Know thyself—this is the essential requirement for anyone writing memoir. When I enrolled in my MFAW program, I knew myself. And I didn’t want to write memoir. Oh, I knew I had stories to tell. But I wanted to use those stories as background noise, experiences that would inform my yet-to-be-written sophisticated nonfiction essays, experiences that would sculpt my voice. I did not want to use them as stories. You see, I was an elitist. And I knew it. I believed, quite completely, that no one would care about my stories unless I learned how to write them well. And that, my friends, is why I pursued an MFAW in the first place. I told my advisors I did not want to write about abuse (at least my own). I told my advisors I did not want to write a scorned-woman-revenge-novel/memoir. It’s been done, I said. They agreed. I want to write like those New Yorker dudes, I said. Fine, they said, let’s do that.
The very first day I arrived in Port Townsend, I asked how many applicants had vied for the 18 places in our new class of writers. Because I was an elitist. We all know that elitism comes from insecurity. I wanted to know that I was good enough to be there. Within two days, I was in crisis. So much talent surrounded me. I was terrified. What am I doing here? I am not good enough to be here. Crap. One advisor quelled my fears. I stuck to my guns on the memoir thing—I’m not old enough to write a memoir, I said. Knowing there were 20-somethings doing just that, I qualified my statement. Memoir is not for me, anyway, I said. Goddard welcomed me, and I wasn’t about to alienate my new people with my own need to be better.
So, plan in hand, I went home, and within a week, was getting divorced. I sent packets that were just thick enough to pass. Researched, detached essays became increasingly difficult. By the end of my first semester, I gave in and wrote some of my stories. I was proud that I had learned enough in that short time to be able to take some journaled nonsense and turn it into something worth reading.
Second semester I had the same plan—don’t write memoir. God. Anything but that. I was sick of myself. After a productive residency, I went home to really get to work. But I couldn’t write anything. My packets became increasingly thinner. Finally I asked my advisor, a writer’s block guru, for advice. She said…write some memoir. Get it out. Don’t worry if it is good, just send me a whole lot of pages and get this thing out of your way. By golly, it worked. Some of those pages ended up in my final thesis; some didn’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in those pages, I found a story that was indeed worth telling. I ultimately told it a different way, but the knowledge that my story had some universal truth, some kernel of value, changed the direction of my MFA project and my writing in general.
Did I go on to write a straight-up memoir? No. But I did write about abuse. I did write about single motherhood. I did write about disability. I did write about a lot of things that I initially wanted to avoid, things that my elitist cronies would not consider worthy of great literature. I wrote stories of abuse and divorce and motherhood and disability and rape and otherness. I wrote stories of women. And stories of women, by women, are not often what we consider to be great literature. We read them, sure—in women’s lit class, or in the memoir section of big chain bookstores. But you won’t find many of these stories in the New Yorker.
I had to accept that my path was to write the best stories I could write, New Yorker and Seattle elitists be damned, because I was writing to make a difference. I wrote (and write) in the hopes that my stories, whatever they may be, might help someone else. And my stories are about women. And abuse and otherness. Because, folks, I write about women. Women’s lives are full of such things. And if that meant I had to give up my membership in the elitist’s club, so be it.
Once I stopped fighting the stories that needed to be told, my writing blossomed into published essays, poems, and awards. Which totally fed my elitist need to be good, of course. But that’s not the point. The point is this: an MFA program should lead you toward the best writing you can do. Goddard did that for me, as soon as I got out of my own way.
Why am I telling you all this? Because a former MFA advisor has shaken our little world with his elitist epistemology. I don’t want to give him any more power than he already has—I learned years ago to stop wasting my time on little boys in grown-up bodies. But I am not writing this for him, or even in response to his derisive comments and outright attack of abuse victims. I am writing this because our community, our Goddard world, deserves a response. Goddard taught me to be less of an elitist—the complete opposite of what RB seems to believe creates the Real Deal—and more of a writer. I was lucky to have advisors who really taught me the craft, expected more from me than I knew I had, and valued my stories. They did not hold my hand while I whined. They dished out hard love and writerly wisdom with compassion. I believe our community was so rocked by that venomous article because most of us had experiences similar to mine. We’re Goddard. We just don’t do this to each other.
What we do is write. And we do it well. Goddard truly restored my faith in humanity at a time when I had none. And Goddard taught me how to write. It was absolutely the best experience I’ve had in my life. This elitist thinks Goddard is the Real Deal. We are still Goddard. He is not. So write on friends. Write on.