Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Little More About Me

Today is the last day of November, recognized as Diabetes Awareness Month. Whoever knew this raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone?

See, it's ludicrous that the only people who actually know about Diabetes Awareness Month are people who are already aware of diabetes. Those of us with it, who live with it every day, minute by minute, are all too well aware. And those who aren't affected... have no idea.

I know lots of people with diabetes who have been posting this month, but their blogs are mostly read by other diabetics, or parents of diabetics. You, dear readers, are mostly (and thankfully) not diabetic. So this is my chance to spread awareness.

Also, it's been almost exactly eight years since I was diagnosed. It was Christmas season, and I remember this because I am a huge fan of baking Christmas cookies, and that year I baked hundreds of cookies and ate not one. For the first and only time in my life, I didn't feel at all like cookies. Or pies or cakes or anything sweet. All I wanted was grapefruit and water. And more water.

As the weeks in December trickled on, I became addicted to water in a way that became obsessive. I felt constantly like I'd walked through the Sahara. My mouth was like sandpaper, my throat like a dried sponge. I needed water in a way I'd never known.

I couldn't leave the house without it, at first just keeping a bottle or two in the car, but eventually having to carry it with me. I had to get up in the middle of church service because I'd run out and needed to refill it from the water fountain as though my life depended on it. I woke in the night to drink.

I lost weight. In less than three weeks I lost 10 pounds. I figured it was the combination of water and grapefruit.... sounded like some diet I'd heard of years ago, and here I was just craving it. I'd given up most other foods, so of course I'd be losing weight.

I suppose I was tired. Then again, I had three children under the age of five, one of whom was only seven months old. What mother of kids that age isn't tired? To top it off, with the last child I'd become very anemic and bled out during delivery and had to get several blood transfusions and have never really recovered. I'm sure if I noticed I was particularly tired, I attributed it to that.

It was my mom, my mom who'd seen my sister go through the very same thing nearly twenty years before, who suggested on Christmas day that I go to the doctor. Just to make sure.

That doctor appointment was brief... I glibbly told my symptoms, sure it was nothing but still concerned because the water thing was getting out of hand and downright disabling. He nodded, said I probably had diabetes, pricked my finger for some blood, tested it and in two minutes my life had changed.

So in a nutshell, this is what I've learned over the past years:

There is an organ in your body called a pancreas. Like the heart, stomach and lungs, it has a specific purpose. That purpose is to produce hormones that control the amount of glucose in the blood stream. When you eat, almost anything you eat, has something in it that can be turned into glucose for your body to use as energy. Sugar is the obvious one, but anything that is considered a carbohydrate - like bread, or corn, or peas, fruit or milk - is high in glucose, but even meats and wine has glucose. The pancreas produces two hormones that regulate the delicate balance between too much and too little glucose in the body. Glucagon increases blood sugar when it falls too low. Insulin stores it when it gets too high.

Diabetes is when there's a problem with the insulin.

There are two types of diabetes. It's surprising to me how many people don't know this, but since 95% of people with diabetes have the Type 2, it's easy for the type 1 to get misunderstood, even though they are really very different diseases.

Type 2, the more common type of diabetes, is when the body can't use the insulin that's being produced. A lot of times an excess of insulin is pumped out by the pancreas, but the cells can't use it to store the glucose, and as a result, there's lots of extra sugar floating around in the bloodstream, damaging all the other organs it passes through like a poison. Sometimes, even though the pancreas is making the insulin, there is a higher need for it and it just can't keep up.

Type 1, which is what I have, is when the pancreas just gives up altogether. Type 1s make no insulin at all, which is why one of the first symptoms is severe fatigue. If the cells aren't getting any glucose at all, there is nothing to use as energy. So it uses its stored fat as energy, hence the rapid weight loss. And water is needed to flush all that extra, poisonous glucose out of the blood stream, hence the extreme thirst.

Despite sharing the same name, the two forms of the disease are hardly the same. Causes are different. Treatment is different. Type 2 might be caused by weight gain, stress, genes, poor diet, lack of exercise, high blood pressure and certain drugs. A type 2 can often take pills that help them to use the insulin their body is already making. With certain lifestyle changes ( which are by no means easy!), sometimes the disease can be put into reverse.

Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that may be caused by a virus that sets off a genetic predisposition. The whole pancreas-dying-thing isn't really the root of the problem. The problem is that the immune system sees the pancreas as foreign and harmful and attacks it. This is why pancreatic transplants haven't been successful in curing diabetes. You can replace the defunct pancreas, but the immune system is going to attack the new one as well, and pretty soon you end up back where you started: insulinless. You can't take pills. There are no insulin pills as insulin can't be processed by the stomach. Pills only help a person's natural insulin to be more effective, and as the type 1 doesn't produce any insulin, the pills are useless.

The only way for a type 1 to control their blood sugar is by taking shots of insulin. Every day. All day. When I first was diagnosed I was taking two shots a day just to stay alive, and then another shot for everything I put in my mouth. Thankfully, I've since gotten a pump that I wear all the time. The pump has a needle that I shoot into my stomach once every three days, and then just stays there, dripping insulin into me all day, more the way my pancreas might. (That photo isn't me, but my pump looks just like that)

Still, it's not a pancreas. It doesn't know what I'm eating, or how stressed I am, or how hard I'm exercising, or what infection I might be getting... all of which increase my blood sugar. All the pump knows is what I tell it. So I prick my fingers ten times a day to test how much blood sugar is floating around, and then I either give myself more insulin if there's too much, or I have to eat something if there isn't enough.

Being my own pancreas is hard work. And tiring. And frustrating. I know sometimes why my pancreas just gave up. It seems like I am always off by something.... there's too much glucose and I'm tired and thirsty and not seeing very well and slowly killing off my nerve and kidney cells, or there's not enough glucose to make my brain function well and I'm fuzzy-headed, dizzy, sweaty, confused, volatile, and headed towards a coma. If I pump in too much insulin, I die. If I pump in not enough, I die. I'm not melodramatic about it. That's just the way it is. It's a tightrope to walk.

But I'm thankful that I've become much more aware of my health since I've been diagnosed. I exercise more faithfully, I eat better, I get medical tests every few months and know that my cholesterol and blood pressure are outstanding, that I'm still anemic and vitamin D deficient (who knew??) and now I can take vitamins for that.  I'm thankful for the advances that have been made in the past twenty years that allow me to live a normal life, with the prognosis being long.

This is a long post, but I wanted to somehow recognize this month, and all the people that I know with diabetes who struggle daily, minute by minute with it. And so that you... if you or someone you knows, starts drinking a lot, going to the bathroom a lot, sleeping a lot, losing a lot of weigh fast... you will know. And you can be the one to save their life. Or your own.

Monday, November 29, 2010

MFA Monday: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Books

When I was accepted into the Pacific University MFA program, one of my first goals was to read at least one book by each of the fiction faculty before I left for the residency in January. Part of the reason was because I had to list my first choices for advisors, and I wanted to make sure I picked people whose writing style was closer to mine... at least for the first semester. The more personal reason was that I wanted to be able to have conversations with these authors about their books. Now that I've read nearly one of everyone's and sent in my advisor choices, I'm circling back to reading second books.

One of the first books I read was Tayari Jones's Leaving Atlanta. It's a story told from the point of view of three children in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders of the 1980s. I was a kid, then, myself, and so it seemed strange to me that I'd never even heard of the murders.

The book itself is not really about the murders, but about how the uncertainty and terror of that time affected the fifth-graders who were just trying to get through a rough year in their lives.

The thing that struck me so much about this book was the uniqueness of the idea and the way it reminded me so much of the sniper attacks here in the DC area just a few years ago.

In 2002-2003 two men terrorized my town, and the suburbs around us. Like ghosts they picked off their victims, random people walking into a store, pumping gas, sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. From the quiet streets, from nowhere it seemed, a bullet would fly through the air and find it's target, killing these strangers across several counties with no motive, no connection, inciting fear and eventually dictating behavior. Like in the book Leaving Atlanta, school recesses were cancelled, football games postponed, the stores and streets and parking lots like a ghost town. People ran, literally, from their car to their destination if they had to get out. No where was safe. No one was safe.

As I read this book, that fear was palpable again.

The book I'm reading now is The Untelling. Sophomore books are so hard, I think. There is, after a successful first novel, such pressure to get it right again. I think more often than not, the second novel is in general disappointing.

That is not the case in The Untelling. While I'm not finished with it yet (I expect to be by this evening), it's even better than Tayari Jones's first. The writing is better all over... more beautiful and lyrical and haunting. It reads more smoothly, the word choices vivid and distinct. Although it isn't the kind of book that races from beginning to end with a breathlessness, it is still what I would call a page-turner, one that I found hard to put down last night at midnight.

Just this past week, Tayari posted a blog on SheWrites about her third novel, Silver Sparrow, due out May of 2011.  Her article, titled Writing in the Wilderness, is a worthwhile read for any writer, and you should head over to read it yourself. But in short, the post is about her experience writing that third novel, and how, in the midst of the writing it, her agent sent it out to dozens of publishers who all rejected it. With a hundred pages done and an overwhelming negative response, Tayari stopped writing. Why, after all, finish a book no one will buy?

It took a while to get back to it, but eventually she did. This is what she said the rejections did for her:

I also wrote in my journal like crazy trying to remember why it was that I wanted to write this novel. It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world. What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day.

Oddly enough, this “guaranteed rejection” freed me up. I remembered what it was like when I was a young writer putting words down just to satisfy my own need to write. I started feeling my momentum coming back. I started talking to my friends about the characters as though they were actual people.

When the book was finished, she not only had one publisher interested, but multiple publishers.

There is a lot to be learned from other authors.... from watching their writing progress and following their journeys as closely as they'll allow you. It's good to know as writers that we aren't alone in our struggles.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The book, the day, and me

In May of 1996, I was still newly married, following my husband's job half-way across the country from southern California to San Antonio, Texas. I arrived two weeks after him, in this city where I had no friends and no job, and nothing to fill my days but a stack of books.

I can't remember too many times in my life where there was nothing to do but read, but we had few things to unpack, and as a teacher I was still a good month away from schools beginning to post openings.

And so, with the warm summer sun already starting, I pulled an old wicker chair onto our deck and began to read. And for four glorious weeks, I did nothing but read. Sometimes on the deck in the glorious colors of the sunset; sometimes by the pool with the wavy aqua afternoon light bouncing off the pages; sometimes curled in the corner of the couch with the rain dripping down the windows. Breakfast bagels, lunch sandwiches, afternoon chocolate covered pretzels... and a book.

Book after book. In this foreign land of San Antonio I was in my own foreign land of Austria and Germany and the bone-yards of Tennessee. I devoured a book a day... 700 pages often times, no doubt; each one a step closer to the realization I would make in less than four months that I wanted to write a book myself.... and seven years from actually attempting that feat.

In those pages I fell in love, was scared breathless, ached and laughed and cried. I disappeared and became someone else.

And then, in a flash, it was gone.

I got a call that a neighbor's baby was sick and they couldn't put him in child care; the father was an anesthesiologist and the mother an ophthalmologist, and neither could skip work. Could I come and care for the hacking, sneezing child?

And so I did. And when the mother came home, creeping up the stairs to find her son, there we were, him and I, curled in a chair in the nursery with a stack of book, reading Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss. And so I was offered a job.

I nannied for three months, until I began teaching English at the local middle school, and then there were other moves and other schools and my own children and life. And somehow, those days of lazing around reading vaporized like dust in the wind.

This past week, my latest novel was done, my school work turned in, my children well and in school. I bought a book I'd been wanting to read forever - not one I should read or needed to read - but one I just plain wanted to read. And on Monday, I did.

Curled in the couch, five hours straight until the kids came home from school, then four hours after they fell asleep, I read. And read. And read. I read Francine River's Redeeming Love. Glorious, indulgent, submersive reading.

What is it about reading that makes me feel so guilty for spending time doing it? Reading and writing... I love them too much for it to feel like a job.

I wasn't going to write a Thanksgiving post today. But then again... maybe I just did.

Monday, November 22, 2010

MFA Monday: MMR mania

True story: I got my new student packet from Pacific University and in it was a form saying I need proof of a second MMR immunization. I must have looked totally stricken, because my husband asked:

"What's wrong?"

"I have to get a shot. The last time I got a shot was thirteen years ago when I had to get a tetanus shot and hurt like crazy! I hate shots!"

Total look of confusion on his face. "Um... you're diabetic, hon. You give yourself shots everyday."


So I had to get an MMR shot. I finally sucked up the nerve to call my doctor to make an appointment, only to be told that he doesn't give them.

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Oh, most general practitioners don't give them. You can try the emergency care center, or maybe CVS or Safeway."

So I proceed to call the pharmacies of every drug store, grocery store, and mass-market warehouse within 30 miles, and no one gives MMR shots!  What the heck? I considered trying to bribe my kid's pediatrician to give me one, since I KNOW he does them.

It turns out the only place I can get the shot is at the county public health clinic. Oh joy.

Our local office is open twice a week, for an hour and a half. No appointments. And a warning on the website not to show up before the doors open.

So I show up, a half hour after it opens, and find one of the last of the 45 seats in the waiting room (Yes, I had time to count how many there were). I was one of the only non-hispanics in the room, and probably one of the few who spoke English. The funny part of this was watching the nurse who came out to call families back and then had to ask the desk clerk to translate. It sounded exactly like this:

"Lopez family? Lopez family?"  No response. So a little louder: "Lopez family?" Everyone just stares at her, so she practically yells, "Lopez family?"  When no one answers, she turns to the desk clerk and says, "Hey, can you translate for me?"

At which point the desk clerk would say, "Familia Lopez?" and a family of three stood and walked to the nurse.


The room was nearly empty when I was finally called back an hour and fifteen minutes later. The nurse rolls up my sleeve and picks up a huge needle, swabs my arm and says, "You've had your flu shot, right?"

Is this a prerequisite now for an MMR?  I say back, "Um, no. I didn't get a flu shot this year."

"Oh!" she says, surprised and somewhat put off. "You want to get a flu shot?"

"Um... no," I say. "Just this one is good."

So she sticks me, hard, and the shot hurts like crazy. It takes about 15 seconds. I then go back out to the waiting room to wait for another 15 minutes until they have the records for me to send to school. So an hour and a half for a 15 second shot. And I had to pay, because while the public clinic doesn't charge for all people on medicare and medicaid, it does not bill people with private insurance.


So not all grad school work is scholarly, but it is all educational.

BTW - I was the only one in that waiting room with a book. That hurt worse than the shot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I'm Not Lazy; I'm Just Busy Setting Things on Fire

I've degenerated far from my daily blogging habits! My five a week posts whittled themselves down to three, and now two, and even that is a struggle sometimes. I feel lazy for not posting every day, but it's not because I don't want to or have something useless to say; I'm just incredibly busy.

I was going to write a post about how, when things are going really well with writing, I don't want to do anything else. Not shower. Not eat. Not go to the gym or pick the kids up from school or even watch TV. When the kids are in bed and I sneak to the basement with the intention of writing a blog post, I always end up opening my WIP instead and working on it until my eyes are blurry. I was going to write about that, but then Kim Derting beat me to it.

So instead, I'll tell you why I didn't get around to blogging yesterday.

I got up, woke three kids up, took the dog out, threw in a load of wash, fed three kids and packed their lunches and hemmed a pair of pants because my daughter's grown six inches since last fall and looks like one of the farm kids on Little House on the Prairie with her too-short jeans. Then, eventually, I got them all out the door and to the bus stop (at different times, because their schools start an hour apart).

I drove 20 minutes to the gym for a workout. This is not normally a Thursday thing, but Monday my son had an ortho appointment (where they changed his rubber bands to orange, which I asked why in the world orange since Halloween is over), and Tuesday I had a sick little girl at home and Wednesday I spent two hours in the public health clinic getting a 15-second MMR shot that I need for school in January (oh you can bet there will be a post on THAT experience!!), so Thursday it was.

I showered. I drove 20 minutes to a store to return a shirt I bought that had a hole in it. I stood in the customer service line for 15 minutes playing Angry Birds on my itouch because I'd forgotten to pack my Nook in my purse the night before. After that, I went grocery shopping, because we were completely without milk. The horror!!

I came home and had time to get the cold stuff put away before turning around (without lunch) and going to pick my kids up at school. One is fifteen minutes one direction. The others are 25 minutes in the other. I played more Angry Birds waiting on them in the carpool lane because again, I'd forgotten to grab my Nook in the ten minutes I'd been home.

All kiddos gathered, we headed to the library, because swim team practice (which is why I picked them up) is 25 minutes in the opposite direction of the house. They crammed down a snack on the way to the library, where we set up shop for 20 minutes doing homework, before we turn around and get back in the car and go to swim practice.

On the way home, at 6:40 pm, I realize I'd forgotten to put the lasagna I'd set out for dinner in the oven. So instead of arriving home to an aroma of Italy, it still smelled like wet dog and Febreze. Fine. We'll have bratwurst instead. I'll pop them on the grill and they can cook while I help the girls with the rest of their homework.

Except we got caught up in rushing up and down stairs, me mostly muttering and faux-cursing my youngest's teacher for giving her an assignment she couldn't possibly do (like finding pictures of her ancestors, artifacts of family importance, pictures of cultural customs our family does regularly, flags and maps of where we hail from....you get the idea)... I forgot about the bratwurst.

Until it blew up.

The whole grill was a ball of fire, and somewhere in there was our dinner...blackened to a crisp.

By now it's almost eight o'clock. I've run out of decent food choices I can make quickly. We have hot dogs. With broccoli and mashed potatoes, because they didn't burn on the grill.

So by the time we eat, I clean the dishes, feed the pup and take him out... it's nearly ten. And yeah... I didn't feel quite like blogging. I did, however, find my Nook and cuddle under electric blankets and read.

So today it's Friday, and I usually do my thankful things. So this is what I'm thankful for:

  • That only my grill exploded in a ball of greasy gaseous flames, and that my house is entirely unscathed.
  • That my kids were gracious enough to laugh and ooh and ah over the fire, and not complain that we had hot dogs instead of lasagna (my son's favorite dinner) or bratwurst (my daughter's favorite dinner). 
  • That my husband has a great sense of humor, and when he got home at eight-thirty he didn't complain about eating hot dogs either, but did ask if I felt lonely enough with him working late that I needed some lame ploy to get the fire department over. 
  • That I didn't actually need the fire department.
  • Bun warmers. Seriously. I was in the car more than out and sometimes it's the little things that make it all worth while
  • That my book is finished. Complete. Done. Revised three times, edited, proofread, beta-read, and done. And ready for it's next step, whatever that might be.
  • That my MFA assignment is done and handed in, and now I have the holidays stretching in front of me with little pressure but to make them special for the kids. And that the assistant director wrote me and said, "We got your package. I can't wait to meet you in January."  Small things that make me joyous!

What things made you happy this week?

Monday, November 15, 2010

MFA Monday: Conflicting Critiques

The first assignment due this week includes a submission of writing to be critiqued by a group of fellow writers.  I'd like to say this is no big deal to me. I've been in a critique group for over three years, and we do this all the time. I'm used to having my work shredded and put back together with bleeding red pens (figuratively, of course, since it comes back in a Word document with Track Changes that can be red, blue, green, or, my favorite, purple, depending on the critiquer).

I wasn't worried. Which should have been my first warning sign.

The MFA workshop consists of students in all levels of the program, meaning I will likely be in a group that is not only first semester students, but second, third, fourth and possibly graduating students as well. Because of this, there isn't the demand to send in just the first pages of what you're working on. A fifth semester student who's been doing this two years probably isn't going to keep sending in the first pages of their novel over and over again. The only requirement is that the piece you submit be better than a rough draft that doesn't know where it's going, but is also something you want to keep working on (as opposed to something you've already published). 

So I contacted my trusty critique group (my 4Corners gals) and asked: Do I send the first pages, which is what I'll eventually submit to an agent, and work on making that the best, or do I send in what I consider my very best (or favorite) chapter in order to put my best foot forward? If this submission is what an advisor will read to judge whether or not they want to work with me, I want to send the best, right?

My gals said yes, without a doubt, send the best you have.

So then I sent those pages to them to make sure they were polished enough to submit. (I know, they've been saints about this whole process with me, and put up with my endless questions and submissions in my panic that I'm going to humiliate myself in January when I begin the residency).

You know what? About half said they LOVED the submission and DEFINITELY send it in, and they CRIED through it and it was so POWERFUL!!!!!! And the other half.... said, eh. This is a bit confusing. And overwritten. And detached. And not the best thing I've seen from you. Maybe send in the first pages instead.


My guess is that if you are a writer and you have a writing group, this has probably happened to you too. Different opinions about the same piece of writing.... some love. Some loathe. Some want you to keep it, others think it needs an overhaul. What one person thinks is brilliant and genius, another thinks is confusing and obscure.

And this is the nature of writing. Because this happens even in published works. Look at Stephanie Meyers and the Twilight series, just as an example. Big name authors have come out criticizing the quality of the writing, and yet it's spawned a world-wide fan base of people that absolutely love it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for The Road, which is widely acclaimed, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. That is one book not up my alley, so to speak.

So what do you do when you place your writing in the hands of people you trust to tell you the truth, and then you get such widely differing opinions?

Listen to them. Read the comments. Try to set aside any defensiveness and see if there is something valid about what everyone is saying. Then follow your gut.

YOU are the writer. YOU alone can make the decision on which side you land. Those people who read and critiqued are not wrong, but they are opinions, not fact.

What did I do? I let the comments gnaw at me and plant seeds of doubt, made me change my mind about what to submit, and worry that nothing I wrote would be good enough. And then I read. A lot. And I realized that many writers in my own genre write that way. That I really still LOVE that section of my book, and that it's that way for a very real purpose.

No matter what I choose to submit - the first 15 pages or a chapter out of the middle - there will be students there who will tear it apart. Gently, hopefully, but all the same... this is their job. To tell me what works and what doesn't. And I'm guessing that there will be more than one conflicting opinion there. What one person likes, another won't. If this book gets published, it will be like that in the big world too. Some readers will like it. Others won't.

Maybe one of the greatest lessons we can learn as writers is to let that be okay. To know who we are, and what we write. To have found our voice and know it is our very own, not subject to the whims of every comment, every blog posting, every book on writing, every author's writing that we admire.

We should listen to others. We should get critiques with open minds.We should recognize that not every reader will love the way we write. But know who you are as a writer. Embrace your voice, even if not everyone else does.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Rejection Slip

If you've ever submitted your writing somewhere - to an agent, publisher, magazine - you've probably gotten a rejection or two along the way. That's the nature of a business where tens of thousands of people are trying to stake their claim in a very small market.

There's really no way to make that rejection not sting. To have someone say that your work is not what they're looking for, not good enough, not ready, hurts.

But this week Robert Peake, a poet and the new Senior Poetry Editor of the Silk Road Review magazine, found a way to use his experience with rejection himself, and his beautiful command of language, to weave a rejection that just might sting a little less.

You can read the whole post here, but here is the jist of it:

Rejection Slip
I’m sorry for what you lost. A friend. Or your belief in the world as a safe, sane place to live. My stamping a red “rejection” on the blood-specked page you sent to me is hardly the response you deserve. Find someone who sees the poem you will write twenty years from now, on the selfsame topic, that brings us to our knees. Never let that person go. Cling like a barnacle. Cleave also to the belief (which is true) that because you can be hollowed out, as with an ice-cream scooper, by the poems in dogeared volumes on your shelves, that someday, someday, you will have that effect on another. Today it is not this poem. Today it is not me. Though I refer to your piece by its assigned number when delegating to a subeditor the task of contacting you, consider this now my most personal attempt at reaching back. I’m sorry. I live here, too. This place overwhelms my instruments also, pegging the needles of sorrow and beauty on the gauge at the center of my chest. I decided, like you, long ago, to learn the device’s more subtle measures, no matter how often it surged and blew. Keep learning. Note by note. In the future, I will not have to look for you to know you have revised your fate. You will send this message back to me. It will not bring me comfort, even as now I am sure you are not consoled. But maybe this will encourage you to shovel coal into anger’s furnace, and ride upon that heat to a better poem. I do not like this any more than a natural disaster. Yet I must believe that Nature loves us in her way. Go write. Go write some more. Be gorgeous, despite it all.

All I can say is Wow.

Monday, November 8, 2010

MFA Monday: My First Semester Book List

One of my first assignments for grad school is choosing 20 books for the coming six months. At this point, I have little guidance as to what to choose, which I can only guess is because they want students to choose books that most closely relate to what they want to learn and study, and how they write. Or it's a test to see what kind of idiot I am.

The funny thing is that it felt like a test, and because of that, it became an extraordinarily difficult task. Every time I'd start to add books to the list, I'd think, "But I know about this book, which means it has to be pretty mainstream, which means it has to be more commercial fiction, which means probably not as worthy of a writing program, which means the faculty is going to look at this and laugh at me and think I'm a hack. I need books I've never heard of!"

And the conundrum, of course, is how to add books you've never heard of.

In the end, I tried to make a good mix of classic and contemporary, of best-sellers and award winners, and the books I chose all fit into the three challenges I face in my next writing project: multiple first person point of views, multiple story archs, and foreign setting.

So just in case anyone is interested, here's my tentative list I've submitted to the faculty:

Books With Foreign Settings:

1.     Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
2.     Bend in the River (V.S. Naipaul)
3.     Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
4.     Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)
5.     Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
6.     The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
7.     Out of Africa (Isak Dineson)
8.     Dream of a Blue Room (Michelle Richmond)

Unique 1st Person Narrative

9.     The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Mark Haddon)
10.  The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)
11.  The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
12.  Room (Emma Doaghue)

Weaving Multiple Plots and Characters

13.  Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)
14.  Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosney)
15.  Love Walked In (Marisa de los Santos)
16.  Plainsong (Kent Haruf)

One of the above with medical issues as key plot:

17.  Middle Place (Kelly Corrigan)
18.  Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)

Also, I'll add in a couple books on the craft of writing, but I haven't chosen those yet.

I'm so excited about this list! I hope my advisor approves it without me having to tweak it too much.

For now, I'm still plowing through about two books a week by Pacific Univ. faculty members. They are such amazing books. I finished Live Through This, by Debra Gwartney, and it's burrowed into my brain so deep I find myself talking about it constantly, to anyone who will listen. It's her memoir about the years her two teen daughters ran away from home to live on the streets. Harrowing, sad, gut wrenching... a fabulous book.

Right now I'm reading The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall. Another fantastic book. He is a master of writing about sad and desperate people with just a touch of irreverant humor that makes the misery totally bearable, and sometimes laughable.

What's on your reading list?

Friday, November 5, 2010

You Are More

I've spent the last eight months living with this novel I tentatively named PRODIGAL, and it took an appalling amount of time for me to really connect with the main character. When I wrapped up revisions last week, though, I cried writing the last scene, and I realized that somewhere along the way, I'd fallen in love with her. She became real in a way that I was sad when she was sad, and joyful when she triumphed.

She is the kind of character that changes. Those are my favorite to write, and while I knew this is what I was setting out to do, it was an entirely different thing to watch it unfold as it did. She starts out wounded, a victim of childhood abuse and neglect, betrayed by everyone she dares to love or trust, until she runs away to find a new life. In her new life, she makes herself what she wants it to be.

And in writing, I think initially I thought this was her rebirth. She left, and she made a new life for herself. But as the story developed I realized this isn't at all what happened. She left, and this new life was just a cover, a way to ignore the things of the past. She ran away from not only her home, but herself.

And in coming back home, she finds herself again. She grapples with the choices made by others that scarred her, and the choices she made herself that nearly destroyed her. She finds herself with new choices, harder ones, ones that require her to redefine what love is, and what family is, and what home is... and who she is.

This week I heard this song, and it immediately made me think of her. Here are some of the lyrics:

"There's a girl in the corner With tear stains on her eyes
From the places she's wandered And the shame she can't hide

She says, "How did I get here? I'm not who I once was.
And I'm crippled by the fear That I've fallen too far to love"

But don't you know who you are, What's been done for you?
Yeah don't you know who you are?

You are more than the choices that you've made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You've been remade."

Watch the chalkboard. It's incredible. And see if you don't see yourself in there somewhere too.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's November... You Know What That Means...

Yeah. It's National Diabetes Awareness Month and in less than three weeks my first big assignment, including my writing submission, is due to Pacific U.

What? You weren't thinking the same thing??

Okay, I'll admit... It's NaNoWriMo, and I'm not doing this... again. I've thought of it, but somehow November never works out in timing for me to start and write a full novel. Last November, my debut Some Kind of Normal was going through it's final, final checks and getting ready for publication. I spent all my time reading through the book blocks. The November before that I began my querying for that book, and querying was a full-time job that month.

I have legitimate excuses, for sure, but I admit also that I'm secretly pleased I had great reasons not to try to write 50,000 words in a month. For one, I think it just sets me up for failure. I don't write fast. I can't even write badly fast. The words just don't come that fast. I get spurts of great productivity, but they usually come later in the book, when characters are fully entrenched in my head and scenes are unfolding.

Also, no matter what time of year it is, family always comes first. And family tends to get sick in November. And sick kids don't make for great writing days. And Christmas is around the corner, and plans need to be made and executed for that, or I might just go crazy in December. The more I get done this month, the more I can enjoy the holiday season - and make it special for the kids - without stress. (Okay, I'm still working on this one, but I swear one year I'm going to master the no-stress holiday season!)

Finally, writing, I've figured out, has to be a lifestyle. Tayari Jones wrote a great post at SheWrites about NaNo, comparing it to a crash diet. You work like heck to fit into the size smaller dress in a few weeks, but in the end, you end up going back to your bad habits and not being able to maintain it because it wasn't a life-style change. That's what writing is to me: a discipline and a life-style that I choose everyday to do, not 50,000 words in a month but in a few hours a day, consistently, every day, week after week, month after month.

I'm certainly not saying NaNo is bad for everyone. I think it's a fantastic tool to jumpstart projects, and enthusiasm in weary writers, and to build a community of like-minded, like-motivated individuals. It's just not for me.

So are you joining the writing frenzy this month, and why or why not?

While you comment, I'm going to go celebrate National Diabetes Awareness Month by chowing on my kids' Halloween stash.