Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Religion of Residency


Source: pxleyes.com via Heather on Pinterest


It's easy to hear God the day after you get back from church camp. Or to think, immediately after an instructional workshop, that you can restructure your entire curriculum and become the best damn teacher, ever. As a teenager, I left my summer ballet intensives feeling like I was going to take the world by storm. And by God, I was going to stretch every day. (And do situps!) Because I knew I should. And when I was in the safe cocoon of the experience, it was easy to think I'd continue to do so regularly. But inevitably, over time, that enthusiasm fades. When E and I attended Retrouvaille to save our failed marriage, it seemed to me like we'd always be able to put the tools of that program into action and we'd never get ourselves into a fight we couldn't fix again. So why wouldn't we keep doing what we needed to do to stay happy, day after day, if we knew it worked? Ha.

Because life doesn't work that way, that's why. You go away for a while and you buy into it--the religion of the experience, the promise of something better and different--but then the toilets need cleaning and the laundry needs doing and somebody always wants a glass of milk and you burned the pancakes and somebody called the principal to talk about how crummy you are at your job and all of the sudden between panic attacks and saying "I'm tired" too much, you're normal again. Suddenly you're just being habitual because it's easier. And you know you're not doing what you know you should do but you don't know why.

I've been thinking a lot about this phenomenon specifically because I'm just back from "Nerd Camp," or my second (of five) residencies for my MFA in creative writing. I'm feeling all kinds of inspired. I'm trying to write just 500 words a day (in addition to my blather right here, which doesn't feel much like much) because that seems manageable. So far so good, but I'm waiting for the moment the excitement fades. The moment where I stop getting to be me--writer, reader, napper, gardener, eater of vegetables--and have to start being what I have to be to all those other people--teacher, mom, daughter, model employee, buyer of toilet paper at Costco.

And in my usual way of creating things for myself to worry about, I already worry about the day in the future--the one that is already coming way faster than I want it to--when I won't be in an MFA program anymore and I won't be getting my shot in the arm every six months from hanging out with fellow nerds and writers. People who want the same thing. People who also believe it's reasonable to work toward such a goal. I never, ever, ever thought I'd be that person who wants to stay in grad school forever. And here I am.

Because when I'm at residency, I feel like writing, this thing I want, is entirely real. And possible. And (not yet, but someday) within my reach. After December's residency I came home with this exact confidence. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by other people who have too much to write all the time and can't keep themselves from scribbling ideas and paragraphs and think that's normal. I felt like yes, I can--I will be a writer. I am a writer. I was ready to say no to obligations that would keep me from writing. (Oh, the plans I had to become less involved at work!) And I was ready to make writing a priority. I was on fire. And it faded almost completely. It faded so much that I started to feel like the idea of making this writing thing a real thing was a fantasy, the kind one ought not to talk to others about because it sounds kind of dreamy and dumb.

The best workshops and camps and programs I think are the ones that have some kernel you can hang on to. The changes that have stuck with me are the ones I've put immediately and consistently into practice. I used to tell my ballet students to choose one thing per class--one muscle to control or movement to master--and to try to concentrate only on that one thing only. Because when you try to fix it all at once, it's too much and your body shuts down. Because, also, learning to control one thing well is amazing. I guess this has to be like that. If I try to do it all now, to change my life in order to make this happen, I am going to give up and live out the rest of my life in front of Bravo TV with an endless chain of Oreo cookies and self-loathing. I know it.

I'd honestly be happy if the one thing that stuck around was this idea that this is a reasonable, attainable thing to want. Whether I write 500 words a day or not, that would be enough.

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