CalArts Alumni Magazine

Letter from Steve Kandell, Alumni HQ Guest Editor

Dear CalArts Community,

There is a stack of file folders that has come with me on every move I’ve had in the past 23 years, including two laps across the country. The folders are tucked in the back of a file cabinet next to me right now, minding their own business. I have never thought to throw them away, but I don’t want to look at them either. These are about a dozen hard copies of the novel manuscript I worked on over the two years of my Critical Studies MFA between 1996 and 1998, filled with the marginalia and critiques from my classmates. Glimpses of the handwriting feel like lightly admonishing yearbook inscriptions: I remember the faces of people I haven’t seen or spoken to in decades, and I remember how they thought a sentence I willfully, breathlessly packed with clauses was too much. I’m sure I disagreed at the time.

I recently tried to read some of the book itself and could barely stand to hold my gaze for a full paragraph; it was like staring into an incredibly embarrassing sun. I was 25 and aimless and wrote about being 25 and aimless, as aimless 25-year-olds were wont to do, especially in the mid-’90s. I am not sure that I ever had particular aspirations for it to be published, although I did send it to a couple literary agents; the bigger accomplishment was simply to see something like that to completion.

I have not been active in the CalArts community since getting my degree in 1998, and the program’s connection to my current career is not a direct one. I am lucky enough to have been a working writer and editor, in some form or another, for much of the time since—mostly magazines that don’t exist anymore, including SPIN. Reading that magazine made me want to write in the first place. The MFA Writing Program was where I convinced myself I could. Before that, I had no evidence. And these dusty, yellowed, scribbled-upon copies of this dumb novel were the physical proof—that I could finish something, that I could write and keep writing. That book did not get me a job, it did not get me an agent, it did not shape my voice or the course of my life to follow. But it—and by extension, the school—gave me something I could never have had otherwise: just a little bit of confidence.

I’m grateful to have been asked to guest edit this section of The Pool, despite my absenteeism. Just last year, I moved back to Los Angeles after 20-plus years away; CalArts—the reason I moved here the first time—had nothing to do with why I moved here the second time, but I could not imagine coming back without those folders.

My complicated relationship with my CalArts work made me wonder what other alumni thought about the work they did while at the school. Did it shape their current work? Does it serve as a reminder of a completely different time in their lives? Is it just embarrassing? What memories does it spark? We asked CalArts alumni about the projects they remember the most from their time at school and how they shaped—or had no bearing on—the lives and careers that followed.

Thank you,

Steve Kandell (Critical Studies MFA 98)