Ah! I finally completed my undergraduate studies, and all my applications to the graduate schools whose Creative Writing MFA programs resonate with me. I must tell you: the statement of purpose is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and one of the hardest things about it was that they often limit you to a mere 750-1000 words.
I understand it. They have a lot of writing samples and statements of purpose to read. I respect their time. But one of the most anxiety inducing aspects of the experience is that I believe there is so much more nuance to what I want people to know about my writing and the context behind it.
In this blog I wish to make a few brief remarks on the matter as a way of experiencing a sense of closure. You see, I first enrolled in college in 2004. It took me until 2018 to finish the job. In between, there was a lot of complexity, philosophical, psychological, aesthetic, et cetera.
Around the age of eight or nine I grew interested in writing. I wrote plays and stories. Around the age of 13 I fell in love with song lyrics and began writing my own. So began my interest in poetry. When I was 18 I decided for sure I wanted to be a poet and went to Kean University pursuing a bachelors degree.
I disliked the urban feel at Kean University. I prefer open space and nature. So I transferred to Florida Gulf Coast University. Around this time I studied Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Percy Shelley, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Charles Bukowski, Ovid and Catullus. Unfortunately I could not cope with the fact that the general education courses at Florida Gulf Coast University did not teach these poets. I preferred not going to class, and instead, reading and writing on my own—the romantic, rebellious autodidact I thought I was. Unfortunately, I also suffered from severe, untreated anxiety as well as a nihilistic and depressed outlook. My writing during this stage was all over the place. Sometimes I wrote like a beat poet. Other times I wrote surreal poems. There was a sort of conflict in my mind—should I write to reflect things as they are, or should I write more for sensation, experience of the abstract, sort of Shelley-esque romanticism?
A few problems around this time are as follows: 1) I was a fatalist; 2) I did not believe in objectivity or absolutism or even of a reality or facts. What the universe possessed was merely illusions of tendencies made as they are as a result of democratic or universal will—how most people wanted things to be; 3) I was a nihilist—since the nature of the universe was an illusory thing, there were no real values or meaning to anything. As you might imagine, this was quite a depressing mentality, and left me with no principles or means of cultivating healthy relationships. My poems, regrettably, reflected this philosophy, though not substantively or usefully.
So with this kind of thinking I dropped out of college.
Half a year later I returned to college, though not Florida Gulf Coast University. Mercer County Community College it was. But my anxiety, depression, and my nihilism, combined with a break up with the girl friend I had for over a year, and being rejected by Emerson college all made for a frustrating and very unfortunate combination. It was around this time that I developed what I called “The word collage”—taking the sentence-ness out of words, and experimenting with what feelings they can evoke based on which word sits next to another. I was a fan of Nietzsche around this time and believed the poems I was writing were the answer to his call for a “transvaluation of values” that one must undergo to cure his or her nihilism. I was trying to find “meaning.”
A year later I returned to Mercer County Community college again. That was the Spring of 2008. That spring I wrote a short story called “Lovers” about a “free lover” sort of like Sam Malone from cheers, who just can’t help attracting women. He’s invited to a party one day but then ends up sleeping with all the women there. All the women find out as does one he thinks he might fall in love with.
That summer I took care of my father. More focused on him than my education at the time, I chose not to return to college. I would save up money and maybe self publish a book. Then my father died.
That was quite a shock for me. Having inherited some money from my father I used to run away to California. My intention was to study philosophy, write word collage poems, novels, short stories, plays, and philosophical essays. But my poor outlook, my depression, and my anxiety all interfered with my motivation, confidence, and sense of initiative. Plus—as a defense mechanism, out of fear that I was incompetent academically, I avoided college and said I was opposed to institutionalized education. I was to be the great autodidact. I studied Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and wrote a book worth of material, including a novel.
(Last year I undertook the reading of the journals I wrote then and apparently Dostoevsky had more resonant meaning to me than anyone else. I’d had a dream about him.)
During this period of my life I was very interested in defining writing genres and understanding what really distinguishes them. I was also interested in defining and explaining the philosophy I possessed at that time—especially my metaphysical views—in fiction, poetry, essays and plays.
There is one piece I wrote during this time—a novel, that though I am not quite proud of, I find at least to have touched on interesting themes. The novel was about a young man and a young woman who fall in love but who are entirely different from one another. The man is a rich, highly educated, well-read snob who is an aspiring movie producer. He’s very traditional with his sexuality, believing in monogamy and romance. The woman is more down to earth though also well read. She is a photographer. She is a sort of free-lover. She loves sex and wants to have it with whoever she wants whenever she wants. She cannot control her sexuality even once she falls in love, and in fact she resists the feeling despite it being there. She also is a heavy drug user which he finds disgusting. He can’t stand the fact that despite disliking these things about her, he is very in love with her. Why? He had this dream about her that they were to be married and he sort of has this built up notion of who she could ultimately be. He could essentially….change her. I ended up throwing out the novel after I wrote several drafts of it and converted it into just a short story.
Depressed and lonely in California I moved back to New Jersey, I self published a book—one I am so ashamed of I won’t even go into the details of it. I will tell you that I spent about 10 months trying to sell it. I paid to participate in the Los Angeles Festival of Books event and sign copies of my book. I paid to have a VIP room in a hotel reserved for a meet and greet with interested readers. I walked up and down the shops of Los Angeles trying to sell them copies of my book. I sat on the Venice Beach boardwalk trying to sell the book. When I came back home I would sit out by the main road in Highstown at a table trying to sell my book. Though there were a few buyers, I lost both confidence in the book and patience in trying to make it a best seller. I then wrote a novel. I so hated the novel that after a few attempts at promoting the samples of it I had online, messaging every single Facebook friend I had and telling them about it, I suffered a severe crisis in self-esteem.
I went into a kind of writer’s block and to maintain my sense of self expression I experimented with doing a live stream talk show on the internet. I lost interest in it quick. It occurred to me that I just had nothing to write about because I really didn’t know about anything other than my own whimsical rambling thoughts. (Read Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground if you find that to be an interesting malady). It was around this time that I was reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I fell in love with it and the short version of this is that I became an objectivist, bought and read nearly every Ayn Rand book, studied the hell out of them, and thought of myself as her protégé of sorts.
At this time I was working as a cashier and I despised that. It was during this time that I also grew an interest in politics and succumbed—to my horror and shame!—to libertarianism. It gave me something to write about though: politics and philosophy.
Sometimes politics and philosophy would bore me and so a few times I wrote some fiction pieces. I wrote a short story about the erotic romance between a husband and wife. What I liked about this story was the experiment I did was context. I had no interest in plot. What I wanted was to write purely to draw a verbal contextual picture of two people and their lives I elaborated on why they were who they were and how they’d become how they became, sort of weaving in and out of their present actions. It would, frankly, make me blush far too much to share this with you. I find writing about sexuality extremely difficult but I did not then. I used to write unabashedly about sex—pornographically perhaps, especially when I was much younger. I was, shall we say, very uninhibited in my early days of writing and not shy. Now, I view sexuality as quite private and haven’t figured out a way of writing about it that is not a sort of violation of a character’s privacy or that isn’t done with “taste;” not chiefly intended to be sexy so much as intended to accurately and meaningfully describe/discuss.
I also outlined a novel. It took place several centuries in the future. Their was a global suicide epidemic and only the people who cared about life remained. It was so underpopulated that there not enough people to fully govern. This motivates a class of revolutionaries to rebuild society and culture and preach optimism and reason. I wrote several chapters but lost interest.
Another story I attempted to write was about a school shooting and one of the police officers who gets in a shooting match with the gunman. I could not commit to it however.
My wife and I came to a conclusion that it would not make sense for me to just “wait” to be “famous.” We made a deal, when I ran for the New Jersey legislature, that if I won, that would be my job. If I lost, I would go to college.
There was a real negative consequence to my run for office. You see, I did not want voters to see Sean, the writer. If they did, I thought they’d find me offensive and unfit for office. (Oh my god, the irony as I see our political climate now!) I had posted a lot of writings—poems, short stories, philosophical essays, et cetera, on this site, initially, but out of fear that it would somehow destroy my image, I got rid of a lot of my writings.
At first I only went to college because I thought it was necessary in order to get a better paying job than the misery that was cashiering. But what was I to major in?
I was very confused. I loved writing but I also thought I might love journalism, or philosophy, or history, or political science. I was also, to be honest, trying to somehow undo the Sean who was the awful poet who got himself into such a mess of poverty and retail. Poetry to me began to symbolize that awful mind frame I had. But I couldn’t stop writing it!
I tell you—it was strange, the way it felt. It was often late at night, when I’d fill my notebooks with free-verse poems saying exactly what I thought and felt and it brought me such pleasure but it was like this guilty pleasure, like I was doing something dirty that nobody should know about.
I returned to Mercer County Community college and received my Associates in Liberal Arts since they didn’t have a narrow “major” like “philosophy” or “English” at the time. I then moved on to William Paterson University—a university I cannot sing enough praise about as my professors were brilliant, informative, challenging, inspiring and changed the way I thought.
I chose William Paterson for two reasons. 1) I could stay where I lived and earn my degree at the Mercer County Community College campus; 2) the program’s coordinator was my former political science professor and someone I consider to be exceptionally, and extraordinarily brilliant: Dr. Leonard Winogora. He informed me of the program and told me about the Liberal Studies degree and it piqued my interest—I didn’t have to fully commit to anything just yet.
Funny thing—I almost chose Florida Gulf Coast University where I would study English and further develop my poetry. This was a strange time I don’t quite remember so well. I suffered from severe confusion. I was torn with respect to the path I should take. You see…I was asked by the Republicans in East Windsor to run against the mayor who I’d established a reputation for challenging on policy and ethics at town council meetings which I would subsequently post on YouTube for all of the world to see.
Should I forget about the poetry for awhile and run against her—become a politician and if that fails a commentator? Part of me wanted to do that. But poetry—it had become something new to me—a way to polish my thoughts, to make them as clear as possible, like crystals. I wrote about my spiritual beliefs – I actually went through a Christian phase for awhile around this time—I wrote about my love for the Bee Gees, I wrote about travel, I felt as though poetry let me feel very alive and in touch with living. But to run against the mayor— the prospect of forcing her to debate me in front of all East Windsor as I knew I could expose her for the corrupt bully she is! And wouldn’t it maybe look good on my resume? How could I say no?!? It was amazing for my ego, after-all.
So I would stay, run my campaign with my running mates, and do it while going to school. I would attend William Paterson the following Spring. This did not make things less confusing though. Campaigning was exhausting and when I would experience burn outs, I wrote poetry. I tried to write poems about my philosophical ideas: objectivism, finding a balance between economic liberty and providing safety-nets and reasonable regulations, states of mind. But I also found myself interested in other things—political science and history, which were my concentrations for my Liberal Studies degree. I flirted with several career options.
As I began to research various graduate school programs I discovered that areas of research focus were very narrow, unless I wanted to proceed with inter-disciplinary studies. I was in search of an area of study where I could enjoy considerable autonomy and apply my holistic way of thinking about things. I would study Creative Writing! Then something unfortunate happened.
First, I had a little crisis of genre—I was in love with poetry, but had tendencies towards fiction and essays. I had written a novel. I sought feedback and the reception I received was mostly negative. I sought feedback on my poetry and though it was posited I had a crisis of non-definition and of self-esteem. I thought my poetry was not good. I thought it could not even count as poetry. It just called itself “poetry.”
But what is poetry? In between bouts of trying to come to a definition I agreed with, and writing poems, I wrote a novel. I felt discouraged when I shared the novel with a novelist and she disliked my essayistic voice. I was confused—why could Dostoevsky have an essayistic voice in his novels, but I could not? Should I have taken this person’s criticism with a grain of salt? I didn’t know and I was too scared to share the novel with anyone else.
I took it as evidence I should stick to the poems. But a strange feeling came over me. I thought—who in the world is ever going to read my poems even if I get them published? Nobody reads poetry! In fact, I researched the question of just how many people read poetry. An estimated 6.7 percent of American adults read poetry. Whatever it is I want to write, I thought, will be read by virtually no one. This depressed me and led me to feel utterly confused about what I should do with myself. I wanted to commit myself to poetry but I wanted people to read what I wrote. Not just 6.7 percent of the American population!
I felt so torn. Maybe I should just be a journalist. Or a personal essayist? More people read those than poems. No. No. If I want to make money I have to write a novel. Novels can be best sellers. I could become a millionaire! Oh, but I cannot abandon the poem!
During my final year of college, I was fickle and confused as hell, writing all over the place, and was really saved finally by the notion of “cross-genre” studies and the prose poem.
With respect to cross-genre studies: this showed me that there is an approach to creative writing that appreciates creative writing as such, and also, whether consciously or inadvertently, cross genre studies aligns well with where I believe literature is heading—away from postmodernism, and towards an age of “redefinition, and integration.”
Remember when I posed the question: what is “poetry?” This is a fascinating question. First of all, who gets to say what a “poem” is and who gets to call him or herself a “poet” or a “fictive” or “creative nonfiction writer?”
I believe schools open to cross genre studies are the forefront of new, innovative writing, not a very ironic, sort of inadvertently (?) conservative postmodern school of thought.
So you see—there is something rather…. Poetic… about this little reflection on college and my past as a writer— it has to do in large part with grappling with the consequences of post-modernism. Postmodernism makes the world overly contradictory and ironically about power contests.
Postmodernism views things “not as natural, fixed, or objective but as socially constructed, relative, dependent on experiences, and mutable over time and according to situations” as Nancy Levit and Robert R. M. Verchick write in their book Feminist Legal Theory. They add: “it’s hard to locate and fight injustice when we can’t even agree on the meaning of ‘out’ or ‘in.’”
What’s the irony? Cross-genre studies promotes consciousness of genre—thingness, actualness. Limiting a writer to one genre is in theory a power hold on someone. “I will only give you this MFA if you pretty much only study one genre and I can because I have tenure and run the program.”-? (I’ve got to develop my thoughts on this before I commit to the suggestion). (1/9/19: updated thought here: 1)what if we think of genre as something to do with a very specific writing purpose– the poem slowing something down, highlighting something, zooming the camera lens into it, a degree of distinct accentuations being fundamental to it; the work of fiction– no matter how inspired it is by “reality,” it ultimately reworks the telling of events in a way they did not exactly happen; the essay– straightforward non-fiction ((creative non-fiction employing poetic or fictive tools to make it less dry than pure academic or instructional or reporting text may be;; 2) What if we then think of bringing more nuance, purpose, and innovation of form from one genre to another— i.e., the fictive prose poem or the essayistic prose poem or the lyrical essay, narrative verse, et cetera;; 3) I think it may possibly follow that if a student of Creative Writing commits to the writing of a manuscript in one genre but studies multiple genres also as to take things from those genres and add techniques, approaches, forms, purposes, et cetera, I think this would be a constructive way to explore how the forms could grow in sophistication, innovation, creativity, et cetera, in a way that does not destroy definition, but rather, integrates and redefines things—-;; this is all very much hypothetical thoughts I’m still contemplating but wanted to share as I remain confident that cross-genre studies appears quite valuable ))
I love the prose poem because of its potential expansiveness in what it can be.
I like writing essays when I want to present my thoughts in a very organized way.
I like writing “poems” when I want to focus on designating emphases, vibrations, slowing down
And giving it
I like writing fiction when I want to write imaginatively – imagine if life went a slightly different way.
Of course, I realize I cannot quite say that universities which are not flexible with cross genre studies are necessarily adverse to hybrid forms however I do believe universities that do offer cross-genre studies are more assertively probing how we define genre and the various genres and that this is where the future of literature is headed—redefining concepts which postmodernism taught us to question, and integrating what is reasonable from a wide community of perspectives to strive towards these redefinitions.
I am going to end this blog post on this one final note: I suffered from severe confusion not only because I suffer from anxiety. I suffered from confusion because we live in a society that still clings to postmodern and existential ideas that to some degree, what’s real for you is real for you and what is real for me is real for me— but this is the ammo of the ambitious sophists who seek control—the ambitious sophists who play word games, even with the law, who tell you “what you see is not what’s happening,” such as President Trump suggests.
I don’t mean to suggest a majority of people are consciously or even necessarily in an unconscious way, an overly controlling postmodern sophist, taking advantage of how confusing our world has become but there are intellectual, and academic ideas out there that facilitate the possibility and I just think the world is confusing when you can’t have a solid working definition of a concept like “poetry” and it makes it hard to know what you want to do career-wise.
I am relieved however that I know exactly what my ambitions are.