On the Inside

Yesterday was my first day tutoring at a local men’s correctional facility here in South Carolina. I wasn’t sure what to expect and, to be honest, I was nervous. Not of the people so much but of the experience of going inside. It’s a strange feeling to be in a place you cannot easily get out of. Anyway, this particular group of men work with a local Christian college to earn an Associates degree. They are individuals who will never see the outside of the prison. I find it amazing and inspiring that the college sees the worth of these people and works to educate them. Once they finish their degrees, they can be placed in other facilities to be aids or provide ministerial support. There are two groups in the program and the one we met is taking a memoir writing class right now. I went in with a couple of colleagues and after we introduced ourselves, they went around the room and told us their names. I was surprised by the positive attitudes I encountered. Afterwards, several of them came up to us and wanted to ask questions about writing, to share an experience, or even have us read a short work they had written. It was amazing to see such commitment to writing and a desire to improve craft. I could take a lesson from them in that department as I’ve had a little trouble getting my memoir started this summer. I don’t have much else to say besides that it was such an uplifting experience for me. I’ll be back next week so I will keep you posted.

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!

Follow Your Freak

So yesterday, after I finished posting about workshopping, I decided to read a few pages of Writer’s Digest before bed. There was a short piece with interviews from four Pulitzer winning novelists. I was excited to see Junot Diaz (author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown). First, I appreciate him being honest about the arbitrary nature of such prizes. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be flaunting it if I won. I can’t help it, I’m a magpie and awards are bright and shiny. He did talk about the way in which the award allowed him to reach a different set of readers.

Anyway, here’s what he had to say about his writing philosophy:

“To be an artist, first and foremost, which means to be always on a journey of discovery and not a journey of approval. Which is a fancy way of saying my philosophy is: Take your time, follow your freak and prefer from an audience the complexity of conversation over the simplicities of approval.”

So once again, Diaz is saving the day with his words of wisdom. No, I have not been following my freak. I’ve been open to sharing very personal work but I have wanted approval more than I have been seeking discovery. I’m not entirely sure what following my freak would look like, maybe just knowing that I am an artist and not needing the outside approval from others? The other day, on my Facebook page, I asked when I would finally make the transition from student to writer. I’m already a writer but I will always be a student. There will always be new things for me to learn that will help me grow as a writer.

Be sure to grab a copy of this month’s Writer’s Digest. There’s an interview with Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead (on of my tv favs) and lots of other goodies. Also be on the lookout for Diaz’s new short-story collection This is How You Lose Her coming out in September.

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.

Drunken Boat Rejection

I’m leaving for Charlotte tonight and then it is off to Boston tomorrow for a quick visit before the semester starts. In the meantime, here’s the rejection I got from the Drunken Boat. Strange that it was emailed to me at almost 1 am. That did not help me sleep. Fairly standard automated reply.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for sending us your submission. Unfortunately, our readers felt that it was not a good fit for Drunken Boat, and we will be unable to publish it.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Drunken Boat

Less is More

Yesterday I read a great article in the Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers. It is the inspiration issue and it was phenomenal. I spent all day yesterday reading it. The article I want to focus on is “Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration” by Frank Bures. In the article he talks about spending less time online in order to create room for inspiration. He cites a University of California study that showed “in 2008 Americans consumed thirty-four gigabytes of information per day, the equivalent of one hundered thousand words — or 350 percent more than we consumed on a given day in 1980.” Holy crap right? I started to think about my own internet usage. Some time ago, I put a timer on my internet browser. I was surprised to see how much time was sucked away by checking my email, Facebooking, and feed reading. I often disappear down a virtual rabbithole that ends up with me watching cute baby animal videos for an hour. Not very productive to say the least.

As a response, I turned off my phone’s email notification setting. There are many times when I have been working on something that it goes off. I check it and put it back in my pocket. Moments later, the phone goes off again. I probably check my phone about a hundred times a day. Since yesterday, I have already noticed a difference in my productivity. I spent the day reading which is unusual for me. I am often afraid people will find out how little time I spend reading and writing and kick me out of the writer’s club. Yesterday I was a model student. I spent the day reading, did a writing exercise, and wrote three pages toward my thesis. Today I’ve worked out, done some reading, and am now blogging. I like checking email when I have time and choose to do so, not have it foisted upon me by my smart phone.

I spent the day reading the issue of Poets & Writers. There was another great article on inspired reading lists. It made me think about how much I have sitting around that I haven’t read. Hopefully, with the time freed up with less internet, I will get to that reading. I also want to be able to do all of the reading next semester. We’ll see on that one. Start thinking about what is holding you back. Is it TV and internet like it is for me? It is good to have some downtime by why can’t reading be a way to relax and unwind? That is a little hard for me as I was/am an English major and all reading feels like work. Happy writing.

30 Below Results (Not Me)

Thought I would share my latest rejection letter.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for entering “Title” in the 30 Below Contest. We were grateful for the opportunity to read and consider your work, and we regret that your entry was not one of our winners or finalists this time.

An announcement of the winning stories will soon go out to the magazine’s readership, and in January we will publish the winning stories. In addition to the winners, many of the finalists’ stories will also be published. This year’s 30 Below Contest has brought forward a remarkable number of works by notable new and emerging young writers whom we are delighted to feature.

We are grateful to you for taking part in the contest, and we hope you will keep Narrative in mind for your work in the future.

Again, thank you for your entry, and please accept our kind wishes.

Sincerely,

The Editors

Expect to Write Crap

Recently, I read a really terrible short story. I mean really bad. To be fair, everyone writes crap when they start out. It is called paying your dues. The trick is to know when your writing is terrible. I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I had years of writing absolute garbage. As a writer, you read more and you write more and you start to improve. That’s just how it works. Consequently, I think this is where most people get discouraged and give up writing.

Sometimes I still write crap, but I am at the point where I can (generally) recognize when my writing stinks. There is such a push to become published that many writers submit work that is painfully not ready yet. I’m not trying to be offensive and I do applaud these writers for producing something and putting their work out there. Most people can’t get past the blank page.

That being said, here is some advice for the new writers out there. This is just my opinion so feel free to disagree. If you balk at this and you are a beginning writer, consider why you are resisting. It’s like Alan Rickman says in the trailer for Seminar, “if you’re being defensive, you’re not listening.”

1) Exclamation points: Use these sparingly or, preferably, not at all. If someone is yelling, find a way to convey it through their word choice and body language.

2) Semicolons: Use these sparingly too, especially if you don’t know how they are supposed to function in a sentence. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences. The semicolon indicates a close relationship between the two sentences. Check here for more info.

3) Adverbs: If you are using lots of adverbs (verbs ending in ly), your writing is not strong enough. Don’t tell me she picked up her teacup daintily. Tell me she pinched the cup with the tips of her thumb and forefinger and extended her pinky. You can use some, just don’t overdo it. It will really stick out in a flash piece or short story.

4) Use quotation marks. I’ve seen this several times. Some writers think it is original or cool to omit quotation marks around dialogue. This just makes it harder for the reader to separate what is said from the action that is taking place. Here’s an example of a section of text from Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet: A Novel with all of the quotation marks removed:

I can, I said with a show of carelessness, but I’m not sure that I shall. I turned to my mother, who sat sewing by the empty grate. You won’t mind, will you, I said lightly, if I go back again tomorrow night?

Pretty hard to follow right? It does not come off as clever or avant-garde. It is just confusing.

5) Each action does not need to be in a paragraph of its own. Movement is difficult to write, I’ll admit, but making each movement a paragraph of its own makes it hard to follow. Action aside, try to shy away from single sentence paragraphs. They are alright every now and again but become unbearable when there are a lot of them.

6) Make sure the subject is clear. If I say that the fence ran past her, I am not saying that she was running past the fence and the background became a blur. What I am saying is that the fence is literally running by her. The reason for this is the fence is the subject of the sentence so the verb ran is showing the action of the fence not of the woman.

7) This is primarily for non-fiction writers: don’t name drop. No one really wants to hear about that yacht trip I took with the Princess of Monaco…well, not unless something really interesting happened. Otherwise, the reader just thinks I am bragging.

8 ) This should go without saying but don’t be racist. I get that some characters are racist and that it can be part of characterization. My thought is though, if there isn’t a reason for it don’t include it. Be aware of where you are writing from. I recently read a piece with a privileged, white main character working in retail who believed he had suffered as much as a migrant worker. This could have been used to show more about the character and his skewed perception of the world, but it was presented in a serious manner with no hint of irony. One issue I’ve come across a few times is the word Oriental. Oriental is a term used for objects not for people.

So that’s it for now. I wanted to get up to ten but I’m tired from too much turkey. A disclaimer to this is that you can get away with a lot more in a novel. Why? Because it is such a lengthy work that some of these writing issues go by unnoticed. The story is generally more involved and sweeps the reader past such problems. That is, if you can get the reader to get past the first few pages. There are exceptions to these rules, I know. Sarah Waters uses adverbs but she’s Sarah Fricking Waters. I think a lot of beginning writers equate experimenting with rules (breaking them that is) with voice and originality. All I can say is don’t worry about your voice, it is something that will develop with time. In the meantime, just keep writing and try to create polished pieces that are easy for the readers to follow.

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.

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.