The Write Stuff: On Pushcarts, Lorrie Moore, and Writing Past Sixty
March 6, 2020 § 19 Comments
By Cindy Sams
A long teaching day nears its end when a buzz from the phone in my pocket grabs my attention. A covert glance at the screen reveals a text message from my MFA writing mentor at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA.
She announces, simply, “Congratulations!!!”
What did I do?
Attached to the text is a link that made my 60-year-old-self rear up and pay attention– an announcement from The New Southern Fugitives, an online literary zine in Atlanta which recently published one of my essays. There’s a nifty picture there of a man pushing a cart … a man … pushing a cart … OHMYGOD … The Pushcart Prize.
“Congratulations 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominees!” Six names follow the announcement, including that of my mentor, Anjali Enjeti. At the bottom of the list, in small print, sits my name. Mine. The name of a first semester creative writing grad student who was thrilled just to be published so quickly. The name of a former newspaper reporter turned high school theater teacher who returned to writing after her fella died and her chicklet flew the nest.
The name of a woman who entered her sixth decade in late 2019 with a bang. I’ve waited my whole life to write creatively. Delayed through marriage and childbirth and work and divorce and illness and surgery and death. And now, at the cusp of retirement, opportunity beckons. Time seems to have shoved itself into a corner to give me space in which to write. Poems. Short stories. Memoir. This ol’ gal is on fire with it all. Even more so since news of the Pushcart nomination came along, a turn I never expected to happen, much less this soon.
In truth, I applied to Reinhardt’s MFA program for the Fall 2019 term with no real expectation that I’d be accepted. Not because of age, but from fear that lack of recent writing would hold me back. I cobbled together a collection of stories I’d written for The Macon Telegraph during my career there, accompanied by a new essay I wrote for my submission packet. That piece, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” stems from the gift of a wooden cutting board carved in the shape of the Lonestar State. I’ve never used the board, but The New Southern Fugitives paid me $100 to publish the essay – then they nominated it for a Pushcart prize.
I’m mighty impressed with myself, but just how big a deal is that nomination? Depends upon whom you ask.
As any good reporter would do, I turned to the wisdom of the Interweb to find out. Some literary pundits contend that the Pushcart ain’t no big thing. Thousands upon thousands of writers are nominated, so stop listing it on your CV. In an “Open Letter to Pushcart Nominated Folks,” author John Matthew Fox stakes this claim: “But to people who know what a Pushcart Nomination means, it looks desperate. Especially when you don’t list what journal gave you the nomination. Because we know it’s not Tin House, it’s more like Podunk journal run by an MFA fail from his parent’s basement in Arkansas.”
Others take an enlightened view that’s more to my liking.
“A Pushcart nomination is a solid credential so you’ve got bragging rights,” said Gray Stewart, a Georgia novelist and one of my RU professors.
Let’s be frank. Accolades matter. Even at my age. Especially at my age. I don’t have six decades ahead of me to develop my skills. Never mind that never will I now be heralded as an up-and-coming young writer. There’s enough attention paid to talented young people and so little given to those of us who taste success at a later point.
Funny that all of this occurred around the same time a piece by Lorrie Moore popped up on the assignment list for one of my MFA classes. Moore’s essay, “How to Become A Writer” blew up my brain with its parallels to my own life. The questions Moore raises in her work are those I ask myself frequently now.
She’s crafted this piece in the guise of a Self-Help Writing Guru, I suppose, yet there are such deep truths here. Some of them describe me quite accurately. So much so that I wonder if Moore’s posing under a pseudonym and is really my long-dead Great Aunt Inez, who advised me to become a bank teller or telephone operator as a life-long career. That I could not then and cannot now count back change has no bearing on the matter.
Did Moore eavesdrop on my life?
“Somehow, you end up writing again,” she posits. “Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.”
I don’t know what it takes for anyone else to become a writer. Perhaps, as Moore suggests, there is no one-size-fits-all method, and each writer must find his or her own way. Whatever it takes, I’m going to cross that bridge and learn to take myself and my efforts seriously. Stop equivocating about my work. Recognize its value regardless of its reception.
After all, I am Pushcart nominee. More than that, I’m a writer now.
Cindy Sams is a teacher and writer in Macon, GA, a hub of soul food and soul music in the New Deep South. A graduate of Wesleyan College, she holds an MA in Theater from Regent University, and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. When not teaching and writing, she directs high school plays and musicals and breaks into random show tunes in shopping mall parking lots. Her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review, Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, and The New Southern Fugitives, which nominated her for a 2020 Pushcart Prize in Creative Nonfiction.