Devon Miller-Duggan on Abecedarians: Part 1: Turning 60 and Other Formal Considerations

Devon Miller-Duggan on Abecedarians: Part 1: Turning 60 and Other Formal Considerations

It started with a couple of bags of alphabet sand molds. Miriam had sent them to my house in Delaware in advance of our 60th birthdays celebratory trip to Cape May. We were going to use them to practice for a land art project she had coming up—writing poems on the tideline that would inevitably be washed away.

We had a rainy-blowy day. Happily, we also had a poolside room with a table underneath the balcony, so a person could sit outside as long as the wind didn’t shift. We’d been doing the Twyla Tharp Questionnaire, and talking a lot about what turning 60 might mean. I’ve been more or less vaguely ticked off at my life in poetry for years, for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with my conviction that I was a failure, career-wise, publication-wise, writing-wise. My poor family has had to spend way too much time listening to me whinge about all of this and my daughters are not entirely patient with it. They like to point out all the good stuff about my life, especially anything that can fall into the category of “privilege” or “achievement.” They love to point out to me how many of my students still speak to me.

I could go on at some length about the complicated issues of giftedness, art, persistence, dreams, life-interfering with all of the above, life offering generous compensations for that interference. I could probably even get religion in there. Bottom line: I believed, in my 20s (and on the basis of some reasonable evidence) that I had “the stuff,” and that having “the stuff” would mean, if I did the right things (I very definitively screwed some of those “right” things up courtesy of youth, cluelessness, thick-headedness, and a couple of other factors—none of them attractive) and worked hard enough, “the stuff” and I would be bound for at least moderately spiffy fruition. Any of you reading this who are in the arts, any of you who were ever told to “follow your dreams” in any form will know what I mean.

Turning 60 seemed like a Big Deal, like it required some clear thinking and clear planning, and maybe a bit of emotional house-cleaning. Oddly, I did a lot of thinking and house-cleaning at the 2014 AWP convention a couple of months before The Birthday, and then kept thinking. I decided that A) I needed to work harder—not so anything in particular would happen, but so that I could quit suspecting my career never took off because I never worked hard enough, B) I needed to be grateful that I was still writing, and C) I needed to break some habits, or play harder, or do something out of my own box.

That’s where the letters, the blowy day (with Miriam napping), and Twyla Tharp came together.

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4 thoughts on “Devon Miller-Duggan on Abecedarians: Part 1: Turning 60 and Other Formal Considerations

  1. Devon–as editor, I enjoy this essay on many levels (even if I am asleep in it.). However, I’m struck by one of themes–failure. Honestly, I expected to fail when I was young. I thought I’d never write anything and that I’d never publish a book. I thought I’d never get out of New Jersey. Perhaps my low (i.e. Slavicly morbid) expectations have helped? I still expect to fail.
    Paradoxically, I also share the general feeling of the group I went to college and grad school with that a literary life would be easy to attain. Perhaps it was for the previous generation, but not ours.
    Will be posting more of your essay over the next week!

    • I suspect being an only child contributed to my sense of potential. I doubt being German-Irish did anything one way or the other. I did expect to get out of DE. Oops. Maybe low expectations would have been a better starting point? but, yes, I do think the lit-life was a bit less unattainable for the generation before ours.

      • Sorry, that was a response to Miriam’s comment. Yes writing does help us feel alive, and I guess, therefore, young, though I find that teaching does more just by keeping me in touch with more young people than most 60-year olds get to hang out with.

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