Monday, November 05, 2007

When one door closes, a window opens.

I've been writing tonight. I've vowed to participate in the "National Novel Writing Month" competition. It's just a competition with yourself, really, but it inspires those like me - those without the big book deal, cajones, and backbone to sit their ass down and really write something of substance - to just write. They tell you to write crap, really. Just write what's in your head and clean it up later. Write 50,000 words. Well, so far, I have a TON of crap. Some inspired from other things I've written at other times. And, I have a little over 5 or 6 thousand words so far. An ocean's swim away from 50K, but I promised myself to write 25,000 before the end of November, and I'll consider myself a winner in my own right. That's more than what I've ever collected on paper in one place before.

While I was perusing scribbles here and there on old hard drives, I found my graduate school essay for Loyola University in Chicago. I wrote it a few years ago, and I didn't get accepted, I don't think. Honestly, I don't remember. Maybe because I blocked it out. I'm not sure. I'm sharing my essay, because, well, I liked it, damnit. And, this is my blog and if you don't like it, go check out Britney Spears' blog. Democracy rules.

Statement of Purpose
Loyola University Chicago

When I was 19 years old – in undergraduate school - full of hope and cocky naivete, I bought a copy of John Braine’s Writing a Novel. I loved the written word and wanted to express myself artistically. I knew that art, literature, and a creative voice were things that were unconsciously permanent within me, and I believed that I could write a novel. I opened the book and read the first paragraph, which basically stated that anyone under the age of 30 should just put the book down. Period. Put it down, and don’t pick it back up until after turning 30, it commanded.

At first, I was offended and completely defiant. But, while I would have never admitted to it at the time, Mr. Braine was absolutely right. I had nothing worth writing about. I had not lived yet. At least not enough for a novel’s worth or that would be of any interest to anyone other than my immediate family – who would ultimately be forced to read it.

It has been fourteen years since I first read that paragraph. And, I interpreted it as a direct order to taste life. So, I put the book down and in the years since, I finished my undergraduate degree, worked in the corporate world as a professional technical and scientific writer and editor, and obtained my Master of Science degree in Communications. Time marched on, and I put my love of the arts on a shelf, adopting a fallacy that art, literature, and music were destined to be mere hobbies of mine in the grand scheme of things. After all, I had chosen the cookie-cutter way of life. The American dream. I married, settled down in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, and surrounded myself with material things, people, and ideas that seemed correct on a nice, shiny, cosmetic level.

But, something was missing. Many things were missing, and in 2003, my life and its peripherals began to change course. Much like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I experienced a new awareness of myself and my true, innermost desires. And, like Chopin herself, I got my second wind in my early 30s, starting over with a new beginning. I was divorced, sans children, void of many material things, and I was starting a new journey in my more authentic life. I’ve always identified with Chopin and her writing method - one of fresh sincerity. Hers is a raw, seemingly-unedited voice. This is something I aspire to always be - fresh and sincere – on paper and in life. And, much like the controversy surrounding The Awakening, I took quite a bit of heat from naysayers in my own world when I decided to swim upstream and follow my bliss. Just as the book was regarded an “unhealthy introspection” by many literary critics, my own life critics were frightened of my new self-assurance and ability to make decisions based on what I truly wanted, rather than solely on the status quo engrained as ‘normal’ throughout my life. Many thought I was just downright nuts.

I’ve since moved to the Midwest, and I’ve recently dabbled in teaching at the university level. Even with the seemingly bland subjects of Technical and Business Writing, I’ve come alive as a teacher. I love working with the students, and I feel like I belong in the classroom. Plain and simple. When you love something, it’s hard to ignore it no matter how much you try. I love teaching, and I love the written word. And, this love coincides with the love I have for music.

I was barely five years old when my mother propped me up in front of the television, turned it on the Public Broadcasting System, and left me to watch Marvin Hamlisch being interviewed for his movie soundtrack of The Sting. I don’t remember much of what he talked about – something about the ragtime music and its roots during something called the Great Depression. What I really remember was the music and the vision etched in my mind of Robert Redford, dressed in a tweed vest and hat, sitting at a table full of gamblers in a loud, smoky saloon. The Entertainer, possibly the most popular piece on the movie’s soundtrack, was playing in the background. The piece told a story for me of sorts, and it still invokes feelings of happiness and youth and the smell of hamburger meat my mother was cooking in the kitchen on that particular day. The song played over and over in my head. I walked over to the piano, sat down on the bench - my legs too short to touch the floor - and began to pretend I could play it. I eventually figured out the right hand’s first couple of stanzas and played them by ear. My mother, spatula in hand, entered the room and became my captive audience. The next day, I was signed up for piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher. My love of music – and the lifetime of images and stories with which it provided me – began on that day. Notes, cadences, and chords became a second language for me when I was a child. Whether in the form of notes or words, I fell in love with stories on a page. It was my calming ritual. My often-times escape. My inclination for music never resulted in a degree from Juilliard, as I chose the path of words on a page instead. My undergraduate degree was in Composition, but I held my love of music in a safe place.

Mr. Braine was right about waiting until one is 30 to have a sense of reflection. Things are different for me now. Literature that seemed two-dimensional to me in my younger days now takes on an animated, more three-dimensional feel. When I read a piece of literature now, I absorb it like a sponge. The prose just feels different. Perhaps it is because I am vividly aware of my surroundings; I no longer take art or life for granted. My newly appreciative view of literature and the world is insatiable, and I want to share that enthusiasm with others. This is precisely why I want to teach literature at the university level.

More specifically, I want to study lyrics, poetry, and the similarities between music and literature. I want to study the poetry of lyrics and the musicality of poetry. The two are interchangeable, in my mind, and they both have had a distinct impact on my life.

I want to study writers like Willa Cather – who began her career writing about actual pioneers and ended it by writing about spiritual pioneers, reflecting a new, anti-materialistic view of life. Writers like Ezra Pound, who struggled between the conventions of old poetry and new poetry. I can relate to this dichotomy, understanding and appreciating the old, but with eyes wide open to new, uncharted territory – both in life and art. Writers like Ann Sexton, who believed the “imagination and the unconscious are one and the same” and that poetry “should be a shock to the senses, and it should also hurt.” While not quite as emotionally tormented as Sexton, I do identify with her indescribable angst, her anger, her raw emotion, and most of all, her voice of pure, blunt honesty. Writers like Flannery O’Connor, who had a sharp and witty sense of humor that was woven throughout her work. Even when struck with illness, she refused to indulge in self-pity, always had a hopeful and humorous view of life, and seemed to soak up people and their conversations, always aware of the details in life. The things that really matter. She projected her wicked sense of humor in her dark comedies and had the last laugh with her critics. I can truly relate.

I would like to obtain a second Master's degree - this time, an English, then then continue on to pursue my doctoral degree in English, teach at the university level, and share the enthusiasm for the art that lives within me. This is my purpose. I will take it both seriously and address it passionately. Being accepted to the program in English at Loyola University would be the exclamation point of a very colorful, lyrical sentence, and the beginning of a new chapter – one a lifetime in the making.

I never did make it in. And, this makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut and his dropping out of Butler University, because the powers of academe basically told him he was no good. Don't get me wrong -I'm not comparing myself to Mr. Vonnegut (God rest his soul). I mean, the man was brilliant, and I'm just a shlep who loves words. But, I am saying that I can relate. I've been told "you can't" a lot in life. And, as a writer, you hear "can't" and "don't" even more than the regular person. It's sort of the writing way. Everyone is an editor when they didn't take the time to bleed and sweat over what was actually written. Everyone's a damn critic.

Looking at this essay made me realize that I'm exactly where I need to be. I'm writing blurbs of disconnected prose, hoping to someday mold it into a marginal novel. I'm teaching 20-something, barely-C students how to write coherent sentences. And you know what? It's all good.

Eat your heart out, Loyola.