Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shitty First Drafts

Over the past week I've been exposed to unfamiliar terminology and concepts that got buried under such a thick web of cobwebs over the years that I'm not sure exactly what they mean anymore. I've attended a bunch of seminars and lectures where my brain felt like a deer caught in headlights. The few readings that I've managed to attend have been filled with tales of sexual exploration, head injuries, Appalachian family dynamics and a dog named "Bob" who suddenly dies at the doorstep of a stranger who just happens to have the same name.

There's been people who actually complain about fluorescent lights and talk openly about their psychic abilities as if they were as common as brown hair and blue eyes. I've survived my first writer's workshop where I didn't have a clue what to expect or how to evaluate the work of my fellow students. I didn't realize that submitting a "shitty first draft" would garner such a response. Hell, I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing as a "shitty first draft." In the business world and in many business educational programs, a first draft is all you need as long as it sounds halfway thought out. In my "writing life" all I've ever come up with are "shitty first drafts."

It seems absurd to me that writers work so hard to get abused by editors or peers and get paid so little. Should it really take 70 hours to work and re-work a poem until it's in a good enough state to be worthy of publication? In the corporate world 70 hours would get you a lot more money in the bank than one poem.

I realize that everyone gets criticized as well as praised in a workshop and my peers and leader have been helpful and nice. When my leader realized just how green I was, she stopped me on the stairs to make sure that I was comfortable. The criticism doesn't bother me because there's plenty of praise too and the "negative" is delivered in a soft, very helpful way. It's the process. Everyone else writes narratives on each other's work, with reading suggestions and well-thought out responses. I write out lists in bullet point style and have no idea what I should and shouldn't find "wrong" or "right" with a piece. And a reading list? Please. I've read more non-fiction, dry business textbooks and Wall Street Journal articles in the last 14 years to be bothered with most fiction.

Besides the lectures given by working writers who show up with holes in their shirts and champion the lesbian themes in Mary Oliver's poetry, there's been the sound of jet airplanes flying over my hotel room every two minutes. This is not a good environment for a sensitive to try to get a good night's sleep or work on the writing that she gets paid for, which thankfully is business and technical. I'm finding solace in it this week because it's something I'm comfortable with and good at. I even got hired on as a contributing writer for another web site. Ironically it's an educational site, which is the field that I just got offered a job in back home.

So far I've been getting on the 405 each day and making the drive to Culver City to sit through a day that's focused on writing and what I need to know to make it through this MFA program. I've met a lot of people and talked on a more personal level with a few. Everyone is really nice here. Everyone understands that writers get nervous, need a bottle of water nearby when speaking in public, tend to be "quiet," and need that one-on-one interaction to begin to open up. There's nothing abnormal about seeking a place under the trees or at a table alone to read a book or work on "a piece."

In spite of this, a big part of me feels out of place. Second and third term students tell me that's normal, no one really talks about it, and it will go away with the second residency. Peers in my workshop tell me to keep writing, the story is really good and that it's a very good start. My first term writing mentor brings a bottle of tequila and limes to her lectures and tells me to "surrender" to my characters. She says it was a courageous act to go from the MBA to the MFA. I tell her that the decision didn't really feel that way. I just made it-without any real expectations. Last night I went out for dinner and drinks with another first term student from Colorado Springs. We ditched the campus event at Shanghai Red's in Marina to discuss our common bond of not being supported by our mothers in our writing endeavors.

Then I drive the 405 back to the hotel and have a dream about my dog and his dog girlfriend shitting all over the floor of a room they've been locked up in. In the dream I let my dog, Scruffy, out of the room. But then Chloe starts speaking to me. In a real voice. Like she's human. She watches me clean up the mess on the floor and asks me if I'm male or female. I tell her I'm female, obviously. She escapes from the room after that and I later see Chloe and Scruffy driving past me on the other side of the road. I'm blaming this dream on the key lime and coconut martinis I drank at dinner.

At this point I'm still the former MBA who compartmentalizes, who is logical, who makes decisions mostly based on the bottom line, who feels completely lost in an unstructured, studio, creative environment full of the "types of people" she hasn't been around since she was 18, and who is wondering if this idea to get an MFA isn't just a "shitty first draft."

But then there's this other voice, this "young dreamer who is being awakened and called back," as my mentor told me. She still wants to clean up the floor. She still feels the desire to pull up the "shitty first draft" on her laptop, slow down, expand, be less concise, and effectively juggle multiple points of view. "If someone brought you here, you should be here," said one of my workshop peers. It's just going to take a few revisions before I feel the same way.

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