Sunday, May 28, 2006
(Picture taken August 2005, on the south flank of Mt. Hood, up in the huckleberry fields. It has nothing to do with the blog entry-- I just thought it was pretty.)
It’s been a weird and wonderful few days.
Wednesday I was sailing along, feeling about as fine as a grad student can feel. It was the day of the annual English Department Kellogg awards, and all of us were invited to a pre-reception with keynote speaker Barry Lopez. This was especially wonderful because two of my WR 121 students from winter term had won awards, too, using essays written in our Basic Comp class. They came to the reception and I was able to introduce them around. Lopez shook hands with one of the students, Joel, invited him to pull up a chair, and then sat knee-to-knee with him for half an hour, discussing Joel’s experiences as a soldier in Iraq one year ago.
After the pre-reception came the presentation itself—at which I was lucky to receive a sizable fellowship for non-fiction writing. I say ‘lucky’ with genuine feeling, as compared to saying it to fish for compliments. The non-fiction program is small—with only maybe two dozen students—and full of extremely gifted writers, any one of which could easily have received any of the awards given that evening. It felt like a luck-of-the-draw thing: I truly believe that they could have simply put all of our names into a hat and drawn out the winners, and it would have been fine. I felt very fortunate to have been honored. The whole thing was made even sweeter because most of the students in the non-fiction program attended and we all hooted and cheered each other. It was a wonderful feeling of community, and solidarity. Writing can be a lonely, hard business—being buoyed up by friends makes it sweeter.
The ceremony was followed by a lavishly catered reception at the Simon Benson House on PSU campus, at which time Barry Lopez not only signed two of my books but complimented my writing and then hugged me. HUGGED ME. What a rush! It was a great time—a chance to visit with everyone without the usual pressures of angst and time-panic that rule one’s days as a grad student in the writing program. I sort of floated home at about 10 pm.
And then came Thursday, and I crashed back to Earth. My Thursday evening class is “Forms of Non-Fiction,” taught by Debra Gwartney, an incredible writer and mentor and a very challenging teacher. It was my night to be workshopped—meaning I’d brought a story the week before, and everyone had taken it home to read and critique it. Now here they all were, ready to spend 45 minutes workshopping it aloud, while I, as per the rules, had to stay silent. It’s always a grueling process, but it’s a good kind of pain. The idea for the story had come to me late and I’d written it faster than I should have. As a result, the essay—about aging, and death—was rough, and my fellow students found and shredded every loose end and each wobbly word. It was, as it always is, a humbling experience, but a good one. Now I know what I need to do with the essay.
Here’s the thing: this combination of euphoria and despair, pride and self-flagellation, is what a writer’s life is like. Writing is hard, exhausting work, and it demands a constant level of self-criticism that can leave one both tired and fragile. I got home that evening and was in bed at 10:00. The next morning, I saw Bill off to work and went back to bed until 8:00, then, after having a bite of cereal, fell asleep on the couch for another two hours. Very unlike me, and very telling about how tired I’ve been, and what a strain grad school is taking.
As for the hubris, what a great taste of being a diva one night, and a downtrodden, struggling writer the next! The Greeks would be happy with this. Barry Lopez understands it, too. At the Kellogg Awards presentation, he said, “I congratulate each of you who won an award tonight. Enjoy the spotlight. Treasure the moment. But tomorrow morning, get up out of bed, pick up your pen, and start the work again.”