How High the Bar, How Immortal Our Souls

Before you read any further, you need to know that this essay probably won't help you to decide whether or not to go to one of the Clarion workshops for six weeks during the summer, or select an MFA program, either traditional or low-residency. Or, perhaps, it might.

Right off, I should make it clear that I did not attend Cap'n Crusty's Cutthroat MFA program. I received my MFA in 1999 from Chapman University in Orange, California. The Chapman program is geared toward non-traditional writers. Most of the classes are held at night, or in the late afternoon, and the program is home to many students who work full-time and attend the program part-time.

Just as I arrived at Clarion in 1984 with my big blond head of 80's hair and shining eyes, tottering on my high heels, so did I walk into a Chapman classroom in 1996 straight out of work in my navy blue suit, strung like horsehair on a violin bow, ready to snap.

I started the MFA program taking a single workshop. The very first manuscript that was handed out was printed on the "clean" side of sheets of recycled lavender paper, smeared and almost impossible to read. Every other word was "fuck," or some verbal variation thereof, and those that lay between were "shit" or "piss" more often than not. There could have been little words, like "if" and "it." There was little punctuation and less "story." But then again, I could be misremembering. As this "manuscript" was praised around the room, and it came the turn of the shoeless, hairy-footed hippie lounging shirtless in his dirty overalls to do obeisance, I remember the apoplectic explosion of blood rushing to the throbbing arteries in my temples, and for the first horrible time, I felt that Chapman twitch under my right eye.

This was talent! Perhaps I had gone mad. I had fallen in a rabbit hole and I was in a room filled with the mentally-infirm. That was it! I'd simply shown up in the wrong room at the wrong time.

No such luck. It was the right room, and the right class. The author of talent informed me that he'd used the purple recycled paper because he did not want to kill more trees than were absolutely necessary. Truer words were never spoken. After three years in the program, I came to the philosophical understanding that most MFA candidates are constitutionally incapable of executing proper manuscript format. It's not worth talking about, and "showing by example," well, I suppose I still don't understand the "artistic temperament." It and "examples" are like an oil slick off Santa Barbara. One's going to go right over the other, and the two will never meet until one hits land and other people have to clean up the mess.

Then everybody began to tell about what they'd written over the summer. Several were struggling to finish a short story begun the previous spring. A few had written a couple dozen pages of a novel. A couple of honest souls admitted they hadn't written anything at all. Me? I'd finished eight stories, sold three, and was halfway through a novel. But I think I only admitted to half of it. Far be it from me to not try to fit in with the crowd!

The barefoot hippie and I eventually became friends, wouldn't you know it? He was a very talented writer (and one of the few, proud individuals capable of proper manuscript format). I even convinced Scott (that was his name) not to put exact word counts or "copyright" on his manuscripts, as in "Copyright 19XX About 1,417 Words."

"Scott, is there a quarter-word in there or something?"

No, just fooling!

"Some people cheat and round it up," I said. So, like to 1,500 words. "But you should round to the nearest hundred and just put that. No 'about.'"

And he did it!

This stroke-inducing beginning launched my Chapman career, although in that class, I met many friends, not the least of them the instructor, Gordon McAlpine, my dear friend today. At some point during my first or second semester, I got a book by the African-American essayist and sportswriter Ralph Wiley from the library: Dark Witness: When Black People Should Be Sacrificed (Again). If you have not read Ralph Wiley, Ralph Wiley can write. Meredith was a kindergartner at the time, and I was also spending what time I could helping in her classroom. Ralph's stories of his own son were unforgettable, especially the recounting of a time that Ralph had been called down to the basketball court; the whole time all he could think was that someone had shot or stabbed his child. His son had not been shot, but Ralph saw him down, just hurt in the game; even so, that horror was what went through his heart. I read this some years ago; I remember it vividly. Such is Ralph Wiley's power to express truth. Ralph Wiley went on to write of his love for Mark Twain, and how one day he had read Mark Twain and realized, as he said, "Just how high the bar was." Like a high jump or the pole vault. The bar set so impossibly, celestially high that it was only a tiny speck in the distance. You could reach and reach, and leap and leap, and maybe one day you might touch the bar once, with the barest brush of your fingers.

You see, in addition to the writing workshops, the Chapman MFA program was "half literature." The literature classes were nothing but one "how high the bar?" experience after another.

The very first literature class I took at Chapman, with great trepidation and anticipation, was "The Russian Novel." Here I met my friend Kevin O'Brien, a wonderful scholar of Russian literature and a beautiful, spiritual man. I learned that I could finish any book of any size; as I tell people - if you read 50 pages a night, you will finish War and Peace in about a month. And The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Anna Karenina the same way. Me? Me, my exercise bike, and big books.

And at some point, I suppose it would have been about 28 days into War and Peace, Pierre cried, "My soul! How can they take from me my immortal soul!" As I since told Kevin, that was one of the defining moments of my writing life. We all have to come to terms with the balance between integrity and wanting to sell our work, desiring praise, and desiring success. And Pierre Bezhukov gave me my answer. Rich, decadent, good-natured Pierre, bobbing about like a cork in the waters of life, taken by the collar and marched brutally by Napoleon's army, only to see his beloved friend shot to death, and as he comes out of shock, he realizes the illusory nature of temporal life, and the eternal truth of the soul within each of us.  He realized what really mattered, and in so doing, helped me to do so.  How high the bar.

I doubt, had Kevin not been there, had I not been at Chapman, that even if I had read War and Peace in a good translation - quite an unlikely prospect - that I would have ever heard Pierre's cry.

Later, I had to prepare to teach Madame Bovary under the demanding, yet kind eye of Dr. Pilar Rotella. I read The Death of Artemio Cruz, a powerful influence, as much as I had seen and known of Mexican life and culture. This interweaving, like fingers on two hands, twisted, of the U.S. and Mexico, but always with ancient time, Nahuatl time, braided in, older than, more powerful than, a force that money, greed, politicking and power could not hold back.

Three years; during the last year I taught, which is in itself an education that forces you to question yourself, and forces you to be competent. And countless more books than those few I mentioned. 20th Century literature, John Fowles, Oscar Wilde, the entire history of the British novel, the novel on the Continent.

What I learned in the workshops was most valuable to my teaching. Fundamentally, I gained control of my apoplexy and learned to control my tongue. For what people are not ready to hear, there is no point in saying. Scott may have lacked shirt and shoes, but not heart. He was a highly-talented writer who not only could, but did finish his work and who hoped to sell it. And was beginning to try.

Some twelve years before I entered the Chapman program, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop at MSU as a very young writer. And I am writing this essay because I was asked to compare that six-week writing program with my three-year MFA program. I believe that I got six units of credit from Clarion; there were a total of 60 units, divided half and half between literature and workshop, in the Chapman program. So, was Clarion "ten percent" of the MFA? (And yes, it was approximately 10% of the cost).

Six weeks of Clarion is far more intense than anything anybody would experience in an MFA program. The single greatest difference is that at Clarion, nearly everyone wrote, and we spent all day in that big room in Holmes Hall, critiquing each other's work. I hope I won't shock anyone by saying that I was the first student at Chapman in most people's memory to fully complete the stated requirements for my MFA thesis: a book-length manuscript - in my case, a novel. That novel, greatly rewritten, is now in print. Most of the writers in the program were hard-pressed to produce more than one piece per semester, and after you'd been there a while, everyone knew and inwardly groaned to see those "recycled" tales that turned up in every workshop from certain writers. That would have never flown at Clarion. Neither would have illegibly-printed recycled lavender paper sprinkled and splattered with "fuck," sans punctuation. I believe the words nearly all of my Clarion instructors would have used - not just Harlan - would have been "Fuck that shit."

Clarion was real writing. It was not for the faint of heart, and no neurasthenic artistic type would survive. Many delicate artists survive in MFA programs, even if they do not thrive. In order to sit down and write night after night for six weeks, not to mention investing every other waking hour in reading everybody else's stuff when you're not squirting your mates with a Super-Soaker Water Gun or guzzling Miller Lite, takes imagination, perseverance and some measure of talent and desire. Or, perhaps in my case, a form of insanity. In any case, if you can't plant your ass in the chair and go, you can't make it at Clarion. You may exist there for six weeks; people might even be nice to you because everybody really is scared off their butts, and nearly everyone with a quarter of an operating neuron has come to the realization, "Gee, these other guys can write, too!"

God knows, there were many times, especially during my final year in the Chapman program, when I wanted to tear loose in true Clarion tradition. It was at Clarion where I grew my incisors and sharpened my claws. People need to understand also that I didn't mention that lavender excreta poorly because it contained four-letter words. It was excreta because it contained nothing else. There was nothing, truly nothing, that anyone could have said to the author to convince him that this was not the greatest piece of literature ever committed to paper -- of any color. And there's really no point in saying something to someone under those circumstances. Far more people "want to write" than actually end up doing it. And I don't mean just "for a living." I mean just plain putting your rear in the seat and doing the work each day.

I went to Clarion because I wanted to be a science fiction writer and I believed every solitary word that A.J. Budrys wrote in Asimov's Magazine about Clarion. It was the training ground for the best new science fiction writers. If I wanted to someday join them, I needed to go to Clarion. What I found there was a group of fifteen writers as enthusiastic as I was, or moreso, and certainly far more capable. Maybe I'm where I am today because I am too dumb to quit. I honestly don't know. I do know that the most important thing I learned at Clarion was the discipline of writing. What it meant to write every day, and what it meant to never take the easy way out and settle for "okay" or "second-best."

I entered the MFA program not to "become a writer," because that I already was. I wanted to teach, as well as write, and Chapman helped me to achieve those goals. And, in three years of reading and writing, I did learn many things. Things about myself, about writing, and about people. And most of all, "How high the bar." Beyond the moon. And yet, whether I jump and jump and forever fall short, not grazing the bar or touching it with the barest fingertip, the other truth: like Pierre Bezhukov. No matter how much you sell, or how little, no matter how successful you are, or what a failure, what matters is the work done that comes from the heart. The work done with every ounce of integrity, commitment and spirit that I have. No one can take away from me that which I have written. Only I can take that work away, by not writing, or by failing in will, discipline and courage. As Pierre said, they can do anything they like, but they cannot touch my soul.

Amy Sterling Casil

January, 2002

Redlands, California