On Transience and Transients

I’ve lived in Houston now for eight years, and it will soon be the longest I’ve lived anywhere.  The only other place that compares is Yorktown, Virginia, which is the closest I have to a hometown and where I lived from ages ten to eighteen.

Before Yorktown, I lived in Tucson (for nine months – and it’s where I was born), in Alexandria, Louisiana (on England Air Force Base), in Virginia (on Langley Air Force Base), and in Frankfurt, Germany (on some Army base whose name, unless my mom provides it to me, will remain the nom de plume Frankenweiss).  After Yorktown, I lived in Washington, D.C. (where I went to George Washington University for my BA, and then lived a few years afterwards in poverty), Gainesville, Florida (where I received my MFA at the University of Florida), and Houston (where I received my Ph.D. at the University of Houston, and where I now live in, well, not poverty, but extremely cheaply).

I trot out these places before you now just to give you an idea of the transience that is already embedded in my life, already part of who I am.  My brother and I both feel a little (tiny bit) anxious about being in once place for such long times (He’s been in Florida about the same amount of time I’ve been in Houston, though he’s moved coasts.).  As expected, we’re also not afraid of moving to new places and finding new people to hang out with because we’ve had to do it often enough in our lives.  And, unlike the stereotype of a military brat, we also aren’t struggling to find roots in a place because – unlike the cliché – we had a relatively long amount of time in each place our dad was stationed.

All this is history to me, and unimportant to the present except for two key points:

1. I’m itching to get out of Houston, and I have been for the past three plus years.
2. My chosen profession as a writer involves as much transience as the lifestyle I grew up with.

Though for most academics I believe this isn’t the case, writers in today’s academic market generally flit from school to school like hummingbirds searching for the flower with the sweetest nectar.  For myself, I know that I eventually want to end up teaching in a city, but I also know that those jobs are usually hotly contested for, and I will have to cut my teeth on jobs elsewhere.  And, because I don’t plan on being in a single place forever, I feel I’m more willing to take a job where – at the moment – I don’t think I’d want to live.  Of course, as my mom is always telling me, I won’t know what I truly think about a place until I get there.

My view on writers as academic transience comes from my time in graduate programs.  One writer came and left quickly at the University of Florida.  At the University of Houston, my tenure in the program began with Edward Hirsch leaving, disappointing a number of people who’d come to the school specifically for him.  Over the years there, many writers left, sometimes leaving graduate students stranded without a professor who knew their work to put on their defense committee.  Of those who (came and) left while I was there: Claudia Rankine, Kimiko Hahn, Mark Doty, and Adam Zagajewski.

Granted, Houston is a high profile program that attracts top-bill writers, and those top-bill writers are often courted by other programs seeking to improve their own ranking among us poor mortals.  Which drilled into my head the notion that if you’re a good writer, then you’ll be flitting from place to place throughout your career, a prospect I have no problem with simply because I like seeing (and, more importantly, inhabiting) new places.

This is not a diatribe about how this lack of stability affects graduate (and undergraduate) students in creative writing programs (although that is a very real effect) but to talk about how this transience affects my life, both future and present.  For example, meet David and Cassie:

David and Cassie

(And, yes, David or Cassie, if you object to this photo I will replace it with a beautiful simulacra.)

I met these two wonderful people at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.  I will probably (possibly) see them at most once a year at the AWP conference.  They live in Albuquerque, currently, but as they’re both writers themselves, chances are, after they graduate, they, too, will be scattered to the four winds.

I have lots of friends like David and Cassie – people who I connected with for a short time at a conference, a reading, wherever – all over the country.  What the writerly lifestyle affords is a community that’s always migrating, and that means that no matter where I go, I’m likely to find close friends nearby, eager (I hope) to be contacted, and ready to be made closer friends.

Now if I can just get this albatross from around my neck.

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