As a writer who doesn’t (yet) have a book out, it’s easy to feel invisible. The Ohio Arts Council (OAC) Individual Excellence Award makes me feel seen. When I’m struggling with self-doubt, the award provides mood enhancement. In addition to the money and recognition, recipients are invited to apply for a variety of funded residencies. It’s a huge boost for me.
At AULA, where my focus was fiction, I attended a poetry seminar—I don’t remember who the teacher was. But I recall him saying that you have to decide if you’re a hobbyist or a poet. I hoped I wasn’t a hobbyist, I hoped I was a real writer. Looking back, I think that before Antioch, I was a passionate hobbyist. Attending Antioch, dedicating that much time and money to support my urge to write, helped me take my writing much more seriously. It was a big step. At Antioch, residencies and mentoring taught me about craft, community, and the writing life. I still have a circle of impossible-without comrades from that time. Antioch provided a place to practice, and a community.
I was working at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when I heard about the low residency MFA program. It appealed to me that AULA didn’t require me to uproot. And the MFA program was quite innovative back then (1999-2001), using technology really effectively to promote community and support the learning environment. These were the days of text-based email message boards, before web-based learning platforms emerged. Before social media! We got to know each other at the residency, then back at home, through the font and color of text we used. It was astonishing how intense, complex, and exquisite just words on the screen could be. The amazing human Eloise Klein Healy and her colleagues Tara Ison, Bernard Cooper, David Ulin, Jim Krusoe, and others were extremely smart and thoughtful about creating a program from the best of disparate modes: rich, full residencies supported by internet communication. AULA MFA online was a substantive environment. It was a golden time for me. And in December, it was lovely to escape Ohio for the sunshine of LA!
I finished my thesis novel and wrote another novel. I’ve written and published essays and short stories—two of my stories were chosen for year’s best anthologies. Now I’m working on a memoir. I love blogging as a place to write mini-essays and tack up the ephemera from the creative self. In addition to AULA alumni workshops, I’ve attended workshops with Lynda Barry and Nick Flynn, who have been hugely influential in my creative process.
In 2009, I began teaching at the individualized MA program in creative writing at Antioch University Midwest in Yellow Springs. Subsequently I have taught creative writing to second- and third-year students at Antioch College, first-year students at The Modern School of Design, and now high school and middle school students at Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton. My students keep getting younger! This progression is actually quite perfect, because I’ve always been a little obsessed with the wonder of childhood, the spark that shouldn’t die. A huge part of my work also centers on how to renegotiate the relationship with the inner critic, alleviate self-doubt, and move toward liberation. I’ve blogged about the inner critic a lot. (“The faster I write, the more I’m able to outrun my self-doubt,” said AULA’s Gayle Brandeis.) If there’s a Horace Mann urge inside me—“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”—it’s connected my teaching and practice of inner critic demystification.
We make the world. Antioch—the ideal—needs each of us to strive for justice. Figure out what this means for you, for your community, for the world, and do what you can. If you are in a position of privilege, read and listen and learn beyond what you know. Allow the vista of your imagination and your life to expand. Expect a diversity of voices everywhere. Demand it. Resist silence and resist silencing others. Do everything you can.
And I would give this advice to any writer (or maybe any human): Find ways to sustain your creative life and practice. Find paths and help others find paths. Notice those tiny things that don’t seem to matter. Everything matters. Feed your optimism. Renegotiate the relationship with the inner critic. At a recent Antioch Writers’ Workshop keynote speech, Connie Schultz called writing a head game. She’s right. It’s been seventeen years since I graduated from AULA. I’ve continued to write, and teach, and publish, and I’ve made a life of writing, because it’s who I am, but still, self-doubt nips at my heels because I haven’t published a book. Be patient. It’s easy to give up. Don’t give up.