Thursday, June 03, 2021

film notes | the mfa on screen

 I always get a little itchy when I see characters in film or television that are poets.  Mostly becuaue I am always looking for some thread of familiarity in their lives that ties them to my experience.  Mostly, they feel like some other, strange creature formed in the mind of screenwriters.  You could probably say this of writers in general, but I feel it with poets especially. YOU was a recent example of a character whose publishing trajectory looked nothing like anyone I've known.  Or think of the ridiculousness of the husband in Mother! with his flank of visiting fans. Even fiction writers often seem a bit ridiculous--their lives filled with easy book deals and tours that most mid-list writers I've known never see.  A glorified romantic version of the truth. Or maybe the way things did work, but only in the past. 

I had seen a few people on facebook mention I Used to Go Here, which takes place at a fictional public Illinois university set in a very real university town. The premise is that the main character, a novelist, whose book tour has just been canceled and whose brand new novel is already fading into obscurity, is invited back to her university for a reading and gets caught in a weird time warp between her current life and the past.  Between her own struggles and the shiny writers at the beginning of their careers. 

What struck me about the movie, which was enjoyable enough, was a scene with the writer and a student in a cafe, where she begins to suggest edits and is cut off by the young writer's reluctance to change her work in the interest of making it "publishable." Set aside that most fiction writers have no idea about the experience of poets, and vice-versa, and the fact that it was weird they were having the conversation in the first place. There was something familiar and aggravating about the scene.  Especially given the main character's queasy disatisfaction with her publishing experience--no control on the edits, the cover, a general dislike of the book she just put into the world. The younger writer, who seems unliked by her fellow students for whatever reason,  is self-possessed enough to hold her ground in a way I'm not sure I would have been, even at 30.  She mentions that she likes her title and has no desire to change things for publishability. Is, in fact, planning on starting a press to publish work she wants to. You watch as the main character is both flabbergasted and deeply uncomfortable by the conversation, even mocking when she learns of the press and dismissive of the work she is shown.

It's familiar because it happens to many of us.  Maybe all of us. When I was in my MFA program, I'd already started an online journal and was on the verge of starting the press, and yet people I met seemed one of two things--shocked or surprised, and largely put-off.  Instead of support, it was like a dirty little secret.   I once had a conversation with a male student I didn't know all that well, and in the hallway outside class, he told me he "didn't believe the things people said about" me and I was really confused.  I always felt like an outsider anyway--being slightly older, working for the college, being further along in publishing my work, and also, writing at a different stage in my development. I had a full-time job, creative distractions and limited time, so I wasn't as much part of the socializing so many people talk about in programs. In the first few weeks of the very first workshop people seemed to at first, love my work, then slowly begin to hate it. The comments went from nice, to really mean, and I don't think the work changed all that much. Later, I went out for a beer with two classmates and they said people didn't like me because I didn't seem to give a fuck about all of it, and maybe I didn't.  It got better, I was part-time, so actually took classes over a four year span, and better and more self-directed poets joined on later and did thngs like start journals and presses and do the work of poeting.  The first year left a taste in my mouth, though, that never fully went away. 

Sometimes, I page back through this blog from those years, where I was very honest about my experience and my struggles.  I would fault myself not as not caring, but maybe caring too much about the wrong things. Or the things that weren't for me.Unlike the younger writer in the film, I wouldn't have been brave enough to question things like that publicly--that push to fit things into neat publishable boxes and to do things the way they'd been done only because someone said that was where they were done.  I might do so secretly under cover of the internet, but not in person. I saw so much bad advice in those years. For me and my classmates. I'm always shocked at the stats on MFA-ers who never write another word, but I get it. I totally do. 

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