Nothing will fuck up your writing more than academic writing. I read some stories I wrote long ago, and while they were imitative and narrow, the writing in them far outclasses anything I ever wrote for college. Ever.
I first went into history because the writing people at UMKC were more interested in themselves than in teaching a thick head like me anything about writing. I expected, perhaps wrongly, that these college types—people who studied language and published books of poetry and prose—would teach me the mechanics of writing. I needed the letters, words, grammars so essential to expression desperately and didn’t know how to master them.
It turns out that historians pay close attention to such matters. The rigors they put me through made me want more and more. I was thirsty, needy, and needful. The historians, I believed, held the key to turning on the sun.
I always wanted to be a writer. Since I was a little kid, that’s all I ever dreamed of. In many ways, I wrote myself into being during the degradation of a rough, random childhood. I kept all those things to myself, not knowing how to bring them to the light.
In many ways they did their work well. Through Master’s and Doctorate programs, I learned the nuts and bolts of putting together sentences and arranging paragraphs.
But historians have deficiencies as debilitating to the writer who has no talent or skill as academics who know writing but don’t know how to teach it. Without sufficient guidance from my mentors, I constantly wondered if I wrote things that mattered, that advanced my knowledge and that of the rest of us. I tripped along, unsure and insecure. I begged for the direction, some insight that would help me find the truth I sought. Being denied that and wanting the approval no one can give me, I lost the last drips of confidence, wonder, and dreaming.
In the end, it is not my historian mentors’ fault and I have looked to them for too much. Historians are solitary animals. Many of them have the social skills of lab rats. They do not like confrontation, and like those terrible creative writing teachers, they could not untangle the less-than-obvious for the hard-headed.
Without significant instruction in the navigation of academic status and class, I fumbled, fell, and found myself against the limits of my own maturity and personality. I never found the courage to take on big, difficult subjects in my own way either because of their truncated imaginations or limitations as teachers. I wound up trying to write like someone else and it’s nearly killed me.
I sit here now and realize academics never had the ability to help me find the stories within. Going through the motions of academic work, faking it really, I have written awful stuff–referenced, cross-referenced, cited drivel. My theses have been thin or unable to carry academic work. Until now, I lacked the courage and bravery to put myself on the line. I have been demure, afraid that I would make a mistake. But those fears can only produce mistakes, bad writing, and terrible stories.
Those stories I wrote so many years ago are so much better than anything I have written for the academy. History taught me a great deal but diverted me from the poetry that reveals truth—not only to me, but to the people who might read the insignificant bits I write.
The work ahead will be difficult. I think of it in the night and it keeps me awake. Starting next week, I have to take a miserable and hardly coherent dissertation and turn it into a doctoral work. Before then, I have a creative work to finish for a publisher. Dread stalks me. That dissertation and the heartache it has produced saps the energy and confidence I once had for my book. I think of the inadequate guidance I’ve gotten in pursuing it and I am resentful. That resentment stands in the way of finishing both my book and the dissertation itself.
I suppose I write to you tonight, my friend, because I want to sleep. I must direct the anger to good ends. The must transform doubt—that inertial force—into energy that will take the work through to the end. It is a thin line between not caring and letting it all go. I know that putting my head down, producing the work in spite of the fear, anger, and doubt will get me through. The Promised Land is just within reach, but I must cut the safety. I have to fall.
When I was younger, I went rappelling with a high school group. The hardest part of that work was going over the edge. I dawdled and hesitated. I made excuses and found reasons not to go. Everyone told me it was all right. I could just back away and sit it out. There would be nothing lost. But I couldn’t pull myself away from the edge. I had to go but didn’t know how. A woman came over and pushed me. Gently, mind you, but it was enough to get me to the face of that bluff.
What I’ve found and what I realize tonight as I write myself into being is that I have to cast myself into the void. God, I want to. But isn’t that the problem? The person who doubts, who understands the draw of the chasm, and who is cemented to hard ground has to be the one who pushes himself over the edge.
I can’t give up being a writer. It’s not something I’m capable of doing.
As always, I look forward to your next missive.