2016, Archives, May 2016, The MFA Years

Writing from the Outskirts

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I grew up in the town of Tujunga, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, nestled right up against the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s about 30 minutes by car from Downtown Los Angeles and about hour from the airport. Between Tujunga and the San Fernando Valley lies a series of hills called the Verdugo Mountains. It’s about as secluded as you can get and still be in Los Angeles, though it doesn’t feel like the city of surfers and starlets. No, if someone drugged and abandoned you there, you’d awaken thinking you’d landed in east Texas.

There isn’t much going on. Along Foothill Blvd, the main drag, you’ll find some fast food chains and grocery stores, a dozen auto body shops, a run of boarded up storefronts, and a trio of biker bars, one of which opens at 6am.  There used to be an enormous K-Mart, but that’s gone. We got a Starbucks about ten years ago. That was big. There’s a small library but no bookstores. The closest one is in Glendale, about 20 minutes away.

You’ve seen Tujunga but didn’t know it. It is where the biker-gang saga Sons of Anarchy was filmed, along with Christopher Nolan’s Memento.  My parents worked next door to the film’s tattoo parlor. You’ve seen the town’s dirty skyline in dozens of other movies and television shows. Anytime a director needs a working class setting, some place dusty and run down, some geography that screams “down home” or “redneck” or “a bit meth-addled” but close enough to Hollywood so they can be home for dinner, they film in Tujunga.

It’s a blue-collar town. People work long hours at hard jobs. It used to be full of aerospace workers, the guys who pieced together airliners and fighter jets, but those jobs left in the 1980s. You’ll still find mechanics and nurses and landscapers and men and women who do the heavy lifting in movie productions. But you won’t find any writers, or, for that matter, many readers. When you’re a kid growing up here and you say you want to be a novelist, you might as well tell people “astronaut” or “super model” or “Lebron James”–not just a basketball player, but actually Lebron. It’s that rare.

I was fortunate for Tujunga. By the time I was a teenager, my family was solidly middle class, and although my parents didn’t graduate from college, they instilled in me the inevitability of attending. I was going to go.  They believed in the necessity of education, and, although they never said it explicitly, they also believed in the necessity of me getting out of Tujunga. I could go anywhere and do anything, they said. They taught me to dream.

But Tujunga had other notions. Over half of my high school class dropped out. A shooting on campus during my freshman year led the school to ban the use of lockers because they said we were keeping guns in them. But we didn’t really need lockers since, because of budget cuts, we couldn’t take books out of the classroom, for the most part. It was a tough school for a shy kid. If you liked to read or spend time daydreaming or maybe thought being a man didn’t mean you had to be a racist, sexist asshole, you were mocked, called a “faggot.” I was small for the school, skinny and timid. I was never going to fit in with those kids, the guys who had a specific idea of what a “real man” looked and acted like. After a while, I stopped attending class regularly, going only a couple days a week. I got a job at a grocery store.  I liked the work and I liked the money and I found I was good at working all day and getting lost in the task at hand, be it shelving cereal boxes or collecting shopping carts or talking up old people who couldn’t find the coffee aisle.

For a while during that time, I thought about working for UPS, making a career of it. I’d wear brown shorts, drive a big truck, and not have to talk to people. But then I got afraid I’d stay in Tujunga forever. That if it didn’t work out with UPS, I’d end up a seasonally employed landscaper, or working on roofs under the hot California sun. I got scared.


When I ended up in college, I still wouldn’t say I wanted to be a novelist. Instead, I told people I wanted to be a reporter. A journalist. Someone with a real 9-5 job. It seemed practical back then, something reliable. You’re a writer but you’ve got a real job and having a real job is important because then you can take care of yourself.  It’s good advice for anyone but it also tamps down on dreamers and dreams. I see it in the eyes of the first-generation college students I teach: dreams are nice but can I make a living?

So I said I was going to be a reporter. I worked at college newspapers and interned at professional newspapers and graduated college in 2000 just when the newspaper industry began dying and so I found myself waiting tables, knowing that I didn’t really want to be a reporter. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to make up stories and publish them but there didn’t seem to be a lot of work in that so I told almost no one that this was my dream.


When I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire, I had no idea of what I was getting into. I’d never known anyone who had been in a creative writing program and I only chose New Hampshire because it was close to my girlfriend and offered me a full scholarship plus a teaching stipend. I figured my base needs were met, so it seemed like a good deal. It still does.

Yet, right away it became abundantly clear that I must have been accepted by mistake, a clerical error or a lazy attempt at diversity. During my first week, I had to learn by feel how to teach college composition, though, until then, I didn’t know that composition was a field of study and that there were people who called themselves compositionists. In my first writing workshop, I hand wrote my critiques because I didn’t know they were supposed to be typed. I spent a lot of time that first semester—and long after—acting like I had read more books than I had and that I had a better education than I did and that I was much more confident than I was. I faked it. I was an academic conman, channeling Redford in The Sting, hoping they wouldn’t find out I’d never read Moby Dick or that I’d quit Ulysses a few pages in or that I had no idea who Lacan was. When I wasn’t teaching or writing or faking erudition, I was hustling for outside work: waiting tables, driving faculty and students to the airport, and even writing encyclopedia entries. I thought about quitting the whole thing.

But sometime during my second semester, everything came together. I made friends. I got an advisor, the novelist Alex Parsons, who became a mentor, a sort of authorial sage, who gave me the confidence to keep at it. I figured out what I was supposed to do in the classroom. I started a novel. I kept workingman hours every day, much like I had at the grocery store, but instead of moving pallets or taking kitty litter out to a customer’s car, I was reading and writing. And at the end of it all, I was happy. For some beautiful reason, the state of New Hampshire was subsidizing my effort to become a writer and I started to think of myself that way: as a writer.

In some ways, I think I was the happiest person in my grad program. There was a general gloom amongst many of them and I can’t say for sure why. On one hand, some may have been better suited for other programs or maybe they should have waited longer to return to school or perhaps they found the workload too high.  On the other hand, maybe the curriculum was disappointing in some ways and the faculty turnover was pretty troubling and teaching assignments were hard to get, but that wasn’t my experience.

In the end, there was a crucial difference between me and many of them. From the outside, most of my classmates acted as if being in an MFA program was perfectly normal, as if this was just the next step in their education rather than the fantastical universe I thought of it as, where everyone saw literature as crucial to society and that becoming a writer was in some way a noble endeavor. It seemed like a bizarro world, one with graduate carrels stuffed with dog-eared paperbacks of difficult works, so far from the biker bar cliche of Tujunga that I didn’t believe it was real. Here, no one called me a “pussy” for reading Lorrie Moore, or a “bitch” because I liked to write stories. No one made me feel ashamed because I didn’t want to prove my manhood by chucking empties at pedestrians from my suped up F150.

There are a lot of arguments about how a writer should become a writer, whether they should live in Brooklyn or travel the world or go to Iowa and I’ve never found this conversation particularly interesting. It seems to mostly come out of insecurity or resentment or boredom. What I can say is that I never would have published a novel if I hadn’t gone to the University of New Hampshire. I’d have been too afraid to write one and even if I’d written one, I’d have been too afraid to show anyone. What my MFA gave me was not only courage, but a path into the literary world, one I never knew existed when I was a kid in Tujunga.

I don’t mean to rag on Tujunga. It’s part of me. You’ll find characters in my book straight out of that little town, men and women who work hard and want better for their children, people who’ve struggled against larger historical forces and governmental systems—be it economic downturns or indifferent educational practices—yet still wake up every day and go to their jobs. While I’m lucky enough to teach at a nice school where I work indoors, I still have that ethic ingrained it me. Every morning, get up and go to work. In my case, I write from 8-11, like I’m punching the clock.

But most importantly, growing up in Tujunga made me aware of how fortunate I was to have two parents who loved and supported me because for many of the children in that town, I was living a life of luxury. When my novel came out last year, all of my cousins and uncles and aunts bought copies. My mother purchased over a dozen and gave them out as Christmas gifts. My aunt, after hearing me on the radio, called my mom and said, “I can’t believe he’s from Tujunga.”  But I can. It’s there on the page.


Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel, a finalist for the James Jones First Novel prize. He has degrees from UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of New Hampshire. His work has been published in The Collagist, Scarab, Public Books, We’re History, The Pisgah Review, Untoward, The Boiler, and Crossborder. His screenplay, The Granite State, was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival and he has received fellowships from The University of Houston and the New York Public Library. He lives with his wife in Chapel Hill where he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina. His website is michaelkeenangutierrez.com

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