On Writing

03 Jun


I think I’ve finally discovered my problem with writing…or at least what caused my problem with writing…

Let me take you back.  When I talked about my life, I thought it was normal.  Overly normal. I thought everyone worked summers in factories and shot beebee guns by firelight and wore patched jean jackets.  NORMAL.

Joe Mackall

The Great Joe Mackall

When I went to college at Ashland University, magic happened.  I somehow wound up in the English 101 class of Dr. Joe Mackall.  His first assignment?  A personal narrative about whatever we wanted.  So on a hot August night in my dorm room, I sat down and wrote about attending a KISS and Aerosmith concert–about how the grass felt on the lawn that night, cool yet sticky.  About how I somehow felt a kinship with people I didn’t know, and people I’d never really know, and how I felt more comfortable in decades prior to my time than in my own time.  I wrote about the chains that bounced off my hip as I climbed the hill of Germain Amphitheatre in Columbus, Ohio, and how I held the callused hands of a boy who kept me at skin’s length even though I wanted more than anything to be a part of him.

I turned in the paper.  The next class, Joe kept me after.  The humid air had crept in through the windows and the sweaty plastic of the desk stuck against my forearms.  I felt like I was suffocating.  “What’s your major?” he asked.

“Undecided…but leaning toward education?” I half-asked.  Was there a right answer?

“No.  Creative writing.  You have something here,” Joe said.  Apparently there was.  When I left Miller Hall that day, two weeks into my college career, I felt like I had direction for the first time.  The flowers were brighter and the sky was bluer, and I felt like Joe had uncovered a part of me that I didn’t even know existed, like he had peeled back my own calluses and exposed a raw, undeveloped part of me.

As with any “new skin,” this part of me was sensitive.  I babied it, wouldn’t fully walk on it right away.  It was an odd sensation, having someone believe that what I had to say was worth something, that my insights meant something.  That my story was one that people might want to hear.

I spent many nights at the computer, my chair tilted back on two legs, trying to find my reality.  Reality.  It felt so foreign then.  It felt like a thing of value.

All through college, I pecked away at my keyboard.  When I couldn’t write, I turned on Metallica, turned off the lights, and hung upside down on my futon.  I tried.

Four quick years later, I was getting ready to graduate when Joe asked me, “What do you think about grad school?”

I shrugged.  After a barrage of questions from my mother about what the hell I was going to do with a Creative Writing degree, I decided that grad school would only be a waste of money.

University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  You should apply.  A friend of mine, Philip Gerard, is down there.  You’ll learn a lot from him,” Joe said.

So I applied. I got accepted. I didn’t respond until they started calling me and asking me what I was going to do.    I decided I wouldn’t take it without a teaching assistantship, and the next day, I got the assistantship.  So in August of 2007, I moved to North Carolina with a fire in my hands to write.  I had managed to keep the skin that Joe revealed open–vulnerable, yet livable–everything that a writer should be.  Because if a writer is not vulnerable, are they really a writer?

The truth was that Philip Gerard was wonderful.  I felt comfortable with him much like I felt comfortable with Joe. I felt that I could learn something from them.  But, as I’ve mentioned, I could never fully enjoy grad school because I’m not sure I ever fully acclimated.  The place itself was wonderful, minus the humidity, and I ran into a few great people.  But most of the people there ruined it for me.  Remember that time I said “gypped”?  With everyone trying to be so politically correct, there was too much sameness.  People were letting go of their own identities so not to offend others.

But there was something else.  Something bigger.  Before I went to North Carolina, I found beauty in everyday things.  I saw beautiful, wonderful creatures in the people I worked with at Whirlpool, and I saw meaning in a dead-end bridge and a four-stroke engine.  I lost all that in North Carolina.  In North Carolina, I no longer felt like anything I had to say had meaning.  It felt like I was too normal.

This may or may not be true, and it may all be my own misconception, but it seemed very much like the only thing that was celebrated in my graduate program was the writing that was “different.”  And I understand that writing should be original, but when I say different, I mean crap like the lyric essay.  I mean taking so many risks with the format of the writing and the content that it no longer made sense.  It seemed like that was the stuff that was praised in grad school.  All I could think was, “Oh, you put a sentence four spaces down at the bottom and that space represents the emptiness you were feeling?  Shut up.”  When it came to writing, I always thought it was the truth behind it all, the crafting of the story, the reality that made it good.

I also suffered from what I call “The Plight of the Happy Writer.”  You see, all of the people I went to school with had some huge issue that they were dealing with, either from childhood, an ongoing battle with themselves, a sickness, a something.  I felt like I was at a disadvantage (in writing only) because something horrible hadn’t happened to me, because I wasn’t molested as a child, or struggling with my sexuality.  I had never been paid for certain sexual acts or had a horrible disease.  I hadn’t traveled all over the world and saw the beauty and devastation. I was just an Ohio girl who was realizing she didn’t really have anything to say.  And I became wonderfully happy with my lack of traumatic events.

So I let that callus that Joe so easily ripped off grow back over, and I hardened myself to writing.  I was surprised that this hurt more than when Joe ripped that callus, and more than the period of my life before I even knew I could write.  I was (read:  am) purposely suppressing something that came naturally to me in response to something that seemed unnatural to me.  I gave it up.

I haven’t been able to write since, but standing in the bathroom this morning while I was brushing my teeth, I saw that thing of beauty reemerge.  That simple, everyday beauty that comes from an overused toothbrush and a paste-flecked mirror.  I saw the imperfections, the reality of life creeping back in.  So I stuck my fingernail underneath the callus to see how easy it would be to lift away again.  Did I even want to? Baring one’s soul is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

But until then, I’ll enjoy the bent bristles of my toothbrush, the blue flecks on the glass, the cold tile underfoot, and I’ll keep picking at that callus to see if it’s ready to come off.  I hope that it will be soon.


Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Daily Happenings, Fremont


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10 responses to “On Writing

  1. Christopher

    June 3, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I know it’s not easy, but I REALLY hope you keep at it.
    I’m not a college professor, but I can say that you have the most beautiful way of telling a story. Always have. Even before you started writing them down. That’s what’s exciting about your writing. You’ve always been a little off, a little different, and I love it. You always told YOUR story, YOUR way.
    Those ones were always the best. So forget those ninnies who think that “the only way to truly express yourself through writing is to use the word to physically create the pictures you’re creating with your words.” Just tell your stories. I like ’em and I’ll keep reading ’em.

    • erica42285

      June 3, 2013 at 11:03 am

      🙂 Thanks, Chris. I’m sure I’ll get back into someday. Until then, I’ll focus on your writing.

      • Christopher

        June 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm

        Woo! Writing Mentor!

  2. Becca Obergefell (@OberBecca)

    June 3, 2013 at 11:20 am

    You already know this… but your writing was my favorite part of Creative Writing workshops. I was too scared to write my own words and to expose the tender skin, but marveled at the way your words seemed to describe normal things effortlessly, poetically. I hope you find a way to let that skin become tender again. When it does, I’ll be first in line to read it. Maybe second, after Joe.

    • erica42285

      June 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      Thank you so much, Becca. That warms my heart and puts that tingling back in my fingers.

  3. Erin Seabolt Bond

    June 3, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    This post really resonated with me. Since you’ve left, I’ve often found myself wondering why we didn’t manage to spend more time together while you were here! I think I missed out on so much. I love your “normalcy,” your working class sensibilities.

    Right now, I’m writing a zombie novel. I imagine the looks of shock and horror if I’d tried this in the MFA program. It’s quite freeing.

    (Though I do love me some lyric essays.)

    One question I keep wondering: how come we so rarely talked about plot? Why didn’t we talk about marketability? Why didn’t we read more profitable works?

    If we’re ever in the same city again, let’s get dinner and drinks. — xo

  4. erica42285

    June 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Erin,

    I, too, think that we should have spent more time together. You were one of the “great” ones, for sure. I truly enjoyed reading about the coal mines and everything else you wrote. It was something that I could hold on to and connect with. Thanks for that. 🙂

    I do wonder why we didn’t talk about the realistic side of writing. Very few make it by throwing something artistic out there. I would have been much more interested in learning that aspect of things. And the plot question–well it’s lost on me. We were working on a microscopic level when we should have been going big picture first and then down to the details. But what’s done is done.

    PS, dinner and drinks FOR SURE. We will be in Wilmington probably by next summer for a visit.


    • Erin Seabolt Bond

      June 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm

      Yes, indeed! I’d love to see you–and meet the infamous Mike!

      It’s funny; I realized while reading Jane Eyre, years after the program, that the novel if workshopped in an MFA program today would probably be called plot-driven. All that madness and fire and such. I got a good giggle out of that.

  5. Nichole

    June 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I hope you keep writing too, Erica. Any interest I had in writing dissolved into grading papers, but I love your blog just because I love hearing your voice again. You see the world in a different way and as humans, we can never understand that unless someone will take the time to really share their view with us. Keep it up!

  6. beckygermain

    June 10, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Oh grad school. I really struggled in the MFA program. I felt very, very out of place there. Even though I thought I was, even I was not dysfunctional enough, believe me, lmao. But mostly I didn’t like just how political it all was and how I really only had two professors that seemed to like my writing at all, who wanted to help me realize my own personal voice — everyone else just tried to completely change it. And I’m cool with the change, but it was like they wanted me to be a different person. But I wanted to learn and get better so badly, I listened. I got so back-asswards turned around my first year, I couldn’t even recognize myself in my own writing. And then it took my whole second year to get the hell back to who I was. I put a lot of pressure on myself to write something perfect and best-selling for my thesis and what not (an idea in of itself that is taboo in the MFA world: “Best-selling.”). It was just a difficult time. I was still really young and not very confident in myself. And what did I find out after I graduated? Even MY LIFE is too boring for nonfiction, lmao. It’s true Erica, nobody wants to read nonfiction about happy people or people whose lives aren’t truly extraordinary…it’s boring. lol. I sent my thesis out to many agents after I graduated. Some very nice agents wrote me back with encouraging words, but also with the confirmation that maybe my life was not memoir material. After I finished my thesis (which was so cathartic it was worth the whole three years I was there alone) and shopped it around and then dealt with the many blows of rejection, I realized I’m cool with the fact that I’m not so fucked up my memoir would sell millions of copies. Ha! However, I took a workshop with Clyde my third year and he kept pushing me, pushing me to go to fiction. Man I fought him tooth and nail. It has taken me all this time to realize he is right. I can be me in fiction. And I can make it as dysfunctional as I want without bending the truth. LOL. So I’m heading that way. Writing like a toddler because it’s all so new to me. But don’t give up. There was value there. Real value. You just have to wade through all the bullshit to get to it. And then just write. It does not matter where. Write here. Write on a legal pad. Write something gorgeous. And then put it out in the world. There are people who will read. There is always someone who will read…who is just looking for someone’s hand to hold onto through all these words.


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