Tuesday, January 22, 2013

End of an Era: Choosing Happy

I've spent thirty days of my life on this beach in the past two years. I've walked out onto the sand, feeling it give under my feet, waves lapping at the toes of my boots, and feeling utterly grateful to find a life where I never expected it.

I started my MFA program in Seaside, Oregon, and ended it there, although graduation ceremonies closer to Portland in June will formalize it all. But I could walk across that stage in June or not walk, wear the cap and gown or hang at home in jammies, and the degree is still mine. I now have a master's.

I don't even know what that means, other than that now I can tell how awful my writing is. If there is ever a time when the adage "The more you know, the more you don't know," holds true, this is it.

It is, at the same time, awful, and awfully better.

I read 86 books in the last two years - most of which I really loved and would never have otherwise heard of. I wrote over two hundred pages of a novel, put it aside and wrote six short stories, rewriting them until my fingers nearly bled - and probably my advisor's eyes bled. He was too kind to tell me if he winced every time my packets came in, but I suspect.

The thing is, somewhere towards the end, I suddenly got it. Just... a year of slamming my head against the keyboard over these short stories, not getting what seemed to be basic elements, everything on the page looking awkward and clumsy, and suddenly it was if someone took the blindfold off my eyes and I could see what I was doing wrong, and how to do it better. I could see why it wasn't working, why my characters felt like puppets I was moving around rather than real people, why my stories bored me, why the endings never worked. It was the entire cliched light-bulb moment.

I'd like to say it just took a lot of writing, the proverbial practice makes perfect, but I have to give most of the credit to Pete, who gave my work more attention than it deserved, who didn't give up even when I kept making the same mistakes, who doled out words of wisdom when I needed them to keep going, and eventually, praise that felt hard-earned.

So I headed to Seaside with two purposes... to present my thesis in front of the faculty and student body - a 15 minute critical introduction and a reading of one of my stories - and a thesis review with my advisor and three other students who'd also poured over my work.

I was nervous about both, but they went exceptionally well - much much better than I expected - and for the rest of the residency, I felt like I'd taken some euphoric drug.

There was such opportunity to be sad - the ending of this all. Sad is what I do when things end. I'm not a huge fan of change.

But a few of us decided we could be sad, or we could be happy, and that choice was up to us. So we chose happy. Happy to get to spend this time together before going on with our lives. Happy to have finished and have writing we were really proud of. Happy to explore the coast, soak up rare Oregon sun, hang out late at night, drink wine, hover around a bonfire on the beach in below freezing temps, sing at karaoke, dance. We chose happy.

Deliriously happy.

 (These are two of my three closest friends from the first day of the program.)

(This is at Cannon Beach, one free afternoon when we headed over the hill from Seaside to have seafood at the cutest little cafe and wander the beach. )

(Jeanne and Beth and I, the last night... choosing happy over tears. The motto was No Tears Until After Dinner, but we didn't even cry later. How can you cry when these people who I didn't know two years ago are now such a big part of my life? And distance now is such a little thing...)

(Me and Katie at Karaoke... she brought Gangnam style glasses for the entire crew that were a huge hit. Every time I see Katie, it's like no time ever passed. We will be texting each other for many years to come.)

It was below freezing on the beach, and if you stood too far from the fire, you froze. An inch closer and you actually felt your legs had burst into flames. It was awesome!

(Pete and Jack at the bonfire. Pete was my advisor for two semesters - practically a saint for that - and Jack workshopped with me for two residencies. These are some of my favorite guys!)

(Pete and I at the graduation dinner.)

So I'm done. What next?

I don't know. I'm taking it day by day. The first few days home I just caught up on laundry and groceries and cleaning from being gone. I spent the weekend with the kids, watching movies and playing Wii and talking. I read a book just for fun. I didn't worry about deadlines. I wasn't stressed. I just... lived. 

Today starts a new plan. I thought I was going to work on a novel again. During residency I was sure I would go back to Prodigal and do it right. But when I opened the computer, it still feels awfully muddied. Another novel - an old idea I fiddled with during my writing block phase a few years back - started brewing. But yesterday I had a short story pulling at me. Short stories are short term commitments. It might be fun to work on one just to get back into writing for me. It might be fun to look at magazines to submit to before diving back into novels and agents and the publishing industry. 

So. I don't know. And I'm okay with that right now. I'm feeling my way, but going forward. I'm sort of excited just to play around with all the tools I've gathered over the past years, see if what I learned stuck. 

I know why they call graduation commencement. One era may have ended, but the rest of life and this writing journey is just beginning.


  1. What a fabulous and inspirational journey. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Paige! It has been completely fabulous!

  2. Great post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I love all the photos. So many smiles.

    "Just... a year of slamming my head against the keyboard over these short stories, not getting what seemed to be basic elements, everything on the page looking awkward and clumsy, and suddenly it was if someone took the blindfold off my eyes and I could see what I was doing wrong, and how to do it better."

    I had this with my computer science degree. I was far behind everybody when I first got to college because I had almost no experience programming. It took me a couple years of scraping by and then poof, I just got it. Man, I love that feeling.

    Anyway, lovely post.

    Paul (paulliadis.com\blog)

    1. Paul - Isn't that the most amazing feeling? Better even than having gotten it to begin with! There's nothing like earning the knowledge. :)

  3. You weren't alone, Heidi. And won't be. I thought I'd share a bit of what I wrote in my Residency Review, since I suspect you'll identify.

    "For much of the residency, I’ve found myself on the verge of tears at surprising moments. This is not typical behavior. I am not a person who cries often or easily. Yet a sneaker wave of raw, unformed emotion sweeps over me several times a day, always taking me by surprise, and threatens to pull me under.

    It wasn’t until the very last craft talk, Pam Houston’s, that I understood why this was happening and what it was all about.

    "The Pacific residency is not just – or even primarily – focused on the “how” of writing. Yes, the faculty and our fellow students do want us to come out better writers, and if you simply looked at the surface of what we spend our days doing, you might think that was the bulk of what we have been working on. But it doesn’t take much insight to realize that just beneath that talk about the “how” of writing is a passionate, urgent effort on the part of the faculty to get at the “why” of writing. To grapple with hard questions: what does writing mean? Why do we do it? What is it that goes into great writing that distinguishes it from merely good writing (hint: it has nothing to do with style, and everything to do with heart and compassion, insight and a yearning to understand).

    "Over and over, throughout the ten days, the faculty demonstrate a fierce longing to share a love for writing and writers with the students. I firmly believe that all of them, without exception, would reach toward the students and shake us, plead with us, beg us on bended knee to unshackle ourselves and fly. To let our own love for writing shine forth, unimpeded, and to take joy in it. To have courage and faith, not just in our writing but in ourselves, because the two cannot be separated."

    Have courage, Heidi. And have faith. You are hard on yourself - too hard. You're not just a great writer, you're also a great person, and you will do well out there in the big, big world.

  4. Congratulations to you! What an incredible journey you've been on, and I can imagine how it has changed you in so many ways. Listen to your heart on what to work on next - it will show you. And I love the motto: Choose happy. Indeed! =D

    1. Melissa - I couldn't imagine what these past two years would bring, and you're right... it hasn't just changed my writing, it's changed me. I am so blessed!

  5. What a way cool, amazing experience. I can't believe you started that TWO YEARS AGO!

    1. Like the blink of an eye. :) And also... I hardly remember when I didn't know these people, travel each winter to that beach. Time is a funny thing. :)

  6. Indeed, like the blink of an eye. I find short stories more palatable to write because of the short term commitment. Writing is so much more than technique. It is about spirit and passion. I agree with Rilke, who wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, that, above all, we must write for ourselves, and because we cannot live without it.

    Way to go on finishing!!

    1. What a great (and true!) statement! I think if there's no passion, if we are writing for technique and not because we must to breathe, the reader can tell that.

      I like the short term commitment in short stories, but I also like knowing for the long haul who I get to spend time with. Those short story characters come and go too fast! :)

  7. Congratulations, Heidi! You did it! Incredible shot at the top of your post, by the way!

    I'm looking forward to reading your intro--I've placed it right on top of my reading pile. (I'm just finishing reading my Writer's Digest, then you're next.) I'm so pathetically methodical! ;o)

    1. Ha!! No pressure to read. You asked, I sent. It's very school related, so maybe not much to be interested in. And maybe a lot of what you already know from reading the blog already. :)