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.

Good news all around.

If you couldn’t tell from my last post, yesterday was rough. I still feel somewhat trapped and stifled today–it’s an ongoing condition–but some encouragement came last night and this morning that reminded me why I’m here.

My faculty mentor sent me feedback on my third packet by e-mail last night. I had known when I sent the stuff that it hadn’t been my best work; a lot of it was a very rough first draft that I didn’t have time to re-work or infuse with the real nature of the characters. There were, however, sections that were difficult for me to write, given the sheer emotion behind the scenes, and she apparently thinks I did a good job at capturing this:

“Once again, you’ve proven that you have an uncanny ability to utilize concrete details to evoke complex feelings. My eyes were brimming with tears reading this whole last scene. “

Sure, there were sections that she believed needed work, and I agree. But knowing that I do have the ability to reach someone–not just someone: a published author–with my words was enough to make my night. She also liked my essay on Anna Karenina…though it wasn’t the kind of essay she was looking for. Whoops!

This morning, I opened my GMail to find a message from the woman who supervises the writing class I run at my town’s library. Yesterday, I’d asked her if the library was hiring, in my perpetual efforts to put my name out there. They aren’t, but she did say:

“I will happily write you a terrific letter of recommendation:  I’m very impressed with your classes, your organization and how well you work with the group!”

So, that was nice to hear. Both of these instances reminded me that there is a pretty big reason I have to stay in this job: I do have talent, in writing and teaching, and I have to pay my dues before I can do what I love. So, for now, paying to write and teaching for free is how it has to be. And maybe that’ll bother me tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But right now, I’m grateful for this job and what it’s given me the chance to do.

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.

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.

Bidding good riddance to the Packet From Hell.

It’s shorter than I wanted (by 3 pages), but it’s done. DONE.

Now that it’s signed, sealed, and on its way, I can reflect on the paralyizing fear I’ve experienced since April while trying to write this damn thing. After a glowing review of my second packet, I was stopped in my tracks. Looking back, I realize I was scared to let my mentor down, scared that the third packet wouldn’t live up to the second. It became so late that I had to eventually sit down and push through this irrational paralysis and just…write. Write whatever came out of me, whatever part of the story that happened to be hanging around inside my head. In the process, I discovered that a) I’m not out of ideas and b) I can do this, and it doesn’t have to be perfect or even better. After all, I can’t learn if I don’t try and make mistakes: a sentiment that sounds great on paper but is terrifying if you’re a perfectionist.

I still have one more packet, but it’s going to be a revision of my first one, which seems pretty crap at the moment. I was hoping to have written 100 pages by now, but I’ll take 71. Especially since I’ve never written anything longer than a 10-page short story in my entire life. For now, though, I’m going to bask in the temporary relief that comes before actually sticking the packet in the mail and fearing the return.

Struggle Muscles.

I have barely been able to put pen to paper this month. Luckily, my advisor is totally rad and realizes that this sort of thing happens. I have an extension for my third packet, and my fourth will be a re-working of my first. So that’s a relief.

But the thing that’s been bugging me the most is why? Why did I churn out the first two packets with no problem only to hit the wall at number three? I brought this up in therapy yesterday. Apparently, I have very underdeveloped “struggle muscles.”

I’ll explain.

As a student, from kindergarten through college, I always did really well without really trying. I would get the concept, commit it to memory, move on, and ace the test. I never needed the extra practice or extra help. Meanwhile, other kids had to work for every A, stay after, practice on their own time. While I had it easy then, those kids were practicing skills I never needed. They were strengthening their struggle muscles.

It makes total sense. This is why I usually only do things until they are no longer easy and quit. I don’t have practice in “pushing through even when it’s hard.” I quit the clarinet when sight-reading was no longer easy. I stayed away from sports and activities in which I wasn’t naturally skilled. If it wasn’t easy, and if I wasn’t great at it, I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Now, something that was so easy for so long–writing–is painfully stretching my struggle muscles into shape. This process is bringing out a lot of fear and insecurity: What if the words just stop? What if no one cares? I’ve never taken my writing this far, and the possibility of failure as I have never known it is stopping me in my tracks. But I have to press on, and see it all as simply practice for the next packet. This is not something I can just quit without consequence, and I’m tired of giving up when it’s not easy anymore.

Validation

As I said in my last post, I was pretty worried about receiving my second packet back in the mail from my mentor. I was worried I had gone too far, or not gone far enough. Turns out all of that stress was for naught; he loved it. There were places where he wrote his reactions in capital letters, with exclamation points and everything. Good for the soul, to say the least.

One comment he made throughout was how different this submission was from my first. If it’s possible, I’m pretty sure I used those first 25 pages to bury the lead. I was tiptoeing around the real meat of the story: the emotion, the work. I was scared of putting a lot of raw stuff on paper and being told I suck at doing so. But I guess I don’t.

With this boost of confidence, I plan on making the next submission just as good. And putting his comments page up on my fridge when I get home.