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Years ago—how many? Counting backwards confuses me, so let’s just rephrase…
Once upon a time, I experienced a terrible creative block. I was into my poet phase, that lost decade that started up when a professor called me into his office, ecstatic, to ask where I had studied.
Where? I was an anomaly. One of those great grades, on-track, good kids who discovered partying by junior high, whose grades took a sudden drop, who cut and run from high school in her senior year, who got her GED and decided, tired of five years of factory work and crappy hours, mentally exhausting roommates, and the terrible feeling that her life was going to waste, to get thee into college.
I had studied nowhere. The School of Street, I wanted to say. The School of sitting in hallways, gripped pencil in hand, oblivious to between-class bells, the distant clamor of kids in ripped jeans and flannel shirts, the nudgings of a rare, occasional friend who ribbed me for scribbling, always scribbling, always writing—even during parties. The School of Quitting in my senior year. The School of California Barrio. Of hitchhiking and wandering and, upon finally hitting the path toward higher education, changing my major four times till—thank you, Professor McShane—that wonderful day when I made my way to the University of Nebraska‘s English Department Chair, parked myself in his office, and told him of my woes.
I had somehow landed in Journalism, and my newswriting and reporting class was giving me the heebie jeebies. I explained about the hopelessness, the waywardness, the wrong fit, and how I thought I belonged in the English Department, but I didn’t know what on earth I would do with a degree in English. I wanted to be a writer. A writer. I had known that since I was 3, maybe 4, and I would hunker down on the tiny kitchen floor of our cramped trailer, drawing with crayons and conjuring up elaborate stories for my baby brother, who laughed and babbled from his highchair.
But there it was. The unspoken “artist” word. Everyone had always said it was a bad way to go. Financially. Emotionally. A downward spiral on a doomed, thumbtacked road to ruin. Artists don’t make it, the collective “they” said. They starve and go unnoticed. Maybe they get famous after they die. That wasn’t it though. I cast about Professor McShane’s office. How to make him see? My fingers twitched for want of a yellow legal pad and a freshly sharpened no.2 pencil.
Nobody got it. Nobody got me. I wanted, I wanted, I wanted…
Professor McShane leaned across the desk, a keen little spark in his eye. “They’re trying to tell you how to write, aren’t they?”
Fifth time’s the charm. I changed majors that afternoon.
Which led to a poetry class, which led to writing stuff I didn’t understand, but that somehow won awards and was published and earned me a little spot of local fame. And it all started with that visit to the professor (not McShane) who asked me where I’d studied. That was it! I was a poet. Or so I thought for the next decade.
After many, many poems and years of expectation, and a personal invite from then-Creative Writing Program director Garrett Hongo to The University of Oregon to teach poetry as a graduate assistant–a road I did not take–the creative rush halted. The words refused to come.
If you’ve ever known a long, fruitless spell, you’ll understand my devastation.
I dreamed, then, of John Lennon. He joined me on a walk across the field from one of my childhood homes, and we sat near a drainage ditch with the faint stench of stagnant water in the air. I examined his red and white striped hat that wasn’t a hat at all, but a sock, and it led me to all sorts of Dr. Seuss analogies that never got said. He gestured then, John did, silencing me though I hadn’t spoken.
His voice was clear and resonant and Liverpool with a bit of New York. “You won’t be able to write till you take off that hat you’ve been wearing.”
And then, of course, I woke up before finding out what exactly he’d meant.
Some years later, while browsing through poet Marcia Southwick’s personal library, I spotted a book she had mentioned to me a few times: The Inner Game of Tennis.
“It’s all about getting out of our own way,” she said.
That hat, I thought. John Lennon. And something about Dr. Seuss.
…more to come…