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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I Am Not My Legs

The following is the text of a reading I gave on the campus of Western State Colorado University.


I am not my legs. When I use a cane, a wheelchair, a scooter, when my legs fail with no warning, and I get the opportunity to contemplate the sudden, alarming closeness of the tile floor in the kitchen or the ragged gravel of my driveway, that’s the phrase that keeps running through my mind: I am not my legs. It’s a mantra that reeks of desperation, but it’s the one that works for me.
Of course, what I’m really telling myself is that I am not my disease, that I’m not – won’t – be defined by it. It’s part of me, part of my story, but it’s one color, not the whole painting. And believe it or not, much of what I feel and think about my disease has to do with what I believe it means to be a writer, a novelist, a poet. What it means to be a storyteller.
Let’s start with some history. In 2005, a year before my youngest son was born, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Unlike the more common form of MS, which is called relapsing-remitting, my disease does not and will not remit. It will not relent. It is an autoimmune disease that attacks the myelin sheath of nerves, breaking it down much like stripping the plastic covering off a piece of wire. My MRI that year showed three small lesions in my brain. My MRI this year, ten years later, showed multiple lesions, including an active one about the size of a large marble.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My symptoms began, we think, in about 1999, but it wasn’t until 2003 that they got bad enough for me to seek medical help. It took two years to get a diagnosis and another year after that to get to what’s called a plateau – my disease continued, but the symptoms were under control enough that I was able to rebuild some of the muscle atrophy and leg function. This is an illusion. Muscle power overcoming the nervous system on the micro level, but on the macro level, the big picture is undeniable: the damage to my brain, each and every lesion, is permanent. And the reality of my disease is simple: there is no treatment and no cure. The only things I can do are take medications for the symptoms and throw Hail Mary passes involving chiropractic care, acupuncture, diet modifications, and nutrition supplements – all in the hopes of buying the one thing we all want: more time.
Here are some basics. Ten years have passed since I was diagnosed. 80% of people with primary progressive MS are dead within 20 years of diagnosis. 90% are dead by age 65. Death often comes in the form of pneumonia – immobility is a perfect breeding ground for illness, and so its victims die, sick and drowning, unable to move, often blind, unable to speak. Not pretty, right? And seriously, how much money would you bet on an 80/20 or 90/10 shot? I wanted to die with a headline obituary that read: Eaten by Dragons, Killed While Saving Entire World from the Forces of Darkness, or (my favorite) Came and Went at the Same Time While Bedding 23-Year-Old Twin Playboy Bunnies. Statistically speaking, my end is far more likely to be much less grand, far less pleasant.
But I am not my legs, not my disease, and I’m not a data point in a set of statistics.
From 2006 until 2015, I didn’t go back to the neurologist. If denial is not just a river in Egypt, it’s safe to say I was hip deep and wading deeper. I took the medications to control my symptoms, and as those symptoms got slowly worse, I ignored them. I blamed them on getting older or other injuries from a misspent youth. I blamed them on bad days, which is a sort of mental gymnastics that people with MS do all the time. When I repeatedly fell in the grocery store or couldn’t control the tremors in my hands, when my kids noticed that I struggled with the accelerator pedal of the car, or I simply made excuses not to go somewhere, I blamed it all on other things. I couldn’t be getting worse, right? After all, it had only been… well, it had only been. Time blindsides us all.
A few months ago, I moved to a new primary care provider who said she’d take me on under the condition that I went to a neurologist again. I agreed because I knew what the neurologist would do and say. She’d do an exam, run some tests, and tell me everything I already knew: no treatment, no cure, symptom management, and she’d do all this for the low, low price of thousands of dollars. But what the hell, right? I hadn’t been in a long time and perhaps I was overdue. So I went.
And the first thing she said was, “What in the blue hell were you thinking waiting years to see a neurologist again?!” My reply was what I just said, to which she replied, “And how can anyone help you as your disease progresses if no one sees you?” I shrugged. “I’m holding the line.”
Except I wasn’t holding the line. I’m not holding the line. There is no line. The line is completely fucking imaginary. MS is a personal disease, its course individual, and in the case of the primary progressive form… it is as inexorable as the tides. Her exam revealed symptoms I didn’t even know I had (like this special one: I can’t close my eyes and touch my nose, which means random DUI stops will mean deep trouble). That I have muscle atrophy in all of my extremities. That my reflex responses are reduced or – in the case of my left arm – pretty much gone. All that and more before she sent me for the MRI. Now you know why I didn’t go until someone made me.
And what’s all this got to do with writing? With being a storyteller? Almost everything. You see, I fundamentally believe we’re all storytellers. The fact that I’m standing up here tonight, sharing my work, doesn’t eliminate the fact the every single of one of you, whether you call yourself a writer or not, is a storyteller. Scientists look for dark matter, for what binds the universe together, and I say that when it comes to human beings of any and every shape, size, and kind, they are looking in the wrong place. It is story that is the invisible matter that binds us all together.
Our daily lives are based on story, and over time, we come to share common stories across a wide spectrum of human diversity and experience. Don’t believe me? Let’s test it out. I’ll sing a couple of lines from a song and if you know the song or the next line, raise your hand: “I don't need you to worry for me cause I'm alright / I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home.” See what I mean? That Billy Joel song first appeared in 1978. There are probably people in this room who don’t remember 1978, maybe weren’t even born in 1978, and yet there’s a song – a story song – most of us share. How about this one, “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day…” The Temptations, 1965. It’s not just those specific songs, either, since I could probably find one from every year dating back longer than anyone in this room has been alive and we’d get the same results.
Let me offer a bit more bit of proof before I tie all this together in one of those neat little writerly bows. If you recognize any of the following quotations, raise your hand, and please keep it raised. If you hear more than one you recognize, raise them both and keep them up:
1.                  “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
2.                  “So, they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
3.                  “Call me Ishmael.”
4.                  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
5.                  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
6.                  “It was a pleasure to burn.”
7.                  "Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
8.                  "As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free."
9.                  “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.”
10.              “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.”
11.              “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.”
12.              “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
How many people do we have? Everyone? Good. It only took a dozen examples, first lines, last lines, famous lines from a children’s book, a novel or a bit of a poem to bring us all together. To prove we are all sharing in the stories of our world and ultimately our lives – because our lives are the source, the well from which all the songs, poems, and stories are drawn.
Look around you. Do it right now. You probably don’t know everybody in the room, at least not well, but yet all of you share story in some way or another. Your politics, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, ethnicity, class, place in the bureaucracy, spot on the hierarchical flow chart or lack thereof… all of it fades before the power of story.
The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was once asked what he would do if he was told he only had six months to live. He replied, “Type faster.” That’s pretty good advice, whether you have ten days or ten years or a hundred. Every day, every minute, every experience adds to the well that you can draw from.
So, here’s what I know: I started publishing professionally, which is to say, someone paid me a professional rate for my writing (not copies of a magazine no one’s ever heard of) in 1995. That was a mere twenty years ago. It was early in my first marriage and my eldest daughter, who’s in college now, hadn’t even been born yet. In that time period, I’ve written and sold more than thirty novels, thirty-six short stories, published a chapbook collection of poetry, two collections of short fiction, edited more than a dozen anthology titles, and edited (in all seriousness) hundreds of novels. I’ve contributed, in my own way, to this idea I have that we’re all storytellers, that we’re all sharing our stories in our own way. Not bad for twenty years, but here’s the thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night as much as the muscle spasms in my legs ever do: no one sitting in this room can probably quote one line from anything I’ve written.
That’s okay. Just because I wrote it and someone bought it and published it, doesn’t mean it was any good, let alone quotable. But still… I ache for that one. The one story or novel that will ensure that long after my time is up – whenever it’s up – my kids will still be collecting royalty payments. You know, until recently, we all believed that Harper Lee only wrote one novel and has been living pretty well on it ever since.
I don’t want to be Harper Lee, or J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King. I still want to be me – just with one crackerjack book or story that resonates so well with people, it will be in print when my great-grandchildren are going to high school. And if we are all bound together by story, isn’t the opposite of this our shared fear that our story will not last, or perhaps worse: that we will outlast our own story.
Now, here’s the thing – that writerly bow I promised you. I am not my legs, I am not my symptoms. I am not my disease. And you are not your legs, your eyes – no matter how sparkling, or your smile – no matter how bright. If you struggle with an illness, that is not you. You are not defined by your physicality or mobility or illness or health. You are not defined by your wealth – or lack thereof. You are not your house, your car, or your job. These are just colors. You are your story. Whatever it is, for however long it may last, for whoever will listen.
Share it – with friends, family, children, grandchildren, strangers at the coffee shop, people at the bar you find interesting or attractive or both, colleagues and peers that you admire, and those that you strongly dislike as well. Do this because we’ve already proven that the boundaries of story do not exist. Write it down, talk it out, sing it if you like, but share it. Craft a sculpture, which is a moment of a story frozen in time, paint a picture, which is a window into a story, compose a song or a sonnet, keep journals for your children, take pictures – but not selfies – because you will probably remember your part of the story, anyway. No matter the form or the medium, find a way, any way, to capture your story, and share it with someone, someday. Not because you will be quotable later, not because you will be remembered globally or even locally, but because the value of a story is in its sharing, in its power to bring people together, across any and all boundaries, for even the briefest of moments.
You are your story, and our world is made entirely of story. Stories written out on paper or published in magazines and books. Stories read at poetry readings with snapping fingers in place of clapping and berets that should never be worn except by really cute girls with bohemian tattoos. Stories revealed in songs on the radio or around the campfire. Stories shouted at the cold stars or cried into the wet grass next to a headstone. Stories whispered to small children at bedtime. Stories shared at the water fountain, in offices, in hallways, in classrooms and boardrooms. Stories giggled in the dark of a bedroom with a lover or a spouse. Stories of grand, fictional imagination or the most common of events, of love and hate, happiness and sorrow, sex and death. There is no subject, real or imagined, that cannot be encompassed by the power of story. The medium of words is my way, but it doesn’t have to be your way so long as you understand that finding the medium of your story and sharing it is what matters.
So, we end where we began. I am not my legs. I am my story. There will come a time, I know, that this body will fail me. Sooner rather than later. My disease will raise the tides hurricane high and they will not recede and the words of the stories I want to tell will elude me – or worse, the words will be there, but I will not be able to get them out. And yes, should you wonder, I am terrified of losing the precious gift of being able to tell my stories. But your gift, most hopefully, will not. Story is not just my gift, but a gift belonging to everyone sitting in this room, everyone you know… everyone you don’t. You do not know how much time you have with this gift, but to ignore it is a disservice to yourself, your family, your community, and ultimately, your world.
And perhaps some of you are sitting there, wondering silently, “Why, Russell, in the name of God would you share this depressing crap with us?” And my answer is simple: it is my gentle reminder to all of you:  type faster.
You are your story. Share it.

© 2015, Russell Davis. Please do not reprint this without express, written permission. Linking to this blog post is, of course, fine.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Speaking of MFA Programs...

One of the questions I often field from potential students to the MFA program at Western State Colorado University is what makes us different than other programs. That would be a very long post indeed, and I may write about it someday, but here's a (very) short answer: we're a curriculum-based genre fiction program. Put simply, our students don't just workshop pieces back and forth with a single instructor or a peer group. Instead, we have a curriculum plan that has actual classes where students both write/workshop and study the various genres of fiction. There are also required courses in pedagogy, the business of being a writer and the publishing industry, and so on. It's an intense program.

So, since there's clearly an issue out there in the world with the idea that one type of fiction is more worthy than another (utter bullshit, of course), I thought people might find it amusing to take a look at the required reading (and watching) materials for my genre studies course this semester:

Hondo by Louis L'Amour
True Grit by Charles Portis
Unforgiven (1992) - Directed by Clint Eastwood
Firefly, Season 1, Episode 1 or 2 (depending on source): The Train Job (2002) - Directed by Joss Whedon
Dune by Frank Herbert
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Dragonbreath #1 by Ursula Vernon
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Now, I didn't post this to engage in a long discussion with anyone about what I *should* have chosen, or how I could've chosen differently. I only post it to share with anyone who cares one simple idea: if you want to be a successful writer, you need to study successful writers. You need to read (or watch) a lot of different things and figure out how they succeed and how they fail. How you respond to them as a writer, so you know how to respond to your own ideas on the page.

If you're considering an MFA program, ask to see the reading list. If you've never heard of anyone on it, you might think about the kind of writer you really want to be.

Write on,


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On MFA Programs and the Numerous Internet Articles of Late

The last couple of weeks have brought an interesting spate of articles to light in regards to MFA programs. Before I dive in - and believe me, I'm going to dive in, so brace yourself - I should be upfront about... let's call it perspective.

First, I should tell you that I have an MFA, and I teach for a low-residency MFA program in genre fiction at Western State Colorado University. I'll get into that in more detail shortly, but in all fairness, a part of my perspective comes from being on the inside of it all.

Second, if you cruise around this very website, you'll see that I've written and published quite a number of books, under a whole bunch of different names. This isn't even all of them, since there are a handful I can't admit to due to contractual obligations. Now, going back to that perspective thing... they're all genre books, and even worse, many of them are either media tie-in or work for hire. No doubt those of you reading this who have a more "literary" world view just shivered a little bit, or perhaps even threw up in your mouth before you had to swallow the bile back down. Sorry about that. I understand your reaction, you see, because I'm... this is hard to admit... give me a moment... okay, I'm a sellout. You see, I studied poetics for almost all of my undergraduate education (University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, if you're curious) under people like Denise Sweet (who later become the Wisconsin Poet Laureate) and published work in literary magazines you've never heard of and are no doubt already defunct. My first chapbook of poetry was given great blurbs by (you'll never believe this) Kyoko Mori and Patrick McKinnon. I almost convinced Amiri Baraka, but I wasn't angry enough at the time. 

Anyway, I studied poetics and then I realized something: I loved writing and I also loved eating and paying my rent and going out to coffee and things like that. So, I turned to fiction and not literary fiction (because let's face it - that pays about as well as poetry), but genre fiction. The same genres I grew up reading. The same genres my mother spent pretty much every spare dime and then some keeping me in books to the best of her ability. The same genres that made me fall in love with story and character and the written word way back when I was too young to even know what genre meant.

So, that's part of my perspective, too, right? And if it isn't totally clear, I need to make it so: in space no one can hear you scream, and in poetry and literary fiction, damn few people can hear you, either. It's a very small world of people, some of whom are quite lovely and nice and amazingly knowledgeable, and some of whom are so invested in mental and mutual literary masturbation that to any vaguely objective outsider, the whole thing looks like a giant, self-congratulatory circle jerk. I didn't fit well into that world when push came to shove because I wanted people - lots of people - to read what I wrote while I was still around to enjoy it. I wanted to be loud.

And I mean all this in the nicest of ways because really - totally honest? - I do not give one flying fuck what you write, so long as you do. Write poems, write literary stories, write science fiction, mystery, action, memoir, anything and everything. Write what you want, read what you want... but don't look down your nose at anyone else for what they write or read. The truth is there's no such thing as a sellout, and if you think there is, you're wrong. We're writers. We tell stories and if you want to claim the writing moral high ground because you're "literary," have I got news for you: Twain was a genre writer. Poe was a genre writer. So was Dickens. And Hemingway. Steinbeck. Hawthorne. Melville. I could go on and on, but let's end with this: so are you. Dress it up how you want, literary fiction is a genre, too.

Okay, so now we've gotten the perspective part out of the way, and you'll know where I'm coming from, even if you disagree with my perspective, let alone what I've got to say next.

The article that apparently started it all was THINGS I CAN SAY ABOUT MFA WRITING PROGRAMS NOW THAT I NO LONGER TEACH IN ONE by Ryan Boudinot. Mr. Boudinot had some pretty interesting things to say about MFA programs, beginning with the assumption (I think) that they're all pretty much the same. I'm not going to refute every point he made, but there's a couple I'd like to highlight.
  • He asserts that writers are born with talent. He goes on to clarify this in a couple of minor ways, essentially concluding that not all writers are born equal. This is silliness, of course. Absolutely NO writers are born with automatic writing talent of any kind. The reason for this is because we cannot write when we emerge from the womb. We cannot read, either. Some writers show talent earlier than others. Some later. Some have an amazing grasp of story or plot or character early on, but struggle with dialogue for years. Some have this, some have that. There is no special magic dust that the talent fairy sprinkles on you at birth or in the womb that makes you a better writer at birth than someone else. What is undeniably true, however, is that some writers are better than others, at certain aspects of the art or craft, at certain times, and maybe at all times. That doesn't automatically invalidate the work of one or the other. Students don't need to be Joyce or Orwell or Wallace or even Clancy, Grisham, King, or Koontz to be the "REAL DEAL." All they need is to be themselves and dedicated to getting better. The fact that Mr. Boudinot apparently had, by his own admission, less than five "REAL DEAL" students the entire time he was teaching is, I suspect, a reflection on him, not his students. (And if you were one of his students, I'm so sorry.)
  • The taking it seriously by the time you were a teenager thing is just... idiotic and unaware.
  • The "serious reader" thing I almost get. Almost. I don't know what he actually means by serious reader. I get the feeling that he means serious in terms of the works being read, as opposed to the quantity. See, in the real world of writing (more on that shortly), a serious reader is someone who reads a lot - really a lot. In a lot of different genres. They read good books and bad books (which teach you more anyway). They re-read books they love and chuck books they hate across the room. That's a serious reader. If that's what Mr. Boudinot means, I'm on board. On the other hand, if he means that you must read serious works of literature... well, then he doesn't get this whole writing and reading thing very well, anyway.
  • Last note on this particular article. Mr. Boudinot reveals that after he got his degree, he spent seven years - seven fucking years! - writing work that no one has ever read. He asserts that in this time frame, he managed two novels and some stories totaling (sound of trumpets) 1500 pages! So... in 2555 days (not accounting for leap years), he wrote an average of 0.59 pages a day. That's... I mean... that's less than 150 words a day. Was he writing in his own blood? With a quill? How long did it take him to write that fucking article? Seriously, sir, if you're out there and reading this, two things: 1) Write faster for God's sake. Put some muscle into it and actually work the damn page. 2) Writing that no one will ever see is the exact opposite goal of the students you "taught" in your role as an MFA instructor. Even if they were literary students, they wanted someone to see it. Share your writing with the world, otherwise, well... we're back to the masturbation thing, and this time, you're all alone.
The next article I read was AN OPEN LETTER TO THAT EX-MFA CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER DUDE by Chuck Wendig. I don't have to say much about this one, because Chuck is pretty awesome all on his own, and way funnier than I am. Plus, bees.

After that, I sort of thought it would all die down, and then I read two more:
HOW THE MFA GLUT IS A DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS, TEACHERS, AND WRITERS by Anonymous and VOCATIONAL GRATITUDE AND THE MFA by Adrian Van Young. This is already a long post, so I'm going to go fast here. In regards to the first article... if you aren't willing to put your name on it - or at least a good pseudonym - you may as well stick to writing online erotica (and, btw, the name Buck Naked is already taken, so don't go there). Seriously, though, this article raises some valid points, especially about pay for play programs. The problem I have is with the assertion that there are only two potential benefits to an MFA, one of which the author immediately eliminates, and the other of which he or she dismisses.

The best part of the article is this: "If you don’t like expanding your reading tastes (or reading, period), if you can’t meet deadlines, if you have no desire to receive feedback from other people, if you have no interest in improving your work, if you just want an echo chamber instead of a critique, if you aren’t interested in questions of craft, if you think writing is a get-rich-quick scheme and are looking to write the next [insert blockbuster here], if you can’t handle rejection or criticism, if you have no desire to revise, and if you’re not comfortable with the idea that some stuff you write will never see the light of day, then don’t get an MFA. You don’t belong there. (Also, all of these qualities will make being a writer very difficult.) It is a waste of your time and money, and the time of your instructor, and your classmates who have potential and who care about their classes." That part is worth reading over a couple of times. The rest of the article... your mileage will vary.

The other article is a partial rebuttal of the very first one, and I'll leave you to read it or not, as you see fit.

Now, coming back to those things I said we would, I want to be sure that people contemplating getting their MFA actually do know a couple of things, since Mr. Boudinot is only one of a fairly significant number of people that have been in a hue and cry over MFA programs in the last five or so years.

1) Not all MFA programs are created equal. Some are funded, some are not (which means either loans or paying out of pocket). Some are full-time, on campus. Some are low-residency (and this doesn't mean the same thing at every program, either). Some are focused on the workshop model that came out of Iowa. Some (like the one I teach for) uses a curriculum-based model combined with continual workshop activity. Some, I'm sure, do it in other ways. What matters is that if you are contemplating getting your MFA, do your research. Talk to the program about curriculum and pedagogy and ask if you can talk to students in the program. In short, act like a reasonable human being about something that will require a lot of your time, if not your money, and do some homework. Make sure it's a fit for what you want as a writer, rather than trying to mold yourself into what you think the program believes is a writer.

2) Not all MFA teachers are created equal. Wait, let me rephrase: not all teachers are created equal. Sure, some of us are born with the talent to teach, but many others will struggle all their lives to even grasp the very basics of how to give a lecture on the shape of plot to a group of hung-over twenty-somethings with the idea that they'll be the next ______. Okay, that was snark. Of course there are good teachers and bad teachers. You do remember your undergraduate experience, right? Some good, some bad. How about high school? Same thing. The good news for MFA students is that even when they stumble upon the so-called "bad" teacher, there are still things to learn, even if it's what you shouldn't do, if you decide to teach someday yourself. Even if it's what you disagree with, because part of learning to write well IS learning what not to do, what you don't agree with with, what doesn't work for you as a writer.

3) For the sake of argument, let's assume you do want to get an MFA. Here's what comes with it at the very end: ideally, you will have read a lot, written a lot more, engaged/talked a lot with fellow students and/or instructor(s), and you'll get a nice piece of paper when you graduate that says you have an MFA. Any program that promises more than this is lying. There are no guarantees of publication or a teaching job of any kind. To be fair, there are no guarantees of a job with any degree, but finding a full-time, tenure track position these days is very difficult. Not impossible. Just very difficult. Welcome to life. If this is what you love to do and you want to do it, then very difficult won't matter one bit to you, and oh, btw, writing well is very difficult, too.

So, now the end of this very long rant. If any article on the Internet is enough to convince you to get or not get your MFA, please seek immediate help from a qualified professional of some kind. It's your life and, more importantly, your dream. Chase it in the way that seems best to you, and trust me, born with talent or not, you'll have a far better chance of achieving it.

Write on,