Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of Gates and Gatekeepers or Kicking Open the Door

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.


  1. I started taking SS at 62 and still work full time at 74. The small income from SS helps so go for it.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I'm glad you read this--I can't believe you're 74! TL