My Muse

When I think about the idea of “muse,” it is easy for me to name mine: Amy, my wife. It might sound “cheesy” to say, perhaps (so traditional), that my spouse, to whom I have been married for 12 years, is my muse. Still. She is not my muse in the primary sense that she inspires me to write (although I’ve written my share of pieces that were inspired by her).

When I state that she is my muse, I mean that she is my primary audience member. Better yet, she is my audience. Whenever I’m constructing or revising a story, a poem, an essay, I’m wondering, what would Amy think? (WWAT?) I could care less what anyone else thinks of my work as long as she enjoys it, is moved by it. I write for and because of her. And I hope my work communicates to her at some level or levels.

She became my muse when we started dating over 14 years ago, and through my work in various genres, I would periodically show her my drafts. Not first drafts of stories, anyway, but often first drafts of poems. And I valued (and still value) her viewpoint above all others because she is untainted by years of literary study via writing workshops and literature seminars. Not that I don’t value those, because I do. The former helped me as writer consider the implications of my choices (from craft and technique angles), and the latter plunged me as a writer into the world of the literary critic, discovering even deeper truths and issues.

But she is not a poet, not a fiction writer, not a writer of creative nonfiction. She is a reader, a close and careful reader, someone who possesses a no-nonsense attitude about reading and writing. She reads a story for story, for characters who are rich, complex. She reads a poem for the directness and precision of its language and imagery. She reads an essay for the way that a writer shares his or her insights, his or her discoveries. She is intelligent, well-read, compassionate, and a good listener. All qualities of a great audience member, all qualities of a great spouse.

I vividly recall her in the passenger seat of our 2004 Impala to South Dakota on our way to and to my dissertation defense. 200-some pages of my short-story collection on her lap. I knew I would have the final revisions and suggested edits by my committee, but I would also have the edits and questions of Amy, which I valued just as much, if not more. I was more anxious about her reading the collection (regularly sneaking glances as she read and marked edits and comments) than what my committee would say. I wondered what she thought as she read each story. I worried what she thought.

A final point to close with. During my MFA time, during the first years of our marriage, and when I was primarily a poet, I took several fiction seminars, too. The stories I wrote were bad, so bad. Amy dutifully read them, and I remember that at a certain point, she said something along the lines of, “For a while, I think I was the better prose writer than you are, but you’ve really grown.” In those early years there was a steady growth that I sensed but couldn’t quite articulate. She was able to discern and acknowledge that growth. Her statement was an inspiration then, and it has inspired me (but really she has inspired me) to improve as a writer, and even more so to improve as a person, her grateful husband.

On the Value of Waiting

Last week, I published the short story “Vocations” in the Fredericksburg Literary Review. I’m proud of that story for a number of reasons (reasons I won’t delve into here), but after hearing some feedback from friends on the piece, I wanted to examine the history of the story. First a digression (of sorts).

One of my undergraduate professors suggested that writers should wait at least 6 or 7 years (if my memory serves me correctly) before sending out a piece. As a young wanna-be writer with visions of my name in print, I had trouble believing that guideline, or more than that, I couldn’t understand why someone would submit to such a seemingly arcane guideline.

Yet, as I examine my own publication history, I find that some of the pieces that I’ve had published in the last few years are pieces that took 6-10 years from the first draft to the time of publication.

For instance, this summer I was delighted to have a poem appear in a beautiful anthology, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. My four-line poem, “Northwest Minnesota in January,” was a part of my MFA thesis from 2004. The first draft was written in early 2004, and then was published ten years later. And the poem still holds up. In fact, I like it more now than I did then.

As for “Vocations,” I wrote the first draft in September 2008, as part of my first assignment in the fiction-writing seminar in my PhD program. The first draft had a much more light-hearted ending, and I wrote two more drafts that semester, trying to make the piece a little more sophisticated.

I didn’t work on the story again until I was assembling my dissertation 2011, making revisions to the story that tied it more directly to other stories in the short-story collection.

Then this summer, as a part of the summer-research grant project, I made further revisions, even going so far as to shift the story from past to present tense. I began sending it out at the end of summer, and then it found its home in an online literary journal.

This morning, when I read the very first draft, I was both amused and amazed. Amused because the first draft was so awful (really awful), and amazed because I’m baffled at how that awful first draft eventually (over six years) became one of the favorites pieces that I’ve written.

All this is a reminder of the role of patience in the writing life. It is a reminder that if I trust the process and allow myself time (even years), good work will form.

Autumn, Basketball, & Writing

When some people think of autumn, they think of vibrant leaves, football, pumpkins, hot apple cider. I think of these things, too, but I also think of how I spent many of those September, October, and early November evenings in my small Minnesota town: shooting baskets by myself at South Park, three blocks from my house.

My evening chore of drying dishes completed, and clad in a hooded sweatshirt, I rode my ten-speed–basketball tucked under one arm–past the baseball diamond, the hockey rink, the swimming pool, and one more block, until I reached the park. The heat of summer was a distant memory, and the soft chill was in the air.

The court (at that time), was a tennis court converted to a basketball court (the posts for the tennis nets having been removed), with the white lines remaining on that tennis-court green surface. Two baskets were set up, one on the south end, one on the north. I always shot at the north hoop.

As the sun finished its decent, the beams found their way through the leaves of the massive oak trees in the park and to me as I shot jump shot after jump shot, the court to myself. Eventually, I had to switch on the park lights, the unlocked box a privilege of living in a small town.

As much as I loved basketball season itself (the practices, the games, the stay against the madness of Minnesota winters), I think I loved those fall evenings by myself even more. I was in control. If I wanted to launch twenty-footer after twenty-footer, I could.

I also am convinced that my love for basketball, and my willingness to practice hour after hour by myself, was preparing me for the work of being a writer. If you write (any thing of any length), you must be willing to spend hour after hour by yourself working on the piece. (I realize this last statement isn’t shocking or newsworthy.) But I’m perfectly fine spending hour after hour by myself working on a story or essay draft or even a poem, before returning to the world of human beings.

When I consider how I spent those evenings during my upper elementary, junior high, and high school years, I think about how much daydreaming I did. Some of it was reliving previous games I’d played in, some of it was anticipating future games I would play in, some of it was longing for the attention of a particular girl (of course), but there was also the freedom to let my mind wander while actively doing something I enjoyed.

So while deep in the heart of Texas in a (warmer autumn) and there’s obsession with (and devotion to) football, I’ll be applying the lessons I learned on those beautiful autumn nights at a rinky-dink park in Minnesota.

Note: This post is also appearing on my basketball blog: thehoopsdoc.wordpress.com