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Monday, May 5, 2008

The One-Room M.F.A. Program

This was all back when I was just a boy, son, younger than you is now, only a season after pickin up my bachelor’s—oh, mind, I didn’t think I was any stuff special or nothin then, everybody and her brother had some college degree or other in our county, they was easy to pick up as it was for Mr. Faulkner to drop a chapter in his flowerpot—that was when I hoofed it back up to the village and got my old em-eff-ay. But was my head stuck up some bunghole full a dreams? No, sir! I didn’t want to go. But “Burt,” my ma and pa done told me, “Burt! We need you on the farm and all, but who can tend them stories you got, who-all do you expect to nurse that novel you got raisin’ up there in that head a yours like a spring lamb, buckin to get out like a filly?”

“But the paper fields!” I done reply. “The pen harvest! The ink!”

“Oh, Walker Percy on a stick!” cried your grandma and grandpa, indignant-like. “You know them paper fields is lyin fallow two seasons next, mayhaps three with a thesis year tacked on. There’s a paper blight on, haven’t you heard? Don’t you go worrying about us, Burt. We’ll get by somehow. You get yourself back up to the village! Get up to that little red writin house!”

Yep, “house” was a fancy-britches name for it, even; it was just a one-room shack, that old em-eff-ay program a mine—not that it needed be a scrap bigger, what with there bein but three or four folks out a the whole country seekin a terminal degree in the writerly life in those days. But we three or four was packed tight to the gills in there, like the netherparts a some pretty young poem-lovin Vanderbilt dropout the night a her weddin, us and our old professor, with barely an in-between for stickin a seminar table. So squashed into that half-pint schoolhouse we was, so all up on top a one another, sometimes it was hard to know who-all’s hand was jottin notes on who-all’s story! “Are we at the bathhouse?” my old professor would say, crackin wise. “And are you Mr. Truman Capote?”

And there weren’t a plug nickel to be had for none a these posh copy machines neither. A mimeo? We would’ve gone to the swap shop with all three schoolhouse windows and our grandmas for a mimeo, sure as moonshine! No typewriter, no pen and ink—ma and pa hadn’t a drop to spare, “It ain’t just the paper blight in the county now,” they done told me, “it’s the ink bugs, too”—just one stub pencil between us. Copied every last word out by hand, we did. Some workshop days we had nothin but one piece a paper shared between us, and after one poem was done gettin shot down, we’d all scrub that sheet clean with an eraser to make room for the next story or novel excerpt or memoiristic narrative, all in that one tiny room, havin none a this precious differentiation-by-discipline business you young bucks have got.

Lord, how I miss my old one-room writin program! How partial I was to the place! No heat in the winter, no indoor plumbin, no polite and supportive encouragement. And none a these waterin holes, these bars and clubs and whatnot where y’all retreat after you’ve finished with all that critiquin y’all do neither. Not that we all would’ve called any a that business “critiquin,” son. My old professor, he right would a called it “chokin the heifer.” Y’all pat each other on the back—like shuckin a bull up his James Dickey till he shoots a hot load, that’s right—and then y’all swap grand dreams over mug after mug a cheap soda and steep spirit, with some pickled fruit and a baby umbrella thrown in besides!

“Did you hear that no-good so-and-so got himself an agent,” you complain.

“He got a pile a loot withal,” you reply, “and some sweet foreign markets at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the bargain for his no-good such-and-such roman à clef.”

“Sure as Carson McCullers loved junk but not a soul know it, this writin life is a hard one,” you bitch some more.

Ankle-biters, crankin each other by the pike in a circle like that, y’all got it easy! In that one-room em-eff-ay, who knew from agents and advances and Frankfurt? Who read the lunch-rag gossip and who knew the hot deals? In my one-room graduate schoolhouse, all we had, all we knew, all we ever wanted, was the writin, nothin but the writin. Yes sir! And how to tear it all to bits like a heartless and three-headed hyena!

“Do you think a line break is a toy?” one a my colleagues would say. “Are you the heroic-couplet king a the barnyard, and iambic pentameter is your poor goat bitch?”

“You’ve shot this damn poem through with so many metaphorical holes, it’s like the stinkin bum leg a one a my old mares gone septic,” chimes in another.

“If only this poem was a boot to kick you back to the farm, you scansion-ignorant fool,” says my professor, “then we’d be rid a that awful smell!”

“This novel chapter is like Harper Lee lookin for another idea!” one would cry. “Naw,” hollers a second, “More like Tennessee Williams scourin the pantry for another bottle!” “Like Zora Neale Hurston,” yells I, “passed out drunk on the floor a some Harlem speakeasy, weepin soft-like, dreamin a the sweet, velvet thighs a Eudora Welty!” Yep, sometimes we made little or no sense. But bein factual didn’t matter quite as much as bein cruel, for as Mr. Samuel Clemens once said, if only gettin into the old writin life required crossin a tightrope strung across an overflowed Mississippi swarmin with rabid, pork-lovin, frothin-at-the-mouth nutrias, then it might serve as a warnin to all these greenhorn piglets! And that was what my old em-eff-ay program did, plantin a fear a God, or maybe a Kirkus, deep in our hearts, sendin the unworthy ones scutterin back to the paper farms, dreams a-shattered, like Katherine Anne Porter with a hatbox under one arm and a babe ’neath the other, hightailin it out a one more lousy marriage.

So not on your life, son. A shame that scholarship a yours run out and whatnot, but we got nary a red cent to fork over for a second year at that ritzy old big-city university a yours. Yep, I may a written squat since I got my degree, and I may a been back here ever since, but if I got taught one thing it was how to tell shoeshine from shit. Don’t go tryin to fool me, kid, I’ve seen your stuff—you couldn’t write your way up out a Miss Flannery’s outhouse if you tried.

Back when he was gettin his em-eff-ay from en-why-you, Thomas Hopkins was in Chuck's class this one time, and Jen was sayin how she would've preferred to learn writin back when old Steve Crane was still kickin around, which was when Robin cracked wise about one-room M.F.A. programs, and Tom was all "Jehoshaphat's whiskers that's good stuff," and Robin was all "Well, Shadrach on a stick, stuff is yours, go on and use it." And so Tom did. Tom says: Thanks, Robin! Tom also claims this story is funniest read out loud all Foghorn Leghorn-like. But friend, I say, ah, friend, you be the judge.