Response to Ryan Boudinot’s piece disparaging MFA students

Ryan Boudinot’s piece disparaging his MFA writing students is tearing up the internet. But, I will go ahead and throw in my two cents. And I’m going to start where we all started.

I was once a writing student in a Master’s Program. I wrote autobiographical pieces about my so called miserable little life. I wrote bad poetry about sex and drinking. I read the wrong books and a lot of the right books. And my teachers patiently read my work and told me to keep writing. I don’t know if I had any talent. I had determination. I wanted to write and think about stories and write more. In the beginning, I wasn’t nearly as interested in getting published as I was in writing. I didn’t know about gaming and game keepers. I didn’t know about that there was a certain way that you had to behave, connections to be made, I was just in love with stories. I wasn’t a good writer when I was in graduate school. I don’t know why my teachers put up with me, but I’m glad they did. I’m glad for Benjamin Saltman, Peggy Shumaker, Rita Dove and Norman Dubie. They opened doors.

Most of my fellow graduate students have not gone on to become writers. They are doing other things with their lives, but for the most part, they are glad they went to school. Glad they got to swim around in stories. Lots of people go to cooking school and don’t become chefs. That doesn’t change the fact that we like process, we like learning, we like the experience of really getting down into an activity, getting gritty, asking ourselves how far we can go, that’s why we study.

Things I’ve studied include:
Horseback riding: 15 years
French: 8 years
Spanish: 4 years
Ballet: 4 years
I sound like a prep school kid, no, this was my cult life and college. I didn’t pursue any of these except the Spanish but I don’t regret it for a minute.

I also believe that your writing teachers can help you understand the publishing world. When you first start writing, you don’t know anything about how to get into print. If your professor is any good, they should know something about how to get published. Or they might just know someone else you could talk to. But they should know something.

This is the part of the piece that most people really take umbrage with,

“They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”

Any way you slice it, that’s pretty nasty. There are people who have become writers partly because their childhood was a nightmare, and they walked through that nightmare by telling themselves stories and later those stories make you want to be a writer.

May we who teach at MFA programs live with grace, teach with grace, write with grace, and may our students tolerate our faults. It’s a big dance. Learn the tango.

Published in: on March 6, 2015 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Let the kids fly, let them make their own life

There are way too many kids still living with their parents in this country or maybe way too few. Some people think that living with your parents is a good thing. But I’m not sure.

One of the professors at the university tells me that two of his adult children are living at home. They have both graduated from expensive universities and have top notch educations. The family lives in a two bedroom condo, but the kids still live with their parents. For the mom it’s great. She has someone to fuss over, but for the kids, it may not be the best possible thing.

That’s the question with adult children, what do you encourage them to do? Or maybe we adults should all get out of the way. It is my opinion that parents often suggest that kids do whatever is most beneficial to themselves. It’s not all about you, the parent, the question should be, what’s best for the kids and then get out of the way and let them go for it.

Fly, I tell my kids, fly. The sky’s the limit.

Published in: on March 4, 2015 at 10:08 pm  Comments (1)  

We need the wet,


I like this picture Stephen took today. He’s driving through the national parks.

All this rain has been great. Water rushing down the sidewalks. We need the wet.

Our lives feel like they’re busy/crazy/fun. One of the things about Los Angeles is that whenever you are anywhere, you are thinking about the next place you need to go. At the party this Saturday, I was talking with Martin Sheen, and I was thinking about the next place we needed to go. I remember being at the PEN party last year and watching Mark talk with Harrison Ford and thinking two things: One, I wished I hadn’t had the second martini, and Two, I wondered if we would get home in time to relax in the library. We are always rushing to the next thing. We should breathe.

Tomorrow we are going to dinner with Ron and Bianca at Brigante and Wednesday night I am going to Musso and Franks with the new director of PEN. Friday I am speaking at the Last Bookstore at a Poets and Writers event. Saturday I am speaking at the Pasadena Festival of Books and Saturday night we are going out to dinner with Ron Carlson. We are going to hear Eric Whitacre at the Los Angeles Master Chorale Sunday night.
I leave for NY next week on Thursday. But fortunately, when I come back we are going to the beach for a writing weekend.

It’s hard to find time to write when everything is rushing along. Sometimes my life feels like air is rushing by me and what I want is those strands of air, but I can’t catch them. The good parts of your life are like catching sunlight. You can’t actually catch them in your hands, you have to just be with them.

I need some time to write, but as soon as I come back from NY, I will have that time. Breathe, I say to myself, breathe.

Published in: on March 2, 2015 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Poetry Circus

The Poetry Circus last night was great. Clowns and acrobats cavorted with poets and writers as the merry go round kept circling and kids kept leaping on and off the horses. It was entering joy and magic. As the circus neared its end, the rain started up, thick and beautiful. By this morning, the rain had let up and we went for a hike with the dogs. By the time we took off for a party in Santa Monica where I had a great conversation with Martin Sheen, the rain was coming down in sheets. Martin Sheen seemed very well as did Mimi Kennedy and Mike Farrell. Mike is always serious and quiet when I see him at these parties, but Martin Sheen is a cheery fellow. He likes to joke around and he’s very handsome in person. I didn’t mention that when I’m in hotel rooms, I have seen the naughty Charlie Sheen in television shows and Martin as guest being extremely funny. I love watching them act together because they are both so talented and I get a feeling they like each other very much. At home we don’t have regular TV, so I’ve only seen this when I am travelling.

We’re working to make our readings more energetic and dynamic. But the Poetry Circus really took the cake. Nicelle’s book In the Circus of You published by Rose Metal Press is really elegant. I hope everyone buys it. It’s the kind of book you get many different meanings from but one of them is that you surround yourself by a circus of people who make up your life. We all have our own circus. Who are you in the circus of your life? Are you the sad clown? Are you the ringmaster? Are you on the high wire? Are you doing dangerous stunts with animals? Find your own place in the circus and find your own circus people.

Published in: on March 1, 2015 at 8:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Steal Something Casual

arthurOne of my favorite lines from the movie Arthur is when John Gielgud says to Liza Minneli, “Steal something casual.”

We all want something that we can’t afford from time to time.  We can’t afford a pair of shoes, a watch, a dress, flying first class, eating at an expensive restaurant, trapeze lessons.

Most of us learn to live without things that we want.

Some of us are simply devoured with desire. Desire is a thing in itself; it’s a big thing that comes to live with us and nibble at our ears, wrists and ankles.

I don’t have big desires for things.  There are no shoes, dresses, watches or headbands that I crave.

I like getting enough sleep and having enough thinking time.

If you really want something that you cannot afford, don’t steal something formal, fancy or casual.  I’d suggest learning to not want it.  The Buddhists might be right; desire does not bring us happiness. Stuff doesn’t bring happiness. A good night’s sleep, a long run, a day of writing, or a great night out with friends or a night home with Mark—any of those rings my bell.  It’s best to keep the bell ringing as simple as possible.

Published in: on March 1, 2015 at 12:03 am  Leave a Comment  

The Poetry Circus is tomorrow afternoon!

It’s going to be amazing.  People keep asking me what do if it rains.  Oh my fellow Californians, here’s a thought for you,

bring an umbrella! And we’ll be singing in the rain.

See you there!

Published in: on February 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Duct tape is essential for road trips

I got my laptop back last night.  I had cleared the trash emails from Verizon so I only had 650 emails to answer.The reason it took so long is the part was on the East Coast and that part of the country is under so much snow that shipping is bogged down. We’re way out here on the West Coast.

Out here, I’m thinking of doing the spring grooming for our dog.  I think I did a good job not losing my mind without the laptop.  It wasn’t easy.

Our son Stephen is going to Death Valley today, then driving up to Yosemite. Then up into Washington visiting national parks.  For this trip, he’s bringing the essentials.  A sleeping bag, tent, lantern, cook stove and an extra roll of duct tape and some bungee cords to keep the car together.  He has one whole box of books.  And a lot of music and a guitar.

I have a device that does scans of my laptop now and it has a little signal that comes up and says, “No threats found.”   Good to know.  I didn’t want it to come and say, “Orange Alert!”    Who wants to be alert all the time?  Writers do.

Mark and I are reading the new Ian McEwan book, The Children Act.  I like it so far.  I have a line up of books I need to read next and that’s not counting Red Hen reading and grad school writers.  But reading is a good place to swim around.  Story swim is good day or night.jkl 015

Published in: on February 27, 2015 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

You might be a bit crazy.

Cognitive distortion is when what you see might not be true.

Catastrophizing is such a great word, and I have to admit, I do it all the time. As of today, I haven’t had a laptop for two weeks. I keep telling Mark, If I don’t get a laptop by tomorrow, the world is going to end.

Somehow he doesn’t really hear me. I tell him if I don’t have email again soon, I’m going to shave my head. Every day he tells me, you still have your hair.

Mark doesn’t think of everything that goes wrong as catastrophe. He believes that a lot of things can actually be fixed.

Why does one catastrophize instead of thinking rationally? Because it seems rational to you when you’re doing it. When you’re getting crazy, the craziness spins logically for you.

The other cognitive distortion that I’m so fond of is when there is a big gap between how you see yourself and how others see you. You think you’re a loser but everyone else sees a competent person.

You think you’re super important, others don’t quite see that. You think you’re brilliant, others say you’re average.

Of course, along with that is the cognitive distortion where you jump to conclusions.

Let me assure you, all of these cognitive distoritions are what make a character interesting. If you make a character who is completely mentally healthy, who cares? What you need to rock it, is some people who are screwed up.

When you get ready to write your next novel, think cognitive distortion.

Published in: on February 25, 2015 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Alice in Wonderland

We are going to see Alice in Wonderland this Friday at Disney Hall

We all have our own Alice memories. We all know the rabbit hole, and writers think they know it best. But really, anyone who has ever done some serious thinking knows about it.

Alice in Wonderland

1. You shouldn’t follow random rabbits rushing about.
2. If you do, you might find yourself somewhere unusual.
3. Once you find yourself shrinking or expanding, you should remember that it’s not real. You are not as important as they say you are. You are not as insignificant as they say you are.
4. If someone seems mad, they probably are.
5. You should try to be on time, but if you are not on time, you probably will still get tea.
6. Making hats used to make people mad. It was because of the toxins in the hat. If you are going to make hats, be careful about the ingredients.
7. Cats cannot be trusted.
8. If someone smiles all the time so that even their grin hangs in the air when they aren’t there, they probably are dishonest.
9. It is fatal not to finish a thing.
10. Dive as deeply as you can into life, get wet, the magic happens in the deep places.

Published in: on February 24, 2015 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Living poetry with grace like Carl Phillips

There are a few people who live their lives with grace, and I like being around those people. I like learning about living with compassion and grace and integrity. I missed Carl Phillips at the Kingsley/Kate Tufts judging. He’s one of those people. He has strong opinions that he states clearly, and he’s both eloquent and wise, but you feel that you are in the presence of someone who also listens to others.

Lots of people think they are smart and know more than you do, and they could be right. But, that’s a different thing from actually being a person who walks around with grace.

Some people are too much of a pushover, and that’s not good either. Being too much of a Buddhist means that people might walk all over you. Of course, the great thing about being all Zen might be that you don’t care if they walk over you, but others might care.

I think that I did learn something from being around Carl. I learned to not be afraid to speak my mind. I learned that what you love in poetry is yours and if someone else doesn’t love it, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I learned to read the poetry out loud and hear the music. I already knew that in a way, but I needed to hear it again.

If you think you’re better than other people, you’re probably wrong. Someone else might just be a beginner. Wait, listen, all this wisdom is coming towards you.

Published in: on February 23, 2015 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

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