Tom Doak



My article, "Redefining the Green" about architect Tom Doak has been out about a month. Tom is a master of his craft, a person who was hard to condense into 5,000 words. He was open with me and gave me a lot of access and what I tried to show in this piece was just how truly gifted he is and how his foibles are actually misunderstandings. I won't say he is blameless for his reputation but I will say a lot of what makes Tom go is borne of ambition and single-mindededness in the best sense. He just wants to be great and has never been shy about that or fighthing for what he wants. I really came away admiring him and his passion. And he's an artist. 

I hope you can find time to read this. 

Falling Into Fear

I wrote this essay some weeks back. It still proves relevant. I guess we all have our minds on politics and the world these days. Thanks to The Rumpus. 

The Certainty of Failure 



Below is a a craft talk I gave at the James Madison Undergradaute Creative Writing Conference in Harrisonburg, VA on June 2nd. These kinds of essays are sort of genre-less, specific only to that setting, but I liked this one and wanted to share it and not let it just sit on my hard drive. I hope some folks out there--young, aspiring writers (older ones, too)--might find it useful in thinking about what it means to be a writer. I've only lightly edited it from when I presented it so that there will be some clarity. 


As I was preparing for this craft talk, I told (my friend and poet) Dave [Lucas] that I was trying to think of things I wanted to know when I was your age and first starting out and sheepishly admitting to myself that I wanted to be a writer. That is, I tried to think of advice that might be important to you.

“Oh, I never worry about that,” he said. I laughed in reply and he said, “I don’t.”

Now, those of us on staff know Dave is an inconsiderate friend. He’s narcissistic, self-serving, prone to fits of rage and hyperbole. He’s basically the Donald Trump of poetry and the primary reason any of us keeps him around is his impeccable sense of style. But what we also know is that he’s not an inconsiderate teacher despite all the aforementioned flaws of his nature. So his response seemed odd to me, one I’ve been genuinely puzzling over.

The truth, of course, is few are as big-hearted and bold in this endeavor of writing as Dave, and I routinely feel one-upped by him on these damn craft talks, in which he dispenses a lot of wisdom without seeming to preach or impart it, which leads me to believe it’s an innate part of his character. My best guess at his meaning—because why would I ask him, it’s more fun to speculate—is that what you want from him or me, any of us, at this stage of your writing lives is intensely private and therefore impossible to articulate or, and I suspect this is more likely, what you want is unknowable to you. You don’t even know what you want or what you want to do. You may not even know just how serious you are about writing.

So let me spend a few minutes telling you what I know about writing, which can be summed up this way: You will fail. My students from Denison may have heard me say this in class at some point, so forgive the repetition. And those that are hearing this for the first time from a professor may wonder, Where is all the cheerleading, dude? Where is the emboldening? Where is the path to being successful? My answer is I’m not sure I know where the path is. Let me illustrate with a screenshot from my Submittable page.     

The story “Satellites” was rejected ten times it shows here. This does not count submissions to Zoetrope, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Esquire, Harper’s, Printer’s Row, The New Yorker, ZZYZZVA, and maybe four or five other places I can’t remember. The point is the story was rejected over and over and over. And yet, I still believed in this story. Why? Part of that came from the fact that someone I really respect read it and said they didn’t think I’d ever write a better story. And part of it came from my own sense of how I felt when I had finished it and as I composed it. The story went through, roughly, twenty drafts just to find its way and then another ten to being ready to send out. And then more changes after the copyeditors at Narrative got a hold of it.

Is this bit of #realtalk what you want to hear? That writing is work? That writing is rejection? I’m not going to say I don’t know what one dreams of when one dreams of being a writer as a young person. I remember my dreams. I remember thinking about book tours and visiting lectures. I remember thinking about my name in print in glossy magazines or on the spine of a novel. I remember a dinner I was invited to as an undergrad with the poet Robert Bly and watching all the professors ignore us to fawn over him. Maybe that’s what I also dreamed of then. Mostly what I dreamed of when I dreamed of writing as a senior in college was that I could simply dream it, that it wasn’t a crazy dream to have. I wanted to know if I was able to be a writer. The questioned that burned me up the most was: Am I good enough?

Because if you aren’t good enough you can’t even really begin to dream, can you? When I was sophomore in high school, I looked at my forty time, my vertical leap, the fact that I wasn’t getting any taller and I ruled out college athletics for me. It wasn’t going to happen. This didn’t stop me from being the first one at practice or the last to leave, but no matter how hard and far I ran, how many weights I lifted, the reality was my physical gifts were limited. I got as much as I could out of my talent and then I went off to college. I played intramurals. I really never imagined an athletic life after that. How could I?



In college I was in the Honors Program, which meant I had to complete a thesis. I had been writing stories in my creative writing classes and my teachers didn’t seem to hate them. I was a political science major and concerned mostly with 60s Liberalism and activism, but as my junior year wound down, I found myself reading more fiction and wanting to push myself as a fiction writer. I decided to write as my thesis a collection of stories. I wrote eleven stories as a senior, most of them completed in the predawn hours before I was scheduled to meet my advisor. But after we had discussed the stories, I’d go home and rework them, draft after draft late into the night, thinking about them nearly nonstop. I was learning the trade of my life, I see now.

Later that year, right after the dogwoods bloomed on campus, I was researching Raymond Carver on what was still then the new-fangled interwebs in the library and came across this guy in San Francisco who had edited an anthology with Carver and who had been an editor at both Esquire and GQ and who taught classes. He said you could send him a story and if he liked it, you could enroll in his class. I was pretty naïve then. I had no idea what I was doing and this lack of knowledge is probably what allowed me to send off the email to inquire about the class. He asked to see a story of mine. I stuck it in the mail and didn’t think about it again until he called a few weeks later. His first words after hello were, “You’re good.”

I still remember how that felt. This guy, who had worked with one of my heroes, said I was good. Me. It was like being put on a rocketship and sent to outer space, that feeling. He took me the through the story I submitted, showed me how it was flawed and needed work and then he told me about the class he offered in San Francisco. The price was expensive. Almost half of what my tuition was at the state college I attended. I told him I’d have to think about it. I consulted with my parents. They offered to pay for the class as a graduation present.

I went to San Francisco by myself. I had never traveled anywhere by myself. I didn’t know that San Francisco in June was as cold as Kentucky in late fall. I had packed shorts and one long sleeve shirt. The motel I was staying in did not seem to be in a good part of town. A friend of my brother’s called to say I could stay at his place in Pleasanton, north of the city, but I had to get a car to get there. The catch was the friend wasn’t in town but his roommate was. I checked out of the hotel twenty minutes after checking in—the manager was not pleased—and went to the Enterprise Rent a Car facility down the street. I wasn’t twenty-five, though. I did not know this would pose a problem. The guy lied about my age on the form in order to rent me a truck, which I drove to Pleasanton. Once there, the friend’s roommate, a guy named Frank, divorced and in his 40s, meaning he seemed like an ancient failure to me then, said I would need to take the BART in every day. That would be easiest. I went to the BART station in the morning incredibly early because I didn’t want to be late. I was also cold. I wore shorts and the long sleeve shirt. I had a bag full of Xeroxed short stories the teacher had sent us as well as a novel we were supposed to discuss. I gripped my bag on the BART as if it might fly away if not held securely against my stomach. Then I got on a bus in Chinatown, where an old woman with a salmon resting on ice in a plastic bag, pushed me ahead, down the aisle, then sat down next to me with her stinking fish. I got off at my stop and went to the place where the class was. I was almost two hours early. There was nothing to eat anywhere that I saw. I was afraid of spending my money. I didn’t want to take cab. I didn’t want to walk anywhere because I was cold in my shorts and afraid I’d get lost. I waited for the class to begin. I read some. Mostly I felt alone and scared, sure that the class—the trip—was a giant mistake, that my parents had paid a lot of money on this class, plus my airfare, the rental car, whatever it was I was going to eat, and all of this was going toward nothing. I wasn’t a writer. I was going to have go to law school like I had always planned even though I hated the thought of that, if I was being honest with myself. I loved studying the law but being a lawyer like the ones I had clerked for seemed like an indictment in and of itself.

People began filing in for the class. They were all old. Forties, fifties, sixties. Lots of gray hair. There were three people in their thirties. I was the only person in his twenties. I was so painfully young that I cannot believe now that I was even there. There is a line in Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” where she says of arriving into Manhattan, “Was anyone ever so young? I’m here to say that someone was.” Well, move over, sister. I had been up since five for the nine o’clock class. I had not eaten. We introduced ourselves and when it was my turn, I spoke and my accent felt so incredibly thick to my own ears, so out of place. So inept. I have a memory of people turning hard to hear me but that could just be my own insecurity then forcing that memory on me. I know I wanted to shut up right quick, though. Less was more. We broke for lunch. I was painfully shy in that setting. What had I done, I thought. I should be back in Kentucky, working at the law firm and ferrying around the senior partner who wore silk socks and Gucci loafers that he removed in the car before calling his mistress. At the end of that day, I rode the bus back through Chinatown, where more old women with stinking fish bumped into me and wrested away open seats before I got to them. I rode the BART, went to back to my friend’s house and was met by Frank and his eight-year old son. They offered to let me eat supper with them. I opted for a Blimpie sandwich in the room where I was staying and bad television. I fell asleep with the TV on, wondering how I would do it all again.

I left an hour later the next day. Made it through Chinatown and was brave enough to venture a block away from the classroom space to find a bagel and some orange juice. I ate lunch later that day by myself and tried to find a spot in the building where we met so no one could see me and take pity on me. That night I ate another sandwich in my room and read the stories for the next day’s class.

On the third day, I hip-checked a sixty-five year old woman out of my way on that Chinatown bus and sat down. I could no longer take their elbows in my ribs, their stinking fish. I spoke up in class that day. Someone approached me at break, said he loved my accent. I was invited to lunch with some really nice folks, one of whom was NBA player Kevin Garnett’s SAT tutor. Things seemed to make a turn. I went back that night and made small talk with Frank and his son.

My workshop was the next day. It went well, from what I recall. When I met the teacher to talk about my story in an individual conference, he said again what he had said on the phone. He made me believe in myself and when I left San Francisco he had made me believe that writing wasn’t a pipe dream, that if I wanted this I might be able to do it. I went off to a job for a year that crushed my soul. I quit that job and spent the next few years as if I was the character falling in the opening credits of Mad Men, flailing about, able to see what I wanted, what I had left behind, but unable to grab hold of any of it. I piled up thirty rejections to graduate school. Give or take.

When I finally was admitted to a program I felt, in a sense, I had arrived. My program was only an M.A. and they had sold me on the idea of coming there, then going to an MFA to work with more writers. I showed up ready to work, knowing this was what I wanted. They brought Richard Ford in to speak with the graduate students for a Q and A. I had discovered Ford on my own in college and the writers we discover on our own, like the musicians and albums we find on our own, always mean more to us, our own little secret. I knew I was going to meet him if it wasn’t too crowded and I was nervous. Out of the forty or so fiction writers in this program, three showed up. Three. Two of us were in our first year. Where the hell was everyone? How could they not show up to hear Richard Ford? He’d only won a Pulitzer Prize and written one of the most impressive collections of stories of the last twenty years (Rock Springs, if you’re curious). I remember being angry when I left. Confused, too. How could a program be any good if nobody showed up to hear Richard Ford? Then I had this realization that if nobody wanted to be there, then that must mean they weren’t as serious as me and if they weren’t as serious, then that might improve my chances of making it because life, being beaten down by it just a smidge in between my undergraduate years and then, had taught me things are harder than we can really imagine—even the small tragedies.

I sold a story in my second year of graduate school. Felt good. A professor, unprompted, asked me to be on my committee. I thought I knew what I was doing, where I was going. My professors said I needed to apply to the best MFA programs in the country. Iowa. UVa. Houston. Johns Hopkins. Irvine. All the biggies. I did. My major professor said she called Ethan Canin at Iowa to tell him about me. I thought I was going to Iowa City in the fall. Nine rejections later, including my safety school, I was planning on working at the Department of Education in Tallahassee, Florida. I didn’t know shit about writing.

I eventually got my MFA. I got some more stories published. I worked with a hot shot agent in New York on a novel that she hated but she refused to tell me she hated. It was like being in a relationship where you’re still in love with the girl, but she doesn’t love you and she’s going to make you be the one that breaks up. So I did. I left the agent. I wrote another novel and got another agent. She loved it. She sent it out. Editor after editor said it was good, that I was good, but they couldn’t sell this book. One editor at a New York house said she wanted to buy the book but then she sent it to marketing and marketing told her, “We can’t sell this book,” meaning she was told she couldn’t buy the book. The new agent moved to LA asked me to remain her client. I said I would. Upon arriving in the Golden State, she abandoned me and stopped sending out the book for a year before I realized it. We parted company. I tried to reboot the novel. Kept writing stories. Kept writing essays. Kept teaching.

Where is all this going, you may be asking? What are you trying to tell us? Something I could have done from the beginning but that may not have expressed to you what I think is important. You become a writer by doing the writing. By getting up every day and doing it. Remember, you’re going to fail. There will never be a point in your writing lives when you will have it figured out or you will know exactly what you’re doing. Even when you feel confident and good about the work you produce, that will be a fleeting feeling, so you must train yourself to love the work, to love the puzzlement of it, the struggle of it. Train yourself to love the life it gives you and how it opens your heart and mind to the great struggle of humanity. Publishing and writing are not the same thing, but we think they are when we are starting out. No, you don’t want to write in a vacuum. You probably are doing this because you want to be heard or believe you have something to say. You may entertain your dreams of fame, I give you permission. It’s fine. But all those famous writers you love got famous by loving writing and not loving fame and not seeking it.

A few years ago a student came up to me after a reading at this very conference and said, “I look at you guys and I want to know how to get there. I see how far along you are and I haven’t done anything.” And I tried to tell him I’m not that far along, but he didn’t believe it, I don’t think. What I’m trying say in this talk is that I am no different from you. I have been reading and writing very seriously for half of my life and I don’t know if I could get where I want to in another three lifetimes. What you learn with age is to make peace with that and to let the ambition and passion you first forge as a young person not ever die. If you can, try not to let it ever cool, but life will take you on its path. Your job is to keep yourself between the ditches, to do as little harm as you can to those you love and yourself, to write the story, poem, or essay that only you can write, that has never existed until you put it into the world.

As a postscript, I should tell you what happened to “Satellites.” It’s the story that won me an NEA and a grant from the Ohio Arts Council, but it got beat up plenty on its way to those awards, obviously. The takeaway here is that this writing life is often plodding. One foot in front of the other, so to speak, through deep mud and in the dark, it seems.

The reason Dave doesn’t worry about what to tell you at your age—again speculating—is that he knows what I know, what all of us [on faculty] knows. You will find your way by walking, working, moving directly toward the sun no matter how far ahead the horizon seems.





The Life You Save May Be Your Own--Mentors and Mentees

This Thursday, March 31st at 10:30 a.m., I'll be moderating a panel on mentors and mentees featuring Richard, Bausch, Robert Bausch, Pam Houston, and Jill McCorkle. I'm excited to hear what they say about the teachers who influenced them and what they feel their role as teachers is. It should make for a great morning of discussion. After the panel, I'll post my introduction here. Come join us. Room 515 B of the LA Convention Center, Meeting Room Level.



2016 is a year of gratitude for me. Aside from winning an NEA Fellowship in Literature for 2016, my wife and I are expecting our first child, and I find myself fortunate to still be teaching in academia in an incredibly tight market that has left many baffled and frustrated. I know both those feelings well. All I can say is that you just keep showing up to work every day--or as often as you can--and try to keep believing in yourself and your talent. 

Last week, Lit Hub published my essay, "The Time I Played Catch with Annie Dillard," which is about playing catch with Annie but is also about just trying to be a writer and understanding that I owe my mentors a great debt. The essay made some nice rounds on social media. Maybe I can breathe a little more life into it here. Check it out, if you have some time.