Why do you write?

I’ll get to the pressing question above in just a moment, but first: a recap of my writing life since I dropped off the blog in May.

  • I’m published! Granted, it’s a critical essay, but I’ll take it. Sidenote: Mason’s Road is a great way to get your stuff seen and possibly published without any submission fee! Reading period opens soon; in the meantime, check out the awesome stuff in this issue.
  • My writing class at the library ended in May, and they’ve asked me to teach two workshops this summer: one on found poetry, one on horror/thriller writing for teens. The best news of all: this will be my first paying gig as a writing teacher. I hope to pick up the fiction class again in the fall with compensation as well. Fingers crossed!
  • My favorite memoirist and I have made a pact. At least once a month, we have to send out a story or essay to literary journals and magazines. I’ve never actively tried to get published (except for my above credit), so this is a somewhat scary and exciting endeavor. I’ve tagged her blog here in hopes that she’ll feel inspired and/or pressured to update.
  • I’ve just returned home from my last summer residency in the Fairfield MFA program. I graduate in January. Holy hell.
  • All of this excitement coincides with my final semester; I have to write and polish my creative thesis–the first 135 pages of my novel–by Halloween. No pressure!

I think that’s all. Now, for the question of the hour.

“Why do you write?”

One of my favorite writers and teachers, Rachel Basch, posed this question during our residency workshop last week. She said we should determine the answer, distill it down to one sentence, and paste it above our work space at home to keep us motivated. A great idea, no doubt.

For me, though, “Why do you write?” is one of those questions that, as soon as it’s asked, wipes my brain clean of any answer; the same is true for “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What are you thinking?”. I’ve had some time, now, to think about this, and I figured my groping for an answer would be a great way to get back up on the blogging horse.

Blogging horse.

I write because I always have. I was raised in a house where my parents pushed me and my siblings to do whatever we desired. I tapped, I skated, I sang, I acted. If I’d cared enough, I could have pushed myself to make a living out of most of the things I tried as a kid, but none of them stuck. What was always there, what I never even realized I’d been doing all along, was writing.

The first thing I did when we got a computer was figure out how to do columns in WordPerfect and make a full-color newsletter for the kids in the neighborhood. I would force my brother and sister to take my reading and handwriting classes after school, with the help of a mini-whiteboard and old schoolbooks. I wrote a multi-chapter murder mystery in elementary school that beat out the middle school for best story and an essay about my hero–my dad–that landed me a meeting with Ruby Bridges. I typed up letters to the editor for my father and went on to write controversial editorials for my school paper on abortion, same-sex marriage, and our high school civics program.

I never put two and two together. I went off to college and all but forgot about writing. It wasn’t until my father passed away that I remembered. When something like that happens, it clears your decks of anything superfluous and leaves you only with what matters most. French and politics fell away, and writing rushed in. I wrote everything down: every memory, every question, every fear, every dream. It hurt, but it felt good. For the first time, my brain and heart were working together. A light bulb switched on somewhere, and I found my soul again.

So, that’s why I write. Why do you?

Back on the mainland.

Yesterday, I returned to Rhode Island from my third MFA residency in Mystic, CT. For ten days, I sat in pews, on beds, and around all sorts of tables, workshopping and eating and writing and reading and listening. More than 24 hours since leaving, my mind still buzzes with stories and inspiration. I’m letting the “real” writing marinate until tomorrow, but I felt a blog was in order after some time away.

Man, my English kicks ass when I get back from Enders, but don’t get used to it. I can see disjointed, grammatically incorrect posts coming down the pike. Damn that 40 hours a week of French.

This residency was not at all what I expected. To say morale was low would be an understatement–or, actually, an overstatement. It was in the toilet; pardon the pun. (I’m sorry. I’ll stop.) You see, by Day Three, the men’s bathroom had overflowed several times. By the end of Day Five, most students moved off-campus, since they had to shut off the water in the main residence hall. Yes, it was a full-blown “Septic Emergency.” My friends and I decided to stay behind, the Great Unwashed, sneaking showers and nursing plastic cups of Franzia while the sane students went back to their cushy hotels with private showers and running water. Wussies.

We made the best of it, but on a social level, there was a bit of a “funk” going around. When it hit me, it was the I’m Not Good Enough funk. The I Shouldn’t Be Here funk. When you spend 95% of the year on your own, working your butt off on your own stuff, you come to the Island with some pride. Good pride. Pride that says, “I kicked some ass on the page this semester, and I’m ready for workshop.” Your stuff is better than it’s ever been, and you have every right to feel accomplished. But there’s nothing like student readings to suck the confidence out of you. So much talent in one room, in one program. It got to me. After a good workshop experience and reinforcement from my buds, the funk passed. Franzia helped.

On a work level, though, this residency was a big one. I thought I got a lot of good ideas last time! This time around, with the expansion of my story more-or-less in place, the feedback I received was about characterization. This semester, I won’t be going out, but in. My characters need deeper roots, desires, consequences. It’s time to raise the stakes and really get inside these bad boys. I’m scared and excited all at once; this is really happening. I’m writing a novel.

It’s good to be back on the mainland, especially with this fire alive in me as I type. I can’t forget to rekindle it over the next six months. This fits perfectly with my New Year’s resolution: finish what you begin.

P.S. I have another story to tell, after this one. It came to me on the Island.

Balance.

My life never seems to have any sort of balance to it. If one portion of my life is going well, the rest is usually in the shitter. Like now, for instance, I’m kicking major ass at work, so it’s hardly surprising that the personal and writing portions of my being are circling the drain. I’m eating like shit, I’m feeling like shit, I’m writing like shit.

I wish I could attend to one thing without everything else going nutso. Or, better yet, I wish I wasn’t so single-minded and could juggle things more effectively. Instead I just chuck the same ball up in the air, over and over, while all the others roll around on the floor.

Sure, I have a lot on my plate: marriage, grown-up responsibilities, a full-time job, a full-time degree program, a novel-in-progress that’s making me plumb the depths of my grief every day. But everyone’s plate is full. I don’t know how to get better at this, but I hope I figure it out soon.

On the bright side, my final packet will be in the mail very, very shortly. As in, tomorrow morning at the latest. And my mentor will have it all electronically tonight. I can’t wait to wash my hands of this semester. It’s been difficult, even painful at times. I was pushed to new limits, and I learned a lot about myself as a write and a person. But not having to touch my own writing unless I want to until after the New Year is a glorious feeling.

Okay, off to try to learn how to juggle.

Fact to fiction

I tell you, I’ve learned more about myself in the past two semesters of writing than I have from mulitple stints in therapy.  For instance: when things get hard, I get paralyzed.

I finally put my second-to-last packet in the mail recently, after much procrastination. In the end, I came up with 20 pages of original work instead of the required 25: a gap I will have to reconcile in this month’s work. I’m less worried about the extra five pages in this packet than I am about the reason getting 20 pages was like pulling teeth.

Writing comes easily to me when what I’m writing is completely–or mostly–fictional. That’s why my last packet felt so easy and was so successful. There’s a freedom in totally making things up that lets me really spread out on the page. It’s when the work hits close to home that I have a problem.

This packet focused mainly on the main character’s relationship with her family: specifically, her brother and sister. These characters are modeled heavily after my own brother and sister, and something about this makes it terribly difficult to make them three-dimensional characters. Do you ever try and explain the meaning of a word, but keep using that word in your definition? That’s what it feels like.

But the difficulties did not only lie in trying to bring certain characters to life. I focused most of the pages around the death of the main character’s father and the aftermath within her family; ripped from the headlines of my life, as it were. Four years later and in the context of fiction, my father’s death is still not easy to write about. When I finally bit the bullet and tried, I got down a few lines, cried; got down a few more, cried again. You get the idea. I know this meant I was on to something real, but it was also really scary and paralyzed me for a while afterwards.

My first instinct is to step back from the super-realness of this packet and do some fleshing-out of some more fictiony areas. But some unfamiliar voice inside is telling me to push on that painful place between fact and fiction and see where it goes.

Why do you write?

Today is National Day on Writing. The Twitterverse is celebrating by answering the question: “Why do you write?”

My response:

This, of course, is the simple answer to a question I ask myself a lot lately (paying tuition for a writing program seems to need some justification in my mind).

The longer answer is that I know it’s what I’m meant to do. I know this because I abandoned it for years in favor of French and all sorts of other obligations one thinks are so-very-important as an undergrad. Then, my father died.

Nothing puts your priorities in check like death. Suddenly, it becomes clear that you’ve wasted your time on a bunch of stuff that will never matter or make any difference in the world.  Everything that lacks meaning in your life falls away, because you simply don’t have the energy for it. In this vacuum, you find what’s important; for me, it was my family and my writing. I could do nothing but write, all day, every day. It wasn’t good, or even all that understandable, but it just kept coming and coming. Everything needed a closer look: the picture on the wall, my cat, the river. It was my attempt to make sense of it all, it was the only thing I could do.

Writing’s been there for me in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. I’ve made a promise to myself with this MFA that it will never be a backburner hobby again; it is my vocation, my calling in life, and I’m going after it.

Surviving the MFA

My  MFA program is working on a book to help grads of similar programs cope with life after graduation. I think it’s a stellar idea. Now, we just need to come up with a book to help survive the MFA program in the first place.

Then again, it’s not the MFA that’s making me rip out my hair; no, it’s my 40-hour-a-week day job. I’d love to know how others cope with the day-to-day feeling of “yes, this pays the bills, but it’s doing nothing for the creative process.” At the end of the day, I find it hard to even think about writing anything. My work is so left-brained that tapping into my imagination is a chore. 

A big part of my process, as I’ve learned while in this program, is letting the ideas marinate for a while in my head. I usually do the first few drafts mentally before sitting down to write. But with a full-time job occupying brain space every day from 7-4, this doesn’t happen. By the time my brain recharges from the day, it’s time for bed, and I end up tossing and turning for hours while my real work figures itself out.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. Even a book on the subject of balancing the MFA and a full-time job couldn’t help me. I need this job for lots of reasons, the main one being that it pays well and gives me the time off needed for school. And with nothing else on the horizon that would offer me a greater amount of brain space, I know I’ll be here for the remainder of the program. Unless I win the lottery. So, there’s always that completely reasonable hope.

Fear = awesome.

The only time I can ever even think about updating this blog is after I’ve submitted a packet, in that golden few days where there is no urgency and my mind is slightly less harried than it is during the rest of the month. Needless to say, my packet is on its way to my fabulous mentor.

I wrote a little bit about fear in this most recent packet. It’s such a pure emotion, when you think about it; every other thought and feeling takes a back seat if you’re terrified. Your senses are heightened, and you are nothing but present in the moment. It is fear, I’ve decided, that was missing from last semester.

There’s nothing scary, per se, about my mentor. In fact, she’s lovely: caring and kind, supportive and positive. But ever since I saw her at the first residency and heard her read, I’ve been scared of her, in the way I was scared of my French professor from Marseille who made us read a novel a week and speak only French in class: I’ve never worked harder.

Just knowing that she is ridiculously well-read and an uber-close reader of student work had me anxious and terrified to work with her. I’d wanted to put her down first semester, but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I had no idea where my story was going. Now, knowing that her eyes will be on my every word, I push myself further than I thought possible. I realized after our first phone conversation that her input was really going to help me, if I put in the work. That rush of organization that I talked about in my last entry was directly fueled by my fear of wasting this semester, and her time, with four more packets that got me no closer to my end goal. I was scared she’d figure me out and realize I had no idea what I was doing. Instead of faking it, I dug deep for the first time in years and did the hard work. And my stuff is getting good, guys.

This particular mentor also happens to be a total stickler on our craft essays (I’m going to take a moment to brag here). She’s been known to send back essays to students for them to re-do. On our last phone call, she said one of my essays was “stellar” and a “model craft essay,” and she was thinking of talking to the director of the MFA program about it; I guess they may make a packet of model essays to help students who are struggling with them. From this unexpected praise, I landed on the idea for my fourth semester presentation: a how-to session on craft essays. What new FUMFA’er wouldn’t attend that, especially if it’s titled “What the F%!# is a craft essay?

My fear has also focused me so much that I’m finally noticing a pattern to my writing and what works best. This is the first time I’ve taken notice of any such thing, and I guess the first time I’ve really considered myself a writer, with habits and everything. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • I need nearly-deafening commotion to focus: a coffee house or other crowded place, for example. It’s when I’m the most introspective. Though, in a pinch, solo piano radio on Pandora will do.
  • For editing, I need complete silence.
  • I used to think the afternoon was when I did my best work, but now I know it’s late at night. My ideal routine: brew a strong pot of coffee at 10 PM and burn up the pages until 3AM, crash until noon and start again. I’ve realized this is my natural tendency, and there’s no shame in not being a morning person.

In short: fear is awesome. Without even knowing it, and by just being plain intimidating to me, my mentor has taught me more about myself as a writer, and my story, than I ever thought I’d learn.

Oh, and DIBS on doing her intro this winter.

At last, a name.

After an entire semester of trying to get my footing with this whole “writing a novel” thing, the clouds are finally clearing.

The other night, after reading a little on craft and journaling for, literally, two minutes, lightning struck. I suddenly saw my novel coming together: the structure, the conflicts, the subplots…even a title, for chrissakes. In the half hour that followed the revelation, I mapped out my novel on index cards and stuck them up on my wall.

This got me to organize everything that I have sent out to my mentors thus far. Doing this led to the realization that that’s all I’ve been doing: sending out packets. I haven’t been thinking about this as a book. I’ve been thinking of it as separate homework assignments that I just have to get done. I didn’t fully understand the immensity of the project I’ve undertaken until I deconstructed all of my packets and re-arranged them into some semblance of cohesive, linear order.

Fear has been a governing emotion since I began this program: fear of not getting accepted, fear of not being accepted by my fellow MFA’ers, fear of not having anything worth saying…you get the idea. I think I’d put off turning my packets into a novel for fear of all the stuff I would find missing. Having done the work, though, I have to say I’m feeling more confident than ever. I’ve broken the work down into sections, and I know how many pages each section must be. I can see where the holes are, and where I need to dig deeper. As usual, my fears were totally unfounded and served to do nothing but feed my procrastination.

I have another packet due at the end of this week. After computer disasters caused my first packet to be weeks late, this one is coming just on its heels. But that’s fine by me. I have an outline, a structure, a name. And right now, that’s all that matters.

Back in the world.

I’ve been home since this past Wednesday, but I’m still having trouble adjusting. Mostly to my super-comfortable bed and air conditioner, which made any attempt to go to work last week impossible. My boss told me to take a few extra days, so I “made the bridge,” as the French would say, between Tuesday and Friday. Now, that’s one hell of a bridge. I think the Frenchies would be proud.

The residency was about a billion times better than my first. Maybe it was the Island in bloom, or the fact that I actually socialized and got to know people (many professors and students alike thought this was my first residency). Whatever it was, I was glad for it. Both of my workshop leaders were outstanding; I learned a lot every morning, and I know I’ve improved both my writing and close reading. Halfway through the week, as I lay on my bed reading a Hemmingway short story, I turned to my (totally rad) roomie, Daisy:

Me: You know how they told us this program would ruin “reading for fun” for us?
Daisy: Yup. Did it happen to you?
Me: Just did. I’m barely paying attention to the story. All I keep thinking is “wow, what effective dialogue!”

In the past, I’ve had to read a story two, three times over to get to that level. So that’s a big change.

My second workshop was when I had my mind blown wide open, in a good way. While we were discussing my story and its general lack of subplots, I realized that the non-fiction portion of the story had gone as far as it could. Now it’s time for imagination to fill in the holes and make it worth reading. I had forgotten that I can take this thing wherever I want–or need–it to go. The freedom of it is exciting.

I got my new mentor, too. She’s a faculty member I’ve had my eye on since last residency. I loved her reading, and she just seemed so serious about everything. Needless to say, she terrified me, but this time I decided to go and talk to her during mentor interviews. I’m so happy I got to talk with her and even happier to work with her this semester. I’m in the process of putting my current work in some semblance of order before sending it to her; she wants to read my stuff before I send new stuff. Pretty awesome.

This entry’s been all over the place. I’ll write more later, but it’s lunchtime now at work.

Revisions

I’ve never really revised anything I’ve written. Not any more than a simple proofread before submitting it for a class or something. If I’ve written it just for me, I get it all out, put it in a drawer or an electronic file, and never think about it again.

It’s not that I’m cocky and think my stuff doesn’t need revision. In fact, I found out today exactly why I never look back: it’s fucking scary. For some reason, I’m immediately humiliated by anything I put on paper, though moments before I felt like I had to put it there, somewhere. I assumed that a revision would just result in my cringing at a myriad of clichés and shitty syntax, a plot that goes nowhere. I assumed I would just have to throw it all out and start over. And I’m not a fan of starting over.

Tonight I did my first-ever, real revision. It was for my final packet (I know, I’m a bad girl). I took my first submission from this semester, way back in February, and made a lot of changes. For starters, I slashed it in half. There were so many parts where I was just writing out my real-life experience with a few name changes to people and places. It didn’t fit the story, but I didn’t know that at the time, since I had no clue what “the story” was going to be. I updated the voice and mindset of my main character, changed some events around and cut others, then went back and fiddled with minutiae here and there before sending into cyberspace.

Two things surprised me during this process.

  1. The ease with which I gutted my own writing: I guess I’m not as sentimental as I thought. Turns out the only reason I was avoiding revising had nothing to do with “my precious words” and everything to do with not wanting to do the work. Once I dug in, I was deleting whole pages left and right, clearing the clutter. It felt good.
  2. How much better it was when I was finished: At several points, I found myself saying, “Holy shit, you might actually be onto something. You might actually be able to do this.” Suddenly, after months of stretching out this story and its characters, they began to seem real when I dove back in and started tweaking them. I never had a “bond” with my characters or stories before. All of my little vignettes that I wrote had nothing to do with each other, and after months of sending samples in the mail and not really touching them again, I forgot that I was writing one giant work. I was in denial. Tonight, as I drew on the “experience” of my character in the second and third packets to flesh her out in the revision, I could see her. I could see the story unfurling and began to respect it as something to cherish and mold, not something to stick in a drawer and feel mildly contented with. I truly improved it. It’s hard to do that, to elevate your stuff to another level, and still feel stupid for writing it. Where the stupid was, a strange new confidence has rushed in.

I can’t wait to get on the island and get feedback for my other packets. If I can look back six months and see how much my writing and story have grown, I can only imagine where I’ll be by graduation.

I’m writing a fucking book.