Backing Out Into Traffic

My good friend, John Buckley, joined an MFA program in Michigan just as his first two books published. Here, he talks about the strange world of promotion while entering a new world. We miss you here in LA, John, but we love your success out there!

Today, he's guest blogging on my site. (By the way, contact me if you're interested in guest blogging about marketing).

Backing Out Into Traffic

I did it in reverse. I got my books published and then I went back to school. I thought seemingly going backwards meant I would have it all worked out.

I did look. And then I looked again. On paper, I would have plenty of time. One seminar Monday evening, one workshop Wednesday afternoon. Six hours a week, fewer hours in a classroom than when teaching four sections as an adjunct professor. Other than six hours, I would sleep, eat, write, cash stipend checks, and, most importantly, have plenty of time to promote my two forthcoming books, my solo collection, Sky Sandwiches (Anaphora Literary Press), and my collaboration with Martin Ott, Poets’ Guide to America (Brooklyn Arts Press). I’d be able to offer my chapbooks from Propaganda Press, Breach Birth and Leading an Aquamarine Shoat by Its Tail, as bonuses for anyone buying a full-length collection at the many, many readings I would arrange throughout the Upper Midwest.

And then I arrived in Ann Arbor.

What did I overlook? The MFA program director and my workshop professor both urged me to build ties with my fellow classmates, what I’ve now learned to call my cohort, the other writers with which I’ll apparently be grouped in perpetuity. That sounded good enough. Leaving Southern California had meant leaving behind the foundation of fans and fellows I had slowly constructed over the past year, and I needed someone in this new city to buy my books. But before I can even think of relying on my MFA community to invest in my creative output with dollars as well as workshop comments, I’ve had to start paying a new set of dues to this new union of minds and talents. That has meant spending Thursday afternoons drinking coffee and mingling in the Hopwood Room, Thursday evenings at readings for the Zell Visiting Writers Series, Friday evenings at Mark Webster Readings for second-year students, and Saturday evenings at J. Edgar Edwards Readings for first-year students like me. That has meant trying to build relationships with colleagues almost twenty years younger. That has meant tackling my usual social anxiety in a whole ‘nother context. But if I want to survive on Literature Island without getting voted off, I have to have a semi-successful social game.

What else did I overlook? Taking classes seriously takes serious time. I need to read a novel a week for my seminar. I need to read at least a poetry collection a week for my workshop. I need to develop more consistent, disciplined writing habits than I’ve had in the past. And if I’m going to have anything to offer of merit in class discussions and informal conversations, I need to spend my free time acquainting myself with the work of as many other famous, renowned, celebrated, previously-unknown-to-me writers as possible. Did you know Southern California’s not the only part of the world that has ever produced poets? It’s true. And if I’m going to sound less like a fraud than I feel that I am in my heart, if I’m going to justify my inclusion in one of the country’s best MFA programs, I need to read. There go Sunday, Tuesday, and every morning.

And money. Money, money, money. I expected to take out over twenty grand a year in student loans. I like student loans. You can defer paying them back until you graduate. You can deduct their interest from your taxes. I was going to take out so much in student loans, until the Powers That Be took another look at my financial profile and cancelled ninety percent of what they had previously offered. Apparently, I’m not allowed to take out more loans than my academics cost. And when the generous University of Michigan gives me a full tuition waiver and a modest but considerable stipend, it considers me to require very little else. So much for the massive road trips I had planned.

OK, so I’m very lucky. I got a free ride to a great program, and some extra money to boot. I get to be closer to my family. I get to watch trees change color again. Worse Mexican food; better Middle Eastern food. But suffice it to say that playing the MFA game is less conducive to launching a wide-ranging marketing blitz than I initially expected. Someday, I’ll have made my bones at the University of Michigan. Someday, I’ll have even better work collected and published, work that my Ann Arbor cronies rally behind, work that I can afford to push nationwide. For now, I look forward to AWP and to returning to Southern California for well-hyped guest appearances here and there. For now, I’m learning to love the new hustle, hoping my books in the box in the corner don’t grow stale.