No Subjects: The Futile System of Writing Without Community

In July of 2009, I wrote and published the previous blog entry on Facebook. At the time, I was at Mills College, feeling very frustrated by the level of involvement I was receiving from the professors for whose interest I was paying so much money. It seemed that the professors were so involved in their own projects, they couldn’t afford to give us students fifteen minutes, let alone four semesters of their precious time. I wasn’t the only one. One of my fellow students didn’t even get a reading of his thesis by his adviser so that when it came time for the adviser to talk about his work in front of the rest of the graduating class as part of the Master of Fine Arts graduation ceremonies, she didn’t even know how to describe the budding writer’s work. Another adviser filled her students’ names in on a form letter, using the same words to describe all of them, even though they were among the most talented, visionary and prolific writers in our class. Another of my friends from our graduating class received responses to his work at such a slow pace, he felt he had little to no direction for the outcome of the final project. For my part, I had enough involvement by my thesis director to satisfy me and prompt responses from my second reader, though I’ve heard little or nothing from them since graduation. However, one of the professors that was supposed to read my work and who expressed interest in becoming my thesis director prior to my last semester, returned my work with an apology note stating she was unable to read it (even though she asked me to give the work to her, not the other way around). We don’t just have teachers to blame for these infractions. I think we can all agree that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system. The current state of affairs suggests that the only way a writer can make money in most cases is to teach. Yet, to teach requires so much time of the professor, that professor must practically swear off writing any new work in order to give the students the amount of time they need to become better writers who must then get into the teaching profession, doomed to repeat the same cycle. If we look at the root causes of why this is so, might we find in our communities a general lack of interest for the written word or for art?

In San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, there is a literary event almost every night. If I wanted to find a musical act, a play, a poetry reading or an art gallery showing, I could do that, full time, Monday through Sunday without missing a beat. But, all of the reading events I’ve been to, with the exception of Literary Death Match (taking place at the Elbo Room and run by Alia Volz and a group of dedicated volunteers), the intake of money into these events is incrementally small. Most poetry events are “free” or ask for donations (you don’t have to give one, but it’s good form if you do), yet the till comes up with so little overall cash that venues have a hard time staying open to offer space for these events to occur. There must be general interest since many of the events I’ve either been to or put on have been packed, many of them standing room only. So why are we so hesitant to give such venues our money?

Last night, I was privileged to perform at Paul Corman-Roberts’ and Valerie Chavez’ fledgling series “Bitchez Brew.” My performance was well received, yet I only sold one copy of my book, Memory House, to an old man who hadn’t even seen the show. He was talking to the proprietor with one of his elbows on a copy of Memory House. My ride was about to head off without me, and I was collecting the unsold copies of my book. It was awkward, but I asked him, “Sir, are you finished with that?” indicating my book.
“I think I want this one,” he said gruffly. “How much is it?”
“Ten dollars,” I answered, smiling.
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” he growled.
“Is that too much?”
The finality and tactlessness with which he said, “Yes!” took me aback. He begrudgingly handed me a crinkled $20.00 bill. I gave him his change and thanked him for buying the book.
“It’s good to have people like you who come out to the shows and support the community,” I said.
“I didn’t come to the show,” He snarled, complaining that the absence of anything other than an electronic reminder system kept him from knowing what was going on, since he didn’t “do” computers. I left feeling rather confused, almost guilty for even having written the book in the first place.

Having a book was a bit anti-climactic, just like earning the MFA. For one thing, it doesn’t really matter how much work you put into an MFA thesis. It all comes down to whether or not your margins are spaced properly and whether you remembered to pay the $40.00 binding fee. No one reads the work and congratulates you on it. And let’s be frank: getting an MFA doesn’t require any particular skill. It just requires some stick-to-it-iveness and the willingness to carry the debt for the rest of your life. More than that, it’s an understanding that you’ll write your little heart out alone, subject it over and over to an audience that more and more desires something new and more exciting than the last time, and often isn’t afraid to let you know it, for no money and just a little praise. If I add up how much I’ve spent on my education ($60,000 give or take) and how much money I’ve actually made on my writing in all the years I’ve been doing it ($300 in twenty years, and I rounded up), my decision to earn an MFA and even write at all make the least sense of any financial transaction I’ve ever made. You are probably asking yourself: if it’s so difficult and so unrewarding, why do it?

I’ve been asking myself that too. I think the answer is this: I simply have to. I am happier about things and about myself when I am writing. I love the way my fingers feel on the keys. I love the cursive black letters on the white surface that I see when I’m writing in my journal. I’m never far from a leather bound journal or notebook, I describe the things I do to myself daily as if I’m writing a novel. I think of conversations in terms of dialogue. I imagine plots that make my life more interesting. And most of all, I’m happier in the made up world than I am in the real one. I don’t know why I started writing. But I do know why I continue. I can’t imagine my life without writing. Even if it’s never published, even if it never sees the light of day, I write because I must. Because that’s what is in me to do.

Still, I can’t help but think how great it would be to have an audience who could start helping to support its writers as furiously as it supports its entertainers, ministers, psychics, cooks and drug dealers. I make it a point to buy books from people I know. I make it a point to buy books from people I never met, but whose writing I admire. I buy escapist fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and everything in between. Mostly, I like buying the work of my friends. The San Francisco literary scene is supportive like no other place in the world. It’s an estuary for budding writers, performers and artists of all kinds. Its audiences are among the most sympathetic and excited of all the crowds I can imagine. And yes, most of us are broke. But, instead of supporting a church with tithes, the poetry and fiction writers I encounter are my ministry. I worship at the church of poets. So next time you’re at a reading listening to poetry or fiction that you really like, if you can’t afford to chip in and buy a book, at least take a moment to tell the poet/storyteller/performer how much you enjoyed what they do. Take time to send an email or message to those you admire. Start a conversation. Join the community. Tell your friends. There are ways to support writers other than money. Money’s nice too, though. And hey, we even accept gift cards.


~ by ImaginaryCanary on February 27, 2011.

2 Responses to “No Subjects: The Futile System of Writing Without Community”

  1. So when and where is the next Bay Area reading?

  2. It’s actually February 19th at 7:30 p.m. at Viracocha (21st and Mission). You should come out!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: