Time Carved and Stolen: Curtis Smith on Writing and Work

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For the past thirty-one years, I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school in Pennsylvania. My day job precedes my first short story by six years and my MFA by over a dozen. My job has its rewards—and its frustrations and heartbreaks. Still, I don’t mind getting up every day and going to work, and in the end, I understand I can’t ask for much more. Writing has been the complement to my work, a place all my own, time carved and stolen from each day’s beginning and end, bookends of quiet and reflection in an otherwise hectic ride. Writing has given me the gift of engagement and creation—and sometimes, of sanity.

My late twenties found me in a good place. I’d landed my teaching job a month before my graduation, and after six years, I felt established, no longer the new guy. I was in love and recently married. Yet part of me was restless. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, and I yearned to be creative. I’d made a few 8mm films, and I’d refinished some old furniture procured from basements and auctions. I’d enjoyed these ventures, their hands-on processes, their tangible results. Yet I wanted something more. Or something different.

So I started writing. I had no English background; in fact, I’d always been more of a science-and-math person. In college, I’d struggled with my comp and lit classes. Why, I wondered, did Madame Bovary’s bouquet have to be anything more than a bunch of flowers? Part of my attraction to writing was due to stubbornness, one of my less admirable traits. Not being good—or at least passable—at something bothers me. Vain, I know, but I accept it as part of my makeup—and sometimes, the results of this shortcoming have left me a better person. Finishing in the stragglers’ pack of a seventh-grade race has led me to be a life-long runner. Madame Bovary’s wilted flowers goaded me to a second career of trying to explain my heart with pen and paper.

So I wrote. Every day, every evening. I read voraciously. I began submitting, and within a few years, I started to publish, not much but enough to earn my entry into Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program. I was fortunate—in Pennsylvania, school teachers needed at least 24 graduate credits to attain their permanent certification, and many districts, including mine, offered tuition reimbursements. Vermont was my first choice—I was already familiar with the work of a few of their teachers. I couldn’t attend the winter residencies, so it took me twice as long as most to graduate, but this turned into a blessing that allowed me to stretch my legs, to digest what I’d learned and use it to develop new material.

In the past few years, I’ve been invited to talk to students at different MFA programs. I tell them that my MFA studies were a valuable part of my maturation as an artist. I learned and read things I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I developed friendships and connections I still cherish almost twenty years later. Most importantly, I came to understand that the people I met, all smart and motivated and creative, were also my competitors—and if I my work was going to find a place in the tight market of lit journals and small presses, then I needed to hold my writing to a higher standard. This scrutiny has become the most integral part of my writing routine, the continual asking if this story, this paragraph, this sentence is the best I can do.

Next year I’ll retire. I’ve had a good run with my crew, 33 years, and I’ve no doubt learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m already testing the waters of my next phase—I’ve been fortunate to have landed a number of visiting writer gigs at local colleges, and I’ve started some adjunct work, my MFA finally of use in an official manner to justify my employment. I don’t know what awaits—but I’m curious. And curious, I believe, is good.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book will be a novel, Lovepain, from Aqueous Books

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