Labor of Love
Letter from the Editor, Fall 2009 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
ONE OF MY GOOD FRIEND'S WAS MARRIED THIS PAST WEEKEND IN THE LAND OF WALKING GHOSTS. I returned to where I did my MFA to attend his wedding Fairfax, Virigina the home of George Mason University. The wedding itself was a beautiful affair. There was Catholic singing, a beautiful bride and good weather. The groom was happy and proud. He’s a writer too, a regular tough-cut-from-the-American aesthetic writer. A good man, one of my best friends and I was proud to be there with him on a day where he got to show his love in front of his friends and family. My head was in other places. My head was in the past. I had not returned in three years, three long years of which my life radically changed. I saw ghosts that entire weekend, ghosts of my past.
I don’t mean ghosts, like I saw dead people. I mean ghosts like the days I used to leave classes with Richard Bausch and Alan Cheuse. Ghosts of the memories of writing workshops and carefully thought out reader responses where I marked up entire manuscripts with three different highlighters trying to let someone know I heard what they were trying to say. The times when I would sit in class and debate the finer points of a shift in dialogue and a movement in the plot which made me cry or laugh out loud. Times when I left the classroom, with a hop in my step because Bausch read a paragraph of mine out loud and when just as likely I left the classroom defeated and broken. There were the bars we all went, the long drives on route 95 or 66 to head back to Washington, DC and piss on the side of the Pentagon.
I had to remind myself as I was walked through my past that I was there once, that my life had revolved around a campus where I was a writer, a writer every damn day and that what we talked about--were stories--beautiful stories that blood and tears had been poured into. I whispered to myself as I stalked the campus at midnight after the wedding night that, “you were here Alexis, this was your life.” This was the land that I founded Our Stories and where I honed my craft to the extent that I believed that I had something to say--but this was also the world where I had to fight to arrive.
I will be honest, I almost didn’t get in. Yup, the founder of this literary journal almost never went to George Mason, almost did not take classes with Richard Bausch, almost never founded this journal and never wrote this essay now before you. Ghosts. I've told this story to only a few people and never to anyone who did their MFA with me. I'm telling you all now.
You see, when I applied to George Mason I did so as a poet, a man full of verse, who wanted very badly to commune with Frank O’Hara and William Carlos Williams. The year I applied to MFA programs I had heard from 9 schools. I’d been rejected eight times and had one acceptance, the sort of non-acceptance acceptance you dread receiving from from a MFA program; from a lower ranked school without any aid. The thought of taking out 70,000 dollars for a MFA was frightening to me. I had one shot and that was George Mason. I did what I always did and that was try every angle that I thought might work. I called. I lobbied. I sweet talked the secretary and when nothing worked I prayed. One day, upon calling the secretary for a fifth day in a row she let on that the director of the program was introducing Michael Ondaatje at a campus reading and that I should go, try to get "some face time," she suggested. I sat in my DC office and wasted little time, I grabbed my bag and left for home. While at home I changed and then--quickly and hastily--jotted down a poem. It was a simple poem, as poems should be, about being the true English Patient, it was about giving a young man a chance who believed this was his mission to go to an MFA program and make a life in letters. I folded it in an envelope and left for the school. Two buses and a Metro ride later I arrived in the middle of a rain storm, searching clumsily--in that way I tend to do when rushed and scared--for the auditorium where the author of the English Patient and the program director held court. I arrived at the place, Harris Hall. I was wet, very wet and as I strode quickly to the doors I was stopped. Like a wet dog without a home I shook myself clean and made my way for the doors. A woman with small glasses and a quaint smile stepped in front of me. She quietly spoke, telling me I couldn’t enter. “They’re full,” she said, “you can’t come in--fire code and all that.” I thought of running past her, screaming at the top of my lungs--fighting her off and the security but what did I do. Nothing. I walked back outside, in the rain.
I felt pathetic. I thought about what to do, my umbrella at my side while the rain beat across the campus, looking cruel and sad, I thought of going to his office. I could take the poem to his mail box, slip it in there. I could give it to someone else. Anything. But anything right about then sounded sad and would never work. It was no gesture. It meant little. I imagined him reading the poem, tossing it in the recycling bin and that was that. So I did what I learned to do in the Peace Corps: improvise. I walked back in, shook off the rain and went back up to that woman and asked, “I just have a letter for Bill Miller, I have to get it to him tonight. Can you take it to him?” She looked me over and thought about it and said what would change my life, “he’s actually standing in the back of the auditorium, if you promise not to stay, I’ll let you in to give it to him.” I opened that door, walked up to the man that I had never met. He looked surprised, trying to place me. He was ruddy cheeked and wore his scruffy tweed replete with elbow patches well. I shook his hand, smiling while Ondtaaje read, his snow white hair like a beacon in my forsight. I handed Bill Miller my small poem, thanked him and left.
Three days later I called him back and I was in the program.
Now, the story of how I switched to fiction and studied quietly under the wings of Richard Basuch is another story--for another time. What I want to tell you about though is that passion, that deep rooted desire to connect, to take life by the throat and fight for this chance is all you have in life. That’s the point of this story. I don’t know whether what Bill Miller did, whether he accepted me had anything to do with that poem but I do know that on that day I took a very big step in wanting my story to be heard. It took strength, some guts and some improvisation to make it happen and it took audacity. Audacity to think that I should have a shot. Since that day I’ve never looked back--and embraced the writer that I’ve become. Never give up on any of your dreams.
So, standing in that Catholic church in Fairfax, Virginia I looked up at the altar, winked at Jesus and felt proud of my friend who stood before the priest and said a silent prayer to myself to keep fighting, keep working at this craft to make taking life by the throat and working every day as the English Patient. We are who we are when we take chances not when we stand in place.
I said goodbye to the ghosts of Virginia and hello to the new life I have now when I returned to Saint Louis on Sunday--this place where I run Our Stories, write a new short story and hammer away at one novel or the other. To the wife I have now who sustains me and to our own wedding anniversary that comes this weekend when the first issue of our fourth volume went live. It’s a good life. It’s a hard labor of love that we all fight. To you my friends and readers I say this: fight damnit, you may only get one shot.