On U-Turns

Last weekend, I made a vision board using cut-out images and words from a pile of old magazines. I chose photos, phrases, and colors that caught my eye, drew my attention in. Stripped of their context, these cutouts took on new meaning. Once pasted on my board, the 2006 National Geographic’s photo of Yellowstone bubbling mud pots transformed into a symbol of steadiness and calm once. The quote “Same Kid / New Tricks”–snipped from an article in Parenting Magazine–seemed like a good motto for a new year full of learning and changes. I liked the colors in a full page photo of a bright yellow cargo ship alone in a wide expanse of empty ocean. The photo, taken from above, had a lonely, surreal quality to it. In the vast ocean, the massive boat looked small. Next to the ship, in the middle of the water I pasted the cut-out word “U-turn.” I liked the contrast between the ship’s straight path through the water and the nimble curve of “U-Turn.” I imagined the boat’s captain spewing cuss words as he realized mid-way across the Atlantic that he had forgotten his passport, then turning the ship around in a slow wide arc, doubling back.

U-turn. The written word perfectly describes the action. A reversal, a return, an abrupt change of direction. At stop lights, U-turns are harried and panicked, a car whipping itself around a median to avoid oncoming traffic. U-turns are urgent, necessary, sometimes dangerous. With word “U-turn” plastered next to the image of the ship plowing mindlessly towards its port, I wanted to remind myself that sometimes dramatic, whip-lash inducing change is necessary. As necessary as plowing straight ahead, maintaining momentum to reach the destination. Continue reading “On U-Turns”

Book Review: The Wide Net and Other Stories by Eudora Welty

The Wide Net and Other StoriesThe Wide Net and Other Stories by Eudora Welty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wide Net is Welty’s second collection of stories. I’ve read her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, her Pulitzer prize winning Optimist’s Daughter, and a few of her more well-known stories, but this was my first experience reading one of her full short story collections. My favorite story in this collection was the title story, in which a simple country man gathers up a rag tag team of other country guys to go looking for his missing pregnant wife. It’s actually quite a funny story with characters that felt real enough to touch. The river, the animals, and trees are still fresh in my mind. Doc, the owner of the “wide net” has this little jewel of monologue:

“‘Any day now the change will come. It’s going to turn from hot to cold, and we can kill the hog that’s ripe and have fresh meat to eat. Come one of these nights and we can wander down here and tree a nice possum. Old Jack Frost will be pinching things up. Old Mr. Winter will be standing in the door. Hickory tree there will be yellow. Sweet-gum red, hickory yellow, dogwood red, sycamore yellow.’ He went along rapping the tree trunks with his knuckle. ‘Magnolia and live-oak never die. Remember that. Persimmons will all get fit to eat, and the nuts will be dropping like rain all through the woods here. And run, little quail run, for we’ll be after you too” (48).

Can you get more Mississippi than that? Some of these stories I couldn’t have understood without the benefit of Google. For example, “First Love” is the author’s imagining story of Aaron Burr’s clandestine meetings and subsequent capture and trial for treason near Natchez, Mississippi. “Asphodel” is heavy with Greek mythology, and “A Still Moment,” is a chance meeting between John James Audubon, a preacher, and a bandit. Still some of these stories, I didn’t completely grasp. They were dreamlike and just generally mystifying, full of vague signifiers, and possible allusions to sex and sexuality? I read these more for the the feeling that they invoked rather than trying to fully grasp the literal significance.

Welty’s descriptions of nature are astounding, eerie, mystical. “Late at night the whole sky was lunar, like the surface of the moon brought as close as a cheek” (19). These are the kinds of unearthly images that will stay with me from this collection.

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Book Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in AmericaHow to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m five years too late in reading this book, but better late than never. Kiese Laymon is not afraid to spit fire, to point fingers, to get to the heart of the truth. This book is worth reading just for the essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” Like this line: “I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America” (45). Damn. I didn’t realize that Laymon was such a devotee of hip hop–a few of his essays dive into this passion of his, some of which went over my head. But his language flows as if it is supposed to be read aloud. So good. I wanted to read this book of essays before diving into his memoir. Glad I did.

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MFA Semester One is Done!

Last week I completed the first semester of my creative writing MFA! I passed with all A’s, but more importantly, I feel like I have gained confidence as a writer. Here are some highlights:

  1. I wrote fiction and not all of it sucked. Going into the program, I knew my strength was in writing nonfiction, but that I wanted to use the MFA as an opportunity to try new forms and expand my skill set as a writer. My fiction workshop (well, all my classes, really) was still very challenging, but I produced a few things that I’m proud of, including a story that my MFA program chose to submit to the AWP Intro Journals Project. And best of all, I had fun making stuff up.
  2. I learned how to give and receive constructive feedback. It sounds cliche, but I learned just as much reading others’ work as I did sharing my own. I tried to be generous in giving suggestions, enthusiasms, and critiques. In turn, I was more aware of avoiding certain pitfalls in my own writing. Or I tried to emulate a craft technique that one of my classmates had done to great success. And hearing others’ feedback on my work was validating and helpful. I learned that in nonfiction, I need to tell more, give more insight into my thought process, offer confident, “sweeping generalizations” (a la Phillip Lopate). In fiction, I learned to heighten and draw out the tension, to not end so quickly and abruptly, to explore my narrators’/characters’ impulses and desires more fully.
  3. I read diverse and interesting books! I took a class called “Works in Conversation,” a literature class where we explored “literary fan fiction.” We read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, among others. In my fiction workshop we read experimental works by Amina Cain, Steven Dunn, and Carmen Machado. In that workshop, we wrote “imitations” of these authors’ styles or some element of their craft. I found that the imitations gave me room to play and helped me free myself from self doubt.
  4. I wrote a lot. I REVISED a lot. There was a lot of emphasis on revision in both my fiction and nonfiction workshops. Not just little revisions, but big structural revisions. One of my essays transformed into something completely different than how it started, save for a couple paragraphs. I learned that nothing is wasted, even the 12 pages of dialogue and description that didn’t make the cut. Often, it wasn’t until a few pages in, that I figured out what I was really writing about. This discovery process was in turns frustrating and exciting.

Last semester I took 11 credits, which was overwhelming, especially when multiple creative projects were due the same week. I didn’t have time or energy for the gym. I ate more frozen pizza than a normal person should. I didn’t go out much with friends. Next semester I’ll be taking 6 credits–a fiction workshop and “Forms of Drama.” I’m looking forward to pacing myself, taking more risks, submitting more of my work, and generally diving deeper into my writing.

Low Residency MFA Week 1

I started my online MFA classes last week. I’m taking a full courseload this semester: a Fiction Workshop (3 credits), a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop (3 credits), a literature class (3 credits), an in-person week long residency in October (1 credit), and editing the literary magazine (1 credit). Looking at the syllabi and counting up the number of written pieces and books to be read (22), I felt a cold sweat coming on. How the hell am I going to do this? Nonetheless, I’ve already submitted some assignments, and am staying on top of the reading.

Here are a few takeaways from my first week: Continue reading “Low Residency MFA Week 1”

Dreams vs. Goals

The other day, a writer friend of mine and I were talking about our goals. She is a fiction writer, and has actively been working on her writing for more years than me. In fact, she’s finished two manuscripts and is in the process of editing one of them. I on the other hand have a handful of articles in the local city paper, a few finished essays, and a lot of incomplete, yet buzzing ideas. Do you have any goals for the next year? she asked me.

“Well, it’s a stretch right now, but I want to be published in Bitter Southerner,” I said. “Maybe in 2019.”

“That’s a great dream, but that’s not really a realistic goal,” my friend replied. “You can’t control whether or not you get published in Bitter Southerner. A goal should be something that you can control.”

“Maybe your goal,” she continued, “could be to submit an essay to Bitter Southerner.”

I felt a little wounded–was this just a way to lower my expectations and avoid the pain of rejection? But I knew my friend was right. She shared with me that her goal was to finish the edits on her manuscript, not to get a book published.

I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. My goals shouldn’t require divine intervention. They should be realistic, under my control, achievable. Achievable goals are not a lowering of expectations. They are the stepping stones to achieving the larger big picture dream. For me, that dream is to get an essay published in Bitter Southerner, which in itself is part of a larger fantasy of my future writing career.

And here’s the thing, dreams and fantasies have nothing to do with THE WORK. My fantasy future self has a cool edgy hair cut and stylish, cohesive wardrobe. My first book is about to be published–it’s a compilation of essays that critics are calling “triumphant, breathtaking…” I have a beach house where I spend the summers with my husband. There’s a tidy desk in front of a window that overlooks the water. This is where I drink coffee and spend my mornings writing. Continue reading “Dreams vs. Goals”

In a Real Writer’s House

Before I took my creative writing class, I didn’t personally know any full-time, professional writers. Yes, there were many I admired, but I imagined them in a world far removed from my own–tucked away in urban lofts or secluded, rustic cabins, typing complex, metaphor-laden sentences on a laptop while sipping on a cup of pour-over coffee.

Then I met E, a successful, well-respected, full-time writer who also appeared to be a normal human being with a fondness for collared shirts in muted colors. During the six weeks of writing class, we writing students got to know each other and our teacher E. She was approachable and seemed genuinely interested in our lives–a deep curiosity that seemed to spill over from her experience as a journalist.

During one of our classes, she told us that a piece that she had submitted to a literary magazine was picked up and would be published the following week. Her excitement was palpable and contagious. My classmates and I couldn’t contain our curiosity. What was the submission process like? we asked. How long did it take to research and write the piece? How did she choose which publication to submit the article to?

Incredibly, E answered these questions in generous, glorious detail while we listened with rapt attention. As she demystified the basics of her draft to publication process, I felt a tingling awareness: Could I do this? Maybe I could do this.

After the class ended, I kept in touch with E. It felt important to keep her in my orbit, like a writerly guru. I wanted her knowledge and experience to rub off on me. Continue reading “In a Real Writer’s House”