Viva Las Vegas: On Getting an MFA in Sin City

March 23, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 10 6 min read

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The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle”.

“Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!” I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100 percent facetious: I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler. And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker. I think about it often.

The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall, it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake. In Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me.

There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist — or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.

I met my girlfriend in the MFA program, and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean if you want to,” she’d say. Next time, it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce.

They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50 percent chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo.

So we became regulars at the El Cortez — an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers and made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds.

Channeling the ghost of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers), we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker. It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went.

So why do it? As a graduate assistant, I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts. I won’t wade too far into that except to say that though I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can), for me, it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down. In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O’Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt.

Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work. It’s as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill. Then take the long view. I’ll probably need 10 years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on 11.

“Bad beats” — those gambling losses that should have been wins — can always be written-off as research anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor? In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them. Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: It takes money to make money, so the rich get richer.

I prefer craps, where players win or lose together; “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house — that oligarchy upstairs.

coverIn his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.”

He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. Although marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.”

He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in 30 days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Teaching on a campus where 75 percent of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out. A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine.

Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school, so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance.

When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices (well, not overindulging anyway).

I will say this, though: You learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon, which is good. In writing, as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a winning streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more.

The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

's essays and journalism have appeared in The Guardian, Vice, The New York Times, The LA Review of Books, and other publications. He won the 2015 Richard J. Margolis Award as a promising new journalist whose work "combines warmth, humor, wisdom and concern with social justice." He has a master's in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he currently works as managing editor of Witness magazine. His fiction has appeared in The Offing and Day One. Follow him on Twitter at @danielgene.

10 comments:

  1. Eye-catching click bait but the writing just seems like typical millennial stuff. Talking about themselves. Semi-memoir. Not really possessing the knowledge or self-awareness just yet to realize what to emphasize and what not. A Dostoevsky reference here, name drop a couple of local’s hotels there. I wanted it to be good, I really did. I hoped it might be an “expose,” it was not. He didn’t even mention the most attractive aspect of the UNLV MFA program (the mandatory international component in a non-English speaking country). No mention of Dave Hickey either, who lived in Vegas and taught in their MFA program and wrote about the city quite eloquently in his essays. A young guy with a decent journalistic resume who needs a little more polish on his creative non-fiction game and a lot more research besides his own limited anecdotal experiences.

  2. Sorry, Sean H, I wasn’t really interested in writing PR for the MFA program, and I’ve never met Dave Hickey since he left years ago. So yes, it is rather dependent on my personal experience. Personal essays tend to work that way.

  3. “Typical millenial stuff” = talking about themselves. This new and strange form of writing, “talking about oneself.” I’ve never heard about this happening before, and I don’t care for it to start now.

    But seriously Dan H, how the fuck did you forget to mention the fact that the UNLV MFA has a mandatory international component? In a NON-ENGLISH-speaking country no less? That’s an unforgivable lapse. I expect all of my personal essays to double as brochures for literally all subjects mentioned within. Alongside that, you barely described what the suites are like at Terrible’s Hotel & Casino. Do they even have pools? These omissions are pretty goddamn shameful.

  4. You haven’t even mentioned Terrible’s buffet, which was so god-awful that we piled plates high with donuts, spaghetti, sausage rolls and ice cream, crumpled our receipts into the soggy middle, left them and walked out. All the homeless veterans were really poetic, though!

  5. Let’s ease up on the vitriol, shall we? Writers since Cervantes have been talking, a lot of the time, about themselves. Name any great American writer of the last two centuries, and odds are good that you’ll find them writing about themselves, either in expository or fictionalized form.

    It’s disconcertingly easy to lob rhetorical grenades from the comfort of an anonymous comment. Try some imaginative sympathy and ask yourself whether you’d say it face to face. Please.

  6. I hope your comment, RM, was in response to Sean H and not me. If it wasn’t, I assure you: I was being sarcastic.

  7. A fine article! but omission of buffet — unforgivable! Even a goddam awful one, since buffet IS the great American art form. Enjoyed this.

  8. Well, I was just expressing a mildly critical perspective and the “author” basically proved my point for me – Dave Hickey was gone before I even got there, and if it doesn’t revolve around me and my narcissism, how could it possibly be relevant? You expect me to know something about my topic and the history of it? What’s “history” anyway? In my school they taught “cultural studies.” Things that happened before I was born? Who cares, my mom drove me to karate class or piano lessons or whatever it was that made you a good little achiever that year so I never had to learn anything for myself! Yay, my generation! Lena Dunham’s a genius! If you don’t like Beyonce you’re a racist sexist hater troll! Stop bullying me with your satire!

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