I tell this story sometimes to the young writers I teach, many of whom ask how I got where I am (which they don't know well enough to know is functionally nowhere, but all the same).
Many years ago, I went to get an MFA at the University of Montana. My acceptance was odd: I never received a rejection, and when I emailed the program after months of silence, they emailed back to say: "Oops! You're in!"
Being in wasn't the same as being accepted. I was at the "bottom of the bottom"--so low on the waitlist, they'd forgotten to even bother asking if I wanted to pay them to come.
I arrived to Montana with a chip on my shoulder. I knew I was at the bottom, and I was determined to prove that I at least belonged there (at the bottom), as opposed to not there at all.
My Chicago friends had been worried that a queer like me was moving to Montana, and there was some stuff to worry about: once, on a walk with a guy I was dating, we were trailed by a pickup truck for a mile or so. It turned where we turned. Slowed to the pace of our slow pace.
I thought we were going to die.
Finally, a window opened, and through it a shout came: “FUCK YOU FAGS!”
The truck peeled away, and I couldn’t help but think about Laramie, which was the next state over.
A close call can feel so uneventful, it can feel like everything else.
But mostly, Montana was stupidly beautiful. Missoula is where, yes, the river runs through it. Mountains with snow on them, even in the summer. Hot springs in the elbows of cold creeks.
I wrote a lot, maybe the most I’ve ever written. I wrote a lot, and without abandon. I turned in hideously long stories to workshop.
Kevin Canty called me out on misusing the word “scuppering”, and I was so embarrassed, I never misused words again (true).
At the time, the Missoula MFA was looking for a new writer to fill a tenured position. They were bringing their top picks to the program to run “pilot workshops”, which were effectively simulations of what their workshops would be like, in the real world.
The pilot workshops were, as you can imagine, strange—imagine having to simulate for others what you know you’re good at instead of actually doing it. And imagine having to do this with the workshop model which, real or not, is even harder to define.
(A rabbit hole: there’s a spooky conspiratorial path of thinking that looks up the history of the workshop model, and learns that the CIA was involved in its formation; The Paris Review began as a cover for spy work; in some ways, the tyranny of what is considered "literary" these days owes its existence to the same spooks who toppled whole governments)
The writer Rick Bass was one of the top picks for the tenured position, and the week before he arrived, we all submitted stories in the hopes he might use them to “simulate” his style of teaching writing.
The Rick Bass workshop was, by all accounts, unsuccessful. He made an elaborate metaphor about the story as football—drawing intersecting lines and arrows on a whiteboard, with story, or plot, or maybe theme, being Hail Maryed toward an endzone.
This, to a class of mostly women and queers who did not give any shits about football. While it went on, his whiteboard marker squeaking, we made eye contact with each other across the room, as if to say, “Can you believe what kinds of jobs some people get to apply for?”
(He didn't get the job.)
At the end of the simulation, Rick Bass began to move around the congregation like a priest at the end of mass, shaking hands and passing back our manuscripts with, yes, his feedback marked on them.
To Kate, he said: “Your prose is like singing. Your sentences are truly miraculous.”
To Emma, he said: “Your sense of propulsion and momentum is really something else. This thing hurtles forward.”
To Alice, he said: “The guiding intellect behind this piece is tremendous.”
Then he got to me.
He handed back my manuscript and said, “I have no idea what to say about this.”
This: my writing.
I don’t remember where his eyes looked. Were they sweeping the other writers, as if to say, “Can you believe what kinds of writers get into programs like this?”
I was stunned. The stories I'd submitted were a change for me—flash fictions and prose poems, based around the myth of the minotaur. I had wanted to get away from the long form, from scuppering my own stories.
(Was that right, Kevin?)
To have a writer say there were no words for my words was brutal. A criticism that can’t work itself up enough to find the words is really just death. An annihilating whateverness.
Remember, I had a chip on my shoulder. I imagine most young writers do—we write badly, not so much as proof of our badness, though it is certainly that, but more as a promissory note to a future where we’re bad but less.
I imagine many writers have been sunk with less.
Rick Bass left. I really thought I was done for. I'd had to ask the program to reject me, and they had denied me even a clean no. Come and be told there are no words for your words.
The next week, another Rick came to the valley.
Rick Moody arrived—not to simulate workshop, but merely to read our work and read some of his work.
I was in a group who took him out for lunch, and he shared a funny story about Angela Carter, a writer I loved and love, whose weird stories were what my weird minotaur stories were trying to be like.
At Brown University, Rick Moody attended Carter’s class. He described her as delightfully weird, unable to make eye contact with her students, and yet commanding the room all the same.
A cocky male student—this was Brown in the 80s, after all—raised his hand on the first day of class and asked, “What do you write about?”
Without looking up from her desk, Carter said, “My work acts as the scalpel at the base of a man’s penis.”
After break, only half the class returned.
When we were finishing lunch, Rick Moody handed back our manuscripts. I was terrified: the manuscript had, in a terrible twist of timing that brought two Ricks to campus, one week into the next, a river running through it, been the same stories I submitted to Rick Bass.
Rick Moody got to me.
He said, “These stories blew me away.”
He had other kind words, as well as some criticism. He pointed out which story was the strongest. He urged me to keep circling around the myth, the maze.
He’d found something worth liking, and the words worth saying.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the other Rick not come—and I mean either of them. Good Rick or Bad Rick. Moody or Bass. Had I heard I was just bad. Had I heard I was just good. I don’t know.
I don’t know, except to say that you don’t need a workshop, simulated or not, to write or never write again. Your readers will find you, or they won’t ever. There is so much dumb luck involved.