Showing posts with label MFA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MFA. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Touch It Every Day"

If there's anything an MFA student likes more than a glass full of alcohol, it's a lecture full of double entendres. This little gem was doled out in my second year, when I was in the throws of learning short stories and panicking over my thesis. The admonition, of course, was that we needed to be in our work at least a little every day. But this was school; there wasn't a minute I didn't feel like I wasn't "touching it."

Fast forward to this past year, when I've taken on a new job, gone full-throttle into a new direction that has left much less time for writing than my glorious past years. I plow through the novel; I put it down. I tinker with some shorts; I put them down. I go through long droughts where I am tutoring long hours of the day and running my kids around the other waking hours, and I never even open my word processor.

The problem with this is more insidious than just not getting words on the page every day. The problem is I lose interest in my story. I feel far away from it, and the farther I feel, the harder it is to pick it up. I stop thinking about it when I'm not working on it, which means that when I do pick it up, I don't know where I'm going and I spend more time staring at the computer rather than actually writing.

Characters in a book are not that different than real people in your life. The less time you spend with them, the less you know them.

So the past few weeks I've made a vow to "touch it every day." Even if that means just opening it to see what I did yesterday. To read one section that's been bugging me. To add a scene, or just a few words of description. To change a line of dialogue. To cut a few words out.

When I'm tired and worn out and brain dead, I remind myself I don't have to engage in a full-on relationship with the manuscript. I just have to touch it.

And it works.

Now, when I'm not writing, I'm thinking more about it. I'm finding that when I open the manuscript up, I have more to say. I know the characters a little more intimately. I know what is missing, what they'd say in a situation. I've been thinking about the scenes, about what is missing, about where to go.

I know some of you are writing machines, but others are in the same boat as I am... floating a little between the full-on writer life and writing as we can between the other pressing things in life.

Here's my encouragement to you who are floating... touch it. Just a little. Every day. It works.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Way It Feels to Walk

That's my smiling mug. Cap and hood and crazy-armed gown. Officially done.

I'm so glad I made it to the official graduating ceremonies. At the end of January, my thesis done, my diploma in the mail, I felt like the program was over. I'd done everything I needed to do. But the last six months have felt a bit aimless, and I think part of me was worried I'd have trouble separating from college life, the way I did when I "graduated" undergrad but never walked across the stage.

But arriving on campus for the last days of residency with the other flood of January grads, and I felt like I was done. There's a sense of completion I needed here, to know I don't belong on that campus anymore, at least as a student.

I also loved the invigorating feeling about being around writers still excited about writing, about that community that is so alive it is like a visceral buzz that resonates through my whole body. I sat through a few craft talks and readings, and I suddenly wanted to write again. Better yet, I was suddenly able to throw off all those voices in my head and just write. Just me. My own voice again. Only better. The voice that is purely me, but all the great things I learned somehow seamlessly incorporated. If I was wandering, I have found my road again.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life after an MFA

This week I climb on a plane and head to Oregon for the last time. Even though I officially finished in January, my thesis presentation over and my diploma in the mail, the cap-and-gown hooplah isn't until this weekend.  On Saturday, despite having my Masters for over six months, I will finally walk across the stage.

It's a strange place to be in in my life, this place between finishing and graduating. I will walk across the stage and get my hood along with all my other January cohort, but also with those who have spent the last few days giving their presentations, just now finishing. They are excited and on the thesis euphoria, the way I was in what seems like so long ago. I, on the other hand, have long ago come down off that mountain high.

A few months ago a prospective student emailed me, asking about the program at Pacific, about the teaching and the students, and, finally the money question: "What do people from Pacific do when they graduate?"

I told her the truth: Anything they want to do. Everything, really. Some go on to write novels and travel on book tours. Some go on to work on literary magazines. Some actually start their own lit mags. Some publish stories and poems, some go on to get PhDs, and some go back to their jobs as computer programmers and teachers and retail clerks.

I don't know what I thought I would do. Slip back into my pre-school life, I suppose. Go back to writing the way I had been before. Finish the novel. Submit some of the stories from my thesis. Blog more, catch up on publishing news. Just... the same stuff.

Instead, I slid back a decade, to those years before blogging and writing, when life was consumed by being a mother and wondering how we'd make ends meet. I did laundry by the ton, scoured the bathrooms, cleaned the floors, filled the pantry with food, cooked new recipes, went on field trips with my fourth grader, watched TV and made crafts with the kids, took them on hikes through our county parks, explored our woods, took the dog to the river every day to swim. I fill my days with full-time motherhood.

And a few hours a day I pour over employment options. The kind that comes with a paycheck. With student loans looming and the government sequestration and cuts affecting our family, I need an income a little better than the floundering writing world provides.

It is, in equal parts, invigorating and soul-sucking.

I am exhausted by not writing, by the lack of sense of purpose that comes from putting words on a page. It breaks my heart to not be able to write: to stare at the page and wonder if the story in my head will be worthy of the education, will do justice to my advisors, will provide an income. To have those worries and stresses freeze the words before I can put them on the page.  It breaks my heart to worry that time spent writing is time wasted, time I should spend doing something more practical.

I miss most the community. I'm afraid that if I say, "I'm not going to write now. Now I'm going to tutor college students and edit other people's novels," that I am letting down a host of people who believed I could write. I worry what I will do with this blog. I worry about how I will tell everyone who knows me as a writer, who views me through that lens that says, "She is part of my writing circle." If I have spent not just the past two years but the past seven years of my life identifying as a writer, will people know I am still the same person if I don't focus on writing now?

A friend was joking with me about the coming graduation speech. "I hope," she said, "they do not go on and on again about how important and in demand a degree in humanities is. I hate the way they always say CEOs have realized people with good communications skills are more valuable than any other degree." She's right. Maybe companies with good paying jobs do want someone who can communicate well, but they still want that business degree, or math, or engineering, or graphic design, or heck, even a degree in library sciences. I have yet to see a job description pleading for someone who can pen a novel.

One of my advisors warned about the post-MFA funk. I laughed at him. I said, "Why would there be a funk? I still am reading and writing. I am still in constant contact with my friends from Pacific. I still get to email you. All I'm missing now is the stress of deadlines."

But it's not the same. And he knew that. And while maybe not everyone goes through this, not everyone who graduates finds themselves adrift in a sea of indecision and lostness, I, despite my best intentions, find myself lost and without direction.

And somehow, this is okay.

I am redefining my life, and that's always okay. I will always be a writer, but that itself isn't what defines me. I am a mom. A wife. A child of God. This is what more defines me than anything else. Where writing fits in is maybe still left to be seen.

And while some might wonder if a writing degree then was worth the money, I still say yes. A resounding, reverberating, screaming yes. Because this two years was more than just writing. It fundamentally changed who I am, who I know I can be. It gave me experiences and friendships I could never have otherwise had. These things are priceless. 

So this week I will graduate. I will fly to Oregon, I will hug my friends. I will don the cap and gown, walk across the stage in heels I bought eight months ago just for this event. I will bend at the knees so they can put the hood over my head. I will get pictures of me in the trappings of graduation. I will toast with champagne. I will know that I most certainly will write in the future, but maybe not in the ways I thought I would. Or maybe in the ways I hoped. I will know that who I am is much more important than what I do, and this two years has helped make me who I am.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Little Conflict is Good

I  had an eighth grader write me last week and ask, "What is it publishers are looking for when you want to get published?" 

How can you narrow this down? They want good grammar and clean punctuation. They want correct spelling and Times New Roman and double spacing. They want a lack of -ly adverbs and purple prose. They want crisp dialogue. They want characters they don't mind hanging out with for a few hours. They want something they've never seen before. They want something that will sell.

All of this, of course. But maybe more than anything, I think they want conflict. They want something to happen.

"Ask yourself this," I wrote her back. "What is it your character really wants, more than anything? What is keeping him or her from getting that? What does he or she do to overcome those obstacles? If you can answer those questions, and your reader can, too, you've got yourself the start of a good story."

One thing that used to drive my last advisor up the wall was the way I ducked out of conflicts. Every time some big problem would bubble up between characters, one would leave the room. An argument would break out, they'd leave. A crisis would arise, they'd rush away from it.

"Stop it!" He told me more than once. "This is where it's just starting to get good!"

It was hard for me to write through those scenes, keep a character in the place where the heat was high, because I don't know how to do that myself. I am the one who ducks out of conflict. I avoid confrontations. I deflect conversations that start to get hot.

Over the past weeks my husband and I have been trying to figure out what to do about my graduation. I chose to go to a school all the way across the country. I chose to begin and end that school in January, meaning I finished up my thesis six full months before graduation ceremonies.

The plan was for our whole family to go out for graduation. This was the plan when I started - has always been the plan. I wanted my kids to see the reward for the last two years we ALL have sacrificed for. I wanted the family picture to hang on the wall. Graduation - the whole cap and gown and hooding and pomp and circumstance - is utterly important to me. I missed my college graduation when I got a job and moved cross country. I was not going to miss this one.

But finances are tight, and five airline tickets and hotel rooms are not cheap. In the last few months we decided the kids wouldn't go. It would be just me and the husband. Until we started crunching numbers for that.

He keeps bringing up the topic. Do I need to go? Does he need to go? As important as it is, is it worth the thousands of dollars it might cost to fly out and stay for a few days for a simple 30-minute ceremony and dinner after? When we begin to get down and dirty about the details, there is always something else for me to do rather than hash it out. The dog needs walking. The kids need putting to bed. I need to get dinner going, or the dishes done, or a phone call made. We can recheck airline prices tomorrow; they might go down. I'll call around for cheaper hotels tomorrow.

I don't want to answer this, because the answer is yes. It is that important to me. And how can I say it is important enough to spend money we don't have?

And the answer is also, I don't know. Because many of my friends won't be there, having already graduated last June, or having new jobs now that won't allow the time off. What if not even my husband is there; is it still worth walking across the stage? What if we spend the money only for me to feel more lonely being there than not being there?

Last night, we sat down, the dog out and the kids in bed, the dishes done. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the way I now make my characters stay in theirs. Talk it out. Address the problems.

I wish I could say we came to a good solution, but this story isn't finished yet. We came to the decision that we had a little more time before needing to make the decision. I'll hunt down more information. We'll crunch numbers some more. We'll go through this all again.

What I've learned is that conflict may make a story more interesting, but I'd take some easy answers in my life a little more often. And I'm okay with happy endings.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Matter of Trust

Why is it so hard to trust our instincts in writing? Is it because we secretly believe there is some trick, some fool-proof method to writing that, if only we were privy to it would lead to our certain success, but without it we are doomed?

I question everything. My words, my sentences, my plots, my characters. I find myself wanting to thrust my chapters in others' hands and ask, "Is this okay? Does this work?"

It's been nearly six years since my critique group formed. For a long time we exchanged work every time we finished a chapter. Chapter by chapter, page by page, I worked off feedback. I think really I just needed to hear every few pages someone say, "This is going great!" so I had the confidence to keep moving forward. Because, inevitably, even with all the critiques and comments and correction, that was what my group almost always ends an email with.

Then I went to school and worked with Pete as an advisor and everything was always NOT working. I'd think I'd have something down, I'd send him the 20 pages or so, and he'd email back his extensive comments which I'd always interpret as something along the lines of, "See all that stuff you thought you were doing? It isn't working."

And he was always right.

If I'd left that way, I guess I'd have reason to question my ability to write, but I didn't. By the end, Pete told me I was ready to strike out on my own. That I had the tools and ability I needed to write well. He tried to say I could trust myself on my own.

I didn't believe him.

I've been leaning on people so long, depending on others to tell me what works in my writing and what doesn't, that I've paralyzed myself.

I realized that this weekend when I was re-working the opening chapters of my old novel. After two years of working on that thing, and a year in a drawer, it felt stale and old and tired. I love the idea of it. I love the characters. But the writing just wasn't me anymore, so I began with a blank document. And what ended up on the page was first person present tense.


I'd written this in third person past before, kept it that way, for a very specific reason. This book was too personal - too close. There are some nasty things that happen to the character, awful things she sees, and I, as the author, needed distance. I needed to not be in those dark places with her.

But now - I can see the piece is better for being in her words rather than mine. Seeing it through her eyes makes it more powerful.

But as the words spilled out, all I could think was how first person present is the kiss of death for writing. How many contests I've seen that complain about the over-use of it. How some agents have said flat out they hate it, won't look at queries for stories written that way. And the flood of doubts came back.

I thought about emailing my critique group. But I knew what they'd say: "Go for it!" They are adventurous and supportive that way. And they implicitly trust that I can pull off anything.

I thought about emailing Pete, but that felt weak. Like returning to an old crutch. I googled the topic, found out there are a huge amount of great books out there, including Hunger Games, are written that way. I'd totally not noticed that was in first person present.

I thought about emailing Pete again. Pete is brutally honest, and I knew if he thought it was a bad idea, he'd say, "Stay away from that," the way he's told me to stay away from writing about dead babies for a while. And if he said, "Go ahead, be bold and try the scary way," I'd trust him that it was okay.

I am pathetic.

The only thing that saves me from being the most insecure writer in the world is that I didn't actually email anyone. I finally said to myself, "Heidi, you are pathetic. You've been writing your whole life. You went to graduate school for two years. You have a pack of people behind you that you KNOW would say you can do this. You know that many, many books get published and are wildly successful in first person present. You are not doing it because it's a trend or because it's easy; you are doing it because it's what the story needs, despite all your insistence otherwise. You need to stop asking everyone's opinions and just trust yourself. Just write."

This isn't to say I won't have other eyes look at it when I'm done. I'd be a fool not to have my critique group read it. But I realized this weekend I need to stop expecting someone to hold my hand through the process, encourage me along the way. I need to just do it. Trust that I've gained enough experience and wise advice along the way to just write.

Am I the only one? Do you have others read what you write as you write, or do you save it all up until you're done?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Recuperating - Book Style

I had surgery two weeks ago. Nothing major and I'm just fine, but my orders were to spend a good amount of time on the couch recuping. I laughed, because, as a writer, that's pretty much what I do all day anyway. Me and my laptop, recuping for the last five years. :)

I had great expectations for these weeks. Mandatory time on my bum, no laundry, no cooking, no running errands or carpooling kids. It was like a prescription for productivity! I was going to come home and write up a storm.

Only it hasn't worked out that way. At first, I blamed it on the anesthesia and pain meds still floating around. Foggy brain. The first few days I slept, and then graduated into reading, and then, as my head cleared, opened the computer.


Still foggy.

So I blogged a little. And read. And when my brain cleared all up and I stopped being tired all the time and my fingers were ready for typing... I still couldn't write. There's stuff in my brain, but it's like a jumbled mess of puzzle pieces. Too much work to put together.

So I read some more.

I've read a lot.

And I've decided I'm not really recuping from surgery. I'm recuping from school.

Some people call it a post-MFA funk. But I don't feel funk-ish. I'm not depressed about school being over (well, not too much). I'm not fearful I'll never write anything again. I'm not totally sapped of inspiration or ideas or motivation. My brain just needs a bit of recuperating... of filling up what was depleted through the intensity of the past two years.

I've been mostly reading books that didn't fit on my reading list - reading whatever strikes my interest. I read A Stolen Life, about the Jaycee Duggard's kidnapping and life in captivity. I followed that with Escape, the also true story about Carolyn Jessop's time in the FDLS and an abusive polygamist marriage and her escape. Cheery stuff, no? 

I kept in my non-fiction trend and read Devil in the White City, which is a book I bought my first residency at the urging of a friend and never found a place to put it on my reading list. So glad I finally got to it! Fascinating story. I've talked so much about it my family feels like they've read it, too.

As a Penn Stater, I've been eager to read the new biography of Paterno that came out right before my thesis was due, and I spent the later part of last week reading that. I don't know what I was expecting about that book, but I was surprised by it. It may be about a football coach, but I took away a lot of lessons about self-motivation and focusing on what is really important in life and career. I actually read this book with a highlighter in my hand. If I were still in college, I would have written these quotes out and hung them above my bed with my other motivational sayings.

I just finished Thirteen Reason's Why, my first fiction since I got home. I'm thinking maybe I'm just too old now for YA books. I want to like them, but I just don't get why people flock to this book and give it such high ratings. I get that it tackles the popular and sensitive topic of suicide, and to an extent bullying (if that's not too general a term for what the main character goes through), but I think there must be much, much better books out there on this. It's a unique and grabby hook, I'll grant you that: suicidal girl leaves behind tapes naming the people who pushed her over the edge, and what they did that caused her to kill herself. But I didn't like the execution of it, and it was painful to finish. I so wanted it to be better.

I'm now reading Gone Girl. I hear it's fantastic. Or totally awful. Depending on who you are. I've been told I have to get to the last chapters to decide for myself. I kinda hate that... that a book can be great until the end, and then have an end totally blow it for you.

I'm also reading Tenth of December, a new book of short stories by George Saunders, in hopes that my brain mush will regenerate into something more akin to a writer's. I'm thinking it's about time to just force myself to write, even badly, just to get in the habit again.

And no, self, blogging doesn't count anymore. :)

What are you reading?

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

Ben Percy is one of my favorite teachers at Pacific. He gives some of the best craft talks - always focused and organized and intensely practical.

Something he said this January has been meandering around in my brain as I'm starting back at the beginning of my novel. "Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

I guess out of context it doesn't make much sense. :)

He was talking about indelible images - those images and scenes we see so clearly in our heads that we want to transpose into words. The trap with seeing things so clearly in our heads, though, is that not everything we see is that important.

The idea of being specific in writing doesn't mean we need to choke the reader with details. A story should rumble along at a nice clip until you get to the place (or places, in a longer piece) where you need amplification to slow things down, go deeper and grow the tension.

In movie terms, when the camera lingers on a detail, the director is saying, "This is important."

But how often in writing we misdirect out readers! We slow down, we linger at the places and on details that aren't important.

For instance, he said, in a detective story, you don't want to stop and spend two pages on describing the detective sitting in a deli eating his reuben sandwich. Do we need to know how high the meat is piled? Do we need to know the way he wipes the sauce from his cheek? Is it important we know the delicious combination of tangy and savory flavors erupting in his mouth when, two pages later, a Ninja is going to bust through the door?

The Ninja is what's important. And if we give equal weight to the sandwich and the Ninja, we are doing a disservice to what is important. We are leading our readers astray, asking them to focus on the things that don't matter and then leaving them wondering why they just slogged through so much information.

Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninja.

I think we all have our ticks - things we like to linger on and indulge our writerly selves with. For some people it's character descriptions. For others it's setting.

Every time I write now, I think, "Is this important to the story?" Is it important to describe a character to a T - that a character has a bulbous nose and dark hair and feet the size of a clown's? Is it important that the curtains in the kitchen are yellow with tiny daisies embroidered on them that flutter like a ghost when the window is open? Does my reader need to know the contents of the dinner plate?

Not to say specific details aren't important. When you can name something specifically rather than generally, that's always a good idea. ("Cars crammed the lot of the Shop N' Save" rather than "Cars crammed the lot of the grocery store"), but when they aren't crucial to a scene, but we shouldn't linger on them, add so much detail that a reader wonders if this needs to be remembered. It dilutes the power of the images and scenes that are important.

I think this isn't just writing, either. Don't we do this in life? Focus on the things that don't really matter, give them equal weight with the things that do? I worry equally about the cleanliness of my house and the surgery I have scheduled this week. I spend more time on facebook than talking to my friends face to face. I spent more time on this blog post than on my novel today.

Maybe Ben could just have said, "Focus on what's important." But I've heard that all my life, and isn't the Reuben/Ninja example just a bit catchier?

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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

We Come to the End... Almost

“The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.” - Isak Dinesen


I've arrived at Seaside for the last time. The entire trip out was bittersweet.... the last time on the airplane alone. The last time to arrive in Portland. The last check-in at the Rivertides hotel. The last residency packet, which was, without the semester handbook, list of due dates, models for residency reviews and semester study plans, shockingly thin.

There is a huge absence of friends. Friends that have already graduated and friends taking a semester off to pursue other opportunities. It'd be easy to get sad about that. But there were other great things, like seeing the amazing friends that did show up, all of us gathering in the lobby for cocktail hour and sitting around like old dear friends catching up and laughing, our group growing as others trickled in from their own trips over the pass.

I'm both ready to be done, and very not ready. I suppose that's normal.

Yesterday was our first day of classes and I went to all of them, even though I'm not required to anymore. Heck, this is my last chance to soak up every morsel of learning I can, and I'm not about to let that slip away.

I was thrilled that, as I took notes, I was still thinking, "I know exactly where to implement this!" Just like every other residency, I wanted to run out of class, open up a story and revise it. There is never a shortage of things to learn, and just this day reinforced how much I've gotten from this program. Am I a better writer? I'd like to think so, but here among great writers, with so much information still being thrown at me, I see how much I still don't know, how much I still want to learn, how much I still need to write and grow.

Maybe I will never be as good as I want to be. That's a good thing, I guess.

Today I present my thesis to a room full of people. I haven't been nervous, but I woke this morning with a churning stomach. I've gone over my speech so much I am bored by it. I've revised the piece I'm reading so much I can barely stand to rehearse it.

I fear, of course, I'm still not good enough. That I'm not worthy of this place behind the podium, of the degree, to be with all the people here who startle me with their talent.

But here I am anyway. I can hardly believe it. What a journey it's been.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thesis... Done.

This, my friends, is the rather unpretentious, unimpressive first page of the culmination of two years' work. I am unabashedly thrilled.

Yes, the thesis is done. Yes, I can stop using words like "thesis" and "grad school" and get back to normal conversational words. If I can remember them.

Can you believe it's been two years? Me either. On the other hand, I can't remember what it was like not to be in school. Which is what my kids think when I say, "That two years went fast," and they reply, "Was it just two years??"

The last five months writing this thesis have been crazy. Head in laptop, eyes blurred, four-hour-a-night sleep kind of crazy. Non-stop writing and revising and crying and despairing and tiny leaps of hope followed by roller-coaster freefalls of doubt kind of crazy. But here it is... five short stories I've become mightily attached to.

I don't know what will happen from here. We're into the holiday season, so I suspect there will have to be some non-laptop time that involves cleaning and shopping and decorating, but I don't know how to function without a laptop calling me constantly. I keep wandering back to it, opening it, staring as though something important will leap out at me.

I have two novels rolling around in my head that I suspect I'll get knee-deep into before I return to Oregon in January. One is an old one I think I finally have a good direction for, and another is a new one that's more a seed still growing roots in my brain.

I feel both huge relief... and a little lost. Glad to say goodbye to stress of school, but depressed at saying goodbye to the promise of residencies, friends, letters from advisors, and that learning high that makes my brain feel like it's exploding.

Now to figure out what life will be from here on out...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Frankenstorm... less fun than the name implies.

This Monday showed up just as they said it would... rainy, windy, cold. Frankenstorm is moving into Virginia, and even though we're on the southern edge of the worst of it, we're hunkering down for the next few days.

The kids are home, and even the federal government shut down, so the husband is home. Last night was fun - movies and finishing off the ice cream in the freezer and enjoying a late night knowing we could sleep in today.

We're scrambling this morning, though, to do last-minute things in case the power goes out. Showers and coffee and laptops charging. Tubs are filled with water, a few meals ready to throw on the grill, coolers with ice and fridges cleaned out. My stories are printed out in case I have to revise old-school, and my fingers are crossed that I don't have to.

We are either way over-prepared or smart. I tend to downplay events like this, cynical of the weather reporters who clearly love the hype a good storm brings (and the revenue). But I feel better if I'm a little in control, and if nothing comes of this but some wet weather, at least I have dinners for the next three days already done!

This would be great time to curl up with a book!! Unfortunately, I'm still having to curl up with revisions. Boo.

I imagine with the large size of this storm, quite a few of you are under it as well. Thinking and praying for all you in more direct path of this storm. Check in and let us know how you're doing if you can!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Transition

I wrote a blog post earlier today and decided to delete it. It was long. And boring. It was about revising and rewriting and the thesis. Did I mention it was long? And boring?

I've been re-thinking my blog - about what I want it to be. Heidi the Hick posted her 7th anniversary blog post last week and it got me thinking about all the years that have passed here at this blog.

When I started, it was a way for me to connect with other writers, to not be alone in this journey that can be so isolating. It was a great place for us - all of us - to share what we struggle with, what we learn, when we meet success.

There was always a splash of me, too. Adventures in family vacations and experiences with diabetes and the occasional what to do when the pellet stove guy takes all day. But mostly, it's been writing.

I thought when I started grad school I'd be here all the time sharing what I was learning, but it didn't work out that way. Part was time, of course. I ran out of it. But there was a greater part where it felt strange writing about that - as though I were saying "This is the way to write well!" when really, I'm still just stumbling along like everyone else.

Now that I'm winding up school, I feel like a new phase is starting - of my writing, of my career such that it is, of my life. I'm not sure what I want this blog to reflect, but I don't think I want to be a blog for writers specifically. I really want it to be for people. Anyone.

So there may be changes here. Same me. But new format. Maybe a new look. I don't want to give up blogging, but I feel the need to shake it up a little. I hope you that read will still stick with me. :)

Monday, October 1, 2012

I'm Not Impressed... Yet

Two years... read eighty books and write one. That's the tag line of an MFA program, and here I am, on my last book. And... like McKayla, I'm not impressed.

When I first started the program, I had to come up with a reading list, and so I asked all of you. What great books are out there I must absolutely know about and read?

I asked my crit group, and the first book one person suggested was A Prayer for Owen Meany. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that the book ran 642 pages and wrote her back, "Are you trying to kill me??"

But I've had many people since then tell me to read it, rave about it, tell me it's their favorite book ever. And since I've read books like Cutting for Stone, Edgar Sawetelle, and the behemoth doorstop A Soldier of the Great War (weighing in at 727 pages), what's one more long book?

So I started it this week as my last book. And I have to say... I'm not feeling it yet.

Okay - I'm not that far into it. About 50 pages, which isn't that far in a book this size. But something my advisor and this program have tried to pound into me is starting in the action, keeping a story in the action, moving things along and not letting the story linger too long on things not imperative to the plot. And this book is just meandering right now, and full of details that don't at all seem important.

I take it it's a character driven story, and since Owen just killed Johnny's mom with a foul ball, I'm guessing things are about to amp up. But still... there's just not the language I love to stew in or the plot compelling me forward. I'm hoping it will get better. I'm expecting still to find some gem in it.

I wonder if all the ravings about it raised my expectations too high? I've found the books I come to with huge expectations of greatness nearly always let me down, and those I don't know or expect much of are the ones that blow me away.

I'll keep plodding on. Maybe by the end of today I'll have totally and completely fallen in love with it. Maybe it will be one of my favorites, too. I'm hoping.. because 652 pages is a lot to not like.

If you've read this book and loved it, what is it that impressed you?

And why does Owen Meany talk in all capitals??

Tell me, blogging friends, have you been disappointed in books that others have hyped up to you? Do you prefer to come to a book with high expectations or none at all?

***UPDATE: I finished Owen Meany and... I'm still not all that impressed. I admit the ending did make up for some of the earlier aspects I didn't love, and it was a more tightly-knit story than it appeared to be during the first 400 pages. But this is not a book I'll be thinking of years from now and want to pull out and read again, I don't think. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The End of Hiding Out

Almost two years ago to the day I received a call inviting me to join the Pacific University MFA program.

Two years. It's been both a blink of the eye and a lifetime ago. I remember getting the call and thinking life was about to get crazy, change drastically. I remember thinking that two years, 80 books read, a book written, five residencies seemed like an eternity away.

And here it is. Almost done. I've only one book left to read. In six week, my thesis will be signed off on and off to the binders. I will have plane tickets to my last residency, where I'll walk through the Portland Airport one last time, check into the hotel by the ocean one last time, see my amazing friends and writers and faculty members one last time.

It all makes me feel sad and panicky inside - like something truly fantastic is coming to an end.

What will life be like after?

I realized this week that I've used this program in exactly the way I intended to - as an escape from the publishing world for a little while. Funny, you'd think a writing program would put you more in the publishing world. For some, it has. For some who have only written as a hobby, it has opened their eyes to things they knew little about before: query letters and agents and submissions and publishing stats.

For me, I knew all of that. Been burned out by it. Tired by it. Frustrated by it. Disillusioned. There is, at the beginning of a writing career, a dream. Reality is, as it always is, harsher. Still great, but great in different ways than you expect, and not as great in ways you never saw coming.

I needed to get out of that. Needed to stop thinking about publishing and statistics and competition so much and think again about writing.  In a really tough time in my life, I needed to remember why I do this, and give myself a jump start into a new phase.

So I hid out in the program, and poured myself into writing... just writing. Falling in love with writing again. With stories and characters and ideas and the feel of the words on the page. It was hard. Sometimes I didn't love it as much as I thought I should. Growth is like that. Growing pains are... well... painful.

But I've realized lately, especially as I think of this coming to an end, that I love writing like breathing. It has become every fiber of me. It is what I most want to be doing. When I'm not doing it, I wish I was. When I hate it, I still love it. When I am struggling to get it right, it's because I love it so much that I struggle.

Each story I send to my advisor I say, "I really want to get this one right. This one's important to me." And I expect him to write back and say, "You say that about all of them." But he doesn't, and I suspect that's because he feels that too - that every story is important to get right. Every story hits close to home in some way. Every character is part of your heart in some way and deserves a story worthy of them.

And now... now the end is just about here. And it's time to leave the cocoon I've made for myself. Time to get back into reading blogs and articles about publishing and find out what's going on in the world again. It is an entirely different publishing world than I knew two years ago. Big publishers are less in favor, ebooks are sky-rocketing, self-publishing is much more acceptable a path to take, and authors seem to be grabbing control of their destiny more than ever. It boggles my mind. There is so much new to learn - more decisions to make in terms of what I want to do with my writing.

So on that note, dear bloggers, tell me what I've missed. What blogs should I be reading? What news should I know? What are YOU thinking of this evolving world of publishing?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Burnings, Technology, and Paying to Write


1. From our first long car trip, I've been packing books on "tape" for my kids. Yes, that's how long it's been. We started with tapes. Arthur the Aardvark, Magic Treehouse. They love them, and since I get carsick reading, it's a great way to pass the time and still get reading in.

This month, before heading out on 23 hour trip to the Keys, we stopped by the library and picked up a few books on CD - ones that were more grown up for my more grown-up kids, and ones I hoped I could also count towards my reading list for school. A double bonus!!

So we nabbed The Adventures of Huck Finn and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, classics that are both literary and kid friendly. (Well, Huck had some dialectical and time-driven language that made for interesting conversations...). But it turned out, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde had seen better days, and the CD was unplayable. So the return trip home had NO BOOKS!! Oh no!!!

Enter... technology. I have a phone. I have a library card. My library now has an electronic resource center. In a matter of minutes, I'd found a book and downloaded it onto my phone and played it over the speakers in the car.


The book... Fahrenheit 451. A classic I actually own but have never read. And one which, later, I was thankful my kids decided to not to listen to and instead put their own headphones on and read their own books, because they don't get carsick reading, and were currently engaged with Harry Potter (my youngest), Hunger Games (my middle), and John Grisham (my oldest).

So it was just the hubby and I who got to listen to Fahrenheit 451. And we both were totally taken in.

2. Have you read this book? It is FREAKY!! EERILY relevant. Crazy, absurd relevant. I felt the same I'd felt when I'd read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and realized Jules Verne wrote about submarines before there were submarines. Except this wasn't about machinery so much as society.

I've always thought of this book as "the book burning" book. That's what it's about, right? Book burning and censorship? But no. It's really not. In fact, as we listened to the afterward, Bradbury says that's not what it's about at all. It's about technology and media and how people want to be entertained and have no attention span, and how they get their news and knowledge from headlines and sound bites and pieces of information taken out of context and without context.

The characters walk around with earbuds in their ears, listening to radio and music all the time. They sit in their living rooms and watch wall-size TVs in which there is a false sense of interaction with the outside world. They only tune in to the things that please them, the things they agree with. They eliminate that which makes them uncomfortable or that which they don't fully understand.

Holy heck... this was written in 1953!!!! Blew my mind!!

If you haven't read this, you should. It is a book lover's book. A writer's book. If you want to fall in love again with the power of books, the power of the written word, with authors and imagination and knowledge, with what books leave to the world, read this book.

3. At the end, there's an afterward in which Ray Bradbury writes about the process of writing this book. This is essentially what he said:

I was a dad of two little kids. I had no place to write where they couldn't find me and bug me. I tried the house. I tried the garage. They still found me, pounding on the windows, begging me to play. I got nothing done.

So I discovered one day the library at UCLA had typewriters in the basement. For a dime, you could use the typewriter for 30 minutes. So I'd put my dime in the slot, and type like mad for 30 minutes. Then I'd take a break, and walk around the library, running my fingers over the spines of the books and drinking them in, and then I'd go back and put another dime in. 

(If you read the book, you'll see how the fact that he's in a library influences the story.)

It took $9.80 cents to write the first copy of that book.

I wonder, if we had to pay to sit at our computers, if every word cost us to write, would we be more efficient? Would we be producing more stories? Would we be more focused?

Just a thought.

So that was what I got out of Fahrenheit 451. Out of the vacation, I got some time away, a tan, a few pounds (courtesy of Key Lime pie), a new insulin pump, and a shaking away of the cobwebs.

Time to hit the keyboard again, and see if I can make it worth my dime.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Light at the End of the Tunnel Might Not Actually Be a Train

Wow! Where did the last month go? I am constantly shocked at how long I go between posts these days. It seems like I put my head into a story and when I look up my kids have grown a foot, the pantry is empty, and I've neglected the blog!

Today I have a story to tell you.

Once upon a time, I was at my first MFA residency. I was crazy-excited. I was high on everything. The people, the classes, the ocean, the workshops. I had in front of me two years to do nothing but read and write -  to read great books and write my novel, with the help and guidance from some brilliant authors.

One of the first nights I met a graduating student. As soon as I found out she was graduating, I got all teary. "Aren't you so sad?" I asked. I couldn't imagine why anyone would not be sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of leaving the program. This was my dream. Even at the start, I knew it could never be long enough.

Her answer: "No. I'm ready."

What???? How could that be? I would NEVER feel that way, I knew. Come my graduation, I would be the one sobbing and feeling as though with the end of the program came the end of the most perfect era of my life ever.

(Seriously. Have you seen my pictures of the wineries? The bonfires? The ocean-view workshop room? Have you read my updates on staying up all night drinking wine and diagramming sentences and discussing the Oxford comma and great literature? If that is not some sort of literary heaven I don't know what is.)

Fast forward to this semester. I now understand.

I realized today, trying to juggle my son's marching band schedule, two girls spewing craft supplies all over a house I was trying to clean for a guest tonight, sitting in a doctor's office hearing that something I worried about is indeed worth worrying about, getting my blood drawn, making appointments for radiology, stopping by one store to by snorkel gear for our trip to Florida and stopping by another to buy a birthday gift, making breakfast, then lunch, then dinner early for my son and the later for my daughters and even later for my husband, and eating my own dinner at nine o'clock on the way to pick up my son across town, all the while trying to figure out how to finish a story due the day after our planned vacation without me spending a week at the beach in my hotel room with a computer... I realized I wished I were a 50s housewife who could spend the day just cleaning and cooking and taking care of the kids.

When did it all become so stressful? I sometimes think life in the MFA must be no different than it was before. I read, I write. That's what I did before. How is this so different?

I know I wasn't this stressed before, though. If I needed to drop writing for a week to just be a mom, I could. Whatever I wanted to write, I could. Without the thought that I was writing something a very specific person with a very specific style would read, and critique. I wrote for myself, and now, to some degree, I am writing to please someone else.

That is the kicker. Trying to please someone else. Everything I write I end up viewing through my advisor's eyes, and then trashing it and starting over. Merging my voice with his advice... it's killing me.

There are people in this program who work full time outside the home. How they do this I have no idea. I'm in awe of them.

I love writing. I do. I love this program. I am so incredibly lucky that I get to do this.

But I am tired.

And every now and then I think, I'd like to be a full-time mom and wife again. Have a clean house, an organized schedule, cook good meals that take more than 10 minutes thought and 20 minutes throwing together. I'd like to give my full attention when someone is talking. I'd like to sit down and do crafts with my kids, teach my youngest how to knit, my oldest girl how to sew. Bake with them. Make bracelets with them. Play games with my son. Heck, I'd like to just keep them in underwear that fits. And maybe not make them go hunting for the clean ones in the dryer. A girl can dream, right?

Our family mantra right now is "In five months!" The kids are looking forward to that day. My husband is looking forward to that day. And honestly, sometimes, even I am looking forward to that day.

But before I get there... six more stories to write and rewrite and rewrite and revise and revise again, and then polish.

I'm sure there will still be sobbing, though. It is, after all, still me we're talking about.

Monday, July 9, 2012

MFA Monday: I'm Back and My Head Didn't Explode!

My fourth residency is over, and I didn't blog a single day. I don't know why every time I go, I think I'll find the time. Time is something there is not a lot of at residency!

I admit my third residency back in January was a bit rough. I can't explain why, and it wasn't that I didn't learn a lot, or have great time with friends. It hardly rained at all - a miracle for Seaside! We even had a bonfire on the beach! But it was hard. Made me rethink writing, and my abilities, and the decision to shell out money for a degree I might not be very good at.

Last semester, though, I buried my head and worked my tail off. Harder than I've ever worked before on writing. Not just longer hours, although that too, but I worked harder to get it right. To learn and absorb more about writing, to implement it, to craft a story well and then hone it. Characters, setting, pacing, dialogue, abstracts, tension, conflict, revision, word choice, ideas... I tried to take it all on. Not all with success, but I can say I've never grown more, faster. Painful, but worth it.

(If I could draw what my brain felt like in May, it would look like this. Only less blue. And I wouldn't have the mischievous smile on my face.)

BUT: I didn't end my semester feeling great about everything. I produced a lot of less-than-stellar short stories. I made the mistake of working to please my advisor, of secretly harboring hopes that he would send my work back with the MFA equivalent of an A++ and say I'd managed to master it all. This, even as I knew I'd picked him specifically because I didn't want that, because he is tough and demanding, because I wanted to grow more than I wanted my ego massaged. There were a few weeks I felt like giving it all up - that I'd never make it.

But I came out of that hole in time for residency #4, mainly because my friends there ramped up the excitement shortly before we went, and in the end, I'm really just a hopeless optimist.

And this time around, it was amazing again.

I got more out of the classes. I made time to get coffee every morning and sit in the library and write some. I wrote every day. This is the first residency I've ever done that, and I loved it.

(This is the library at Pacific. Isn't it amazing?? I sat by that big window, behind the stained glass, in big comfy chairs with my feet propped up on coffee tables. I wrote 30 - 60 minutes a day here.)

I was sitting in classes three to four hours a day, in workshop an hour and a half, in faculty readings about an hour and a half, and graduate presentations about an hour a day. 

I roomed with some of my favorite writers in the whole world. (Aren't they beautiful? Every time I think about not seeing these people every six months I cry.)

We had a little apartment and stayed up late drinking wine and diagramming sentences and talking about commas and watching My Drunk Kitchen. Only writers could dub this a perfect night.

We did our share of socializing, too. We weren't entirely geekish. We went out to parties in the dorms next door and talked about commas with whole rooms crammed with drinking people. Because, while on the whole there are a lot of near-alcoholic writers, they all STILL care about commas.

We went to wineries...

...where there was a nearly unlimited amount of wine and blackberries.

And other stuff. But who cared about anything except the blackberries? Not me!

We toasted. A lot.

We ate and drank and laughed and talked. A lot.

We listened to Ann Hood read a piece she'd written in honor of her daughter who died, and we all cried. We listened to Craig Lesley read from his memoir Burning Fences and we all laughed so hard we cried.

We left. Our work here was done.

(Wait! Is that a blackberry on the table?? Someone should eat that!)

I went out to eat at a bunch of great places I don't have pictures of. :(

The first day I went to a place called "1500 Subs" and they only had 15 subs. What a rip off!! (Okay - it actually was a good sub sandwich, and I laughed so hard with Katie while eating it, I didn't care how many were on the menu. Also, I got massive blisters walking there in sandals and spent the rest of the night walking the campus barefoot.)

I also ate Tai food (with one of my past advisors), Middle Eastern food (a special going away dinner with my roomies), Pub food (to celebrate/cry over graduation with my graduating friends), and pizza at my favorite joint - Pizza Schmizza - with two of my favorite newer friends.

(Some of my favorite graduates. Don't get me started. I'm crying just thinking that they won't be back.)

(And some of my favorite "sophomores" and Pizza Schmizza fanatics. Stolen from my friend Katie, because her picture was better than mine.)

I had a fantastic workshop group, with the best leaders and best readers, and I walked away feeling like I actually could write - and knowing how to do it better. I wish I'd taken a picture of that group of people. It was my last workshop ever at Pacific, and it was a heck of a way to go out.

There was EPIC karaoke, in which we stayed up WAY WAY WAY too late and sang a lot and had a blast. 

There was, like always, major stress around advisor pairings. There's no guarantee that who you want as an advisor for a semester will be the one you'll get, and while it always feels huge and critical, it's nothing like THE LAST ONE... the advisor you get for thesis seems so important. Well, it IS important. And rumor was that this was the most difficult pairing ever - that a huge amount of students wanted the same few advisors, and we all sweated a little over it.

But in the end, everyone I know got who they wanted, even me.

So those two good-looking and talented men are my workshop leader (Jack) and my thesis semester advisor (Pete) (again). Seriously, I could not have gotten any more fortunate than to work with them.

So after the pairing there was a lit magazine party that went long long long into the night in which everyone celebrated on an outdoor patio lit by candles and scattered with wine and chocolate truffles. It's a rough life.

And after that, everything was downhill until graduation.

Ah, graduation. Where a million tears were shed. Mostly by me.

So many of my friends there in cap and gown, on to bigger things in life. Hard to believe next year that will be me!

And what does one do after graduation, you might ask?


(and get each others' text number to stay in touch!)

And pretend like this is not the last time things will ever be like this.



It appears there was much wine, eating, and partying.

There was. But also, a TON of learning. But I can't put everything in one blog post now, can I? :)

For now, I am home, with five months to gather my writing wits and produce enough quality work to bind into a leather-bound-by-monks thesis. I am loving writing again. I am missing my friends like crazy.

And with a little luck, I'll be back on this blog later to tell you more. :)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Residency #4: Here I Come

Less than 19 hours until I leave for my fourth residency.

Fourth. How did that happen?? How have I already completed three entire semesters?

I thought I would get better at this. The first time - ya know - I didn't know anything. And I'd broken my foot and gotten the flu and hosted Christmas for 14 people. So of course I was running like a crazy person (only metaphorically running, not running, literally, because of the foot thing).

I feel like an old geezer, walking around with a cane and my wobbly old voice saying, "I remember when I was just a young whipper snapper getting ready for my first residency, having no idea what to expect and scared and excited and wondering what I'd gotten myself into." (This is much better if you actually hear this in your head with an old, high, wobbly voice.)

And now. Now.

I am STILL frantically trying to figure out what clothes to bring on the day before the flight leaves. I still have nothing in my closet but black. Black! Like I'm some emo artist with goth eye liner. How did this happen?  Oh yeah.. black is slimming. That's why...

I am STILL thinking I can spend ten hours and completely overhaul  my house, finish laundry, pack suitcase and backpack, fill the fridge with food for those left behind, write a list of the kids' schedules and the dog's eating habits, vacuum out the car...

have I forgotten anything?


Oh yeah. Homework. I still haven't finished critiquing my worksheets for this residency, which is scandalous because I always finish those WAY early and then have time to go over and over them. And this time I'm hoping somehow I can get them done and printed before I even leave, but that's not looking likely.

And I didn't finish my newest short story. Or the book I was reading.

It will all work out. At least that's what my husband says. I suppose it will. Funny how, two years later, I am still struggling with the same pre-residency issues: letting go. If I end up learning anything in grad school it's this: I cannot do it all.

I'll try to keep this blog somewhat updated with my goings-on there. No promises, of course, but I'll try.

What I'm looking forward to:

  • FRIENDS!!! These are people I only see twice a year, and they are like family to me. I cannot wait to see them, hang out with them, room with them, get coffee in the morning and wine at night with them. There will probably be screaming in the airport. I'm not embarrassed about that.
  • Laughing.  I've never laughed so much in my life as I laugh at residency. Hoping that trend continues.
  • Craft Talks: Cramming my head with an insane amount of knowledge that it will take years to synthesize and incorporate it all. And all the laughing that happens in them, too.
  • Vineyards: There is a night at the winery again. Wine, food, author readings... does a night get any better than that??
  • Karaoke: Okay, if a night could get better than the winery, the karaoke night is it. There are plans under way that may or may not include me singing. It also may or may not be Bohemian Rhapsody. It may or may not be epic. I'm thinking yes.
  • Ten days of not cooking and cleaning. Shallow, I know, but that alone makes it like a vacation.

So blogging buddies, I'm off. See ya on the flip side!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Even Going Backwards Is Sometimes Going Forwards

Patti Nielson posted a great blog post this week about writing - and how her brain feels like it's going to burst trying to incorporate everything she's learning, and learning so much at one time she wonders how she can implement it all. I know the feeling.

Honestly, sometimes I think writing was easier when I didn't know anything. It feels like the more I learn, the harder it is to sit and write because my head is full of all this stuff I need to remember to do, and I can never remember to do it all. At least not at the same time. Or in the same story.

I focus on getting rid of backstory, and my tension goes downhill.

I get tension higher, and my characters fall flat.

I grab hold of my characters, and suddenly there's no real plot.

My advisor last semester is a great swimmer and has coached swim teams before. When I wrote him that I was frustrated that I kept forgetting stuff - that as I mastered one skill I seemed to be dropping all the other skills I'd learned - he wrote this, and I thought it was brilliant enough to pass along to you:

It’s a lot like when I coached swimming.  You’d have these pretty decent swimmers, who’ve been practicing for years, and you’d have to tweak their stroke.  So, suddenly they’re concentrating on the pull of their right arm.  And they’d just fall apart.  Forget to kick, forget they have a arm, hell, forget to breathe.  Then they’d get the right arm thing and the rest would start to come back. 


That is where I am so often... concentrating on getting one aspect down, and forgetting the other things I either am still learning or even those I've previously mastered. So suddenly I look like I have no idea at all how to write a story. 

But the more I learn and practice, the more I can incorporate this new learning into something that comes more naturally, and eventually the old skills kick back in.

I've come to have more peace about this process. Maybe because I'm now practicing on short stories, which allows me room to goof up more without completely wrecking an entire book.

But when I feel like I'm losing it - losing any thing that made me a decent writer to begin with - I go back and look at the stories I wrote before - a year ago, three years ago - heck, even six months ago. And am I better? Heck yeah. I almost cringe at my old writing.

So even though I'm stumbling sometimes through this learning process, I have to remind myself that I am still going forward, and when one aspect of my writing starts to slip, it's probably because I'm learning something else. And when I get that one new thing, the other things will come back, and I'll be that much better.

At least, I'm holding out hope it will all come together again.

On the other hand, I also hope I don't stop learning. :)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Making A Mess of It

Being the mom of three kids, I'm no stranger to messiness. Not just the clothes-on-the-floor or food-on-the-face variety, but in everything. My kids love art projects, and I struggle not to roll my eyes when they dive into the art cabinet and begin pulling out markers and play-dough and construction paper and glue. For me, the mess is the price I pay to let them explore their creativity. For them, the mess is part of their creativity.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in The Writer's Chronicle (a publication of AWP - The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) entitled "Where do you get your ideas?" by Alice Mattison. The article was not so much about coming up with ideas as it was how we as fiction writers invent stories - from the first idea all the way through the end of the story. How we create.

I'd love to print the entire article here for you, but here is part that spoke to me, especially where I am right now in this writing journey (which is a journey for everyone who writes, no matter how little or how much you are published):

How do we invent? The answer I want won't be simple; it's not a set of instructions.... There is some process we have in common – not a dignified one that could be given the pretentious name "craft," which suggests a number of things that rarely lead to good writing... but a sloppy, embarrassing process involving fooling around, moving haphazardly from whatever we began with, in the general direction of something else.

Craft is something you can do in public and explain in public, while good writing is more like taking your clothes off when that's not appropriate – something that may even do harm or make our friends and family ashamed of us. And "craft" suggests control, while a good book requires surrendering control, at least at times.

There is so much more to this article, things I may come back to on this blog, but right now I'm sitting on this. I am in the sloppy, embarrassing process of creating.

I'm discovering there is craft – which I am learning in school – that is helping my writing get cleaner and more focused, and there is the process of creating, which is messy and embarrassing and often confusing. I disagree with Mattison's idea that craft rarely leads to good writing. I think it's critical to good writing; it just isn't enough on its own.

I think, maybe more accurately, we should say there are two aspects to writing well: one is craft  and the other is the creative process. If craft is defined as the tools and skills that can be learned, the creative process is the artsy, personal side. It's what we as writers have to muddle through on our own, in our own way, which may actually even differ from story to story. The process is something we have to discover and rediscover.

I don't like messiness. I like things to be clean and neat and orderly. I like there to be answers to problems, a clear path from bad to good with a set of instructions to go along with it. But most of good writing isn't like that. It's a big fat muddy mess sometimes.

Maybe this is no revelation for you, but this has been a big revelation for me in some sense, in that I couldn't understand how I was getting so much better at the craft part, and still feeling like my writing as a whole was floundering. I am currently mired in my own creative process muck.

I'm still trying to find ways to make that process less messy. Jolene Perry recommended the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to me, and even though it's about screenwriting, I am finding in it terrific tools. But on the whole, I think I'm just going to have to accept that not all of writing is clean-cut. Not everything can be learned from a book or a class or even a brilliant mentor. And that even though some parts of my process are messy right now, doesn't mean other parts aren't making great strides.

Where do you thrive? In the disorderly, creative part of writing, or in the things more systematically and concretely learned?