Flourish October 2005

vol. 1, no. 8

Perhaps it is appropriate that the eighth issue should take a turn toward the more somber.

Last time I told you about Liz, who had been working long hours to make her dissertation deadline, only to find her advisor balking at approving the last chapter. Fortunately, on the very cusp of the deadline she had been laboring toward all year, she asked again about the terms of her fellowship and found that September 6 was not the real deadline–September 29 was. Yippee! Of course, given that she was teaching four full days a week at campuses quite a commute from her home, the new deadline did not afford her that much more time. But she thought that, in the nine days now available to her, she could revise the last chapter, tidy her previous chapters, organize her bibliography, write the acknowledgements and abstract, and go through the day-long filing process.

Unfortunately, as Samuel Johnson said long ago, sometimes on to an already heavy burden “her load misfortune flings.” On September 6, the results of some medical tests arrived and the news was not good. In fact, the news was devastating. Liz needed major surgery followed by six weeks of bed rest. A small chance existed that when the doctors went in they would find the unspeakable c-word. Since Liz had gone through chemotherapy once before in her life, she knew all too well what this diagnosis meant.

As you can imagine, Liz shut down. Part of what made her feel so anxious was that she was no longer a student and thus no longer medically insured. How was she going to pay for this surgery? And how was she going to support herself for six weeks of bed rest if she couldn’t teach?

Liz is a survivor in more ways than one, however. Slowly she began to pull herself together. She asked her department for more time and they were wonderful. She arranged to have gap insurance that would cover her through the surgery and found an insurer that would take her on despite her pre-existing conditions. She asked the doctors if she could do the surgery during the winter break between teaching periods, six weeks when she didn’t have to work.

As a back-drop, though, the unfinished dissertation loomed. Day after day she simply could not bring an ounce of energy to it. She’d been running too hard for too long. After two weeks, she was still only managing an hour here and there amidst all the teaching and medical appointments. She wished that she had the energy to get up at 3:30 in the morning and work seven days a week, as she had been doing, but she just couldn’t do it. Knowing that she had every reason do nothing at all didn’t help.

One day, she was again castigating herself for not spending more time on the dissertation. “I spent two hours in the grocery store yesterday,” she told me with a sigh, “just going up and down the aisles. Up and down. And I hate grocery shopping!” Did it help? I asked her. “Actually,” she laughed, “it did. It was very relaxing.”
We agreed then that she had to stop beating herself up for not being in mad, round-the-clock writing mode. She’d always known it was not sustainable for long. What she needed was a truly realistic schedule, with a truly realistic deadline, that took into account all the realities of her current situation.

So, she wrote up a weekend by weekend task list and is now aiming to file on December 2, before she does the surgery. That gives her two months, including rounds of waiting for her committee to respond. Last weekend, she didn’t do any of the things she planned to do; this weekend she was back to getting up at 3:30 in the morning and working for many hours. No doubt the journey of the next two months will have its ups and downs. But for now, as Liz puts it, “writing helps. When I’m writing I can’t think about what else is going on.”

So, that’s the story so far. Not the usual light fare. I asked Liz if she would prefer I not tell you her story this month, but she insisted that she was enjoying her “celebrity status” and took comfort from knowing that her struggle might encourage others. Now I’m going to take the pressure off her, though, and let her go back to civilian life. When I have good news, I’ll let you know. She thanks all those Flourish readers who wrote to her with notes of encouragement last month, she appreciated them!

Quote, Unquote

“Poems : For the Young Who Want To”
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet,
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
–Marge Piercy, Circles on the Water (Knopf, 1982)

News from the Editor

My summer workshops have ended, so my time has been freed up for more writing. I’ve been focusing on journal articles this summer, now I am turning to longer writing projects.