The paper plate is translucent with grease. I can make out the faux wood grain of the plastic surface beneath. My book lies face flat and wedged open on the table beside me. I cannot read now. Red sauce coats and drips from my fingers as I manipulate the molten cheese and rip the crusts apart. Every bite is precious and I feed myself with both hands, fast and fluid.
Chewing is unnecessary.
Crying makes me hungry, and that's what I did today. The long swim I've been taking in the ocean of information here at Lesley finally wiped me out. It had taken a turn for the dangerous, the unhinged, and I was drowning.
Critique. It's why I'm here. I am paying for the time and opinions of qualified critics. My application included several non-fiction essays, mostly pulled from my blog, and that's what my large group took a stab at today. Taking part in critique is terribly important to a writer, especially an aspiring writer. Like everyone else here, I needed to know where my pieces were on their journey. I needed to know where the mark was, whether I'd hit it, whether I'd passed it, whether I'd lost it.
My writing is beautiful.
There is also too much of it. I overwrite every point, stepping on whatever subtle truths lie caked in the mud of the creek beds of my mind.
My narrator's tone is often arrogant, didactic, and, thus, alienating. I don't trust my readers to think. I hound them with hyperbole.
My vocabulary is elevated to a point where it becomes useless to my audience. Often, my writing lacks intent.
When I write about places, traveling to them and exploring them, I fail to make my readers feel as though they have been there, too.
My writing is beautiful.
Choosing not to write tonight would be too easy.
I could snap my laptop shut, flip my alarm clock on, swallow a pill, and turn out the lights. I could listen to the cars humming on Massachusetts Avenue nearby (or "Mass Ave" as the locals call it) and wonder about the shadows of strangers in dorm rooms across the street. Then I could feel a strange desire to watch Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and spin my blinds shut. I could wince as a police car siren sounds on the street below, grimace as the wail swivels and vibrates against my eardrums, but choose to keep the windows open anyway on my first cool summer's eve in Cambridge.
But choosing not to write would also be an alarming waste of the knowledge I've amassed today. My first day of seminars turned out to be a grueling twelve hours long. True, the seminars and lectures were interspersed with two meals in the cafeteria and another public reading, but those aren't true breaks. No, here at the Lesley MFA residency, one never stops learning.
In the morning, our incoming Non-Fiction class learned about workshopping. We discussed the elements of a positive and productive critique, how to find a balance of candor and tact in everything we communicated to our classmates. It isn't easy. I'm far more candid than tactful, but I do strive to be as helpful as possible.
Still, an author's writing can become like her child, her helpless, squirming infant. While that infant may only know how to bawl and suckle and gurgle, in the author's eyes, the baby can do no wrong. If a well-intentioned critic opens by telling the author that her baby has all the career potential of a rodeo clown, the author will certainly disregard everything else you say. (She might even slap you, so step back!)
All that is to say, I came away with some useful ideas about critique which I will use this week and which I hope to see used when my classmates get the chance to dissect me on the table.
In Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (my Bible while I'm here) she writes that poet Saint-Pol Roux used to hang a sign on his bedroom doorknob at night while he slept that read: The poet is working.
I now think that's possible! Simply being here is jump starting my creativity. I awoke this morning with poetry oozing out my ears. (Please don't take that sentence into account if you're looking for proof!) So far, though, I can't tell if it's because I'm in the process of rebooting my brain and all the literary power and history of Boston and Cambridge is on my side... or if it's simply that I am one of those students who wants desperately to please her professors. Am I inspired or intimidated?
My night's sleep was rocky and not nearly long enough, but I was excited to begin the first residency of my first semester! I showered and attempted to blow my hair dry. In this humidity, drying anyone's hair is an arduous process, but mine is especially thick and requires extra effort. Ill-prepared for such a task so early in the morning, my arms quickly tired, and when my right wrist sagged under the fatigue, the back of the hair dryer snagged a clump of my hair and wound it up tight in the motor!
I pulled it as far away from my head as possible and fought to switch it off with my thumb. When the motor finally whirred to a laborious stop, I cringed. A massive clump was knotted through the guard and around the blades. Still supporting the heavy dryer with my right hand, I fished in my toiletry bag for my pair of nail scissors. (It's funny how decisive I can be in a strange bathroom when death or injury is the line.) In seconds I was free of the clump and the dryer.
When I turned it on again, the blades groaned and picked up speed. A swirl of white smoke nosed its way up toward my nose and the acrid smell of burnt hair filled the bathroom. I opened a window and continued the drying process, this time making certain I was clear of the wretched motor.
Clean, dry, and clad in something summery, I swung my bag over my shoulder and went out to explore the campus. It was, in a word, a perfect day in Cambridge. Only 80 degrees and with low humidity. Tiny, fluffy clouds sashayed through the clear blue sky. Birds twittered in and behind and under the branches of a bush sagging heavily under bunches of blue hydrangeas. For the first time, I saw my dorm. A greenish-gray building with a broad, white front porch.
I stepped back to take in the whole façade and tripped over an empty bike rack. The top piece connected with my kneecap and sent a hearty twang echoing down Wendell Street.
How odd to watch night pull toward me from across the sea. My plane touched down at Logan and I shook my head, refusing to accept the glitch. We taxied, and the shadows pushed out long and westward.
No, I thought, the ocean is supposed to swallow the setting sun, to reflect the bit remaining above the horizon so that the day at the beach may last longer.
But the glassy harbor was dim, cradling the dainty hulls of dozens of white sailboats, their sails glowing in the last rays of the sun fading behind the city.
I deplaned with the crowd, gathered my bag, and hurried to the taxi stand. We'd landed early and I wanted to catch a glimpse of the famed Boston skyline before dark.
"Lesley University!" I told my taxi driver. "In Cambridge, Massachusetts."
I know he didn't need to know what state my school was in, but I was too excited and too proud to care.