Tag Archives: MFA programs

A Good Girl’s Praise of Courtney Love



A couple of weeks ago I spent an entire morning trying to compose a perfect post celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Hole’s album, Live Through This. My attempt was an epic failure in that every line I wrote made me sound either angry or clueless. I’d write a line. Read it twice. Stare out the window. Imagine someone reading it and thinking less of me. Delete it.


It was not easy going.


Nor could I determine to whom I was writing since I already knew how I felt and since Courtney Love detractors would lob all the regular criticisms (ranging from her craziness to her talentless-ness to her a bad mothering skills) regardless of what I typed out, and since my own mother—my most loyal reader aside from Z—was likely to say, “Courtney who?” what would the point be of writing a praise hymn to a two-decades old grunge anthem anyway?


I gave up and wrote my friend Jane an email instead. Forget the anniversary. Enough people online had mentioned it in passing that it’s not like Courtney herself was waiting for me to post.


Z, who hates grunge and doesn’t understand how this album could have ever been the soundtrack to my life, was particularly puzzled by why the last several days Courtney Love was wailing on the stereo whenever he’d get home from work, why I kept grousing under my breath all week that the “real” anniversary we should be commemorating instead of the 20th anniversary of Love’s husband’s suicide is the release of this album, or why I seemed kind of angry at the world for no real reason.


We are a “pop” couple. Though I spent years despising bubble gum music, he has shown me in our four years of marriage the pleasure of listening to music that doesn’t make me sad or angry: music that literally goes in one ear and out the other and in the process might make my body move a little more rhythmically. Before Z, there was mostly angry feminist music, Irish rebellion music, a little punk, some classic rock throwbacks, Van Morrison (for the love), and for a period of time, a lot of Nanci Griffith that left me in tears every morning as I’d drive through Indiana cornfields on my way to work because the storytelling was so sad and true. Before Z, I liked to feel affected by whatever I listened to. But then Z arrived on the scene and he runs about 50 degrees happier and 42 degrees less complicated than me, and after I banished his country music to his office, we found happy, common ground in the land of Gwen, Gaga, Fergie, Katy Perry, and whoever else Pandora dished up for us on related channels.


But pop didn’t cut it while I was having my Courtney Love epiphany. I spent way too much time listening to interviews with Love, reading reviews of the album, and remembering 1994 and how I would drive down the road screaming the lyrics to “Gutless” or “Violet” at full volume, full of some weird rage that didn’t really fit the circumstances of my life: I wasn’t a heroin addict, I didn’t have a suicidal spouse or a baby people didn’t think I was fit to raise, I had a newly minted master’s degree in fiction writing, good friends, and good health. (Plus, I had just discovered the internet, roughly five minutes before many other women had, and so I was experiencing what I like to call my “Belle of the Ball” era, which was a glorious though short period when men were falling in love with my words and no one was expecting any nude photos because modems just weren’t that fast yet. It was the Golden Age for a smart girl who was good with language.) What was there for me to rail against? But the rage then was real, and even last week when I was trying to piece together all of these retroactive feelings, I was, at the very least, cranky as I tried to name what those twelve tracks had meant to me all those years ago.


The week before, I’d gone to hear an Important Writer talk about structure in creative nonfiction. We were there, stuffed onto tiny plastic chairs in a dark, crowded room, waiting to hear this man’s brilliance. The room was full of his devotees who were all a-twitter and he announced that he was about to read an essay that he’d written for us the night before while sitting in the café at Elliott Bay Books drinking wine. Maybe if I hadn’t paid $10 for the privilege of hearing him talk at length on a topic he’d only bothered to start thinking about the night before while drinking, or maybe if his devotees weren’t cooing quite so loudly, this wouldn’t have annoyed me, but he did and they were. I felt distanced from him. He didn’t help matters much by referencing multiple male authors and only two females, thus reminding me that my own writing will never count quite as much as a man’s, though I’m not sure why since it’s hands that usually do the writing, not genitalia.


During the course of the two hours, I simultaneously loathed him, loathed his devotees—all wearing some variation of a writer uniform (including one or more of the following items: black, pilled sweaters, pencils as hair props, giant glasses, ironic T-shirts so obscure only a select group of people could possibly understand, and boots)— and loathed myself for not being more talented, fabulous, and appropriately attired.


Despite the fact that the Important Writer did not know me, I was certain he would judge me harshly or, worse yet, ignore me entirely, and so I spent much of my time there feeling angry. And while I was feeling angry at him, I started feeling angry some more at any male artist or critic who dares to criticize a female one. Not because female writers and actors and painters are above criticism, but because so many of them do it in this dismissive way against which it is impossible to argue and which seems to be relegated only to females. (More enraging yet, the male artist or critic who doesn’t notice female artists at all. In an email during this week of angst, Jane reminded me that in college one of our male instructors started a lit course announcing that we wouldn’t be reading any female writers because history had yet to produce any worth studying. Maybe I’ve been carrying that annoyance around since I was 19.)



At the Important Writer’s presentation, I suddenly realized that a few years ago when I was applying to MFA programs, I had applied to his program and one other, which was less well-regarded than his. Based on some voice memory, it occurred to me that it was the Important Writer himself who had phoned me at my office to tell me the happy news that I’d been accepted. There was pleasure in his voice, as if he had just handed me the keys to some kingdom of which he was already a resident. I thanked him but told him I’d decided to go with a slightly less well-regarded, definitely less well-known program, and he momentarily lost all power of communication. Clearly no one had ever rejected his offer of a place at the table with him and his cooing devotees. He spluttered and finally managed to get out a, “Well. Okay then.”


Since making that decision almost six years ago, I’ve second-guessed myself countless times. The program I chose was largely nurturing, and though there were plenty of male mentors there—from many of whom I learned much—there was a decided “feminine energy” at this school. Since my graduation, I’ve wondered about my choices. Did I skip “the best” because I didn’t believe in myself? Was I afraid I couldn’t handle something more cutthroat, more “masculine”? Had I sabotaged my career simply because I’d wanted the opportunity to spend a residency in Ireland? Did I purposely avoid what might have been a “harder” program? What was wrong with me that I’d make such an impetuous decision based on nothing more than intuition with no basis at all in logic?


Aside from hearing the Important Writer, it was a week in which I was doing a lot of self-questioning for a variety of reasons including how good of a host and friend I am to how good of a wife I am in any given week (I get full marks for love and devotion on the Z front, but I think you know my record on the Domestic Arts and general productivity). There was a lot going on in my head in terms of whether or not I was good enough at any of the things that I generally believe are my better qualities.


Good. Things get twisted up in my head around that word because “good” was always my thing. It’s what I was. I was a good child, a good student, a good girl, a good friend, a good writer, a good teacher, a good listener. The problem with being the kind of good I was (and the kind of good I still struggle with daily) is that it was—is— always contingent upon someone else’s opinion of me and the quality of that goodness. They are the ones who are the deciders about whether I’ve hit the mark, those strangers and teachers and critics and loved ones and friends. And while I value the opinions of some of these people, I don’t ever want their view of me to matter more than my view of myself.



When I left the auditorium last week after hearing the Important Writer, my step was lighter than it had been going in. For one, he hadn’t rejected me five years ago—I had rejected him. But more importantly, it was clear after having listened to him that I would not have thrived in his environment or under his tutelage. I would have spent two and a half years feeling angry and either stupid or shunned as I tried to meet some goal of his or his idea of what it means to be a good writer, a literary writer. My intuition hadn’t failed me. I’d done exactly what I wanted when I made the decision about which program was best for me and ignored various voices of reason (none of which were in my own head). I was fine and finally the second-guessing could stop.


There are advantages to being good (the lack of track marks, legal battles, and bad celebrity tweets to name a few), and probably attempting goodness is so tightly coiled around my Midwestern DNA that I couldn’t change now if I wanted to. Yet, when I hear 1994 Courtney Love screeching and misbehaving and not giving two shits about whether other people think she is a good person—a good girl—a part of me still remembers that unfettered satisfaction of wailing along side her voice, breaking the speed limit (slightly) as I careened down country roads in my Dodge Omni, and imagined myself as the sort of woman who knew what she wanted and took it without waiting for someone else to hand it to her with a gold star for good behavior affixed to it. A small part of me still aspires to that kind of honesty, ugly and unattractive as it might be at times, standing there in its too-short baby doll dress and smeared make-up, looking less pretty than people would like, making no apologies for wanting to be the girl (good or bad) with the most cake.




A Visit from Chickpea


The Great Wheel, Seattle

The thing about living on the edge of the country, far away from your people, is that when a friend comes to visit, it’s an event of note. In my case, when Chickpea phoned to say she had arrived and was out front, I ran out of the apartment, left our door standing wide open, opened the building’s door and raced down the steps to greet her. It wasn’t until the front door of the building slammed shut that I realized I’d left my keys inside.  Welcome to Seattle, Chickpea. Can I interest you in drive around town in your rental car until Z gets home from work?

Fortunately, the new maintenance guy broke his code and let us in when he saw us scratching at the glass, looking pitiful there surrounded by her luggage. He was gruff though. “I’m not supposed to do this.”

Chickpea and I met five years ago in the very first workshop of my MFA program. Because I’d read her workshop submission before meeting her—an essay on her tendency towards loudness—I was pretty sure I was going to loathe her. Excess sound annoys me. I have no idea why, when we can put people on space stations and every third person on a flight has on noise-cancelling headphones, we have yet to develop a silent leaf blower, for instance. I don’t need monkish silence, but I like quiet, and based on her essay, Chickpea and I were not going to be pals for auditory reasons alone.

I don’t know if any of you have recently re-lived junior high, but as a newbie in an MFA program, you’d be surprised how quickly you are transported back to the social anxiety and neuroses you thought you’d overcome when you were 13. For the first two days, I’d walk along the grounds on breaks, talking to Z, who was in Zimbabwe, so he could remind me of all the reasons the program was a good idea and all the reasons I should not bail prematurely. Fortunately, I’d packed multiple phone cards for this very purpose, though I knew how ridiculous it was that a grown woman would pace on the edge of Casco Bay, making repeated extremely long-distance calls to Africa for reassurance.  In retrospect, I’m glad for his gentle prodding for a variety of reasons including a lot more knowledge, a degree, and the opportunity to work with some great writers. But aside from that, I’m grateful not to have missed out on the unlikely friendships that developed there.

On the first day of my first workshop, I was anxious to see what Chickpea would look like. I had imagined her big and swaggery, entering a room with a shout and maybe banging a stick against a cowbell, so it was a bit of surprise that she looked normal and didn’t fill the room with extraneous noise. In fact, I can’t remember a single sentence that passed between us those first two days, but if someone in the workshop said something that smacked of the pretentious or that was too precious, she would look at me and make a face. Maybe just an eyebrow raised a millimeter. Before long, I was doing the same to her. Was it rude? Probably, though I had this sense that only we could see the faces we were making because they were so subtle. Was it juvenile? Oh, definitely, but it felt so good to suddenly not be alone in this literary endeavor. In those shared expressions I somehow felt I’d met a paisono, and this made me less inclined to bolt from the program. Within a few days, I was spending time with her and with her group of friends, with whom I felt similarly and strangely connected, despite the fact that they were over a decade younger than I was, and they were way more raucous.  It’s not that I’m incapable of making friends, but as an introvert and as a person who has always felt that old friends were just naturally superior friends, it was surprising how quickly these people mattered to me. The following year when I attended their senior readings and graduation, I openly wept. It was bewildering to me that people I had spent so little time with could matter to me so much.

When people visit us, I always mean to be an excellent tour guide. Seattle has a lot to offer, even when the sun isn’t out, but Chickpea and I were so busy talking about writing and relationships and things we hate and dogs we love, that the city seemed secondary. Sure, we went to the Market and to the Olympic Sculpture Garden, but we could have spent all that time in a booth at Denny’s if you want to know the truth. At least I could have. Sometimes out here I get a little lonesome for friends. Or rather, I don’t notice that I’m lonesome for friends until they are here and then I want to drink them up in huge gulps.

Summer before last, Z and I were away from the city for awhile, and when we got back, a giant Ferris wheel had been built on the edge of Elliott Bay. We didn’t know we’d been missing a Ferris wheel on our landscape, but then there it was, lit up like a blue and green Christmas tree when the Seahawks play a home game, and now it’s hard to remember what it was like before The Great Wheel was there. It makes the waterfront look a little less utilitarian and a lot more fun. Chickpea and I went up for our three spins around. Like all good Seattle tour guides, I spent much of the ride telling her all the things she couldn’t see because of the hazy sky: no Mt. Rainier, no Olympic range. Later, we would learn a pod of Orcas had been in the bay, so we could have been looking for those and enjoying what was in front of us instead of focusing on what wasn’t.

Chickpea lives on the east coast, so when I go home to Indiana, it’s not like she’s on the list of friends I’ll get to see.  When we say goodbye at the airport, it’s not like there is any schedule for when next we’ll be together, talking about the merits of Scottie dogs or why we loathe Joyce Maynard. Instead, we just have to be glad for the time we had together, make a plan for an exchange of our writing, and hope that not too much time will pass before we see each other again. Goodbye, Chickpea.

And then, a half hour later, the cell phone rings. Chickpea has missed her flight and if Z and I are inclined to fetch her, we get a few more bonus hours with her. We point our rental car in her direction and accelerate.