Tag Archives: MFA

my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom

Mural on the side of a building, showing a person holding a book in front of their face; their eyes are visible over the book and look out at the viewer. Hair is blue like a river and filled with symbols. Behind the person is a forest of decorated tree trunks and tropical foliage. Above the person are the words Good morning, good morning.

Outside the sun is up the no the light is up but the day is still grey the morning is still all grey fog. I can’t see the bay, can’t even see to the edge of the water.

This morning the birds didn’t get me out of bed right away. They told me about the secrets at dawn, but I was already sleeping again. Second alarm, snooze, ok, fine, I’m up, I’m up.

Each day I type the date at the header of these  morning writes, and for most of this week, I’ve wanted to type 15 instead of 17 for the year. What is that telling me? That I want to go back to the beginning, back to the start of school, back to before school started?

I’m not sure what school is teaching me. I’m two-thirds of my way through my MFA program, and coming out of a year which ended with me feeling completely demoralized, disconnected from writing and from writing community. This is the opposite of what an MFA program is supposed to do, I think. Isn’t it? The faculty in our program keep going off to other opportunities — fellowships, sabbaticals — which makes for not a terribly stable academic home. I make a connection with someone and then they’re gone for a semester or a year or for good…what’s going on here?

And then last year I did a lot of work toward a certificate proclaiming me qualified to teach composition to college students, four courses in composition theory and practice. Something about these classes left me numb and despondent. Something left me feeling like I didn’t belong. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that something is.

(It wasn’t just that these classes were all group work all the time, which is a thing I want to talk about: this trend now to have all students work together, assuming that we are all extroverts who do our best learning when we’re processing things aloud with someone else; the introverts among us, who were happy with the working alone at our desks and thinking things to ourselves happy to listen to lectures (well, maybe not all introverts were happy listening to lectures — myself, I am mostly glad to listen to the most educated-in-the-subject-in-the-room speak for awhile during class about this subject they’ve studied enough to be able to teach), but lectures are out of favor now, and individual classwork is out of favor. What’s in favor is having students work together, jigsaw reading assignments, group projects, and, I dunno — are you a big fan of group projects in class? I’m not. It’s not that I dislike my classmates or that I dislike talking about what it is we’re studying, but that I don’t think as well, or create as well, when I have to sit in a room full of ongoing conversation — not just the conversation in my little small group, my pair or triad or whatever, but all the rest in the class going on simultaneously as well — and come up with innovative ideas or responses to a question or problem. This way of asking students to think under constant distraction, it doesn’t work for me as a student. As a professor, of course, it makes for a lot less work — I don’t have to lead lecture, I don’t have to lead discussion, I don’t have to do nearly as much to prepare for class or to keep the class running.

Maye I’m too old-school. Maybe if you’re raised doing school this way, you get good at it. Maybe this is an old-dog-new-tricks situation.)

Anyway — there’s something else that I’ve been trying to understand, trying to get my finger on. What it was about these classes, the teahing-composition classes, that left me feeling sick and sad? There was something about how we talked about writing and writers in these classes, a hostile, even adversarial, tone around student writers and student writing — even though I was working with professors who are all progressive in their thinking about teaching college/academic writing to students, who don’t come from the get-the-grammar-right-make-sure-the-surface-is-pretty-I-don’t-want-to-see-any-errors school of thought, who make fun of the five paragraph essay as hopelessly regressive and useless, who are open to different forms and ways of learning but who, of course, still want to see “good” writing from their students, but cannot say what “good” writing is.

It was a weird and subtle sense of superiority I sensed in a number of my classes — something about the vibe was the opposite of what I felt when I was training to become a workshop facilitator with Pat Schneider, and maybe this goes to why Pat’s work, the AWA method, is so revolutionary. In that training, we were all encouraged to think of ourselves as entering into a relationship and deep connection with the writers in our groups. We learned how to co-create a space in which powerful writing could emerge, in which new writing could flow; we learned how to hold a container, a way of being and thinking about writing. And we facilitators were meant to be a part of the space, a writer among writers, not separate, not “the teacher,” not better or other.

Maybe that’s the sickness I felt, a cognitive dissonance, coming as I am from an embodied understanding of writing, of how writing can be facilitated and “taught,” when I returned to the classroom with the idea that I’d learn how to teach (academic) writing the “right” way. Something in me still believed that the other way, the way in front of the classroom with chalkboard and sentence diagrams (I can’t help it, I loved sentence diagrams), was the right way to teach writing, that it was better for folks who wanted to learn how to write in and for The Academy. Something in me still privileged classroom learning over anything else — even though my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom.

As an AWA-trained writing group facilitator, I had learned another way, a different way of conceiving of the practice of writing and the product of writing, than what we were learning in school. In my composition classes, there’s a lot of talk, and I think authentic talk, about wanting students to focus more on writing as a process, of learning that the process of writing is multi-stage, multi-phasic, of being not an orderly progression from idea to brainstorming to writing introduction body conclusion revise to correct grammar errors done, but instead something much wilder, something that flows from idea to jotting down thoughts to revising some of thoughts to more brainstorming to sketching out a possible outline and writing some body paragraphs and revising those and then coming up with a good conclusion and only after all that’s done getting the idea for the introduction to having to revise one of the core ideas and having to begin again — my instructors want us to convey this idea of writing to our students, but still we had to come back to the end product, the thing that needs to be graded and show improvement.

By the end of my year of composition classes, I was sure that I didn’t have what it takes to teach composition to undergraduates, if the sort of classroom I experienced was the sort of classroom I was expected to lead. I still don’t know what a fucking PIE paragraph is, and I certainly don’t want to learn how to teach someone else what it was. Here I thought I could have been helpful in the classroom, inviting new college students to explore their many writing voices, the many ways they might communicate a thought or idea, inviting us into reading together and alone. But the classroom that I learned about in my teaching-composition classes is one fraught with demands, the demands on the teacher to produce students who produce “good work.” The process of teaching isn’t really what we discussed. Maybe that’s some of the disconnect I felt. We were so focused on helping students to understand the process of writing, but we didn’t talk or think or practice or feel our way into the practice of teaching. We focused on the product — the student writing— that is, the piece of writing produced by the student, not the student in the process/practice of writing.

I learned to write by reading and emulating what I read, by reading widely and discovering all the different ways that writing could look, the different forms writing could take. Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, blew my mind and writing right open, taught me about the lyric/hybrid essay, taught me about multi-linguistic writing, taught me about writing that could contain multiple genres, poetic academic essay. Frankly, if I ever get the chance to teach academic writing in the classroom, that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see the students take on. I want to see mess and play, critical thinking in all its many creative manifestations.

How can we create learning spaces, especially around writing, that students don’t have to spend the rest of their lives trying to forget or unlearn, that don’t leave students feeling less-than or fundamentally bad or wrong?

There’s more to this thinking, more that I’m trying to unravel after this last year in school. I’m grateful for the break, grateful to have this space to try and figure things out, grateful that you’re there and reading, grateful for all the writing you do, too, the ways you teach and learn, the ways you model and construct.

And, of course, I’m always grateful for your words.  

allowing ourselves anticipation anyway

(A little talk of sexual violence and psychological control today — just know that ahead of time.)

~~ ~~ ~~

Hope, he said, it’s as insidious as bitterness.

If mother earth only knew how much we
loved one another she would creak, shudder,
and split like a macheted melon, releasing
the fiery ball of molten hope at her core.
– from “Hoffnung,” by Amy Gerstler

Good morning grey — feels like fall is coming, though I know we’re not nearly done with San Francisco Bay summer. I’m listening to my new favorite Pandora station (Ulrich Schnauss, how come nobody told me about him before?) and trying to stop fidgeting long enough to find my way down into the words. All the surfaces of me are stuttery this morning, flaking off into douse and drain, peeling away to remind me you need to do this thing don’t forget about that and underneath it all are the words, really? really?

I woke up calm this morning, calmer than I think I ought to be given that I’ve got  job interview today, given that my life is changing completely. Maybe we’ve been through this so many times before in our lives that my body has burnt out all its fuses and worn out its shocks. Ok, another total life change today. Gotcha – Right on. What’s for lunch? 

What do I want to say about this? When the rush comes, I’m still here under the blankets with the radio flowing into my headphones the volume turned all the way up, trying not to hear the world outside, trying to keep the monster voices at bay. When the rush comes, I’m still trying to make sure it passes me by: nobody here but us chickens. When the rush comes, I’m the one behind the rock — maybe if they don’t see me, I’ll be ok. What are the parts in us that keep hiding, so many long, long years after the violence has ended? I take a sip of soy-milk coffee, too dry even to cry today.

This is where this is going: On Monday I go to my first class, my first grad school class, my first class toward my MFA in Creative Writing, the fourth creative writing class I’ve taken in my life (the first one was in college, and the second was a friend’s private poetry seminar, and the third was a Saturday afternoon poetry writing class with Alison Luterman through the Writing Salon). Shouldn’t someone going for their MFA have taken a few more classes? But so much of the school we enter into as writers is unofficial, is self-driven, is all about the hours and days and years we plunk ourselves down in front of the notebook and just keep on writing. Oh, and all that reading — turns out that was school, too, and not just a way to dissociate from life or hide from responsibility (so there, innner critic).

Anyway, on Monday I go to my first class. Yesterday I got my student ID. I’ve wandered around campus, learning the back alleyways, the hidden-ish gardens, finding the places I will eventually want to haunt. Last Monday, after the grad student orientation, I came home electric with excitement, and stayed up until after 11 looking at my schedule, planning out the next three years’ coursework, trying to figure out how to take all the classes I want to take (creative writing classes and workshops, of course, sure, but then there are critical theory classes, and neurolinguistics, and composition instruction theory courses, and the one about psychoanalytic approaches to literature, and…). My body vibrated the way it does when we’re plugged into something that brings our whole self together, when we’re deeply curious and problem-solving, when anticipation and delight has fully taken over everything inside the skin.

And then the next morning that inside reverberation was gone, and as the week has gone on, my body has got quieter and quieter. This is old learning: too much eager charge, and the body shuts it down. Those places of electric possibility are muffled now, taken over by a throb of wait and see wait and see wait and see

That throb is the voice that remembers the old lessons, how every deep interest and enthusiastic curiosity was used by my stepfather against me, to use as leverage either to pull me more deeplyinto his madness or to force me into a state of complicity (you were excited about it too!) or hold over me, withhold access to, unless I did what I wanted. Or he just took it away. Interested in English and creative writing? He drove it into the ground, ridiculing anyone who would find themselves drawn to such a waste of time and talent. Excited about a boyfriend, a classmate I could actually talk to, a friend who might call to see if I wanted to hang out on the the weekend? He derided them, detailed their shortcomings and their intentions, then demanded that I not spend time with them anymore, following up repeatedly to make sure that I wasn’t disobeying him. Interested in theories of interface or database design? He found new research or books, sent them to me at college and then called me up, wanted to talk about them, waited until my voice was thick with inquisitive thrill, then ordered me to masturbate for him: that was the penance for falling into his trap, for allowing myself to be deeply drawn to anything. Anything I loved or let myself get attached to, idea or object or person, could and would be used against me. When would I learn?

This body learned hard, and when there’s too much excitement, too much of that shuddery, stuttery vibration that means we’re letting ourselves look forward to something too much, want something too much, she gets terrified and shuts us down. She says, just wait. Let’s see. Don’t get your hopes up — you never know what might happen. Maybe the financial aid will fall through. Maybe you didn’t register right for classes after all. Maybe the school is going to call you tomorrow with an embarrassed message: We’re so sorry, we made a mistake, we meant to admit this other Jen Cross, the one who is much smarter, much more interesting, much more accomplished. We apologize for any inconvenience to your life.

Does this voice ever go away, do these old lessons fade into the background of the body’s knowing? Surely we don’t forget all the survival strategies, the ones we use in the outside world and the ones at work always inside our hearts and psyches, but maybe eventually we can let ourselves trust something good.

Can you do that easily, trust something good? Of course I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course I am. There’s that part of me that’s leaning out with one hand to its ear, waiting for the bad thing to come up and take away what we have let ourselves slip some small tendrils around,what we have let ourselves get curioous and adoring of, what we have let ourselves want or love –it takes a long time for that part to be satisfied that we’re safe. (What am I saying? Has she ever been satisfied that we’re safe? She’s leaning out right now, listening for the sound of a jail cell opening, afraid he might be released without anyone telling us first…)

On Monday, school will begin, and I’ll be in class. There’s a flutter in my chest as I write that, a tightness and thrill that means the excited part hasn’t gone away completely — she’s still ready to froth us into a lather of oh my god I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

Oh my god, I can’t believe I finally get to do this.

~~ ~~ ~~

What are you not letting yourself, too afraid, too experienced to let yourself get excited about these days? What if you give yourself ten minutes to write in the voice of that elated, buzzy joy? Maybe it’s a small excitement — but we know, don’t we, that it’s the smallest excitements (or the things other people might deem small) that we deserve big celebration around: paid the bill on time, figured out a new route on public transportation, got yourself a space to breathe easy for a minute. Just 10 minutes — don’t worry, watcher parts, we’ll close the notebook when those ten minutes are done (unless the words and energy really take hold of us, and then we’ll just keep following the writing wherever it seems to want us to go).

Thank you for the ways you’re learning to let yourself anticipate anyway, be excited anyway, fill with those smoky threads of delight anyway, even though you know how bad the disappointment can be if they’re taken away.  thank you for the ways you keep on rebuilding that muscle of joy. Thank you, of course, for your words. 


radical self acceptance means getting to change our minds

A couple of days ago, I officially accepted a place in the SF State MFA program. As a student. This winter I sent out applications to Mills, SF State, and the Stegner Fellowship program, hoping that, one way or another, I’d be able to spend the next couple of years truly focused on writing. The folks at Stegner weren’t interested, but Mills and SF State were. I have spent the last month or so trying to decide which would be the best place for me to spend the next two or three years; what a lucky thing to get to make such a difficult choice.

For many years, I was determined never to go to school for an MFA. Many of the writers I loved and admired — Anne Lamott, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg — had not received MFAs. They just wrote, and shared their work, and then wrote more. Why did I need to go to school for a piece of paper that would tell me I had the right to write? Why did I need to sit in a room with folks who would tear my work up just to please the instructor? Why would I set my tender, still-budding, creative vision under the knife of harried creative writing teachers, who were only teaching in order to make enough money in order to buy themselves a little more time to write, and didn’t want to be teaching anyway, and who wouldn’t be able to help me develop my work the way I wanted to because all they’d see was how different my writing was from The Canon and, thus, what a failure I was as a writer.

Plus, I applied to an MFA program in, what, ’99? 200o? And didn’t get in. The professor from Goddard’s MFA program thought my poetry was too “young.” So there was that, too.

Call it sour grapes, what came after. MFA? I don’t need no stinking MFA.

But there was another thing, too: MFA? No one wants to give me an MFA. I’m not a real writer. Who am I to think of myself as a writer that way? Continue reading