Guest Post, Charlotte Holmes: On Not Writing

Just last fall, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with words that came—came for nearly a year, water after a dam breaking, quenching the barren silence I thought would not return. Every time this happens, I think I’m in the clear at last, as if silence is an addiction I’ve finally beaten back.

But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. I’ve seen those diagrams in the chiropractor’s office, waiting for the doctor to pull my body from its hunched posture, evidence of years bent over book, desk, notebook, laptop.

Though the dam is muscle, the place where the words stay is smooth and empty, polished bone. Its emptiness is what I carry inside. How can it be both empty and full of all the words that will not come? It is like the skull without a brain inside, a rib cage without a heart. It’s arid as hell. It never lets me forget that it’s a real place.

And where is this place? In the body, without doubt—and not in a single location. It floats effortlessly from head to heart to hand, bumps against the liver and lights, flutters around the reproductive organs, circulates through the blood. I wonder that it doesn’t kill me, this hard marble passing through the tiniest vessels, pinging off the cells. It stops my throat as I am reading, a constriction that I interpret to mean you will never write again.

GardenWhen I walk in the garden I feel it rolling around inside, growing smoother and harder. I stoop to weed and feel it knock against my heart, knock when I look up and see the neighbor’s scruffy tom pluck a bird right out of the air. I cry out, and the cat startles, drops the bird, leaps into the brush.

I pick the bird out of the grass—a finch—and turn it from side to side. Its black legs like twigs poke from its underbelly. Its head is wet, a red smear that looks like blood but may be feathers. Its heart is pounding. I sit on the step, cupping it in my palm. I think I can do this much, keep it from harm until it dies. It watches me, its eyes black and sharp. After a moment, the lids flutter closed. Its heart slows. The cat comes out of the bushes, flops into the grass, licks his front paws. Five minutes pass, then ten. My husband, who’s been weeding the bed of Casablanca lilies, walks over, looks into my hand, says, “Bird’s a goner, I’m afraid.”

The bird seems both dead and alive. Its stiff legs don’t move, even when I brush them with my finger; immobile are the passerine toes, two forward, one back, an ingenious clamp. Its eyes remain closed. My hand is its bier. But though I wait for it to falter, the rhythm of its heart stays steady as my own pulse. I catch myself wondering how long this is going to take, feeling guilty because this is an amazing moment of communion with nature, etc. and here I am, thinking about what I need to do, what needs to be accomplished before the day is over. I’ve sat beside the dying; I know that ushering someone out of this world is as important and meaningful as ushering someone in. Even a bird deserves that respect.

I scowl at the cat and wonder why my neighbor won’t keep him inside. Sitting idle seems odd. Usually when I’m in the backyard, I’m working—weeding, planting, mowing—or waiting for my two red dogs to finish their business. What’s the point of carving out this green oasis, if one never has time to enjoy it? And will the poor bird’s heart never falter? I look away from the bird, at the honeysuckle arching over the path, fragrant with blossom.

The heart doesn’t falter. One minute I’m sitting on the step with the bird on its back in my hand. The next minute it’s shot into the apple tree over my head, and then airborne, it’s on to the rest of its life.

Guest Post, Charlotte Holmes: Post-partum Depression and the Terminal Degree

Graduation CapI want to use the opportunity of this blog post to discuss something I’ve observed often in my thirty years of teaching creative writing, most of it in an MFA program. Going into graduate school, a person often thinks this will be the real trial: Do I have what it takes to shine? Will I make it through? The real test comes after, when you don’t have weekly workshops to keep you productive, when you don’t have a circle of friends and competitors clamoring to see your next opus, when you discover that the writers on faculty who supported you so diligently now have a new crop of students to support, and that, frankly, (almost) no one gives a rat’s ass whether or not you write another beautifully nuanced poem or story or lyric essay.

The plummet that many MFA graduates experience begins gradually. You’ve got that degree in hand! You finished your thesis! You’ve worked damned hard for two (or three) years. Now you want just to chill for a couple weeks, stretch your head, shake your fingers and ponder what next while you look for a job or begin your next adventure. About three months in, you begin to notice that either you aren’t writing, or what you’re writing would not past muster in the rigorous workshops you so recently attended. After another couple of months of this, the panic and depression set in. You’ve lost your mojo. Who knows if you’ll ever get it back?

The more you worry, the worse the writing/not writing becomes. You remember every hesitation your thesis adviser expressed about your work. You remember the rejections that have piled up—sure, at the same rate they were piling up when you were in graduate school, but wasn’t the degree supposed to change all that? You remember the criticism leveled at your story/poem/essay by someone who—you’ve just now heard—has published a piece in a prestigious venue, or—worse yet!—had their thesis accepted for publication, which everyone knows almost never happens.

I’ve noticed that this state befalls younger MFA graduates especially, the people who go straight from an undergraduate program into graduate school. Often, it’s as undergraduates that the possibility that one is a writer begins to take shape. Maybe you’ve never shown your poems to anyone, and suddenly, you take a creative writing class and everyone is praising your work in a way you never dreamed would happen. Or the work isn’t praised, but you’ve a passion that helps you withstand the blistering criticism. However the experience plays out, you find a way into an MFA program to continue your growth as a writer, and immerse yourself anew. By the time you finish your MFA at 24 or 25, you’ve had a good four to six years of uninterrupted fostering.  And then, suddenly, it’s gone.

People who’ve been out in the world a few years before going back to school to pursue an MFA have already experienced the world’s utter disregard of, and investment in, their writing. Many of them have written in solitude and obscurity for the middle part of their twenties, so when they get to graduate school they’re a little stunned that their work suddenly gets so much attention. Which is not to say that the older MFA graduate is exempt from post-partum depression. Sometimes it’s worse. They know how this isolation feels, they’ve been there before, and now—despite the hard work, the degree—they’re back again. Maybe they’re working the same jobs they were working before they went to grad school. Talk about depressing! What’s a writer to do?

The first thing is to prepare yourself. The terminal degree plummet is very like post-partum depression. If you know such a thing exists, when you wake up at 3 a.m. with a screaming, inconsolable baby on your hands and have thoughts of throwing him out the window, you can take a step back, recognize what you’re feeling, and deal with the situation like a reasonable human being. You are not the only one who feels this way. People have felt this way before and survived. This, too shall pass. Good mantras to cultivate.

Part of that preparation is to cultivate, over the time you’re in your degree program, a close circle of people whose work you admire and whose opinions you respect. These people will not include your teachers. Though you might have looked primarily to your teachers for guidance, they have now (it’s been three months, remember? The new semester’s already started!) turned to their next batch of students. Now, you have your peer group. And though one of you may be in Frankfurt and the other in L.A., the miracle of technology allows you to form an online community that will get you through the darkest of these days.

This peer group will also be a lifeline as you struggle to meet like-minded people in the place you find yourself after graduation. I’ve known former students who, after moving to the city where they’ve always dreamed of living, discover that meeting other writers to hang out with and show their work to is not always an instant process. Writers tend to be solitary folk. Sometimes, it takes a while before you meet the person who introduces you to her cohort of friends that includes a couple people who become your life-raft, because they get you and your work in a way that nobody ever has.

In my first year of graduate school, my teacher Charles Wright told our workshop, “Many are called. Few are chosen.” Does anyone ever believe he or she will not be among the chosen? But over time, most people—surprising people, including some of the most talented, the ones who seem the most driven, the luckiest ones—will go on to pursue different kinds of lives. As Katherine Anne Porter said, “Writing is, above all, a vocation. No one’s a writer ‘on the side.’” But for those of you who stay together in your close, narrowing circle of supporters, reading and commenting on each other’s work that may not see publication for years or at all, reading and commenting on work that will win prizes and awards and fellowships, you will ideally come to understand that what matters is the work itself—and that you’re doing it, and doing it to the best of your ability, and can’t conceive of a life without it.