On Writing Out of Dire Situations

A. Part of Brendan’s present of random literary magazines involved three chapbooks by Snow City Arts from Chicago.  This organization focuses on teaching the arts to hospitalized children as a way to continue learning and, more importantly, to give them something else to focus on instead of their illness and their treatment.

B. When my father died, it was at the beginning of my MFA program.  I had been in Gainesville less than a month.  He’d fallen ill (in reality, he’d been ill for a long time, it just wasn’t yet showing) almost immediately upon returning to Yorktown after he and my mom helped me move down, and it was a pretty quick decline over the next few weeks, culminating in a heart transplant that was successful, but ultimately useless, and the decision to remove him from life support.

C. My professors at the University of Florida offered to let me off the hook, to take the semester to deal with my grief and loss.  I could come back in the spring to pick up where I left off.  This offer was very kind and kindly meant, but that’s not the way I work.  The worst thing for me would be to take away my current purpose for living, my writing, in order to throw me into the full and complete throes of grief.

D. I thought – and still think – of this as a flaw of some sort.  Not the need to immerse myself in work, in the present, in the moment of living, but the fact that I never fell prey to, well, tears, makes me feel like a tool.  Still.

E. My mom explained it this way: That I express my emotion through my writing, mostly.  And I think that’s true, as far as it goes.  By which I mean that I’ve seen evidence that my mom’s right, but that doesn’t really make me feel any less bad about my lack of emotional display.

F. The University of Florida’s MFA program requires you to do two reading during the course of your tenure there – one during your first semester, and one during your fourth and final semester.  During my first semester, I was reading mostly poems that I’d written before starting the program, and they were uniformly… well, let’s not talk about it.  But my last semester I was reading poems from my thesis, a majority of which concerned my dad in one way or another.

G. I kept my face on during most of the reading.  There were times when I had to pause for a moment, or focus on clearly enunciating each word of the poem before me, but I made it through.  Through until the last poem when, after finishing, I rushed away from the podium to a corner of Goering’s, sat down, and cried.

H. I had not expected such an emotional outpouring.  Writing the poems didn’t affect me.  Reading them to myself didn’t affect me.  I wasn’t torn up when, in the process of revising, I had to butcher the poems to make them viable.  But reading them out loud, to an audience, forced me to own what I’d written.

I. When I first moved to Houston, I applied to work for the Writers in the Schools program.  Once I found out that one of the assignments involved working with hospitals.  Though I never had a serious illness, one that required long-term hospitalization, I believed that I had something to offer these kids: experience with writing about grief, and the belief that such writing doesn’t have to be happy, that it doesn’t have to avoid the harsh reality of life as they know it (or the beauty they find in life because of their situation).

J. I never got the job with WITS.  I put the desire for this kind of service on the backburner.

K. But these chapbooks from Snow City Arts brought all of that back to me.  If I lived in Chicago, I’d find a way to be a part of what they do.  It’s not that I think the poems in these chapbooks are great works of art – though a few are quite good – but that’s not the point.  In a very real sense, the purpose of art is not to be seen by other people, but to allow the creator a means to express their feelings and ideas.

L. Actually, I lied just there.  The purpose is for the creation to be seen by someone else.  The fact is, though, that you, the artist, are someone else when it comes to your art.  What you’ve created is not just new to the world, but new to you.

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