The story doesn't represent me. It's a false truth, a gripe. I've since evolved and found my way away from that attitude and until my character does the same, she won't speak to others, and she certainly can't speak for me.
The deadlock I've faced with this story mirrors the deadlock I've faced with my work. I've been so bored with writing, basically uninspired and overwhelmed. Well, when I think of the flaws of the story no one wanted to publish, I have a clearer idea of what I need to do to let the story be as powerful as possible. I also have a clearer idea of why I'm not longer inspired by my work. I'm continuing to write about themes that no longer reflect where I am in my life.
I remember this moment in the seminar, Eloise had all these boxes on the board representing her &ldquot;abouts.&rdquot; The boxes ran the gamut from woman, feminist, and lesbian, to urban dweller, teacher and car enthusiast. The first box read &ldquot;poet.&rdquot; One of the class participants—a white male—raised his hand and said &ldquot;aren't you just trying to get back to that first box, and just be a &lsquot;poet&rsquot;?&rdquot; &ldquot;Sure,&rdquot; Eloise said, &ldquot;but I don't know what that is.&rdquot; Then she told a story about growing up in the Midwest where everyone was a certain kind of white. She was a member of a very particular community, but she never thought of herself as a member of any community, she just thought of herself as just being there. Then she moved to L.A. and met all sorts of people and realized she had been a member of a community all along and she had been living, breathing, speaking and acting out of her understandings as a member of that community. "You have some abouts," she said, challenging the white male writer. "You are writing from some community whether visible or invisible." And that is what ABOUT is about, shining some light on those unspoken assumptions, and realizing they are as much a part of your craft as your command of words or your play with form.
Somehow, it's so much easier to see what others are struggling with in their work, rather than be aware of what you're struggling with. Taking the time to write out the themes and reflect on them might give you a deeper level of interpretation regarding your work. (Or it might irritate you to death, as many artists believe we should just create and not reflect on our creations). Our work is indeed a narrative of where we are as human beings—it can be powerful to take a second to view the work from that perspective, even if you happen to be a white male, even if you happen to think only other people have "abouts."
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
: : : September 2002 - present : : :
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
By some miracle of god/ess I managed to turn in a rewrite of the "stilted" story to the guest editors of the academic publication. We'll see if their editors have a warmer attitude about it now that I've developed the plot and the language a little more.
As it turns out, the editors of the academic publication calling for articles on race and body politics do want my essay. Well, now I have to write it. We'll see if I can pull that off and keep up with my requirements for school.
The acceptance/rejection meter stays the same.
Kiini's Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 - August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4