I spent AWP 15 feeling old. I wish there was a better way to phrase it. Caught in the flow of young aspiring MFA students excitedly chatting between panels … there was this weird heightened awareness of age and the fact that I’m a vastly different person than I was at 24 when I entered my program… 26 when I left. In fact one excited young writer mistook me for Cheryl Strayed while we waited in an insanely long bathroom line … and up until the final reading… that was the highlight for me.
That isn’t what this post is about, not really — though part of it — what your interior landscape is at that age and what it is in your forties … how the literary world worked, and still does, in particular ways that value youthful achievement. I remember a professor who gave me one of my first teaching opportunities remarking that what saddened her most is that she would see the most promising female writers leave the program and never publish…not because they didn’t have it in them, but because many would leave, partner and build families. I was naive enough at the time to think that wouldn’t matter.
The last reading I went to before the conference wrapped up was one that was hosted by local presses and featured award-winning poets, one of whom was instrumental in my undergraduate creative writing program in the early 90’s. I remember reading her work and feeling tied and connected to the West that I was falling in love with then. Work was read, interviews were conducted — and it had a particularly analog feel, which I appreciated — because two of the writers were writers of the generation that came before the digital publishing revolution and had some pointed observations about the change. I was ready to go home, AWP happening in my city — and so half of my attention was always on the tasks waiting for me at home. I was planning on waving to my friend, exiting the revolving door into the damp and still cold Minnesota spring –but I saw that they were selling the poets work — and there was a small line forming for signing…and an interior voice just said “stay.”
So I stayed, bought three books from each reader, made small talk and offered praise for the two other poets…and then stood before the final poet, who gently brushed her lovely gray hair behind her ear and complimented my blouse before asking my name. I gave it to her and paused.
My heart was racing and I tried to measure my voice. I mentioned that I had been an undergraduate when she was head of the department. I told her how her work had drawn me in and had been one of the things I feverishly read in preparation for my first year there… she nodded, her head down, turning the pages of her book, smiling benignly … and then I told her that I had taken an undergraduate creative writing class there but had … and I took a deep breath … dropped a course because of an inappropriate graduate student who had asked me out. She dropped the pen and looked up at me suddenly. She sharpened her gaze at me as if trying to place me, and then her gaze softened and she said, “oh yes, I remember, you know he started acting so strangely after that. Acting out. Horrible. We removed him from that course.” And the room sort of spun. All the blood went to my face, I apologized because I was having a moment. “Ah. Um. But…” I stammered “I never filed a formal complaint.” This is a university of 32,000 students. This was an incident that had happened over 25 years ago. I was young and taking a creative writing course, my first. My teacher wrote on a sheaf of poems “you really are a short story writer.” The first time I shared by rawest family stories — my father’s murder, my mother’s rage, my aunt’s schizophrenic break and its aftermath — all of it. The man took it upon himself first to ask to meet me privately, off campus, for a critique. This is all very hazy now. I went once and I just felt awkward. All my interior triggers were yelling at me — but I was raised to be polite and he was my teacher, after all. I remember how we called me and left a message on my machine … asking me to meet him somewhere. I don’t remember much beyond my own stammering response to his machine, declining– but what I do remember is his blistering response on my answering machine “what did you think I was asking you out on a fucking date”
I was eighteen. This was my professor. I was filled with shame and I never went back to the class… and in fact would never, could never, step foot in the creative writing department again. I must have had to have someone sign a withdrawal slip for me…I remember never going back — and once the poet, signing my book started telling the story…I had the tiniest of snippets rise from the back of my mind…another student calling me to tell me the instructor had gone completely off the rails, come to class drunk, maybe? Anyway.
For 25 years I kept that to myself. I never advocating for myself or filed a complaint. The poet looked up at me and there I was…my frye boots, my anthropologie top with the embroidered placket, my hoop earrings and silver and my too-long-for-my-age blonde hair blown out straight. I’d bought bright red MAC lipstick for the event…unusual for me — I’m older now, and more substantial in many ways … my legs and arms are stronger, my back probably broader… and she said “you are very beautiful” and I thanked her and said I never would have been able to see it then.
She and I talked then. In just a few minutes about the sexisim in the departments we’d both been in (different departments across the country) about the white elephant in the Creative Writing graduate studies departments across the country… about aging and how difficult it is and how few models we have in aging … and I looked into her eyes and told her she was now mine. Solidarity. For 25 years she knew my story and carried it, though she never knew my name or my face. She remembered it.
She told me she was glad I came back to writing — and I did, after my literature degree — I wrote stories for myself…I remember sitting in the sun along the Boulder Creek reading Raymond Carver by the old public library — right near the co-op I could never afford. I asked about him. Was there ever any formal consequence? What became of him. I held my breath. She waved her hand as if batting away an annoying horsefly “I told him the truth. That he didn’t have it. That he would never be anything.”
And when we parted she said “keep in touch.” And I plan on it. I tell myself I will write her a letter — just like I tell myself I will work on my novel, or get back to some kind of creative life, or write a blog post.
So. It only took me a year to tell you. I’m not even going to edit it or it will never get published.
There’s a part two to this story. It’s about what happened to that 18 year old student the year after she graduated.