Frustration and Comfort, within the pages of Poets & Writers

I remember exactly the moment I read Tom Bissell’s essay “War Wounds” in “Harper’s.” I was embroiled in my last year of my M.F.A. program at Pitt, desperately trying to balance my teaching load, my courses, the completion of my manuscript and a long-distance marriage (S. left before my third year of school to begin his first year of law school – he was offered a full scholarship that could not be deferred and both of us recognized this as a gift – a chance for him to study law without graduating under mountains of debt). My manuscript is mostly about growing up in Northern Michigan with my dad, although I tried to disguise all the memoir with feminist critiques of Hemingway short stories.  I grabbed the mail as I was on my way out the door to school, and my Harper’s subscription was wrapped around a variety of bills and solicitations.  When I saw Bissell’s essay about growing up as the son of a Vietnam Vet, I turned to it immediately, reading the first half on the bus ride to school and the second half holed up in my cube, alternating between despair and a strange comfort, the kind of comfort that comes from recognizing experience through language.  Here was a man was publishing what I’d so desperately been trying to put into words for three years – the experience of growing up with Vietnam as a living, breathing entity in the household which was never actually spoken of.  My emotions warred with each other. I was thrilled Bissell so eloquently captured his experience but, and I need to be honest here, I was also totally pissed off.  Vietnam was supposed to be my territory, the subject matter that pushed my own writing into the world of Harper’s and The New Yorker.  What write did this DUDE have to publish about it before I did? My pissed-off side won, and I walked into my writing workshop, slammed the issue onto the seminar table and stormed about it.  Other students in my workshop, intimately familiar with my struggles after three years, tried to be encouraging. It was a good thing he wrote the essay! It proves there’s a market! A market that is in NO WAY flooded yet.   Keep in mind, we were creative nonfiction students, and while the fiction and poetry students could be as literary and bizarre as they liked in their writing, we were expected to publish at least some form of our manuscripts before graduating, and the pressure made us all brittle, almost too sensitive to survive the program.  But I knew what was happening…while I was whiling away the years studying HOW to write, this man, only three years older than I, was writing.

(For now, I’m going to ignore the pink elephant of an issue that is co-opting our fathers’ experiences for our own.  It’s a messy subject that deserves its own post, but that’s for another day)

Well, obviously. I got over it. I finished my manuscript. I graduated. I have since actually earned my living writing; maybe not freelancing, but I am paid to write and I’m not about to ever dismiss my fortune.

This Sunday I workshopped for the final time my first piece of writing about my dad and Vietnam and I left feeling  encouraged, ready to flood magazines and journals with my entry.  Some of my fiction is dealing with similar themes, but as a writer my heart rests with creative nonfiction and to finally capture a brief moment with my father on paper that feels true and honest and fearless felt remarkable freeing.

And then I came home and settled down with my latest issue of Poets & Writers and low and behold there is a spread on Tom Bissell’s MEMOIR about this very subject and I find out HE IS FROM NORTHERN MICHIGAN.  You can understand, I hope, how this blew my confidence into a million little pieces.  In fact, Tom Bissell and I have lead practically parallel lives – he went to Michigan State, I went to Michigan State.  And now here is where my self-indulgence gets really pathetic, but I must write about this – he sent fan letters to writers and I sent fan letters to writers.  He was accepted into the Peace Corps, and so was I (the big difference there being he went and then dropped out, and I was assigned to Afghanistan which sent my dad right through the roof with hollering and protestation. Thank God, really.) He was rejected from Iowa, and so I was I.  I mean, honestly, I could go on and on.  Our differences really come from our approach to our crafts – Bissell is all renegade boy writer, going off the map to get his stories, totally balls out – bad grades, an inability to find his place in this world, etc.  I have always been a student, eager to please, ponytail swinging, big smile, eager to raise my hand and discuss a little Samuel Taylor Coleridge in class.

All of this left me feeling, Sunday night, a little pathetic. For the article, Bob Shacochis describes Bissell this way: “He had a mullet and a ponytail, black engineer boots and heavy-metal T-shirts.  His jaw was always packed with chewing tobacco, and he was always spitting into a cup.  He was a northern Michigan boy who had wandered into the wrong camp.”   Narcissist that I am, I keep wondering how would someone describe me. What would Professor Hill say, should he ever be interviewed? “She had all the blond hair. She had a really good grasp of Shakespeare, given how obsessed she was with Lamda Chi brothers.” All this comes back to my concern with my own authenticity, which is just so freakin’ self centered.  I mean, there are people dying in Darfur, for God’s sake.

Well, thank god for Walter Mosley.  His was the next excerpt I turned to.  His book “The Year You Write Your Novel” comes out early next month, and I fully intend to forgo my ban on all things writing-advice related and buy it immediately.  Because, after all, I AM writing a novel, as well as my nonfiction, but his advice holds true no matter what you write, I think.  Of course, he recommends writing every day – I’ve got that down, now.  But his words in this magazine are just exactly what I needed to hear:

“To begin with, your mother is not reading what you have written.  These words are your private preserve until the day they’re published.  Also you should wait until the book is finished before making a judgment on its content.  By the time you have rewritten the text twenty times the characters have developed lives of their own, completely separate from the people you have based them on in the beginning. And even if someone, at some time, gets upset with your words – so what?  Live your life.  Sing your song.  Anyone who loves you will want you to have that…don’t let the world slow you down.”

In workshop on Sunday one of the members was lamenting over the point of view in her novel.  She is a brilliant writer, the kind of person who makes you feel like a fraud for even being in workshop with her, but she’s experiencing those every day frustrations that overtake so many of us.  Almost like a mantra, she reminded herself and us we do this for the joy of it, not for dollars or recognition or appreciation, but for the sheer writerly joy of it.   It’s exactly what I need to remember.  I don’t get up at 5:00 every morning for my health or to be deemed an Oprah author someday.  I get up and write because I must, because without my own way of making sense of the world I would be bereft, depressed, a shell of who I am when I wake up and first immerse myself in other worlds and other characters. I do it – for the moments of transcendence.  It’s so easy to forget, but so fucking vital to remember.

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10 Responses to Frustration and Comfort, within the pages of Poets & Writers

  1. Charlotte says:

    What an amazing and inspiring post, Courtney. I’m so glad your story’s written and you love it. Good luck as you send it out into the world. Also, thank you for posting Walter Mosley’s words – “you should wait until your book is finished before making a judgment on its content” really has resonance for me.

  2. Dorothy W. says:

    Yes, great post. I’m positive that you have things to say about Vietnam that Bissell doesn’t, no matter how similar you seem!

  3. Rita Stevens says:

    Courtney when you have your book ready to sell let me know where and how to get it! Love Rita

  4. LK says:

    Okay, on the positive side: You don’t have a mullet. That is a huge, huge plus.

    It’s really tempting to compare ourselves to other writers. Especially those who are being published. Regularly. But, if we’re going to do that, we might as well start with Norman Mailer and Carson McCullers and give up if we haven’t been published by our 25th birthday. (As you can see, that’s a plan I have since abandoned. But I still recommend it occasionally to young upstarts.)

    I keep trying to tell myself that all of this angst and hell is part of the writing experience…and the more I read about other writers’ misery, which I love to do, the more comfort I get.

    Thanks for the tip on Mosely, by the way. Cool.

    Oh, and one last thought: I think Stephen Crane was repeatedly told that nobody would ever want to buy a book on the Civil War. 🙂

  5. BikeProf says:

    I had exactly the same reaction to Bissell when I saw the review of his memoir in the Times. I was furious because my dad and I had planned a trip to Vietnam in 1989–he was supposed to take the photos and I was supposed to write the story. It didn’t happen because we were ignorant hicks who did not know how to get funding for such an enterprise–if only I had known how to write a grant proposal, right? I ordered the book, but I have not been able to read it yet. I don’t think I can handle it right now.

    Shall we talk anthology again?

  6. Charlotte – thanks for the kind words! I think Walter Mosley is amazing, and I’m excited for his book.
    Dorothy – oh, I know I have a lot to say, it can just be so frustrating sometimes!
    Rita – of course!
    LK – You are always so, so encouraging! And you are right – not having a mullet is a huge step forward!
    Bikeprof – yes, don’t read Bissell’s memoir quite yet. You’ll know when the time is right. And I do think we need to talk anthology again. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is you have to make things happen…they just don’t appear on your doorstep, giftwrapped! I will email you.

  7. laura says:

    He’s stalking you Courtney!!! You know, that would make a good fiction story 🙂

    But really, I haven’t read his work, but I know your essay is GOOD! Let the world have it 🙂

  8. Emily says:

    I think the number one thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing is “comparisons are odious.” I’d never be able to sit down in front of a blank screen or piece of paper again if I didn’t work hard to slam the door on my need to compare myself to others. And you’ve captured so beautifully exactly the reason I get up in the morning and write (it really isn’t a choice).
    And if you and Bikeprof want to work on an anthology of original pieces written by children of Vietnam vets, I just might know of a publisher who could be interested.

  9. Laura – you’re right, maybe he is STALKING me. Too funny – and thanks for your words about my essay – I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful writing group with members who are tough when they need to be and compassionate, too.
    Emily – yes, “comparisons are odious” – I need to remember that. It’s just so hard NOT to do sometimes, you know?

  10. litlove says:

    Dearest Courtney – your story and your voice are unique. There are about three million significant differences between you and this other bloke that I could list off the top of my head. Just tell it your way and you can’t go wrong. My favourite writing quote? ‘It is better to write for your self and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.’ You have oodles of self – just pour it out on the page, and then see what a huge, adoring audience you will get.

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