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”

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”

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.