As many of you know, I received my poetry MFA in 2008 from a low-residency program "later in life" after a previous graduate degree from seminary, after multiple career changes, after decades of being a business executive, after three grown children, after a previous attempt to get my MFA from a traditional program, after, after, after...
My vision was that after I got my MFA, I'd also get my manuscript published so I could resign "my day job", take a creative writing teaching position, and have all the time I needed to produce books two, three, four, ad infinitum, just like my mentors had done. I knew it wouldn't be easy (I was used to that), but I didn't know that the chances of accomplishing my goal in this lifetime were somewhere north of the probability of winning the lottery with the purchase of one quick-pick.
I submitted to all the major (and most of the minor) book contests--to the tune of hundreds, yea thousands, of dollars. I revised my manuscript more times than I cut my hair. I broke it down into multiple chapbooks and submitted those to all of the chapbook contests. I applied to every fellowship I could find to get funding. All the time, I kept writing new work, exchanging poems regularly with my colleagues, reading as much as I could in order to keep developing as a poet.
And that was just the first year. I doubled my efforts over the next three.
I placed as a semi-finalist a few times. A finalist. I won second prize in a national chapbook contest--a bittersweet victory, as I truly admire the judge and am grateful for her confirmation--but, alas, no publication. I continued to see my poems regularly accepted in journals. A couple of top ones. I took heart in the fact that Spencer Reece submitted The Clerk's Tale for nineteen years without getting it published, before it won The Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize. I calculated that I would be 78 if it took me that long and wondered if I would think it worth it by then.
For several years I had repeatedly "stepped down" from positions of responsibility in order to have more time and energy to write. I continued that downward mobility, feeling good that I was willing to sacrifice income and status for my art--that when I won that $26K Fellowship it would replace the money I'd lost, that when my book was published, I could get that teaching position which would make up for all the soul-deadening work I'd done over the years of pushing people to buy things they didn't need, of firing people because they weren't as good at it as I was, in order to keep my job.
I was born in the midwest and still have the work ethic that goes with it, so I just kept at it, relying on the belief that enough hard work mixed with a modicum of talent would overcome all the odds. But, without being fully aware of it, my beliefs were changing. I was changing. And so I began to look for non-traditional ways to meet my goals. If I couldn't be a full-time writer by winning a major fellowship, maybe there were other avenues of funding. If I couldn't win a major book prize, maybe there were other ways to get my book published that still had the credibility of not going to a vanity press. If I couldn't teach creative writing in an academic setting, maybe I could still motivate others to write in a way that was still rewarding.
I became so hungry for a change that I changed the way I looked at what had to be done for that change to come.
Without going into all of the details, I'll just say that I started working on getting myself ready to receive what I wanted just as hard as I'd been working to get other people to give me what I wanted. I conquered what had been for me an ever-increasing debilitating physical condition with the help of an astute emergency room doctor. I changed my diet completely, which changed my brain, which changed my pessimism to optimism, my fear to a sense of well-being. This sense of well-being has given me the confidence to step out in faith with a radical experiment.
After consulting my partner, my attorney and a few close friends, I have decided to accept a federally funded lifetime writing fellowship that has been available to me for the past few months. It's called Social Security. That's right. I turned sixty-two last November and, even though I've always been advised to "wait until you're sixty-five," after crunching the numbers, I decided that time to do what I want is more important than the relatively small increase in income if I wait. So, in thirty days, I'll be a full-time writer and a part-time retailer, working at my day job eight days a month and writing three to five days a week.
Oh, did I mention that some colleagues of mine have invited me to help them with their publishing company--a small press with an educational piece whereby teachers can download lesson plans for poetry books that will be available in libraries, schools, and other outlets? Did I mention how much my writing has improved since I made this decision (at AWP Chicago), due to the freedom I now feel? Did I mention how prolific I have been already--writing new poems, attending to my blogs on a regular basis, being inspired with new thoughts, new directions, new projects?
All of this because I changed my belief. When I saw other people--editors, journals, presses, institutions--as the gatekeepers, my response was to try to kick open the door. But whenever I realized that I was the only gatekeeper to what I wanted, I found a way. Maybe a magic latch didn't appear, maybe I had to take the gate off its hinges, maybe I had to walk down the road and find another gate, but I found one I could open, and a way to open it.
Your gate is not mine, nor is the path to it. But from one writing pilgrim to another...stop kicking at a gate that won't open. Believe that there is one waiting for you that will open, and start looking for it. Now.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Of Gates and Gatekeepers or Kicking Open the Door
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com