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Still Kicking Myself

I lay in bed in the dark this morning, awake far too early, not willing to admit I was not going to get back to sleep, hearing the same sentences tapped out over and over like a military tattoo: How I could write anything so awful, so stupid, so murky? What was I thinking?

Last night I submitted a proposal for several articles I plan to write for this semester’s creative nonfiction writing workshop in my MFA program. (Every semester I take one writing workshop and one literature class.) The instructor and students–a smart crowd, good people–acted as an editorial committee and “voted” on the proposals they liked best.

They quickly signed off on the piece about shopping for churches (funny, timely), soon agreed that the piece about midlife had a lot of juice to it, and as their final selection settled on a piece about all the joys of peace and quiet, comparing the Jewish Sabbath with the military retreat ceremony. Yeah, that sounds like me–peace and quiet–I who think multitasking is relaxing, I who thought it was fun at the Webcred conference to simultaneously listen, blog, and talk in a chat room while whispering to Carrie Lowe, passing around ginger Altoids, and occasionally rummaging for pens or other things in my obligingly capacious computer shoulderbag.

To my shame, my “editorial committee” said not a word about the piece that meant the most to me–the one I wanted to write about the digital divide, to talk about the real people, the real voices, the real challenges and triumphs, the kid who helps his mom go online, the older person frustrated by a complicated website, the unemployed man who writes his resume on half-hour slots at the local library. It’s not that they didn’t try to read what I had to share; I just blew it. The proposal was breathless gabbling that went right over the heads of the non-techies I was presenting this to (the people I want to be my audience!): a murky, braggy, barely-understand-it-myself core dump, as if the ever-accessible David Pogue of the New York Times suddenly began channeling an obscure but name-dropping software programmer.

Not only that, the instructor pointed out to me several times that the committee had not commented on the digital divide article. “I’m not into technology,” said one person. Well, I’m not into a lot of things I read in this program, but I get engaged when I read them, and if I had just paid a whit of attention to who I was talking to and what I was saying, I could have sold them on it. They just weren’t into looking at my road kill, and I can’t blame them.

I don’t have to abide by what the class says, but if I can’t sell them in a paragraph or two, maybe that portends dark things for the final piece. I know what it’s like to read (and carefully and politely critique) fifteen pages of bad writing. A waste of time, of effort, of paper: why shouldn’t they preempt further misery?

Does this mean I cannot write about technology again, ever? Will there now be a radical break between my writing self and my technology self?

What doubly shames me is that the third piece they settled on sounds really pretty, yet for the most part is as true to my life as a silk dress on a turnip. Yes, there are parts of that piece that feel right, parts I want to write about (primarily about the military retreat ceremony, a quaint and beautiful custom). But the message I pulled out of my ear yesterday morning while writing the proposal isn’t one I’m married too, doesn’t put any fire in my belly, doesn’t make me tear up with excitement and caring because I really do give a damn about people stuck shivering in the Donner Pass of technology, people who have few advocates, and precisely because they are underconnected, have no voice (like Malcolm Gladwell’s example of the campaign to get rid of recess in schools, which has no input from the primary stakeholders, six and seven year olds). We with our smartphones and flat screens and huge TVs, we who consider ourselves underconnected when our DSL connection slows down for an hour, we have no idea, or we do get an idea but then we are dazzled by the next New New Thing and then we need to be pulled away from our sparkly yuppie-chow toys and reminded about the real world, where a computer costs two months’ pay and you just hope the local library stays open even in these tough times because otherwise you aren’t going to be able to type a new resume.

On behalf of the voiceless, I had a moral responsibility to do that proposal correctly, and I blew it. This pains me doubly because I have been here before. Almost ten years ago I left a library PhD program after one semester, left it for a lot of reasons, but in part because on the first day, my advisor rejected my goal. I told her I wanted to be the Jonathan Kozol of librarianship, and she dismissed that out of hand. “He’s not academic enough.” I nodded and slunk away, suddenly rudderless and confused. The semester that followed was a disaster (not academically, but in every other way–I have never been lonelier, sadder, or more disillusioned), and I was glad to put that school in my rear-view mirror, scurrying back to dear old New Jersey in a blessed 36-hour period of halcyon weather during a winter that would make this year’s New England look like the Bahamas.

Now, sitting in placid, sunny, and slightly smug Palo Alto, I’ve got the other answer. The same topic isn’t populist enough. But the real problem, I can see, is I don’t know how to follow my own star. Last night was an important night, a night to say, yes, this is my real writing self, and this is what I write about, and when you read this proposal you want two scoops of it with whipped cream on top, and I blew it as magnificently as Barbara Jean’s on-stage meltdown in Nashville. I’ve spent ten years blaming that PhD advisor, but lying in the dark this morning, stroking two worried cats as I agonized, I saw that I’ve been unwilling to point at the person truly responsible for that dream withering like a raisin in the sun–myself.

Maybe this MFA is stupid, a hugely expensive mistake. I already feel guilty enough for doing this program when I could be building my professional skills or putting money toward retirement or just building a nest egg for the next between-job period. A friend told me no education is ever wasted, but I’m starting to doubt that. I may be the exception to that rule.

Perhaps I can eventually find a way to reconcile the two people, techno-Karen and writing-Karen. I could try to accept that this semester I’ll Explore My Craft through traditional topics, and next fall I’ll try technology again. As I keep telling myself, it may be good for me to write outside of the same box I’ve been in for over a decade. (Isn’t that something I wanted from this degree?)

But right now I’m that turnip, wondering uneasily how I got in that silk dress, and whether it will ever look right on me.

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