I might as well chime in on the Real Deal debate. In response to all the chatter going on in Seattle right now:
Does it boil down to “to MFA or to not?” or does this go deeper? I earned my MFA in six full semesters, which I passed with flying colors, and six years of my life. The time it took to complete my degree had nothing to do with lack of talent or “needing special help.” I ran into bad luck, and in fact, this can happen to anyone. In the long run, more time meant more learning. I never regretted the number of years. In fact, I wanted my schooling to last forever.
If you speak to other Goddard students, you might hear the same words from them. That something rather magical was happening there for many of us. That this may have been the only time we had real friends, ever. Many of us didn’t want it all to end.
I don’t think this is particularly typical of colleges. Many college students go through the motions, but aren’t particularly passionate about their studies. I can tell you that at Goddard, passion, that is, love and devotion to the craft, was one thing that wasn’t lacking.
Goddard wasn’t a “feel good” college, despite Ryan’s claims. We weren’t coddled nor given any more leeway than any other college would give its students. If a packet was due, it was due, period. I know a number of students who, in their fourth semester, were asked to do a fifth because their work wasn’t “ready” yet. For some folks, this came as a crushing blow. I spoke with several of these students. Each resigned him/herself to the circumstances, then buckled down and turned out stellar work.
Is there such thing, truly, as “born talent,” or, “the Real Deal,” as someone recently put it, opposed to “just not cutting it”? Let me examine this one for a minute. Talent isn’t on a continuum. It’s not quantitatively measurable. Talent lies within the soul of the individual. The variety of human experience is so vast that I have to ask myself again and again why the heck anyone would say such a thing.
I come from a musical family. When I was a child, I assumed everyone had about the same musical ability. Around the time of high school, I found out this wasn’t true at all. Perhaps this occurred, for me, late at night, watching and listening to my dad play Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” on the piano.
He often played “The Merry Farmer.” This piece of music was included in a large collection we owned. We had many such volumes, bound with yellow outer covers. Late at night, I’d open these books and marvel at what I saw inside. I’d flip through the pages, wondering if I’d ever develop the dexterity to play all of what I saw. My dad, however, played one piece, and none other. I never questioned this, nor thought of it. He often joked with me that the Merry Farmer was merry because he was on his way home from work.
I can recall the notes of this piece, I can recall the melody line and just how it was all plunked out. I learned to play it myself. As I remember the piece now, I can somehow dig up in my memory just how I felt the first time I heard my dad hum along as he played.
Yes, it was late at night. My dad didn’t make any particular issue of it, nor grand flourish when he sat to play. You never saw him flipping those imaginary tuxedo tails over the seat so that they’d fall behind him, the way I’d seen male concert pianists do with real tuxedos. I thought it was amusing that Dad always had the printed music opened to that particular page. The book had been opened to that page more than any other. I knew this because of the crack in its spine. Truthfully, my dad had the piece memorized, and didn’t need those notes in front of him. But he opened the book anyway. It wasn’t my place to question.
I stood at the doorway and watched, between the living room and the hallway behind. He knew I was there. Perhaps he heard me breathing.
Why was this night different from any other? My dad sang along. I think he often did, but not quite audibly. This time, I heard him.
I can say what I heard was jarring, irregular, and awkward. What was wrong? Was this really my dad? How could this be? Was it even possible? Surely, I’d come across this before, hadn’t I?
My mom would have anyone’s head for this.
Not only was my dad’s singing out of tune, but he was completely mismatching each and every pitch by about a minor third. Did he not know? But no, dad was perfectly happy singing out of tune, which to me, was almost one of those sins you have to apologize for on Yom Kippur.
One of my music instructors had told me about this, “Either you have talent, or you don’t.” Was this really true? Why was it that some of my classmates, too, were the same way, completely unable to hear pitches?
Ability is a funny thing. I learned much later on, when I attended college as a music major, that musical talent isn’t on a continuum. I look back on the variety of students I met over the years. I can say that each and every one had natural ability, and also, abilities they cultivated and pruned during schooling and beyond. I saw so much variety that could be likened to the trillions of possibilities in genetic code. Not only that, we weren’t made up of only genes and “natural talent,” but of the collective musical experiences we’d had over the years.
I knew students who could pick up any instrument they wanted and play it. Some were brilliant at some instruments and not others. When I got to conducting class, I found no particular pattern governing who was more adept. Some students excelled in front of an audience, commanding authority and awe from all who sat listening.
I recall walking the halls of the music building, passing one practice room after another, when there weren’t any classes certainly, and many had already gone back to the dorms, calling it a night. There were the ones who just couldn’t leave it alone. They kept playing. I saw sweat on their faces, passion in their fingers and breath. I often saw a student engrossed in the keyboard, and there atop the piano was an ashtray full of butts.
This was, perhaps, the stuff of music. The sweat, drive, and excitement of it all.
I learned that while I was good at some things, I wasn’t so great at others. I had no trouble with ear training, which in our classes, meant hours and hours of music dictation. I will never really know why dictation came so easily to me. My ability to sight read wasn’t much more than average.
Mostly, I loved to compose music, to question how to put tones together and experiment endlessly either on paper, at the keyboard, or just in my head. After a while, the effort it took me to plunk out the notes to my own music took too much time and effort, so hearing it all in my head sufficed. I was one of those kids that could do that, too.
One night, I met with a friend to play duets. He said to me, “Let’s improvise!” He put his trumpet down and then sat at the piano. He asked me to improvise on a popular tune while he played chords.
I was as lost as can be. How was I to do this? Fake it? We all knew about faking it, didn’t we? I told myself I was going to have to do this. I took a breath and began to play. This must have gone on less than two minutes. My friend stopped playing, his jaw wide open. “You really can’t do this, can you, Julie,” he said to me.
I blushed. “I guess not,” I said. I put my trumpet down, saying, “Let’s not do this. Let’s go back to playing duets.”
He said, “Julie, you mean to say you are so brilliant at dictation, but you can’t improvise at all?”
I replied, “I just don’t know how. Let’s drop it, okay?” I didn’t want to be there anymore. I felt like a failure.
He said, “You mean you can’t?”
I heard that word, “can’t,” louder than any other. I said, “Let’s go get some beer.” The subject wasn’t brought up again.
Is it true that some have it, and some don’t? That some people are the Real Deal, and some are just there to bring money into colleges, and nothing else? Was “talent” any measure of how we’d fare later in life? I’d say probably not.
I thought of my dad, who couldn’t even sing in tune. My dad was a math genius who graduated top of his high school class and then went on to earn his bachelor’s and masters, serve in the Navy, and then, enjoy a successful career in engineering.
Take that, assholes.
He didn’t need to sing in tune, and neither do you. He wasn’t going to be the next Rubenstein. He was my dad. My amazing dad. My amazing tone-deaf dad.
He was short like me, or, rather, short for a man, though if you’d asked me when I was a very young child, I would have told you my dad was as tall as the sky. I would have told you that my dad could do anything, that he was stronger, wiser, and smarter than Superman. But no, he was human. He succumbed to cancer in 1997. He could do anything, but he couldn’t live forever. He didn’t live long enough to see me return to school at age 40, studying not music at all, but creative writing.
I bumbled my way through school, shooting forward, then taking breaks when life got in the way. I learned that writing didn’t mean you put words together. A work of art is more than the sum of its parts. Within these kernels of narrative I scribbled were seeds that would blossom into something greater. Is it magic? What made a piece work? I had to learn these things.
As in music, some aspects of writing will just come to you, and others must be cultivated. Some things you will simply never be able to do well. In our studies, we didn’t become Jacks and Jills of all trades. We learned to become who we were.
Perhaps it was my musical ear that helped me write natural-sounding dialogue without much effort. I learned description, too, but that took a bit of prompting. When it came to designing and implementing plot ideas, I was at a loss. What was best way to make up a story? I couldn’t answer that. I faked it till I learned.
And oh, I did learn, but I doubt I could have done it without the help and guidance of many wonderful instructors I worked with in both undergrad school and in my six years of MFA school. I couldn’t have done it without the love and encouragement of my fellow students. I couldn’t have done it had I not nearly pulled my hair out in frustration now and then. I cried many times. I laughed far more.
I screwed up a lot, and I still do. I still write klutzy, awkward-sounding stuff. Unless I absolutely have to, I don’t often bother to proofread. Why take up the time, when life is so short? But still, I can say I’m a writer now, and before, I couldn’t call myself that, not really.
Pssst. It’s one of those writer secrets. One of those things not talked about among all those other bits we discuss, except, perhaps, late at night.
We were all certainly scared to leave. Scared of what would happen when it all was over, the salons, the workshops, the walks on campus where morning mist lasted half the day. Perhaps it all hit me at graduation.
Writing is sacred. It’s sacred because it reflects all abilities and all varieties of human experience. You don’t break the chain. You aren’t married to your words. No, in fact, you are those words. On that July day, whether we realized it or not, we all took on an oath.
I was one of ten graduates, ten novitiates. We couldn’t all make it to the ceremony. One of my classmates was expecting to become a father for the first time. Others, too, couldn’t make the trip. Most of us, though, were there. I recall the conferring of degrees. I remember standing in front of many people, scared and wondering what life would throw at me, and how on earth I would write it all down.
Years have passed now since that day. You can bet my life’s been tough. I’ve often asked myself what it means to be a successful writer. I ask myself that now, in fact, now that I’ve written eight books, and published two over the years, watching in horror while neither sold well. For whatever reason, I’ve kept writing. I never stopped.
I can tell you without a doubt that if I hadn’t become a writer, and here I repeat the word, “become,” I wouldn’t be around right now. Through my own writing I spoke out more and more. I became stronger. Writing keeps me alive just as does eating, breathing, or sleeping. It’s been the rock of communication for me when all else failed. It kept me out of mental institutions. It has kept me out of prison and off the streets. When I was stripped of my human rights and dignity, I’d come out okay anyway, with a pencil in my hand. I’m alive. I’ll keep at it till, like the merry farmer, I come home from work after the long day.
I think that says a fair amount. I’m a writer. I know my dad would be proud.