The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

51W5fiDabHL._SY380_This is a bit of a belated post. Last summer, I was contacted by James Borton to see if I was interested in helping put together a manuscript for a call he had done on illness narratives. By the end of the year, and after countless hours of work, we had a book. An anthology to be exact. The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives came out in January and it makes my heart feel good to see the stories out and in the public. These are people, myself included, writing about illness, injury, and death. These are family members, patients, and care-givers. That’s part of what makes this collection unique. We have doctors writing poetry alongside patients writing poetry (or narratives).

In putting together the collection, I had to read the manuscript several times (it was with these stories in mind that I created the cover painting). It began with reading the Chicago Manual of Style and figuring out things like how to create a table of contents, how to number the pages, and what is the difference between a prologue and a preface. If you are a writer, I suggest you spend an evening reading it over. It is eye-opening. Even armed with this knowledge though, it was a steep learning curve when the manuscript got accepted by Copernicus Healthcare. There was formatting in the document that I wasn’t even aware of. Each time I looked over a new e-version of the manuscript, I found additional errors. We even had outside proof-readers. I guess, no matter what, there will still be some issues but it is worth the work to make sure you have put out a quality product.

What we ended up with was a quality product. When my sister proofread, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives she found it overwhelming. It brought up a lot for her. To me, as a memoirist, that’s the highest honor a work can receive. To have a reader say, I feel so much when I read this that I have to take it in a bite at a time is huge. To know that there is a community that has developed out of this work  makes my heart happy. The comments that have started to come in on Amazon and the reviews on multiple blogs and websites prove attest to the book’s reach. The collection is $14.95 and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and many other booksellers.

Semester Wrap-up and Playwriting

In a meeting with one of my mentors, I found myself listing all of these great things that had happened over the semester but then still somehow sounding like it wasn’t great. I tend to underemphasize the good and overemphasize the bad. My therapist and I are working on shifting this. It is hard to sit with my accomplishments (as she says). Why? I was raised thinking that to talk about ones own accomplishments was to brag and bragging was unattractive. No one wanted to be around a selfish braggart.

Part of working on this is to recognize the good. This semester I successfully taught my first English 101 section. I fell in love with teaching, something I didn’t expect. I saw my students grow in their writing and that makes my heart happy. I presented a nonfiction work as part of a panel on motherhood (I have decided not to have children yet) at the Southern Women Writers Conference in Mt. Berry, Georgia in October. At the conference, I won a place in a poetry workshop with Barbara Hamby. She was amazing and truly generous with her time. I also got to hear Dorothy Allison (swoon) speak and was first in line to get my book signed. It was wonderful to be able to tell her how her book, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure opened up my memoir for me. Before that I was blocked and lacking direction. She shook my hand, signed my book, and even talked a little shop with me.

Earlier this month, I got to give a poetry reading at an event benefiting Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands. I had people come up to me afterwards and ask where they can read my work (thus the drive to produce a chapbook). The anthology I am co-editing, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors, is being published and I just finished the final edits this evening. The first class I tutored at Kirkland Correctional Institution just graduated, which was one of the most beautiful events I have ever attended. This is in addition to finishing two workshop classes complete with portfolios. Life is good, yet busy. Unbelievably busy at times. So much so that there is a terrible rumor going around the program that I don’t sleep.

In telling another of my mentors about the prison tutoring I did and the related poetry I’ve written, she suggested playwriting. So, here I am in the midst of memoir, working on a chapbook, and planning a class, and now thinking about writing a play. She recommended starting with John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” I also grabbed a copy of Playwriting: Brief and Brilliant by Julie Jensen. It was a really short read, about 80 pages and large print. As a short primer, it does its job. My main concerns were a quick grasp of the general conventions and formatting. I got that in an easy to read format. I do wish she had included a sample manuscript so I could see more, especially of the second page which lists characters, setting, and has a synopsis.

I was a bit worried about getting “distracted” by another project but it is amazing what I can get done when I am not watching television or playing World of Warcraft. Today has been a work day and I’ve been hugely productive. I might have to try this unplugging thing more often. I’ve often felt that I didn’t spend enough time reading, maybe now is a time to change those habits. Just in time for the new year. Anyhow, back to Jensen’s book, she has a nice four page list of her favorite plays. I plan on reading as many of them as I can over the break. Well, while I work on my memoir and chapbook. A writer’s work is never done.

Junot Diaz and Fear

As part of the Fall Literary Festival at USC, Junot Diaz did a public reading and a master class with the MFA students. He is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown. He said a lot of things that resonated with me. He talked about how writers would be better off if they spent more time with readers, if they read, and if they make space for readers within the text. Both presentations were wonderful, but what really stuck with me was his comments on fear. He put into words what I have been feeling in the program lately. I’ve felt like I am not hacking it and I’m a fraud. These are common fears for writers (especially the later one). I even had a brief moment recently where I didn’t think I could make it any longer. That’s not to alarm anyone, it was a momentary thought guided more by fear than rational thought. He talked about how all of us in MFA programs are afraid and we can’t let that fear effect our play. We have to be open and willing to explore.

After the reading, I waited in line to have my books signed. I wanted to tell him how much it helped me to hear him talk about those fears. It made a space within me where it was ok to feel those things. I knew it because I had heard other students express the same fears but, for some reason, it took Junot Diaz saying it to me for it to sink in. Anyway, when I got up to him in line, I told him about my fears that I couldn’t hack it. He told me, and mind you this is paraphrase, to “Read. Read what you love. Go back to what you love and regroup. You’re spooking yourself out. There is no one better than you girl, I don’t care how many poems or stories other people write.” His comments really struck me. He was right. Since I’ve come here, I haven’t read any nonfiction other than what has been required for class. I am letting myself get pulled in all these different directions that have nothing to do with the real reason I am here or are only secondary to it. Since last night, I’ve thrown myself back into my academic work. Instead of sitting around feeling overwhelmed, I am trying to get the work done so I can focus the rest of my time on reading and writing. It is all about creating space for the work you love.

Old Friend from Far Away

I am a huge Natalie Goldberg fan. I know I have posted on Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) and Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
several times. I’m too lazy to look but you can either take my word for it or use the search function. Last night, my creative nonfiction teacher brought in Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. This one has been on my wishlist for quite some time. What I didn’t know was that it is a book full of nonfiction prompts. The prompt we did in class was “no thank you.” Write down “no thank you” on a piece of paper and start writing. Each time you pause, write down “no thank you” again. This worked really well for me and I was able to get a good start on my collage that is due in the next few weeks. I ordered the book this morning and can’t wait until it comes.

Sixteen Days Left

I am leaving for South Carolina in sixteen days. I am excited but at the same time a little apprehensive. The program entails graduate classes (creative writing, lit, and theory), teaching classes, studying for a comprehensive exam, thesis and thesis defense, and a foreign language translation exam. It just seems like so much work (although that is the point right?). I know I will be fine as I work well when challenged but I am still nervous. Mainly because I don’t know exactly what to expect. I am glad we are arriving two weeks before school starts so I can get familiar with the area, that will help.

As far as writing, I have not been sticking to my daily goal. Mostly because I have been sick but also partly because I am avoiding it. I hope to start again on the 15th. I do have two pieces that need a final edit and then can go out.

On a side note, I finished The Two Kinds of Decay. I appreciated the way the stories moved back and forth through time but, at points, it was confusing. Her illness ends and she then struggles with alcoholism though not much information is given about that (perhaps there is another book forthcoming). It seems sort of thrown in at the end. Her treatment of the lack of details was honest and added authenticity to the work. She is up front with the  reader which always goes far. It was interesting and kept me reading up until the point where she started talking about alcoholism.

Thanks Natalie Goldberg

One of the books I return to over and over again for writing inspiration is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. One reason I like it is that it is composed of short sections. I don’t have to sit and read for a long time. In fact, it is perfect for reading just before writing. Anyway, I picked it up about three days ago and the first section I came to was the part where she talks about filling one notebook a month as a writing goal. I went to Wal-mart and bought a couple of pretty spiral notebooks so I could get started. Luckily it was the 15th as I only like to start writing notebooks on the 1st or 15th of the month.

So far it has worked. It is hard sometimes to fill the required number of pages (works out to rough 4-5 pages a day). That just takes time and adjusting to the writing practice again. Most people have this romantic images of writers but it is actually hard work. Very hard work. The discipline is the hardest part. It is probably easier for those who have deadlines, which I don’t. Deadlines have always helped me get my but in gear. It is just hard when you have no one to hold you accountable.

No Conference

So I did not get to go to the Sigma Tau Delta conference this week to read my work “Patient States She Hates Herself.” I was bummed but in a way relieved; I have a lot of work to do over the break. It looked like we were going to get funding but then the airfare tripled.

I have been trying to focus on my trauma presentation coming up at the Shepard Symposium. This week I am housesitting and I thought it would help give me some quiet time. Instead, I find myself missing home and watching mini-marathons of Criminal Minds. I did manage to buckle down yesterday and get my outline finished and sort through all of my research. I also spent a good chunk of time reading Julie & Julia for my food writing class. I got the movie tie-in edition because I am a sucker for that kind of marketing crap. I was surprised by how good it is. It reads like a memoir with some scenes of fiction (mainly dramatizations from Child’s life). Powell does a good job of developing herself as a character and really giving the reader a sense of why she needs to master Mastering the Art of French Cooking, even if she doesn’t yet realize why. I read sixty pages last night and really enjoyed it. If you haven’t seen it, check out the movie. This may be the one time in my life that I like the book as much as the movie and vice versa. We’ll see.

Anyway, I am going to get back to work. Hopefully I make some headway today. Happy writing.

Look Out Genre, Here I Come!

If you are like me, you have several novel ideas that ended up in a folder somewhere; lost and never written. When my sister suggested we write a genre novel together one of my old ideas came to mind. I got out the sample chapters and the two of us were able to use them and write an outline in a couple of hours. We are going to have to figure out how to co-author. Right now, we are going to alternate chapters. I am hoping that works. It is a fantasy novel. I am excited to try my hand at genre fiction again. I have to say, genre fiction is one of my guilty pleasures that I don’t get to indulge in often enough.

We’ll see how it goes. It is about the middle of the term and we are both incredibly busy. I should try and read some genre fiction in order to get back into the swing of things. I have the entire Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind which was the basis for the tv show Legend of the Seeker (LOTS). I am still pissed off that it got canceled. There has not been a good fantasy show since Xena Warrior Princess. Finally, along comes LOTS and the network pulls the plug after two seasons. Ok, I got that out of my system….sort of. You can check out the campaign to save the show here.

If you are new to the genre check out the following writing books:

The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction
How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference

Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy

Here are three that look promising. I haven’t read them so no guarantees:

Alchemy with Words: The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol I
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol II: The Opus Magus
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol III: The Author’s Grimoire

I might have to try to talk the hubby into letting me buy more books. I have an addiction as I am sure most of my fellow writers do. Happy writing!

Taking Yourself Out of the Story

This past weekend, I finally got an opportunity to go to the Tattered Cover. It has to be the most well known bookstore in the state of Colorado. I enjoyed it so much, that I ended up visiting two locations before I left (Colfax Avenue and Historic Lower Downtown). I really appreciated the fact that the Tattered Cover carries a good selection of literary journals. Down here in Colorado Springs, most of the bookstores don’t carry them and if they do, it is only a few. I picked up a copy of the Colorado Review while I was there and a used copy of Writing Creative Nonfiction. For me, this was restraint. If I had the money, I would have bought a copy of the Copper Nickel and a few others.

Last night, I started reading Writing Creative Nonfiction. The first essay I read was “Writing Yourself Out of the Story: Narrative Stance and the Upright Pronoun” by Philip Gerard. The essay discusses the overuse of “I” in creative nonfiction. This is something I have struggled with. My stories tend to focus on the internal and I have wanted to writes something more external. There are events that I have witnessed but not participated in that I want to write about. By not using “I,” I can focus on the story that is unfolding and keep myself out of it. Well, as much as possible.

Gerard writes that the author still participates in the story. This happens in the form of tone. He says, “Tone is nothing more or less than the attitude of the author, expressed in the words he chooses, the selection and ordering of events, and the rhythms of language. It is the intelligence behind the words, the author’s implicit sense of what things mean.”

One of the exercises at the end of the section was to write about an incident you witnessed without using first-person pronouns. I tried it and it was quite effective. When I was about eight years old, I saw my grandfather gut a catfish. It was so disgusting that I stopped eating fish. When I tried writing the story from the first-person, it was one dimensional and not much happened. By using the third person, I was able to talk more about my grandfather and how his sensations would have differed from mine. In short, I was able to take a fragment and turn it into a flash nonfiction piece.

The use of third-person can also provide a sense of distance from the subject. Gerard gives some great examples from short stories. He even discusses the use of “we” when talking about issues that affect entire communities, like Hurricane Fran. I have wanted to write on experiences like watching the events of September 11th unfold on the television and the way it impacted my community. “I” doesn’t feel appropriate because I was just an observer of what happened on the television. The events were much bigger than myself and what happened in my community was a very small piece of what was going on. I think, by using distance and avoiding the first-person pronoun, I can write something that is true to the experience, emotionally powerful, and that honors the experiences of others.

Feeling like a Winner

I got an email today from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I won a copy of Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda in their online sweepstakes. You just can’t go wrong with free books. By the way, you should check out Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. It is from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. It was the textbook for my first creative writing class (fiction) and I am glad I kept it. The sections on point of view and theme are extremely helpful. You’ll find that a lot of the information pertains to creative nonfiction as well as fiction.

I am pleased to say that I have written every day in 2011 so far. Hmm…I just realized that it is 1/11/11. Interesting. Anyway, it has been going well. It is easier for me to be productive if I do my writing first thing in the morning, even with non-writing related activities. Once that burden has been lifted, I feel freer to pursue other things. I am still working on my paper on the trauma narrative. I also have two scholarship applications to complete along with the symposium proposal and I am collaborating on a paper on forms of resistance in the Jim Crow era. On top of that, school starts Tuesday. Yikes! Well, I don’t think it will be too bad. I cut down to four classes, three days a week. For me, that is a vacation. I really want to have the time to put into my classes (especially food writing) so I come out of it with publishable work. I also need to research journals for my paper on Zora Neale Hurston. Her birthday is this month and I was thrilled to see that The Writer had an article about her.

That is about it for today. I am going to get my research papers together from last semester and see what is potentially publishable.