2011 will mark 10 years I've been publishing, so by some standards, that means I've been a writer for a decade. My first publication was in the University of Arkansas' literary and arts magazine Exposure, which I don't believe exists anymore. Shame. They published a poem of mine entitled "The Garden" back in 2001. It was as much a surprise to me as anyone. I'm not going to post the poem here because it was terrible, but it was a start. It took me another year, really, to get published nationally, but by 2002 I was appearing in some decent journals like Story South, Hobart, Nimrod--for which Skip Hays shook my hand and introduced me around the department. Pretty good for an undergrad. who was really just a country boy from the Delta.
2001 was also the year I took two very important workshops--Creative Writing II with Skip Hays, Donald if you're nasty (that one's for you, Matt) and Poetry with Miller Williams. Skip was the finest teacher of writing I've ever had, which is a little sad considering I'm talking about CWII and I went on to grad. school after this. But really, it's a testament to how good Skip is. (He's also a damn fine writer.) He kicked my ass so bad classmates would come up to me and apologize after class, which always surprised me--maybe I was just more used to the stick method than the carrot. Skip tore me a new one, just about everyday, and boy did I need it. I remember this one poem about smoking pot and getting a handjob--I described the semen hitting the wall and sliding down. Skip spent a solid 2 minutes pondering how, exactly, semen would slide down a wall--would it drip or sort of ooze--before concluding that this poem 'took us into the shit house both literally and figuratively'. He taught me to respect not only my audience, but the work itself. If you're interested, here's a story from that class I dusted off and published over at Thieves Jargon.
When I decided to go to grad. school, I went and talked to Skip to see what he thought. "Have you ever been out of the South?" he asked. "I've been to St. Louis," I said, which was all the answer he needed. He told me to get as far away from the South as I could. I ended up at Hollins in Virginia because, well, they gave me a lot of money. At least it wasn't Arkansas. Of course, I've missed Fayetteville ever since I left. It was good for me in certain ways, though. Hollins isn't like the U of A. Forgive me, but my experiences at the U of A were incredible and life-changing and full of assholes who didn't understand why the world hadn't realized how brilliant they were. I used to call them "grad. students" but to be perfectly honest, the worst of them were undergrads sucking up to the grad. students. My point is, at U of A there was a definite demarcation between grad. and undergrad. I think this is fairly common at MFA programs. Not exactly so at Hollins--Hollins doesn't coddle its grad. students. Likewise, at U of A, I might be required to write 3 stories a term. At Hollins, I wrote that in a week, no revisions, no 'I'm just tightening this one up for the fifth time before I send it out'. It was new work, every class period. You know, like in the real world. U of A taught me nuts and bolts. Hollins taught me work ethic. I had my first poetry collection picked up at Hollins. I wrote a draft of my first real novel, hell my first two. I went in to Hollins with maybe 50 publications under my belt and came out with a few hundred and a body of work I'm still sifting through.
Back to U of A--another class I took 10 years ago was Miller William's Poetry workshop. Miller Williams was a superstar at U of A. He was Bill Clinton's second inaugural poet. He was Lucinda Williams' father. He was a lynchpin of the program. He shit daisies and farted sunshine. I got into his class, and by the second week or so, had developed a real healthy hate for the bulk of my classmates. Don't get me wrong--there were two or three folks in there who were so far beyond me as writers it took me most of the term to catch up, but most of them were, as Skip had taught me, taking us into the shithouse. (I should say "we".) They wrote about that one time they went to Paris. They wrote about how, even though their parents were paying their bills, they were independent now. They wrote about poverty from the persepctive of kids who've never gone hungry. They wrote about the trifling concerns of the 20-something in earnest prose that Miller macheted to pieces. My buddy Chris Fulelrton always mentions the time Miller passed one of my poems back to me and said, "I cut 87 words from this poem." That was it. We moved on. Or the time I turned in a poem about what a waste of time poetry is when compared to all the tragedies in the world (like, you know, somebody doing DRUGS!) entitled "Poem for Mr. Williams" and Miller said, "I wish that I had the time to care," and passed that one back. (In his defense, it wasn't exactly how it sounded--the title was really a shorthand--'Poem for Mr. Williams' CLASS' because I didn't have a title, but it came off sounding like an indictment of the man and his life's work.) Butm unlike, apparently, many of them, I had a revelation. So while my classmates wrote poems about their hair, I started writing about rice farming. When they wrote about the time they went back-packing in Europe, I wrote about the time I helped dress a yearling. I started trying to write about things that mattered. If you're interested, my first real breakthrough poem from that class was called "Roaches". It's a little choppy, but I still like it. If anything could be called my 'first' real poem, it's that, right down to the hint of surrealism.
I did some cyber-stalking a year or two back and found that most of the folks I went to classes with at U of A aren't publishing much these days. Most of them never did publish much. To be honest, it's a rare week that goes by when I don't have something picked up or published. But maybe that's just me. I've always talked too much. Let me be clear: I always felt like the kid hanging around the grown-ups' table, as a writer. In classes, I tried everything that was suggested to me about my writing. I never had a swelled head. Some of my classmates had puffed-out chests about their work. They thought they were hot shit. Who was I to argue? I was a country boy. They'd been to Paris once. And yet it's strange to me that so many of my classmates have fallen by the wayside. Maybe they still write but can't be bothered to send it out. I don't keep in contact with most of them. My classmates from Hollins are slightly more prolific. A couple of them run journals. Of course, a couple of them regularly publish novels or collections, too. So there's that. I exchange emails or phone calls with a couple, visit a couple every now and then. I made a real good friend at U of A and a couple friends at Hollins. I accumulated six figures of debt--counting my wife's loans. I had written a novel before I ever went to college, and well over a thousand poems. They were all shit; that's why I went to college to study writing. I went to grad. school to hone my craft and become part of a community of writers. It's awful lonely writing on the farm. That was my goal--to feel like I knew what I was doing when I sat down in front of the blank page. I've written about my pre-college writing here.
So here I am, ten year later. I've got the debt. I've got 4 books out (well, my 4th is due out any day now...) and a stack of manuscripts keeping the post office in business. I haven't made enough money to really even mention. Sure, I get the odd $100 from this journal, $50 from that one, but I've never made real money at writing. Maybe I'm wrong, then. Maybe I'm not a real writer until I make a living writing. I guess that gives me a goal for the next ten years.