What do I write?

So, I mentioned in my last post that I aim to write 500 words a day. Having a daily word count goal is a solid piece of advice that’s often repeated by other writers. But as a new writer, I’m often stumped. What should I be writing?

Here’s my dilemma: I have a thousand ideas fluttering around in my brain, and I’m not sure which one to pin down. There’s that Saturday I went blackberry picking, and came home with 16 fire ant bites and 4 gallons of berries. There are the reflections I have around spending time with my aging grandma–going to her senior aqua aerobics class, how she dealt with an onset of mental illness in her 70s, but is now living the happiest, most social years of her life in a retirement community. There are the percolations of a novel, or maybe two novels, none of which are fully formed enough to pin down.

What I’ve been doing is writing what moves me in the moment–the essay about my grandmother for example. I write a shitty rough draft for a couple days, and then move onto something else. Often, after a long day at work, I just write an entry in my journal and call it a day. I feel lost without a concrete goal, like I’m wading out into the water, but as soon as I feel it lap around my knees I turn back towards shore.

How do I know what to work towards? How does anyone know when an idea is fully formed enough to begin translating into the written word? When do I abandon the shitty draft, and when do I come back to it to continue shaping, prodding, expanding? And then once it’s done…do I send it out to a publication? Or sit on it until the time is right?

And maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Keep going. Finish something. Jumping from draft to draft is an expression of my fear, I think. “Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability,” says Anne Lamott. I’m trying, it’s just that sometimes the ideas overwhelm me with the power of their potential, and I fear I won’t do them justice.

Writer Baby Steps

I’m taking baby steps toward being a real life writer. It’s been a bumpy four weeks since my writing class ended–I was producing one edited personal essay each week during class–but I’m plodding a long nonetheless. Here are some baby steps I’ve taken in the past month to become a better writer.

  1. Write (most) every day. This is a piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again from professional writers. Writing is a craft, and practicing consistently is the key to improving. I don’t write for a word goal (Anne Lamott recommends at least 300 words per day, while the #AmWriting ladies shoot for 1,000), but usually 500 words minimum feels about right for me. I also count writing in my journal towards the goal of writing everyday. I’ve slowly shifted my journal practice from being a diary-like confessional, to more like a series of mini essays, where I recreate interesting conversations with my mother-in-law, or recount a humid, sweaty afternoon picking blackberries in Morton, Mississippi.
  2. Write for a local publication. Emphasis on the “baby” in this step, but I’ve started to write little freelance things for our local “alternative newspaper.” The pieces I’ve written are about food and gardening, fluffy things, but I’m still getting experience writing on a deadline, working with an editor, and sending invoices to get paid for freelance work. These assignments pay very little, but they are also quick to write. I would like to write for some other local magazines and websites, just for some extra practice and resume padding.
  3. Read books and articles about writing. I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and started on DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira, host of the podcast by the same name. Other books like Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and David Sedaris’ Calypso aren’t necessarily instructional, but I got some interesting writerly insight from them nonetheless.
  4. Start a writing group. After our creative non-fiction class ended, all of us students decided we wanted to continue meeting. Though our writing styles differ, we all are committed to improving our writing and getting published. We met for the first time last night at a local coffee shop where we chatted about MFAs and politics, then sat down to do a 20 minute writing activity and share a piece of writing. It feels good to be part of a group of people who encourage one another to write more and write better.
  5. “Come out” as a writer. I’ve begun to self-identify as a “writer” when it comes up in conversation. I’ve told my family and some close friends about my writing ambitions. I even added the word “writer” to my LinkedIn blurb. There is something so freeing about speaking aloud the words “I am a writer, aspiring to become published.” Each time I say it, it feels a little more true, a little less imposter-y.
  6. Apply to an MFA program. This is the biggest, boldest step I have taken towards becoming a writer. For now, it looks like I have been accepted to the low residency MFA program I applied to, which means I would start taking classes this Fall. I am excited, and so very nervous.

So far, I’m happy with where my writing is headed. Of course, I could always be better, and more consistent, and more aggressive about getting published. And I’m still facing a lot of anxieties and challenges, which I’ll write about next time.

 

Freedom to Fail

When I do something that I know I’m bad at, I feel free. The stakes are low, if existent. If I fail, and someone laughs at me, there’s a high probability that I’m already laughing at myself.

For example, a few years ago, a designer friend invited me to be a model in a fashion show and wear some of her pieces. It was a local show–nothing crazy–but there would still be at least a hundred people in attendance, and we even had a rehearsal the day before. I had never modeled, nor had I ever desired to, but this seemed like a fun opportunity and a way to help out a friend. A few girls there really knew what they were doing. They showed me how to strut down the runway without tripping in my high heels, slower than you think, with the right amount of sashay in the hips. The night of the fashion show came–we were all backstage zipping up our dresses and putting on make-up. Continue reading “Freedom to Fail”

Writing Podcasts I Love

Podcasts are one of my favorite forms of entertainment. I spend a lot of time working solo in my production kitchen, and podcasts help pass the time in a way that feels meaningful and intellectually stimulating. While I subscribe to about 50 podcasts, there are about 15 that I eagerly download and listen to as soon as they pop into my feed. And this year I’ve discovered the world of writing podcasts. I’ve found that the best writing podcasts are practical, honest, inspirational, and entertaining.

  1. DIY MFA RadioHosted by Gabriela Pereira, founder of DIY MFA, this podcast features weekly interviews with debut and bestselling authors, editors, and agents. The interviews dig into the craft of writing and the authors share their individual writing processes, struggles, and tips. My favorite interviews are the ones with debut authors, who have just overcome the hurdle of writing and publishing their first book. The most recent interview with Kimmery Martin, author of Queen of Hearts. In it, Martin talks about her extensive revisions and the lessons she learned while writing her first book. Pereira ends all her interviews with the question “what is your number one tip for writers?” which always leaves me with something concrete to take into my own writing practice.
  2. Ann Kroeker Writing CoachAnn Kroeker publishes weekly 5 to 10 minute scripted episodes with “practical tips and motivation for writers at all stages.” Often her episodes are musings on the craft of writing, snippets of inspiration, or small writing “assignments” to boost your creativity. I particularly like her series episodes, where she delves into a certain topic (like “what do I write next“) for multiple weeks.
  3. #AmWriting with Jess & KJ. This podcast is a conversation between two friends and writers, Jess Lahey and KJ Dell’Antonia. They talk about a variety of different genres and types of writing with guests, as well as their own personal successes and challenges. While their discussions can sometimes go a little off the rails, I like the hosts’ frank and sincere tones and practical advice. And it’s always a pleasure when their friend, the prolific romance writer Sarina Bowen joins the conversation.
  4. What Should I Read Next? Okay, this isn’t really a writing podcast, but as writers, we should also be reading lots of books! Each week, Anne Bogel creator of the blog Modern Mrs Darcy, interviews a reader about the books they love, the books they hate, and the books they’re reading now, and makes recommendations for what they should read next. It’s fun, lighthearted, and I always come away with new book recommendations. I especially love the episodes with booksellers. Doesn’t owning a small, independent bookstore sound like a dream come true? This podcast will inspire you to keep reading (and writing)!

What podcasts (writing and other) do you listen to? Have you gotten any tips or practical advice from podcasts that have helped you become a better writer?

Applying to an MFA

I applied to an MFA program.

To be honest, an MFA wasn’t on my radar until I took my writing class. During the first class, one of the other students mentioned she was applying to MFA programs. Our instructor mentioned that she had done a low-residency MFA at Bennington College. My mind-gears started turning. I did some research the following week on low residency MFAs. They’re mostly online, with a few weeks of in-person workshops and seminars throughout the year. There’s only one low residency MFA program in Mississippi, at the Mississippi University for Women. It was astonishingly affordable, less than half the cost of the Bennington program.

Writing. Creative writing. Putting words to paper, describing and condensing the world around me, translating ephemeral thought and opinion into black and white type–it’s the hardest and most rewarding thing.

An MFA, specifically the MUW MFA, began to make more and more sense. My business is in the midst of a transition (vague, I know), allowing me to explore new career options. I also have AmeriCorps award money that needs to be spent on education expenses in the next few years, or else it will disappear. Plus, a low residency program also allows for the flexibility to work full time while going to school. And not only is MUW affordable, but it’s situated smack dab in the heart of the South, like me. Also Eudora Welty went there!

Most importantly, the real reason I applied: I want to become a better writer. I’m ready to plunge straight into the deep end. I want to be published. I want to write a book, maybe even multiple books. And I can’t think of a more thorough writerly boot camp than an MFA program.

The application deadline is June 30, but after an encouraging call with the director of the program, I decided to whip my application into shape and submit it as soon as possible. I contacted old professors to write me recommendation letters, then I sat down for the agonizing task of writing my LETTER OF INTENT.

There are few things more agonizing than writing a letter to showcase your skill as a writer, knowing that it will be read by other professional writers. Thank god for drafts, because my first draft was full of whimsical stories about my childhood obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books and how I uttered the word “butterfly” at 10 months and my mom thought I was a genius, and how I wanted to be Harriet the Spy for a good 3 years. And then I deleted all of that garbage.  My letter ended up being to the point. I briefly shared some pertinent personal background, my undergrad studies of English & Spanish literature, the authors who have influenced me, and why the program appealed to me. Here is an excerpt:

I primarily write nonfiction essays on the intersection of place, culture, and identity. This intersection endlessly fascinates me as a transplant to the South, as a child of the suburbs, as a Jew living in the Bible Belt, and as a woman living in a man’s world. Tom Wolfe once said, “it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars, than to try to blend in.” I often find myself as a sort of “woman from Mars” in various situations; the perspective of the outsider is one I find most interesting and advantageous as a writer.

I received good feedback from the director, and if all goes well, I will start the program this fall. I could not be more excited. (Also nervous!) Doing an MFA is the ultimate grand gesture to my writing. It is a statement that my writing is worth the investment.

What are your thoughts on an MFA program? Would you ever apply to one? Did you find an MFA helpful in your writing career? I’m so curious to know.

 

6 Reasons to Take A Community Writing Class

This week I finished my first community writing class, which was offered through a local liberal arts college. The college offered a handful of writing classes; the one I took was on creative non-fiction. It cost about $100. If you’re an aspiring or amateur writer who is on the fence about taking a writing class, here are some reasons why you should take the leap.

  1. Accountability. Knowing that there would be ACTUAL living humans reading my writing gave me a push to work hard on my essays. I put more effort into editing my work than I normally would if I were just writing for myself. Of course, there are no grades in community writing classes, and the teacher made it clear that we should still come to class even if we didn’t have something prepared. But, if you are the kind of person who responds well to outer accountability and you want to write more, then this aspect alone should be a convincing reason to take a writing class.  
  2. Encouragement. Don’t expect technical or substantial critical feedback from your community writing class. I went in expecting critical feedback, but I soon realized that this wasn’t the point. What our teacher understood, was that instead of ripping our work to shreds, most of us just needed the validation that something in our writing connected. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes that most unpublished writers “need attention. They need someone to respond to their work as honestly as possible but without being abusive or diminishing.” (155) It’s okay to need tenderness around your writing, especially when just starting to share your work with others. After all, this is not an MFA, it’s a community writing class. You will leave your writing class feeling uplifted and motivated to continue. 
  3. New Writing Forms. Your class will have a writing instructor, and that instructor will (hopefully) know more than you. My writing class instructor is an extremely talented writer who has been published in journals, magazines, and papers all over the place. She knows a lot about writing, and she shared that knowledge with us. Each week we were assigned a different “form” of creative non-fiction: memoir, humor, document-based essay (drawing inspiration from a photo or a receipt or an old recipe, etc.), montage essay, and more. Writing in a variety of forms was at times challenging, and at times liberating. I enjoyed the challenge of stepping outside my comfort zone to explore new ways of writing.
  4. Make New Writer Friends. Sharing your writing with others and reading their writing in return is a beautiful way to build meaningful connection. A writing class is a vulnerable, but deeply supportive place. Lean in to these connections, and when the classends, chances are you’ll have writer friends who may even want to continue meeting as a writer’s group. I was the youngest of five people in my class. We all came from diverse backgrounds with wildly different interests and writing styles, yet, by the end of our six weeks together, we all felt a deep connection to one another. Writing is hard; you need other writers with whom you can celebrate and commiserate. What better place to find these like-minded people than in a community writing class?
  5. Great Reading Suggestions. Take a writing class for no other reason than the good reading material you’ll walk away with. Each week we were “assigned” various essays and articles from which to draw inspiration. Additionally in each class, the instructor offered numerous suggestions for books and journals and websites, which I furiously wrote down in my notebook and transferred to my Goodreads list. Other students offered suggestions for reading material–books on writing and other creative nonfiction books. I came away with a thick stack of TO READS that I know will help me to become a better writer.
  6. Write More. There is no doubt about it–taking a community writing class will help you to write more. You’ll get into a weekly rhythm, and the warm fuzzy feelings from class will buoy you with the energy to write, write, write, and re-write. Whether your goal is to apply to an MFA program, get published, or write your life story for your future great grandchildren to read, a community writing class is the little energy boost to get you going. Do it!

Have you taken a community writing class? Did it help your writing? Would you recommend it to others? I’m curious to know what others’ experiences are!

At the Heart of It All

The dream of being a writer is at the heart of it all. It is the seed, dormant and ungerminated. It is the pale cicada larva, nestled within the cool earth. The dream is all potential with no certainty.

The dream is scary because to know it is to risk losing it. The dream is scary because it is powerful. It is an act of faith. It is religion.

We shroud our writerly dream in mystery, swaddle it in reverence. We create a small shrine and decorate our dream with flowers and trinkets. We light candles in its honor. We pretend that the dream is ephemeral, like fate and anti matter. The dream is more beautiful this way because it is not real. It is easier to light another candle in devotion than it is to burn down the church. Continue reading “At the Heart of It All”