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”

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?