Monday, February 29, 2016

Tom Sleigh Doesn’t Give a F***, and Neither Should You

A few days before his arrival, I volunteered to give poet and essayist Tom Sleigh a lift to his hotel after our last workshop session. Almost immediately I began to suffer mild anxiety over what it would be like to have a Famous Poet in my car. My friend Renee once drove Kurt Vonnegut to an appearance, and he was cantankerous about the automatic seatbelt in her 90s era car. He didn’t want to wear it, and they back-and-forthed until she finally said, “Look. I’m not really a great driver, and I don’t want to start my fledgling writing career as ‘The Girl Who Killed Kurt Vonnegut’, so put on the seatbelt, please.” He laughed and clicked himself in.

I needn’t have worried. By Friday afternoon, Tom had quietly dazzled us with BTW-I-Was-A-Junkie-When-I-Was-Your-Age stories, with his matter-of-fact stoicism about living with a chronic blood disease, and by dropping unabashedly fluent F-bombs. His ability to quote lines and couplets across five centuries of poetry verges on the astonishing, and man (!), he is friendly with so many Famous Writers that I couldn’t help thinking how much easier it was going to be to win Six Degrees of Separation with Tom Sleigh in my deck.

We spent the week riffing on the relationship between emotions and our work. Tom told us how important and helpful it is for writers to think of ourselves as collaborators with language, to always remember that we cannot control language, and that we are merely the medium through which language passes. He told us that if we want to have a good relationship with ‘the muse’, we should begin to consider the gift of our talent and drive to write as something larger than ourselves. He encouraged us to lose the “workshop mentality,” in which we are compelled to perfect THIS poem, THIS story. We must think of ourselves in the long term, he said – considering each poem or story we write as a part of one long poem or story eases the pressure to achieve an elusive perfection.

We spent two days reading our own work to one another. When Tom said we were amazing and that the time he spent with us was the best part of his three-week stint in South Florida, we believed him.

On our last day, Tom had some final words of advice for us. “All editors are idiots. All editors are morons. That’s got to be your attitude”, he said. “When you send manuscripts out, be immune to the whims of editors. Acceptance and rejection mean nothing. If you can’t be immune, get into another line of work. If you make your ego dependent on the praise of the world, you’re done for. If you win (a contest), it means nothing. If you lose, it means nothing! Do not despair. Do not presume. Win or lose.”

We wrapped up the workshop and Tom signed a few books of his poetry for us, casual-like. He clapped one of the guys into a tight hug, said, Keep in touch. We walked to my car, where he buckled himself in and passed the next twenty minutes acting genuinely interested in what I had to say about growing up on a dairy farm and teaching immigrants in South Florida high schools.

Trina Sutton is working toward her MFA in Fiction at FAU.

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