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MFA in Writing at Vermont College

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I'm Afraid

My third grade nephew recently told me that his biggest fear was that the world would run out of meat!

I guess that would be a pretty good fear.  But I can think of scarier things than that.  And I’m not talking about being afraid of the dark or of heights or of spiders.  I’m talking real fear here.  I’m talking things that scare the daylights out of me.

Like having to put my head in the mouth of a tiger to brush his teeth.  That would most certainly cause me to pass out in fear.  And before you laugh I am sure this is on the list of job responsibilities for some poor zookeeper out there. 

I am still scared to death of Graveyard Granny, the old woman who would chase any kid who climbed the cemetery fence to retrieve a home run ball at Our Lady of Assumption Grade School.  The sight of that old pale woman wagging a hoe and chasing some unlucky kid around the tombstones still makes me shudder.  I am convinced Graveyard Granny is still patrolling the fence line and would make my blood curdle if I saw her today.

Speaking of curdling, how about the two month old Chinese in the back of my refrigerator?  At this point I won’t to touch anything within two objects of that scary white container. I’ll need a haz mat suit to get that thing to the garbage.  It is truly scary.

Then there was my drive on the eleventh hole at Silver Spring last week.  That slice was pretty wicked.  I didn’t know it was possible to make a ball zig-zag in a Z shape off the tee.  It was scary enough to make grown men on distant holes cry.

But are you ready for my biggest fear of all?  I’m talking boot-trembling, knee knocking, palm sweating scary here.  It is not for the weak of heart.  You may want to take a deep breath before moving to the next paragraph.

My biggest fear is… sending my story off to be critiqued!

Critique groups are like monsters.  They have long scalpel hands that can tear up a story in one swift motion.  They can squeeze every last drip of blood from your manuscript and then spit out the bones like chicken wings.  They attack from every angle with the swiftness of a herd of hyenas.  They take no mercy and leave you abandoned on the side of the road gasping for air.

I would rather polish clean the teeth of a hungry tiger than send my story to be critiqued.  I would rather scarf down two-month old pad thai than read a critique of my story.  I would run up and give Graveyard Granny a big smooch on the lips rather than have my story critiqued. I would gladly become a vegetarian if it meant no more critiques.

Okay, perhaps I am going a little too far here.  I mean, I actually like my critique partners, advisors and classmates.  They all give excellent advice and their critiques are usually spot on.  So why is it so hard for me to hear what they have to say? 

In some strange way I feel having my story critiqued is kind of like sending my loved ones off to the slaughterhouse.  I have put my whole heart and soul into these characters and story lines and I just don’t want to see them all come crumbling down.  Getting critiqued is kind of like cough syrup… I know it will help cure my ails but it still tastes terrible going down. 

The easy solution is obviously to become a better writer.  Hopefully as I grow as a writer the critiques become less intense.  Although I have a feeling this is not so.  But as I continue on my path it is inevitable that I will have to put my hard work out there to be torn down.  I guess it is all part of the learning process. But why does that process have to be so painful?

Here is to sending out my next packet.  I hope I survive!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Highwire Act

On August 24, 1974 Philippe Pettit walked a highwire between the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.   He was 104 stories in the air, a quarter mile above the streets of Manhattan, and balancing on a three-quarter inch cable.  He walked for forty- five minutes and made eight crossings between the buildings.

Can you say crazy!
A quarter mile in the air!
Balancing on a three-quarter inch cable! 
Who in their right mind would pull such a stunt?

Yet, as I sit down at my writing desk, pull out my laptop and begin to type I strangely resemble the man who stepped out on that highwire above New York.  I feel as if I am all alone, miles above the ground, grasping a thin wire for survival.  Who in their right mind would chose this as a profession?

Being a writer is a lonely, scary job that requires total concentration and commitment and requires you to put your thoughts and feelings out for all to see.   Sometimes I feel as if I am balancing by the tiniest curls of my toes, hanging on for dear life, just hoping to make it across safely. 

To keep his balance while dangling above New York City, Pettit used a balance bar to keep him centered.  I try to do the same by using structure, character development, conflict, story arc and scenes to keep me steady.  These are the tools that keep a story balanced and moving forward.   Don’t look down, I tell myself because if I do I run the risk of falling.  But in the end a balance bar can only keep you on the line so long.  It really comes down to concentration and dedication to your craft… and lots, and lots, of practice.

But there is one major difference that separates me from Philippe Pettit.

I ain’t getting up on that wire without a safety net!

I am not that brave to do this solo.  I am way too needy for that.  

For me, my safety net is, and always has been, my wife Candy.  She is the one that holds me up, cheers me on and is there to catch me when I fall.  When I told her I wanted to go back to school she smiled and supported my venture.  When I sit at my desk in the evening straining with concentration she putters in the other room giving me my space.  When I need an ear she is there to listen to my stories.  When I need advice she is there with constructive feedback. And when I need a break she is always up for dinner or a movie. 

I have come to believe that being the net is a tougher job than the highwire walker.  As the safety net you always have to be at the ready, studying the artist above.  Sometimes you are pulled so taut you feel as if you are going to snap but must never let down your guard.  And in the end the spectators below look right past you and cheer on the star of the show as if you are not even there.  No one ever notices the net!

So, I am writing this excerpt for all the nets out there who support their artists.  The nets who do not seek the limelight but are content to be the support behind the show. The nets who give up their own dreams to allow others to pursue theirs.  To the nets who are never given the credit they deserve.

Who am I kidding? I am writing this essay for one net in particular.  Thank you Candy for always being by my side.  For putting up with my grumpiness when I am in full writing mode.  For proofreading essays when it is the last thing on earth you want to be doing.  For laughing at my dumb jokes. For allowing me to pursue my dream.  For being there when I need an encouraging word.

And for being my safety net.

I love you.