Man, I have to say I was really startled by Andromeda’s announcement that she is about to enter the Low Residency MFA program at Antioch. Andromeda Romano Lax is everything that most of the writing students I’ve taught say they are striving to become: a skilled, published and respected writer; a serious writer who got a serious advance for her first novel —with neither vampires, zombies, nor three inch Manola Blautniks anywhere in it! That is not easy to do. What could she possibly want to go back to college for now?
And as soon as I formed those words, I got to thinking about this: Who wouldn’t want to go to grad school for writing? Whether you need it or not? Man, If I had been smarter I would have stayed a student for the rest of my life. So, I’d like to thank Andromeda for generating some fond memories of my own decision to go back to college relatively late in life. The big difference being that I had none of Andromeda’s skills, accomplishments or credentials when I did it. None.
In the fall of 1986 I walked into the English Department of UAA, then located the College of Arts and Sciences Building. I was 38 years old and this was the first time I had set foot on a college campus since I had flunked out of my freshman year at University of Buffalo –in 1967. I had spent those intervening twenty years painting houses and factories in Upstate NY, and wallpapering hotels and casinos in Las Vegas; I had married and divorced and remarried, and moved to Alaska. What I had not done in all those years was write anything, or read very much. For a long time there, the only “literature” I saw was what the Jehova’s Witnesses left with my first wife while I was out sandblasting chemical tanks.
I told Professor Ronald Spatz that I wanted to learn to write. He did what any good teacher would do: he put me in a workshop. Fortunately for me, although I was re-entering college with only a few credits from my disastrous first attempt, UAA had no lower level writing classes to offer that fall. So he put me in the 600 level, upper division Graduate Fiction Writing Workshop. Monday nights, 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm, I think. I had not been in a classroom in almost two decades; I had not read any of the Great Books (or even very many of the Not So Great Books). I knew less than nothing. I had no idea what I was doing, or even what I was getting myself into. The graduate level workshop? This is where grown women run out of the room in tears, and grown men vomit into the toilet in the lavatory during the workshop break. I’ve seen a student’s head spin all the way around like Beetlejuice, and it wasn’t even his story being critiqued. Well, almost all the way around.
Stupidly I volunteered to hand in my story for the very first discussion. I don’t actually remember that night at all. Thank god. Let’s say my first story displayed my total ignorance (and I use that in its basic definition: lacking knowledge) with “vividness and great clarity” as I’ve since learned to say. Just to put it into perspective: when I came up the stairs to the second floor apartment that my wife and I were living in then, she took one look at my face and said, “Oh my god. You’ve crashed the truck!” It was all I could do to talk her out taking me to the emergency room. It was an emergency all right: I needed to learn a few things, and preferably before the next Monday night. I should have had her rush me to the library.
Luckily, I grew up in a neighborhood where advice was generally delivered with a fist or the toe of a boot. So, for the next eight years I continued to work on construction during the day and attended that writing workshop, or the nonfiction workshop, or a poetry writing workshop at night, as I completed first a BA and then an MFA degree. There may have been one or two semesters in there when I was busy taking lit classes and so forth. But mostly, I lived in those workshops, a world to me as strange and wondrous as anything out of Jules Verne. I had to learn the language from scratch (we don’t talk about metaphor or metonymy a lot on the job site). I remember the night when Professor Spatz referred to something in a student’s story as “a good example of showing instead of telling.” I bolted upright and scrawled those fabulous words in my notebook: Show, Don’t Tell! I think I muttered them out loud as I wrote them down. The students on each side of me looked at me like I had lost my mind. But it was such an important thing, and I had never heard anyone say that before. I was almost forty years old. I’m not making this up.
OK, that’s my story. Maybe I understand Andromeda now. True: obviously she does not need to learn to write –not the way I needed to. But today I read an interesting thing in the AARP newsletter. (Quit snickering and do the math: I was 40 in 1988). All of us sub-geezers are worried about losing our minds in reality. That’s why news about brain science is popular with us –at least the reassuring news. This article said that we have to get beyond crossword puzzles to exercise our gray matter. It suggests doing something new and different to present our brains with “disorienting dilemmas”. Maybe for Andromeda, shifting her focus from writing to teaching writing is a good change. Who cares? Grad school! Yippee!
Myself, I just e-mailed the tech support people at UAA. I’m going to learn how to work on the university Blackboard system. Talk about “disorienting dilemmas”. Once again, I’m going in about as ignorant as possible. I’d better warn my wife.
Rich Chiappone will be returning with more guest-posts as Featured Author for July.