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.

Typing Away

It’s been over a month since my last post. So, what have I been doing with myself? A lot of reading for one. I reread Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. I also read Alice Sebold’s Lucky, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure and I am in the process of reading DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo. None of these works are on my comprehensive exam list, but they have been instrumental in helping me start my memoir. I’m in weekly therapy sessions, working through The Courage to Heal, and tutoring a group of students taking a memoir class at Kirkland Correctional Institution.

It’s been a struggle. So many ugly things from my past have come up and now that I am not using compulsive overeating as a way to deal with them, I have to sit with the related feelings. The good news is I am writing. I am using my typewriter again as I find I am less distracted than on the computer. It is also easier to read than my handwriting. Thus far, I have forty pages I have converted into a manuscript on MS Word. I still have a pile of both handwritten and typewritten pages plus pages of old writing I want to sort through and include some of. I also find the typewriter helpful as I can stop mid-thought and come back and add a word or two at any point. I just leave the sheet of paper in my typewriter. This is easier than having to boot my computer and open up the document. Besides, just turning on the computer usually leads me down a rabbit trail of cute animal pictures, feeds, and interesting YouTube videos. Something about the noise of the typewriter helps me focus too.

So that’s where I am at. Still depressed but working and that makes all the difference in the world. Happy writing.

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.

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.

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.

Summer (Break) is Here!

Well, I survived finals. My last paper (on the use of literary allusions to Poe as a stepping stone to critiquing mass culture in Native Son) went better than I expected. I had to cut out a lot of what I wanted to include because I was limited to ten pages. I guess that is a sign that I am ready for grad school.

Anyway, I have been practicing my French translation for the exam I will need to pass at USC. That is good and all but I haven’t done any writing since the semester ended. I suppose it is time to get off of my keister and start. I would really like to treat it like a job this summer with set hours so I go into my MFA program as prepared as I can be. It is strange not having deadlines or assignments. Usually, I am so swamped with work and extracurricular obligations that I don’t have time to think about much else.

I am not sure if I should stay home and write or find somewhere nearby. It doesn’t help much that it has been cold, foggy, and rainy/snowy here. Weather like this just saps my energy. We’ll see. In the meantime, I have two new Julia Cameron books to look over: Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance and The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch. They have been on my wishlist for a while and when I saw them at $3.99 buy one get one free, I couldn’t resist. Actually, it was a bit of a shopping victory. Because I am a Borders Rewards Member, I got an extra 10% off of the book. I also bought a medium chai latte and a marshmallow square. I couldn’t use the 40% coupon on the books but they did take it off of my chai. Plus I get an extra 10% off of goods in the cafe. I also had $5 in Borders bucks so for two books, a medium chai, and a marshmallow square I paid $2.73.

I know, I get too excited over discounted books but hey I don’t buy a lot of clothes or shoes. I think most writers are fetishists when it comes to books and blank journals. That went a little off topic. So, my plan is to write every day this summer. Perhaps reinstituting my 1,000 words a day requirement will help.

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.

Off to Denver

I am leaving for Denver in the morning. Sounds serious but it is only a two hour drive. It is for the LAS Scholar Award I won last semester. I will be doing some final research for the paper. Thanks to the amazing interlibrary loan program at UCCS, I don’t have a lot much more research to do. Nick and I booked a second night (which we got for a steal at $47) and are going to the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

My project on trauma narrative is going great. The only problem is I have so much great research material to work through. This could easily become a dissertation project. The scholarship requires 10-15 pages, no minimum for the symposium. I feel more comfortable at the 15-20 page range. I am learning so much about trauma and why I have turned to creative nonfiction. I have a whole bag of books to take with me to Denver. I’ll admit it, I am a bit of a workaholic. Just a little.

Anyway, we are now on day five of the New Year. So far, I have written everyday. The prompts are really helping. Three out of the five days I got usable material or story ideas using them. Now if I can just work in a little time on my memoir each day, I will be set. I feel better when I write every day. I don’t have it hanging over me and I am freer to pursue other writing projects throughout the day. Plus I am generating new material which keeps me from thinking I have nothing to write about. It is an irrational thought, one I think a lot of writes suffer under every now and again.

On a happy side note, Judy Reeves (author of A Writer’s Book of Days) found me on SheWrites.com. SheWrites is a great networking site for writers. I repost all of my blog posts there. Anyhow, she found my post about her book and left a wonderful comment. I am really digging social networking. Anyhow, I will be offline until I get back home on Sunday. Happy Writing!

Lost But Not Hopeless

I didn’t do my NaNo writing last night. I was just too tired after school and homework. I’m struggling with my memoir piece because I’m not really sure what angle to take. I don’t want to come off as depressing or falsely encouraging. Maybe I need to go back to brainstorming. Being overweight is something that impacts all aspects of your life but that makes it harder to step back and look at it objectively. “You can’t see it for wearing it,” or so it goes.

For the time being, I am reading books on related topics. Hopefully something opens up for me in the writing of it. It usually does. I’m one of those who has to start writing in order to get an idea. I’ve requested a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Writing Diet. The reviews are pretty mixed so I requested a copy from the library. It feels kind of dirty to be a writer and use the library but I’ll be moving for graduate school in seven months and I just can’t bring anymore books. Well, I guess I could download the e-book. I’m still kind of pissy after finding out that Borders won’t let me use my earned Borders Bucks to purchase Fat Girl. Here’s the message on their website:

The publisher does not allow this eBook to be discounted below list price in any way. For this reason, this eBook is not eligible for any pre-order, bestseller, promotional, coupon, or other discount. It is also not eligible for the accrual or redemption of Borders Bucks through Borders Rewards.

I call bullshit. I understand that publishers want to make X amount of money for selling ebooks, I do, but to take away the thrill of a discount is….well….it’s just plain unAmerican. Ok, I got that out of my system…for now. Hmm…I seem to be using a lot of ellipses in this paragraph. That always reminds me of one of my favorite punctuation nerd videos. Check it out here.

Anyway, I’m going to stop procrastinating and get back to my reading/writing. I hope I find a way to represent body image in a way that is truthful but that also responsibly helps other people. We’ll see.