It is the privilege and impracticality of an artist that life should be a constant and never-ending spirit quest. On this journey one follows signs, clues and instincts, and encounters elders, often ones who have already traversed a very similar path and managed the early stages of exploration, obscurity, struggle, and emerged either triumphant or wizened.
When, this past December, I was in the midst of a literal journey, from which I was on my way home, I found myself stuck in a moment of figuring out what it all meant, where the path from this moment was to lead. My mom sent me a picture of an advertisement for an MFA program in San Francisco that she found in the paper and I doubted quite suddenly my vision quest. I enlisted the aid of a former professor with whom I connected in his first year at the school, which was my last, and begged of my former professor his advice. This professor has successfully published two novels, written beautiful short stories, won awards, and earned lots of degrees and a prestigious teaching position at an excellent liberal arts college. He successfully navigated his journey and I could use the fruit of his experience to aid in mine. The practical brunt of my question was
should I right now devote the next month to applying to this program (and give in to the academic stranglehold on writing), or continue on with my life as planned and perhaps entertain the idea of an MFA in the future.
The response, eloquent and inspiring—a bit nonsensical—came enthusiastically that night, and I here reproduce in full:
I think a few things:
First, I think that it’s amazing that you’re continuing — and reaching, and working, and seeing the world through your lens. And you have to be aware that’s it’s a terrific lens.
For a number of reasons.
First of all: I just downloaded Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), and spent many minutes (over thirty) reflecting on that song, and the role of ABBA songs, in general, in my life. You gave me this time. And so I thank you.
That’s a terrible reason.
And not actually a reason.
So — what I think is this: You are an original, strange, creative, interesting thinker — and you need a structure to help support you. It sucks, sucks, sucks, that this is true. And it’s not true, by the standards of some DIY aesthetics, but I do truly believe that the blindspot of DIY is age, and so it happens, you get older, and I think that at this point you should try to access the stream which exists, more in the main, sadly. But happily! Happily! It remains in you the freedom which shall remain in you!
For a reason why: I suggest the following sound experiment. Listen to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” and then — follow that with: “Die Zauberflote, K. 620: “Ach, ich ful’s.” (Album version) — sung by Kiri Te Kanawa, and conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, and with the orchestra of St. Martin in the Fields.
Anyhow – I’m a little drunk, honestly. But I think that yes! Apply to SF State! And I will email some folks who know SF State immensely. Imminently.
I quickly responded w/r/t, in turn, practical matters (it was USF, the Jesuit school, not SF State), matters of coincidence (“I saw the Magic Flute at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin just three weeks ago! A lot of poor choices were made in the costuming. For example: black face.” And further coincidence: “as I am on central time, I got your email just after midnight. You gave me, gave me, gave me an email after midnight. It was 10:07 your time so I don’t know if you anticipated that? You did help me chase the shadows away, so to speak.”), and the fact that “It remains in you the freedom that shall remain in you” is the most quotable and inspiring thing ever conveyed to me while not really meaning that much.
However, I did not apply to school again, as I didn’t really want to go, nor did I want to live in San Francisco. This was 2013, not 1950something. I’m not saying google has destroyed the attraction on an MFA, and San Francisco, but I kinda am at the same time. Instead I did what made sense to me: I went to used book stores to find a copy of Rilke’s letters to a young poet—which have been canonized as Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—and I went to thrift stores and used record stores to find ABBA records. I had not reread the Rilke epistolary quote-fest since I was 16 or whatever—when I thought of myself as “a young poet,” hardly imaging a decade on I would be seeking out “if-one-feels-one-could-not-live-without-writing,-then-one-shouldn’t-write-at-all” from an essentially identical level of authorial enfranchisement (what was I imaging?—you ask, and you don’t want to know [it involved Terry Gross, if you must know])—and I’m not sure what I expected out of the experience, other than to compare it with what I was calling, in conversation and my internal narrative, “T—’s email to a young poet.”
I didn’t get very far with this project. I thought the ABBA catalogue would suck me in; instead I found that I have an exceptional fondness for “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Fernando,” which I already knew, and that the rest of the music lacks urgency and sincerity, to my ear. ABBA makes more sense to me as an abstract concept. I read a lot about them and shared ABBA facts for a month with friends, family, and acquaintances—half of the royalties of “Chiquitita” were donated to UNICEF in honor of the International Year of the Child (1979), earning, “it has been said” (to quote the ABBA Omnibus Blog
), $2 million for UNICEF. I just put “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” on the record player, and it’s really good. “Take a Chance on Me” is also undeniable. Dear reader, this apparently is the moment in which I have decided to try to get into ABBA again. Sorry, roomies. Having said that I should also learn to type a backwards B, which apparently is harder than I thought
. The best solution ultimately is just to copy and paste someone else’s: AᗺBA.
I gave up on finding the Rilke book pretty quickly. I found instead a glorious copy of Sonnets to Orpheus, which, a year later (just now, I mean), I am unable to locate. It is a slight copy and a lot has happened in the meantime. I do have, next to me now, an open library hardcover copy of the Modern Library Stephen Mitchell translation of Letters to a Young Poet, because a month ago I realized I never found a copy, that I never even went to Powell’s City of Books for the 6-month period I worked three blocks from it, that I never thought to check it out from the library, that I only now checked out by chance while lingering in the Belmont branch’s 800s, that an essay—perhaps a meaningful one, or simply a humorous one—was left unfinished and there was only one person who could do it. It remains in me the freedom that shall remain in me. I also checked out Melissa Explains it All, Melissa Joan Hart’s autobiography written “with” (because prepositions don’t mean anything anymore, maybe because books aren’t written “by” writers anymore, words are written “with” authors, language is literally whatever you want it to be!) Kristina Grish.
A year ago I took Sonnets to Orpheus
with me to read at Woodstock Park, and began to visit parks in the city as such, writing about the experience, and eventually self-publishing a series of guides to the parks. I am simultaneously writing an essay about that
. Seriously: click that hyperlink. Simultaneous essay creation. BIG DEAL!
For anyone looking for some real advise, I point you elsewhere—anywhere really—but if the internet fails for some reason, earthquake-related or other genre of disaster, natural or otherwise, and all you have loaded on your computer is this page, and you really need some advice, here’s some Rilke to get you through another decade of doing everything backwards:
But this is what young people are so often disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment…: And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would call their happiness if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into the many conventions that have been put in great numbers like public shelters on this dangerous road.
Unfortunately I love unfruitful confusion, I can’t get enough of the heap of half-broken things I call my communion, and I do at times call it happiness. Rilke goes on to describe the shelters along the errant and tumultuous path:
there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love-life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.
Perhaps visiting parks is a life-preserver that keeps me both from drowning and realizing that I spend my life flailing listlessly in an endless and frigid ocean—but describing these public amusements as of “an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure” is not negative to me. Little did Rilke know, in the hundred years since he wrote those letters to that young poet, society was about to get a lot less prepared to support young poets looking to challenge complacency and the escapist model of art that is now the norm. Maybe I should listen to him after all and then I could make a living at this. Maybe I should learn German. Really I should just finish this, turn 29 and move on with my goddamn life.