Carolina Emerging Scholars

Today I had the pleasure of presenting at the Carolina Emerging Scholars conference in Lancaster, SC. The theme was Deathless Love and I decided to do a creative reading from my chapbook in progress, which is a retelling of myths, fables, and fairy tales. I was equally excited to find, once I got the program, that there were two other students presenting on fairy tales.

My presentation went really well and my work was warmly received. It’s so good to get that kind of feedback, in addition to the positive responses I’ve been getting from friends and family. What also helps is that I’ve started writing more poems in for the chapbook recently. I was worried that, after fifteen or so, I had used up all of my ideas and had nothing left to say. I’ve been reading and researching again, which is helping fill the well. Today was helpful too. I learned a lot of interesting things about spiritualism, spiritual photography, memorial photography, the Persephone myth, and zombies. I’m so glad I went and I’m also glad that the car didn’t break down on the way there. I was worried.

It’s just so important for me to not worry as much about what I am going to write and instead to read, research, and actually show up at the page. If I try to pre-determine, I often get stuck. That’s not to say I don’t brainstorm lists. I do, but I don’t let them determine what I have to write. Anyhow, productive day and I got home in time to watch Doctor Who!

First year of MFA done!

I started working on this post about a week ago. I wanted it to be some sort of grand wrap-up with everything I’ve learned over the past year. What a pain in the ass that turned out to be. It was also an uninspiring prompt. Instead, I will post things as they come to me.

One of the greatest lessons this year is to find a writer friend who will talk about your work openly and honestly. I was preparing to present a piece for Graduate Student Day and was stuck. For about a week, I kept trying to rewrite it but it didn’t seem interesting to me anymore. It was a nonfiction story I wrote last fall and I just wasn’t happy with it anymore. Instead of continuing to agonize over it, I sent it to one of my friends. She is a nonfiction student in program and took the same course with me. She was also in the poetry class with me so she had a pretty good idea of my style/voice. Her response was that the work wasn’t in my voice and that I was missing the body (so much of my work is focused on bodies yet here was a piece on reproduction that totally ignored it). She was right and I needed that kind of honesty from someone familiar with my work.

The piece was originally two stories wove together. Then I had a very vivid dream that I realized was related (I dreamed I gave birth). When I wrote the dream down, it was powerful and compelling in a  way that the original piece wasn’t. Then I started writing other sections that were related. By the end, I ended up with a braided narrative with the dream as a recurring sequence. It was in my voice and I was proud of it.

I think that can be part of the danger of MFA programs (or writing classes in general). You start writing for the assignment and lose part of yourself. I have to remember to play and be flexible with my work. I lost my voice but then I found it again and it is stronger than ever. If you don’t have a peer to read your work, find one and make sure it is someone who will be honest with you. The worst feedback (and the most common) is “it’s good.” Find someone who can articulate why it’s good or where they got lost/disconnected.

I’m looking forward to getting some writing done this summer. Next semester I am taking a longer nonfiction class so I want to go into it with a clear idea of my thesis project. There’s a great book that’s been helping me with that. I’ll post about that in a couple of days. Happy writing!

Workshop

Workshop: verb -ˌshäp 1. to pick something to death.

Ok, so my definition is a tad hyperbolic. In the wake of several rejections, I have also had to face workshopping almost every week. I appreciate my teacher’s and classmates’ feedback, I really do. I think it makes me a stronger writer and gives me new perspective. It is hard to step back from your work and see the bigger picture. Sometimes you just need fresh eyes on it. It’s just, sometimes, I wish a piece of my work could be good enough. Mind you, I don’t have any sophomoric fantasies of being awarded a medal in the middle of class, but it would be nice to promote less conversation regarding missed opportunities or what could be fixed. I guess that is a fantasy. I’d like to think of it as a goal too. I can only keep doing my best work.

I often wonder about what it is about the printed word that leaves is less open to commentary. As an English major, I often pick literature apart but I don’t make judgement calls on whether something is bad or good. Is it the finality of printing that changes the conversation? I don’t have a ready answer for this but I wonder what others think.

Region

Pikes Peak (Image by Beverly and Pack)

Yesterday, I returned home from the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference. I have to say, I had a better time there than at AWP in Denver a few years ago. The sessions were workshops instead of panels and I walked away with several new poems and ideas for a collection I am going to do on Colorado. With the strong representation of Appalachian writers and the further divisions among them, I started to think about my own region.

This semester I am in a Southern Literature class and we have been discussing what makes a writer Southern. In most cases, transplants don’t seem to count. You have to be born in the South and, preferably, have a Southern family lineage. This is complicated by numerous exceptions and authors that live in one region but write about another. Cormac McCarthy wrote about the West, but he was a Southern writer. What I am trying to figure out is where I fit in.

Since I’ve moved to South Carolina, I find myself being identified more and more as a Coloradan. I’m ok with that. I love Colorado and I hope to be back there after graduate school. My writing is now more rooted in place, and that place is Colorado. Here’s the problem: I am a transplant. That’s right, I was not born in Colorado. My dad was in the Army and we moved to Colorado Springs when I was ten. Prior to that, we lived in Virginia Beach and at least four German cities. So where is my region? I was born in Germany but I don’t speak German and I don’t set my stories there. I’m curious what other people think about this because I am really struggling with it. I don’t think it is merely enough to claim a region for your own. Do you just need the combination of writing about region and have live there at some point?

On a side note, here is an article on using Coloradan vs. Coloradoan.

Claflin Conference

On Thursday, I went down to Claflin University to present a panel and reading at their 10th annual Claflin University Conference on Contemporary English and Language Arts Pedagogy in Secondary and Post-secondary Institutions. Man that’s a long name. Anyhow, it was my first panel and I was fortunate to be presenting alongside some very talented students from USC. Like I do with all presentations, I write everything out I want to say. I ended up skipping a ton of it because it was just too dense. In the future I think I will use bullet points. Scanning blocks of text is not something I can do quickly so I end up saying um a lot to grant myself time. Lesson learned.

Another thing that I learned is that there seems to be a place for everyone’s style. Maybe that sounds silly or obvious even. There were six of us that read our work and each of our styles was drastically different. We all received positive feedback and had others approach us afterwards. I don’t know, I just found it very encouraging. I don’t have to force myself to be something I am not because the field is so open to different voices.

In other news – I just got my copy of Poets & Writers magazine. Fearless Books has a call for poetry. They have a $10 reading fee and that doesn’t include anything. That concerns me. I could see paying a couple of dollars to, say, The Colorado Review but $10 and no freebies seems like a lot especially for something that is only printed in ebook format. I am equally leery of the Indie book awards these kinds of publications post because those too are paying competitions with a lot of winners. Am I just being old-fashioned? What do you think?

The Importance of Templates

I have a piece on coffee that I have been planning to send to a food journal for a few weeks now. For some reason, I thought putting together a submission was going to be a lot of work (I mean besides the writing). I brought up my manuscript, which already had manuscript formatting so I didn’t have to make any changes. Then I brought up my cover letter. As I have been submitting work, I have been tweaking my cover letter. It is now in a simple format where I only have to change a few things and it is ready to go. With addressing, my submission has taken me under fifteen minutes.

If you plan on submitting your work I recommend that you: 1) always use manuscript formatting on your document files. It takes more work to add it in later. I cut and paste mine from other documents and just change the title/genre/word count. 2) Create a cover letter that you can be easily changed to fit all types of publications. Address labels are a huge help too. I keep my stamps/address labels/manuscript mailers in the same place and I always keep track of how much I have. One last thing I do is to wait a day before mailing my submission. Why? If I forgot something, I will likely remember it the following day. If it is already in the post, there is nothing I can do about it.

One thing you must do, check and recheck your manuscript header and your cover letter. Make sure that you didn’t forget to change the editor’s name or something else that will make you look…well…less than professional (yes, I busted out the ellipses for that one. It is that serious). Wish me luck!

On a side note, I just found out that riverrun is going to print one of my poems, a creative nonfiction short, and a photograph of one of my sculptures. I’m very excited.

Multi-Genre MFA

I happened to come across Hollins University on Facebook. Hollins is a private college offering an MFA in creative writing. They only accept twenty-four students each fall. Students work in poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I find the multi-genre approach very appealing. Students have to work in the three different genres. Although I lean towards creative nonfiction, I also enjoy writing fiction and poetry. I’ve actually published more poetry than creative nonfiction.

Their funding looks good and the cost of living in Roanoke is low. The application fee is only $40 (compared to the $50-$100 that seems to be standard. I’m not sure how many applications they receive so I don’t know how competitive admission is. I wonder how a multi-genre approach might fit my writing style. I don’t like writing in one genre exclusively but I’m not sure how in-depth a multi-genre approach would work. Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to wait for the information packet.

On a side note, I’ve been writing regularly since Saturday. I realized that in the hub-bub of getting into an MFA program, I haven’t been posting much on my writing process. I’m writing about 1,000 words per day. It’s interesting, knowing that I have to write each day actually makes coming up with ideas easier. Throughout my day, I try and come up with ideas and I pay more attention to the things I see.

Lately I’ve been working on structure. I never really thought about structure before. It sounds funny, I know. Once I started researching forms (dramatic, theme, collage, lyric, braid), I began to have a clearer understanding of craft. Right now, I’m working on writing into those structures. I will say that lyric is deceptively simple.

Jim Ciletti and the Writer’s Journal

I had a wonderful two days at Author Fest of the Rockies. I learned so much and was able to make some great connections. I’ll be posting on the seminars over the next few weeks so bear with me. Day one I didn’t record anything and I really regret it. Day two, I recorded everything. I’ll try and post some clips when I get out from under some of this homework. At least it is mostly creative writing homework this weekend.

One of the the seminars I went to was by Jim Ciletti, our current Pikes Peak Poet Laureate.  It was called: Sensating Poetry. He led us through an amazing exercise which helped me to write a poem. This is especially good news as I haven’t been writing much poetry.

When he came in, he brought a toolbox with him. Inside were crayons, paper, and other tools. He also laid out his journals. The journals were about 10×10 square (hardcover). Inside, he had written observations, words, snippets of conversation, and poems. He pasted in news clippings and pictures he was writing about. He also had a lot of freehand drawings. He said that he likes to draw things because it helps him make sure he is really looking at it. That might be a bad paraphrase. I recorded the session so I’ll have to listen to it.

I was so inspired that I stopped at Michael’s on my way home (the 20% off coupon didn’t hurt). I couldn’t find the exact size I wanted. I realized that part of the reason I don’t use my fancy journals is that they are too small and I don’t want to wreck them. With large sketchbooks, I can do whatever I want. I was stoked when I found the Artist’s Loft Canvas Sketchpad. The paper is decent quality and it is a nice size. The big plus is the cover is canvas so it can be drawn on, decoupaged, or even painted (after using gesso of course). I can’t wait to decorate it. It reminds me of the cloth binders I used to get when I was a kid. Eventually they’d end up covered in doodles and quotations. Without the coupon it was $9.9 (hint: if you signup for Michael’s email list, you get a 40% off coupon). I suggest investing in one and starting a journal if you haven’t already. I’m hoping my Tombow dual brush markers don’t bleed through the paper. Otherwise, I have a nice set of watercolor pencils (tip, if you are going to use watercolors in a notebook, place a dishtowel or a thick layer of paper towels under the sheet you are working on. This will soak up the extra moisture and help prevent warping).

I have a few other tips to share with you from Jim’s talk but those will come later. In the meantime, start your writer’s journal. Also be sure to check out Jim’s blog and his book of poetry, Sunfire.

Stay tuned for a realization on how a printed book is much better than an e-book (imho).

On Fire

Right now I’m in the midst of a lot of projects. I am being considered for a scholarship to two separate conferences, I am going to a poetry conference next weekend, I have just started my independent study in creative nonfiction, I am still looking for schools for my MFA, and I am now preparing to teach a creative writing class to at risk youth in my community. Why is it that the creative life happens this way for me? I go through periods of drought and doubt where I can’t seem to get any work going and I feel terrible about my life. Other times, I can barely breathe. So many good things are happening but I wish it could be paced out a little. I’m in school full time and it becomes a juggling act.

I shouldn’t complain when good things happen. I don’t mind being busy or obsessively working on a project. I do mind the periods where nothing is happening and I have trouble motivating myself.

My plan this weekend is to finish a scholarship packet, get ahead on class reading, write about five pages, and start planning the exercises for the class. I’ve found some great teaching resources put out by WritersCorps along with youth writing they’ve published. I’m a little nervous because I haven’t taught before. At the same time, I’m excited. Writing is my passion and I can’t wait to share it. We live in an ageist society where the voices of our youth are ignored. I’d like to give them some tools to aid in their writing but also to encourage them to keep writing.

I plan on taking a social justice/awareness slant. I want to share audio, art, news, and written works that will inspire them. I don’t think video is an option, otherwise I’d show some spoken word videos. Anyone know of artists who record spoken word? Any ideas for media I can share with them would be awesome.

Writing Begins With the Breath

I’m trying to get through Writing Begins With the Breath by Laraine Herring before school starts. I know I was supposed to read Spunk & Bite but I was kind of bored by it. I’ll go back to it soon, once I have time to give it the attention it deserves. I’m sure it gets much more interesting.

Herring’s book is amazing. She talks about the way we are blocking our writing instead of blaming writer’s block. There are a lot of exercises and I have to say that I stumbled on one of them. The exercises are emotionally intense and brought up a lot of painful feelings for me. Makes me want to reread Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo.

I’m going to try and work on the exercises more this evening. In the meantime, I’ve been researching MFA programs. Pine Manor is at the top because I like their program and my mentor lives a few miles away. I’ve heard Boston has a great arts scene. I don’t think it is wise to just pick one but I also don’t know how much I want to spend applying to different schools. So far, my list includes Pine Manor, Pacific University, Ashland, Goddard, Antioch, and Goucher. The application fees are $30-$50 each. It’s good to have options but how many do I really need.

I am also debating cross-genre studies. My main concern would be taking a semester away from creative nonfiction (and thus my thesis) to study poetry. While poetry could inform my writing, I don’t know if this would be a positive or negative thing. Pine Manor and Ashland offer cross-genre creative nonfiction and poetry. Given a choice, I’d love to go to school in New England. Hmm…