It was the first residency of my MFA program, and what I heard was clearly a snippet of a much larger and more complex discussion, and a discussion worth having for both students and teachers.
Is it possible to teach someone to be a better writer?
Is the ability to write well a talent that a person either has or doesn't have? Or is it a skill that can be cultivated into excellence over time?
One faculty member responded, "Even if you can't teach someone to be a great writer, you can certainly teach them to be more competent."
Say the word competent out loud. Say it again. Say it like you mean it, like the idea of incompetence makes you see ten flashing shades of red and the two t sounds make you spit a little bit. Competent. Like it's a dirty word, the less than, the undesirable.
I've never wanted to not be competent at something so much in my whole life.
Sixteen years earlier, the summer after I graduated high school, I started a year term as a "working student" on a professional horse farm. I worked long hours mucking horse stalls, sweeping barn aisles, throwing hay bales, pouring feed, turning horses out and bringing them back in, grooming and tacking up. In exchange, I received daily lessons from accomplished riders and trainers. I lived a life that seemed the ultimate opportunity, every rider's dream.
The most commonly spoken thread of teaching during my year of lessons there was that "you can't teach a person how to feel". They weren't referring to emotions. They were talking about how to feel the horse. A kinesthetic, physical understanding of the horse's movement, and specifically their movement in response to my movement, as a rider. A subtle layer of sense and communication.
Sometimes a trainer spoke in low, confidential tones and kept step next to me as I was riding. "I can't teach you feel. All I can do is make suggestions of things to try. If you keep trying, in these lessons, eventually you'll feel it for yourself. You'll know."
Other times, a trainer would scream from the center of the ring, spit gurgling at the back of each word, "That! That! Do you feel that?! Feel that! Memorize that feeling. Never forget that feeling!" And the trainer would stomp long strides toward me and keep screaming until the inevitable drop, fifteen seconds later, and a hat thrown to the ground, and less volume, more disappointment, "What are you doing? You had it and you lost it."
And the trainer would recover himself. He'd pick up his hat out of the sand and slap it against his leg and put it back on his head. He'd cross his arms and stand still for a moment, and he'd say, "It's ok. It's ok. This is good. You know what that feels like now. You felt that, right?"
And without an ounce of certainty of what I had been supposed to feel, I would nod yes. And we'd go back to the hard work of trying again to get it.
An elevator speech is supposed to be something like 10 seconds or less. That's all the time you've got to make your pitch to a stranger in an elevator. The time just waiting for that elevator to arrive with a small group of people who were still strangers to me, felt like forever.
I had thought competence might be a pre-requisite to the program, that acceptance to a graduate program was an indication and validation that a certain level of competence had been achieved. Thus, the decision to quit my full-time job, take out student loans, and fork over a lot of money in the interest of dedicated time and mentorship to study the art and craft of poetry was, though possibly a bit crazy to the rest of the world, at least a mildly reasonable decision.
Lots of people have asked over the last year and a half, "How's the MFA going?".
And, because I'm not much of a social chatter, I say things like "Great", "Hard, but good", "It's ok", and most recently, "I just started my last term".
Maybe, if you know me really well, you may have heard my attempts at joking about it last term, "Well, it wouldn't be a graduate program if you didn't cry at least once, right?" or, "Graduate school isn't meant to be easy, right?".
The MFA is like being seventeen again, and moving away from home for the first time, and learning that the skill you have agreed to devote your time to has an ever elusive essence that no one can teach you. And since you already said yes, and because you do really want this, you keep showing up in the ring every day to try. To see if you get it with this draft. To watch your mentor throw their hat in the sand and then pick it up and slap it against their thigh, and give you another suggestion.
Generally, there is far less screaming. There is also less time outside. A lot less hay chaff up the nose. Fewer sunburns. No blisters. And oddly, or maybe just because physical labor is in my blood, I miss those things.
I miss pushing the boundaries of my own flesh. I miss being able to name everything I touch. I miss the satisfaction that comes with physical exhaustion, the ability to sleep even when that ever elusive essence of excellence is still out of reach.
How's the MFA?
It's great. It is the culmination of a lesson that all of my mentors throughout all of my education choices, including the riding instructors I had when I was seventeen, have tried to teach me. That what someone else can teach you matters very little. A decision to engage every day matters a lot. To let go of learning to do something right. To let go of any aspirations of getting it.
Every day, show up. Not for someone else. Not for an academic program. Not for a mentor. Just because I'm still curious about what might happen when I sit down and try.
Wednesday brought success? A face plant? Thursday, sit down and try.
And get outside.