Freedom!

I’m back! I was absent from this blog for a good month because I was finishing my thesis ( my novel) for my MFA in creative writing.

It felt damn near impossible to spend any amount of time writing anything but my novel, or any of the associated bits and bobs that go along with it, so I haven’t been on this blog at all, but I have been thinking of it. In the last month, I came up with a million ideas for posts while driving to work, riding in the car to and from holidays at my parents’ house, walking the dog, taking showers and folding laundry. I didn’t write many of these ideas down. Most of them slipped from my mind as soon as I came home, determined to jot them down in the various notebooks that clutter every surface in our house.  I do know that the posts ranged in theme from dreams to politics to an angry, Twitter-inspired rant about grammar. (I actually half wrote that last one, but it got canned after I made a glaring grammatical error on Facebook and was called out by a former editor.)

My blog is not the only thing that I’ve neglected in the last month, as I struggled to finish scenes, make character’s motivations more believable and put chapters in order. My house was filthy. My garden, which is a major source of food for us in the summer, was nearly overtaken by a violent weed uprising, and there were many seedling casualties. My students got about half as many emails from me as they usually do, (although they probably still thought that was too much.) Our pile of laundry toppled out of the closet and began to crawl across the bedroom floor, like a soldier involved in guerrilla warfare. My dog was allowed to forget basic commands like sit, heel and don’t eat that manuscript.  My friends called me and emailed me, but alas, only 20 percent of the calls and emails have been returned.

Professors told me it would be like this. I read quotes about the insanity of non-stop fiction writing. I heard firsthand from other students in my MFA program that the last push of putting together a thesis is just like going crazy.

They were right, and I’m finally able to stop raving, wipe the froth from my mouth, take a break and write a blog post or two.

I really did question my sanity this month. Not because of the novel writing process itself, per se, but because all I’ve wanted to do with my life, ever since I was a toddler, was write a novel. And it turns out that writing a novel, in its most intense form, is hell. What kind of little kid was I to have aspirations like this? Why did it take me so long to realize that my dream was so dumb? Is it too late to decide that I want to be something else?

Truth is, intense novel writing isn’t healthy. It’s like drinking red wine. In small doses, it can be good for you. My life has been dramatically improved by the Graham Greene method of writing 500 words a day. Five hundred words a day is  a nice round number. It’s healthy. It’s reasonable. You can write 500 words a day and live a normal, productive life.

But if you get a steady diet of novel-writing, if you do nothing but work on a novel for days on end, hoo boy, no one wants to be around you. That’s less like a glass of wine a day and more like wandering around with Thunderbird in a paper bag.  You never change out of your pajamas. You start walking around in a daze, not really interacting with the people who are actually in front of you, but always preoccupied with what some imaginary people are supposed to be doing. Then you get mad at the imaginary people for not doing the things that they are supposed to be doing. You stare at a blank screen and despair. You write a page and are elated. You realize the page of writing is terrible and it’s back down into the pit of despair again. You don’t so much sleep as pass out.

I’m glad that’s over. Or at least that it’s over for now, because I’m not actually done with my novel. My  thesis was done and sent out to my mentor and reader early this week, but the novel is still not quite finished. Which means that I’m sure I’ll disappear to work on it again. For now, I’m enjoying the real world, which is a crazy place, but not as insane as the world inside my head.

Revision day.

Today is the day I get down to business. Today is the day I make all adjustments and revisions to my manuscript before sending it off to my faculty mentor.

Revisions = arts and crafts. Those things on the floor are orphaned scenes.

This is a task I’ve been putting off, because it horrifies me. The first draft of this novel is not finished. Revising feels like going backwards. I don’t particularly want to read what I wrote in the first chapters. I hate having to put scenes in order when not all the scenes are written yet. I really hate the idea of making cuts to the manuscript this early in the game.
But since this is for a structured academic program, that’s what I’m going to have to do. And let’s face it: my mentor is probably going to want to read a draft with as few misspellings and typos as possible, so I have no choice but to make the manuscript presentable now.

The good thing is this: By the end of the day, I’ll have a very good idea about the shape of the story I’m trying to tell, and all of my scenes will be, roughly, in order.

So let’s do this thing – no Facebook, no Twitter, no email until I am done revising. I may have my husband unplug our router.

Clean manuscript or bust.

Thoughts about poetry

On my first day of my grad school residency, about two weeks ago, one of my colleagues flagged me down.

“Why,” he asked, “do you write novels?”

This is a good question, and something I hadn’t really thought about.

Our grad school program is divided into three sections, or genres: Fiction, Non-fiction and Poetry. I think that sometimes we tend to get hung up on these labels. At our cores, we are all writers, and many of us – even if we don’t officially study cross-genre within our program – do write in other genres. You have only to attend a student reading to see fiction writers reading essays and non-fiction people reading poetry. I have yet to see a poet read fiction, but it’s sure to happen. We are all creative writers, and it would be silly to expect us to stick to one form.

So when my friend asked why I was writing fiction, and the novel in particular, I had to take a minute. My response was this: I write novels because I enjoy reading them, and because that’s what I read, I believe that the novel is the highest form the written word can take.

After a week and a half, I’m not quite satisfied with that answer.

My first love was poetry. I remember writing a poem at the age of seven. My mother tells me I was writing poetry earlier. I bought books of poetry in the fourth grade. I played with rhyme and meter all through high school and college. I’m a card-carrying member of the I-wrote-moody-poetry-in-high-school club. I was also a poetry slam groupie in high school. I fell deeply and indecently in love with Taylor Mali. (I got over that.) I wrote a collection of angsty poems in college. My first creative publication, in the now-defunct Citizen Culture Magazine, was a poem. I framed it. It hangs above my desk. Then, somehow, poetry took a backseat to fiction.

I don’t know why. I wrote fiction and poetry at the same time through high school in college. Like a kid who starts out left-handed, learns to use his right hand, becomes ambidextrous as a teenager and then grows into a right-handed adult, I switched to fiction. No reason. It just happened.

Except now, after the last residency, I’m considering a return to poetry. I took two poetry seminars, and went to a poetry graduate reading and it strikes me that I’m missing out on something I enjoy. I have no idea what the vocabulary of poetry is – I couldn’t identify a sonnet, for example. And I’m intimidated by the distilled emotion presented in poetry. I think I will have a go at it anyhow. I’m not planning to forsake fiction. It is possible that the novel is, for me, the highest form the written word can take. But that doesn’t mean that I have to neglect poetry.

The MFA frenzy.

I’ve been back for a few days from my grad school residency on Enders Island, and I’m ready to blog again.

The gardens at Enders when it’s not extremely cold.

Before you all read this, I have to warn you: I have the MFA frenzy. It happens whenever I return from my creative writing MFA residency in Mystic, Conn. and it continues for about a month. During this time, I write like I’ve been taking uppers, talk incessantly about story arcs, character flaws,  scene vs summary, you get the idea. I apologize in advance.

For those who don’t know, let me explain where I’ve been. Enders Island, a religious retreat in Mystic, Conn.,  is the location for the Fairfield University Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing residency. (If you click on the link, I’m in the picture at the top of the page. You can just barely see my pink hat in the back row.) I’ve lived on Enders for 10 days every six months for the past two years. My cohort and I take all our classes there; we workshop our writing and take seminars and study with established authors. Every year when I come back home after my residency, someone always asks me if I’m sorry to leave the island.

My answer to that is no. It’s not easy to spend 10 days at a workshop with lots of other writers. Ask Chuck Palahniuk.

But, and this is a big but, I really need the residencies in order to be productive. And honestly, I’m not looking forward to graduating, because that means I’ll no longer have the creative kick in the pants that the residency provides.

Allow me to explain. In some ways, the MFA residency is run on the same principle as a boot camp. By the end of 10 days, I am physically ground down. I haven’t slept, I haven’t eaten that much, and I’ve been living in such close quarters with others that my personal space is all out of whack. I almost always leave the island with an ailment or a minor injury.  I  spend the final two days of every residency in a strange creative fog. I can’t pay attention to normal things, like conversation, or lunch, or tying my shoes, but a different part of my brain kicks in. I find myself thinking in poetry, and everything becomes a writing exercise. People become studies for character development. I start using active verbs, like “scrub” and “dive,” in small talk.  Nothing matters, by the end, except the work.

Once I get home and get some sleep, the writing begins, and does not stop for months. I’m not sure how I’m going to sustain that level of inspiration without the residency.

Another thing that’s amazing about the residency is that when I come home, I am always convinced that I will publish my novel. I’m utterly confident that my novel will be published, optioned, and translated, and that I will be able to eke out at least a modest living on my words. I write short fiction and poems and I send them out to literary magazines. They ignore me and reject me, and I don’t even care, because I am positive that someone will accept my work. It is bizarre. To hear me talk, when I come back from residency, you would think that I had already published a novel.

And, you know, I think that’s the way to be. Writing a novel (and getting it published) is my dream. If I were to allow myself to be discouraged by the cold hard facts of publishing, I wouldn’t even try to finish the manuscript. I certainly wouldn’t involve colleagues, professors, graduate programs and writing groups in a novel that I thought might fail. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the people I respect.  I wouldn’t want to waste their time. And at this point, I’ve involved at least 15 other people in my novel by asking them to workshop it, listen to it or talk with me about it.

So now there’s no room for failure. Especially now, because in the next few months I have to finish my novel in order to graduate.

 

The October deadline SNAFU.

Oh man.

I had all these things I wanted to post about today: Being in touch with my inner monkey, my imaginary all-girl rock band, why I hate Fight Club, my burning desire for a Fulbright, a newfound love of M.I.A., strong verbs vs. modifiers, natural selection, trichotillomania and my unrequited teen crush on Wil Wheaton.

These are all the things sitting in my queue of unfinished posts. Sadly, they won’t see the light of day for a while, because I’m buried under an MLA manual, an essay, my students’ midterm grades and several disorganized pages worth of novel. Blah. No fun.  Adding urgency to this is the fact that I (like Erin) promised myself I would post to this blog once a day (well, once a weekday) for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, that means you all get this snore-inducing post for today. I’m actually not even going to announce this lame-o post on Facebook or Twitter. Sorry about this. I will try to be more interesting tomorrow.

A world-class event.

This won’t be a long post, nor will it be filled with my usual embarrassing personal revelations.  All I have to say here is that not only did the student reading last night go well, but I am in awe of my colleagues from the Fairfield University MFA program.

From the new student, who got up to read his work even though he’s never set foot on Enders, to the poet who riffed on Gertrude Stein like he was performing a guitar solo, to the memoirists who put their most private moments out there for us to see – you all rock. Hard.

Also rockstars? The students who didn’t read but showed up to support us, even though they have jobs, families and lives. And the student rep who organized the whole event, and who chose not to read, even though we would have welcomed a reading from her.

It’s really cool to be a part of this group of people.

Now, before this post gets cloying, I’m going to put an end to it. Just as  my colleague Steve Otfinoski put an end to some adorable sacrificial bunnies in his reading last night.

Update: This post is titled “A world class event” because that’s how we were described by the store manager during his in-store announcement. I thought I’d written that into this post but I must have edited it out. Whoops.

Deep breaths.

This Wednesday brings the fall semester student reading for my MFA program. I’m one of the readers, which is very cool, because I’m going to be trotting out my new novel. Still it’s terrifying, because I never know how I’m going to react when I get to that podium.

As I was explaining to a fellow student over the weekend, it all depends on the space.

I once did a reading with such a loud rushing in my ears that I couldn’t even hear my own voice. I was so relieved to get away from the podium that I left a pile of important papers on it, and only remembered them hours later. But then again, I did a reading this summer and I was fine. Granted, I had a drink in me before I got up to read, but I don’t actually think I needed the drink. That reading was in a smallish crowded room. The first, terrifying reading? That was done from the pulpit of a church.

Wednesday’s reading is being held in a Borders. And while I’ve spent many hours happily shopping in that space, I don’t know how I’ll feel reading there. I guess we will see.

Writer Wednesday: James Baldwin

I quoted him for years, but I never knew who Baldwin was until last fall.

It came as a complete surprise to me that James Baldwin wrote fiction. I had it in my mind that he was an educator, an essayist and an activist. It just hadn’t occurred to me that did all that and wrote fiction.

I first became aware of Baldwin when I was working as an education reporter for the Stamford Times. As part of my duties I had to cover several graduations every spring, three of them in Stamford. The superintendent there was fond of quoting Baldwin’s paradox of education from the writer’s 1963 A Talk to Teachers. The super included the exact same quote from Baldwin at each of the graduations every single year. I must have heard it 15 times.

I got hip to the super’s graduation speech tricks by the second year. Rather than look up the paradox of education again and again and again, and rather than try to take down the whole, lengthy quote during the graduation speech, I simply printed out the quote and kept it in my desk at work:

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.

I grew pretty familiar with the paradox of education as I tried to gracefully work it into three separate graduation stories every June. So last year, when a professor, Kim McLarin, mentioned Baldwin during the first workshop for my MFA program, I snapped to attention. James Baldwin? A-talk-to-teachers Baldwin? Paradox-of-education Baldwin?  We couldn’t be talking about the same Baldwin, could we?

Now, after having read Another Country and read more about Baldwin, I’m impressed by all the things Baldwin did. He was an activist for civil rights, he wrote fervently about racial and sexual issues and he was a prolific and eloquent author.

Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for Kim about plot in Another Country.

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