Today’s Intern Update features Bri Perks, the Social Networker in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.
After graduating from ASU, Bri went on to work as a Consultant and Course Assistant at ASU where she helped design courses pertaining to Brain Research and Sensation/Perception.
Currently, Bri works as an Instructional Designer at Springfield College where she designs interactive content for college courses—creating templates, building online courses, and writing instructional guides.
We are so proud of you, Bri!
If you’d like to learn more, you can check out Bri’s LinkedIn here.
When I was just out of college, a man I barely knew left me some inheritance money. He had been a friend of my father’s when they were both very young. This man didn’t have any family, had never partnered up or had any kids of his own, so when he died, his estate was to be divided up among the children of his old friends. I’d met him maybe two or three times in my whole life, when he’d come to visit my family in Boston from his home in rural Maine. These were awkward meetings. He seemed much older than my father, spoke with a thick Maine accent and wasn’t used to being around children. His first name was Wesley, which seemed to fit. He’d ask me the standard questions about school or sports, which I would grudgingly answer, while my parents looked on, raising their eyebrows at me, willing me to be more polite. I did my best, but I couldn’t wait to be excused and dodge the guy.
Later, of course, getting a windfall from this odd, shadowy figure would be a big surprise. It was not exactly an amount I could retire on. Not trust fund money or anything. I think it was a little over $4000. But since my family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and it was over thirty years ago (when this sum went a lot further) I considered it a fortune. I got a lot of advice about what I should do with it, which mostly centered on putting it in the bank or using it to pay off some school loans. But there was never any question. I was going to travel. I was afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust back then. I’d been lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester and travel a little in Europe. Now I wanted to see everywhere else.
I bought a round-the-world ticket from a now defunct airline and first flew to Tokyo. I had no set plans really, from one day to the next, though I’d had to secure some visas before I left home and get some shots in my ass and had started taking malaria pills too. Aside from the plane ticket, this was going to be shoestring travel. I was always keenly aware of how much money I had left. If I didn’t spend cash on lodging or food, I’d be able to travel longer, further. A youth hostel or a room in a YMCA was a real luxury on that trip. I spent a lot of nights sleeping in train stations or airports or simply curled up outside. I was gone the better part of a year, made it to over 30 countries and lost 40 pounds. Somehow I still came home with a few bucks in my pocket.
I did a lot of stupid things on that trip. I was too trusting by half and got ripped off a few times. As an over-privileged American, I probably deserved it. I got lost, missed travel connections and made a mess of basic phrases in a variety of languages. Still, by the time I reached Bombay I was feeling invincible. (This was before the city’s name was changed to Mumbai.) I drank water out of a trough on a filthy street and then was miserably ill for several weeks. Given the real suffering in India, I didn’t have a right to complain too much. I learned some things when I was traveling. One time a local man in Kowloon quite accurately called me an idiot when I gushed about how much I loved Hong Kong, how I’d love to live there. He asked me what I could possibly know about what it meant to live anywhere, other than where I was actually from. “You rich tourists are all alike,” he snapped. “You see what you want to see.” I hardly felt like a rich tourist. I hadn’t eaten for a day and I was staying in an overcrowded flophouse, but he was right, of course. No matter what my personal circumstances, I had a rich person’s opportunity. I was, after all, travelingaround the world. I didn’t fully understand what this man meant until much later, but it humbled me enough to know when I should keep quiet. One of the reasons I liked traveling alone was because no one was there to see me screw up in these ways or fight with me about directions or tell me which museums to see. I liked the idea of controlling my own narrative and there was something very freeing about doing that half-way around the world, continents away from anyone who knew me by name. The memory of that freedom has stayed with me.
Another real gift of that trip is that it was the beginning of my writing life. Alone in the evening, wherever I was settled for the night, I’d pull out my notebook from my backpack and write about what I’d seen that day, quick snapshots of my life on the road. I was quite faithful to this little journal. I also had another notebook where I started writing stories and some poems, which I guarded feverishly for fear this book would wind up in the wrong hands — meaning anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language. The work was terrible (this is not modesty) but at least I was doing it. I liked the idea of putting words down at the end of the day, of creating characters and plots, imagining dialogue.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was never lonely on that trip. Not once. I was creating other lives and situations to keep me company. The writing itself might have been triggered by my travels through China, Thailand, Egypt, and all those other astonishing places, but the nightly ritual of jumping into the work didn’t go away when I came home. It remained part of my life when I moved to New York City and then on trips to other countries in my twenties and early thirties. (Wanderlust percolated in my system for a long time.)
Later, as a busy suburban dad, when I wasn’t going anywhere more exotic than the Jersey Shore, my writing habits stayed with me too. I never felt right if I didn’t spend a little time on my work before I turned in for the night, even if that meant only editing a paragraph. Mine is often a slow process, but it’s a deliberate and fairly constant one. Today this all feels more like reflex than habit, as if my writing routine is hardwired into me, a kind of muscle memory. Wesley couldn’t have known what I’d do with his inheritance and I couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on me to this day. I will always be very grateful to him. And I do still think of Wesley, in fleeting moments and sometimes longer.
“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” – Gabriel García Márquez
In about two months, I will have been graduated from college for a full year. Really, a year is not a terribly long amount of time. So why does this feel so monumental?
For me, graduation was but a momentary emotional catharsis that lasted long enough for me to feel somewhat relieved until my panic set in. Of course, I worried about the things most graduates do, like finances and the job market and whether or not it was a good idea to get two Liberal Arts degrees in this economy. However, the majority of my distress came from not knowing what my next step was or, really, who I was outside of being a student.
For seventeen years, my identity was wrapped up in being a student. Throughout junior high and high school, I was an honors/AP kid—I spent every waking hour at school or at home doing school work. When I graduated high school, I dove headfirst in college because I knew it was what I was supposed to do, and I believe it’s what I wanted to do too. Throughout undergrad, I felt like the natural next step for me was graduate school. Yet, as I was reviewing universities and degree programs, I came to the realization that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do outside of going to school.
I weighed my options. I could see myself doing a variety of things, and yet, I felt no pull towards any particular direction. This isn’t to say that I was lacking in passion or motivation, but that, when it came down to it, I was so unsure of what was the right path to take. Pursuing one direction would mean sacrificing another, and I wasn’t ready to do that, even after four whole years of undergrad. So, feeling like a failure, I decided to put off graduate school indefinitely and set a goal to “find myself” first. Sounds simple, right?
The unfortunate truth is that finding yourself is nowhere near easy. Identity itself is complicated. We all have a general sense of who we are, but how much do we really know about ourselves outside of a certain context? Where does identity begin and end? Can you really just leave one identity and enter another?
The answer to the latter question, I think, is no. But maybe the problem here is that we are expected to do just that. Maybe the reason that me and many, many others feel so lost after graduation is that we’re expected to walk off the stage and into our new selves. There’s so much pressure on millennials to be self-assured and immediately successful as soon as they grab that faux diploma. Yet, that pressure won’t facilitate any meaningful growth.
This pressure can make us lose sight of who we are and what we truly want. School is all consuming, and once it’s over, it really does feel as if we are left with no real identity and maybe, if you are like me, no plan for the future. However, a year into this madness, I feel as if that’s more of a blessing than a curse.
Discovering who you are and what you want isn’t a glowy, carefree experience—it’s grueling. There’s so much you have to learn through trial and error, through making decisions that turn out to be mistakes and by making mistakes that turn out to be great decisions. It’s not a particularly fast process, either, but it is rewarding. Since graduation, I’ve moved into my own apartment, started a new job as an automotive copywriter, adopted a second dog and discovered a multitude of interests and disinterests. All of these things, as mundane as they can sometimes be, have contributed to me developing a better sense of self.
So whether you are newly graduated, or it’s just over the horizon, and you are feeling lost and frustrated, know that you aren’t alone. It’s perfectly normal to feel off kilter for a while. However, you now have so much time—so, so, so much time—to figure it all out.
A passage in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales has been rattling around in my brain this past month. The house next door (“at the bottom of the garden”) catches fire, and the bored children joyously race into the smoke armed with snowballs until the fire brigade shows up to put the fire out.
“And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall fireman in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, ‘Would you like anything to read?’”
Miss Prothero, blinking through the noise and mess, offered to make order of the crazy world. And it’s funny because human beings are absurd. But aren’t readers and writers order-makers of this ridiculous, unfathomable world?
November 9th dawned bitter cold here in Central Vermont’s stick season: a world of bare black-limbed trees, smoke gray skies, stubble fields. I walked downtown to have breakfast with a friend through streets the quiet of deep mourning. The restaurant was closed; my friend told me later the owner couldn’t open because her kitchen staff is all from other countries, and they were too panicked to work. She’d spent the day with them, listening, promising advocacy, reassuring.
I spent the rest of the day wrapping my trees and bushes for winter. Pounding garden staples into already hardened ground, a leaden sky reminded me that bad things happen all of the time. People get shot, people have been hung, people are herded into camps or prison under bright skies, under gray, on sweet spring days, and in blinding winter storms. Bad things happen and then the sun rips a hole in the clouds, as it did that afternoon. A fat blue hole rimmed with brilliant cloud. My fingers were frozen by that time, I’d used up all the staples and burlap, and had nothing left I could do to protect my tender garden. So, I leaned on a dirty shovel and watched the sky for awhile. I didn’t forget the election results, but for a moment, I forget my anger and my dread. Bad things happen and then something good happens and gives the courage to go on.
In college, I took logic, hoping, wrongly as it turned out, that it would meet the math requirement. Professor MacEwan made it abundantly clear we were lucky to be in his class and, if we got something out of it, that was on us. A dried up Scot who favored tweed sports jackets and starched shirts through all weather, he spent several weeks forcibly dragging us through syllogisms: “If P, then Q. . . and therefore . . .” He wrote each equation on the blackboard in squeaky chalk while we mostly lolled in our seats, drinking coffee or sleeping, this being well before the age of devices.
But, one day, he lit up like a prizefighter, and all but shouted at us, “I want someone to prove to me there is water in the gorge.” What gorge? What was he talking about? But suddenly, several of the lumpy guys who’d been slouching in their seats like corpses all semester, removed a couple of layers of sweatshirts and actually spoke, “There’s no water in the gorge!” cried one of the lumps, lifting a fist heavenward. Another lump shouted back, “I say there is!” And, with that, the fight was on. As the only woman in the class, I picked my battles in that male dominated world. This, I decided, was not my fight. I sat back, sipped my bad coffee, and watched the melee unfold.
The guys took sides and took them seriously. T-shirts cropped up all over campus emblazoned with either “There is no water in the gorge,” or “There is water in the gorge.” In class, Professor MacEwan, smiling his thin smile, whipped the arguments on each side into lathers of frenzied belief that teetered on rickety architectures of proof. Winter ebbed into spring and still there was no conclusion. When May came, we got our grades, and the arguments dissipated into the Sacramento heat, unresolved, irresolvable.
This fall, during and after the election, I thought back to that class, wondering about the problem of debating something largely imaginary. Of course, most of what we believe is based more on emotional logic than anything else. And that, perhaps, was Professor MacEwan’s point. At our core, the philosopher Iris Murdock wrote, “human beings are anxious, squirrelly creatures.” We’re a bundle of need with an ability to make swords out of what we pay attention to. The confluence of attention and desire creates the aperture for belief. And then we go about hurting each other with those swords made of words.
So what about the job of writers? Advocacy, a call I do embrace, is more than merely taking sides. Our charge, I think, is to speak about the world and our experience of it, at a deeper level of truth-telling. As our country, so torn right now by warring beliefs, struggles to make sense of, or find hope in, the results of this most contentious political year, where is our common humanity?
As a young person, I dreamed of that common language Adrienne Rich spoke of as something that might heal the world. I dreamed it could heal me. I dreamed, just as Professor MacEwan posited that gorge, because I needed to. I needed to imagine that, through evil, through grief, there is a ground of meaning. That the cracks, as Leonard Cohen wrote, let in the light.
Whatever the common language is, art is its voice. And it’s not about being saved or cheered up or things working out. If there is a gorge, sometimes there is water, and sometimes not. If we are all human beings, we need each other and we need art. Barry Lopez wrote, “sometimes we need a story, more than food and drink, to stay alive.” (from Crow and Weasel.) The story I want to tell invites the imperfect, the vulnerable, the tender, and the absurd.
For that reason, of Thomas’ unforgettably quirky characters, I think I would choose to be Aunt Hannah who shows up at the end of A Child’s Christmas, and who “got on to the parsnip wine and sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again.” And then the author goes to bed.
We do the best we can to speak from our hearts and hope we’re received without acrimony, with some measure of forbearance, or kindness, or even love. So, let’s you and I read and read, and write and write. You let me know when you’re ready to speak. I’m listening.
I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.
And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!
My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.
(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)
“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.
“Writing is revising.”
I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)
I can hear that too.
“For my bet-ters.”
By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.
I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.
Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.
So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”
My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.
College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.
My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.
To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.
First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.
Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.
As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.
Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.
Do you own books that, despite their quality, reputation, significance, pleasures, virtues, rewards, and overall worthiness, are still somehow your least-loved books? Mine reside at my office, where I’ve now exiled all the titles I can no longer fit on my shelves at home. I know I should donate these books or give them away—why bother keeping them in the first place?—but even the least-loved book still casts some kind of spell, just enough to keep it out of the Goodwill box, if only for a few more months.
Mass-market paperbacks, already fading from the landscape when I began buying fiction, are perhaps the least loved of my least-loved books. I still have my dog-eared copy of Franny and Zooey, with its spare, green and white cover (I cannot accept the idea of Salinger in hardback or trade paperback for some reason, especially TheCatcher in the Rye, which has always seemed to me the center of the mass-market paperback universe), along with my Victorian paperbacks, even Bleak House, my favorite Dickens, here among the least loved nonetheless. I’ve somehow held on to my high school copy of The Grapes of Wrath, another mass-market paperback that should look more worn than it does—did I skim The Grapes of Wrath? A least-loved book, flipped though again, gives off a faint whiff of guilt.
Books assigned in college fall easily into the least loved pile, many of them still wearing their university bookstore price stickers, others sporting highlighted passages no longer needed for anything, the exam long since over. Several contain my handwritten margin notes—“industrial revolution,” “death of God?” “pantheism”—in my embarrassingly bad script. A copy of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, assigned for a course I can barely remember, shoulders a row of other college texts, for courses also forgotten, no matter how hard I try to recall that moment in my life when, according to my highlighting, I finished Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, or had grasped enough of Bergson’s “Laughter” to write “Charlie Chaplin, etc.” at the end of an essay. A least-loved book mocks you for how much you’ve forgotten.
Books loaned from students, colleagues, or friends join those given as gifts, and keep the other least-loved books company. Loaned books remind you that you really should have given the book back months ago, the same thought you recall having had months ago, when you still didn’t feel like reading the book, although you told yourself otherwise, smiled, and assured the book-loaner you couldn’t wait to get started. Gift books carry the expectation of a thank you and a rave—I loved it!—an expectation your most-loved books would never impose.
Accidentally acquired books define one of the lowest strata of least-loved books, these sudden guests, these strangers, these party-crashers, these mysterious visitors. Why do I seem to own a novelization based upon a Graham Greene screenplay I’ve never heard of? My other Graham Greene—deliberately acquired—remains at home, clearly most-loved, too worthy to group with this screenplay, whose title I can’t even remember now. Where did I get that book? How, too, did I end up with two copies of a memoir I’d be too embarrassed to admit owning one copy of, not to mention reading, which I didn’t—still, the book remains, least-loved, but not yet donated, no matter how many times I’ve thought, I really should donate that one. Another layer of least-loved-ness: they remind you of everything else you’ve been putting off lately.
Sometimes, though, when I’m at home searching for a book, a book that feels just out of reach—I know it’s here somewhere, etc.—I’ll wonder if it isn’t really at my office, there with the least-loved titles? But no, it couldn’t be, I’ll think. Not that book. No way. But then it occurs to me that it must be there, since I’ve been searching for it, and since an exiled book occupies a place in the mind nonetheless, as if it were loved after all.
A couple of nights ago, I met someone who, upon learning a bit about me, asked me what type of poetry and fiction I wrote. This was a lovely and well-meaning person and I know she wasn’t trying to pin me into a corner with impossible to answer questions, but she kind of did. These “what do you write” questions are brutal. I suppose if I primarily wrote rhyming poems about ducks (which would, of course, require restraint when thinking of words that rhyme with “duck”) or coming of age in the Old West stories, this question would be easy. But I’m not really writing in a single genre and, while my individual stories and poems feel connected, it’s likely due more to voice than anything thematic, and it’s not going to make much sense to someone expecting a simple answer if I say I’m a “voice-driven” writer. I’m not entirely sure that explains much, anyway?
So, what kind of poem and stories do I write? Am I surreal? Am I funny? Am I the same writer story-to-story or poem-to-poem? How do I answer this without sounding pretentious (and making references to things my well-meaning questioner likely wouldn’t know well) or being a jerk (“I transcend categories!” might make me sound a bit like an ass)? So, when faced with this challenging question, I did the smart thing—I avoided it all together. I never answered her. I changed the subject to something more approachable, a specific story I was working on, and lead the conversation there.
Sure, I felt slightly guilty about this, but the moment passed and the discussion wasn’t bad but it made me think about something key about me as writer. I love talking about my writing but I’m not always entirely sure how to talk about my writing. How do I answer questions about my writing when so much comes from a combination of inspiration (which, aside from the occasional cool story of how a piece came to be, is usually dull) and craft (which is often not interesting to someone not as deeply involved in the life)?
I started thinking of questions I could answer—questions that I could tackle and sound (hopefully) approachable and still interesting as I answered them. Instead of dwelling on the difficult, I have accumulated a handful of questions I could conceivably answer. So, if you run into me at a dinner party, here’s some help. Of course, if you read everything below (which I hope you do), you might be bored by eventual answers.
Why are you a writer?
I had a bad toothache once. I guess more to the point, I had several bad toothaches.
This has nothing to do with the connection of tooth pain to the soul or anything like that. It’s much more literal. I had just graduated with my BA from UNLV and I was working at a pharmacy while I tried to figure out what to do next. I assumed I’d go to grad school and, considering my BA was in English and I was interested in literature, I figured I’d go for my Masters in literary study, probably focusing on British Romanticism.
And then, toothaches. I needed root canals all over the place. The insurance I was getting through my own job wasn’t worth much and I learned that I could remain fully covered on my mom’s insurance if I took six credits a semester. So, even though I was finished with my degree, I decided to reenroll at the college just for the insurance. Even paying for the classes was going to be cheaper than what my dentist needed to do to me, so it would work out.
Those few semesters rocked. I took whatever fit my work schedule and seemed interesting. I wasn’t limited by requirements or anything else. I took a class on the films of Jean Renoir because why the hell not. I took grad level classes. I took creative writing workshops.
More specifically, I took a poetry workshop. It was with a poet visiting the college for the semester—Martin Corless-Smith—and, while I was a bit out of my league compared to the admitted MFA students in the class with me, I held my own and loved every second. My writing grew and evolved and my passion for this stuff grew and evolved. I read contemporary poetry and I hadn’t done much of that. Most of what I had written before this class were imitations of what I was studying in my literature classes. So I was writing bad imitations of Tennyson. This class showed me I could read the stuff that was contemporary and vital. I started writing bad imitations of James Tate. This was more comfortable. I saw more of myself in these poems and I liked it.
But I assumed this was just an interest and my career (or what I was vaguely envisioning as a career) would require an MA in literature. I had a conference with Martin where he gave me a long list of poets and writers he wanted me to read (and that list would prove to be full of eventual first loves) and, when I told him I wanted to study lit, he told me no, I should get my MFA and wrote down a list of grad schools. I was at a point in my life where I needed someone to lead me in the direction I needed to head. And, thanks to my teeth problems, I found someone able to give me that push.
How do you stay focused enough to write everyday?
I don’t. Not usually, anyway. If I’m working on a project that’s got me really excited, I’ll work more often, but most of the time, I’ll work more sporadically, often in bursts. I’ve got a lot of papers to grade, a garden, a two-year old, and on and on. It’s hard to maintain that and write everyday.
Now some writers will shame me for saying this. Maybe they are right. Some writers spend a set amount of time each day to write and use that time no matter what. This is wonderful and I wish I could do it. This isn’t because I’m not focused, necessarily—it’s mostly because I simply can’t.
So I do what works for me. I binge write. I’ll spend time where I can get it and I write then. If I’m excited about something I’m working on, it’s easier to find the time. If I’m not, I don’t press it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I’m coming up with ideas and characters and if something clicks, that’s as good as any formal time at my desk. For me, I find the opportunities to write, but I don’t force them into my schedule, at least not usually. But that’s just me—different writers need to do what fits for them and I find the loose moments and cram them with words. As I always advise writers, figure out what works and don’t base everything on what another writer does, just use those other writers for hints on what might work.
Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas from everywhere. I think about people I’ve known or seen and write about them. I observe the world around me and write about that. I read news articles and watch TV. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby as I write this and I just watched a guy in pajamas shove four candy bars in his pockets while he complained about a toilet. That’s got potential, right? I write about my wife and hide the specifics just enough to not get myself in trouble (at least, not too much trouble). With fiction, it starts with character. With a poem, it starts with the thread of a thought. It’s all out there in the world waiting—we just have to have our eyes open widely enough to find it.
Ljubo Popovich, Poetry Editor from Issue 8, shares some thoughts about his time at ASU and his discovery of non-Western literature.
I always thought that my parents and elders were pulling my leg when they told me to enjoy my college years – that they are the best years of my life and so forth. When I was in college I came close to feeling overwhelmed with schoolwork, and I never got heavily into the social life of the students that lived on campus, of going to the football games or participating in clubs or fraternities. I had a few friends, but my main concern was getting out into the world, and getting through this period of uncertainty and dread of the future. Eventually, I switched my major (twice), and landed in English. Finally things were getting interesting. I could stop plodding through Architecture and Engineering and simply learn what I genuinely cared about. My appreciation for literature grew and blossomed at ASU in my last two years. I felt much more comfortable in this realm.
I spent hours in the library, wandering through the stacks, always using what I learned in my classes as a jumping off point for further exploration. This curiosity has become a central part of my life. I became interested in literature and culture outside of the United States. When I stayed in Montenegro, I had the chance to visit Italy, Greece, Germany, England, Switzerland, Serbia, and Croatia. Now I can’t wait to go back and eat the exotic food, walk on the beaches, drive through the mountains, and experience entirely different cultures. The great European and Asian writers that I discovered gave me further encouragement to see as much of the world as possible.
What the future holds is still an unknown, but I know that I found a limitless source of joy in the works of Chekhov, Goethe, and Gogol. Dostoevsky and Akutagawa, Maugham, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Italo Svevo…wherever I turned, there was a fresh perspective. I have learned that one book is always the doorway to another, and that life makes sense when you are lost in a good book. My experience with Superstition Review gave me a taste of the publishing world, and I think that my thirst for literature will now lead me toward a career with a publishing company, or perhaps as an editor of a magazine. For the time being, I work at ASU Online, in student services. Though it gives me much needed work experience and enough of an income to plan for the future, I am always on the lookout for opportunities in the fields I am most interested in.
Although I have only been out of college for half a year, I am beginning to understand what my parents meant. My years at the university were formative and they were some of the happiest years I have had, despite the struggle and uncertainty of that period of my life. Most importantly, I met the girl to whom I am now engaged, and I received the basic tools I will use for the rest of my life: education, determination, love, patience, and intellectual curiosity.
Superstition Review is excited to announce our publication of Lee Martin for our next issue, due out this December.
Martin is the author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including his latest, Break the Skin, which was published by Crown in June 2011. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Click here for a trailer for Martin’s latest novel, and here for a brief clip of Lee Martin speaking about the story and characters he has created for it.
Superstition Review also had the opportunity to speak with Martin:
Superstition Review: What first made you fall in love with literature?
Lee Martin: I was an only child who spent a good deal of time sitting on porches, in kitchens, in barber shops, listening to the adults tell stories. I was always in love with language. My mother was a grade school teacher, and she had books in our home. She read to me when I was a child. When I started school, I asked my teacher for permission to take my books home to show my mother. I was so proud of them! Before those first school days, when I stayed with my grandmother while my mother was teaching, I would take books off the shelves in her bedroom and sit on the floor with them. I couldn’t read, but I loved the way the books felt in my hands. I loved the way they smelled. I loved the patterns the text made on the pages. All of this is to say, that from an early age I knew books and I had an aesthetic response to them. It was only natural that I would eventually want to write books of my own. I got serious about the prospect of that when I went to the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in 1982. Five years later, I published my first story. At the time, I decided to apply at Arkansas, I was coordinating an Educational Talent Search program that helped culturally or financially disadvantaged people get into college. I shouldn’t admit this to the taxpayers (we were a federally funded program), but I always found ways to spend some time working on my stories when I was supposed to be doing other things for my job. I knew, then, it was time to make a choice to either pursue my craft completely or to give it up. My decision to accept the offer from Arkansas sent me down a path that I’ve never regretted.
SR: What are some of the best things about being both a teacher of literature, as well as a creator of it?
LM: I do love to teach. I love the intense conversations we can have over the choices a writer has made in a story or an essay. I love seeing students develop their skills. I also love those moments of solitude when it’s just me and the page, and I have this material I want to shape, and little by little I do it, which makes me feel that I’ve reached into the world and done something with a little part of it. I like the uncertainty of that process and how it finally comes to something that coheres. Finally, I love doing a reading or talking to classes at the universities I visit. I love performing my work, and I love sharing what I’ve come to know over the years with writers who are just at the beginning of their journeys. I guess, to answer your question more pointedly, I love it all. I love everything about being a teacher and a writer.
SR: If you could offer your students–or any aspiring writers for that matter–just one piece of advice, what would it be?
LM: I think it’s so important to begin to read a good deal and to read the way a writer does–to read with an eye toward the various artistic choices that a writer makes and what those choices allow and, perhaps, don’t allow. Young writers in undergraduate programs will have plenty of opportunity to read the way a literary theorist does, but it’s important to remember that stories, poems, essays, and novels are made objects. If you want to write them yourselves, you have to start figuring out how they get made.
Look for Lee Martin’s work in the forthcoming issue of Superstition Review.