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.

Halfway Through

In the next three weeks, I will officially be halfway through my MFA program. This was my first semester teaching and I’ve learned a lot. It was quite a change for me to shift from student to teacher. I realized that I know a lot more than I thought I did.

As far as writing, I haven’t been struggling as much as I did prior to the program. Workshop keeps me writing pretty regularly. It still isn’t a daily habit though. I will admit though, I was suffering from workshop burnout for a while there. Sometimes I feel like I would just like to write something and not have it torn up. That’s kind of harsh phrasing but it does feel that way sometimes. On the other hand, I’ve received a lot of invaluable feedback. I guess I would just like some time to take in what others have said – you could call it a digestion period. That’s what the semester breaks are for I suppose.

I’m glad to say that I have had all of my pieces workshopped for the semester and I can spend the next few weeks digesting feedback and preparing for final portfolios. One thing workshop has taught me is to speak up more when I see something I like and to praise others more in the written feedback I give. It’s so easy to get in the mindset of just pointing out what could be worked on. We often lose the joy of reading/experiencing work when we read for revision. Maybe I should plan to read everything for workshop twice – once just for reaction and once for revision/moving forward. I still have a lot to learn about how to be effective in workshop but I’ve come a long way. Looking forward to what the next year at USC will bring.

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.

Trauma and the Body

I’ve spent the last few weeks unable to work on my memoir. There have been several false starts but nothing substantial. I’m in therapy so I’ve been discussing the writing process a good bit. I realized that part of my fear is upsetting others (family members etc). I’m afraid of being successful because it means that people close to me will read my work and may get upset. Mind you, I work hard at being nonjudgmental and letting the facts, as I remember them, do the talking. I don’t focus on something someone else did as good/bad or right/wrong. It is simply stated as something that happened. So, instead of writing a work that will help me (and perhaps others) heal from trauma, I self-sabotage. I won’t let myself be successful. I often think of this a writer’s block but it is really me getting in my own way to varying degrees of consciousness.

Today I did a painting using my body as a brush. It was fun but also strange at the same time. As someone who has gone through sexual abuse, it was strange to see my flesh as something that could be used positively, as something that could create beauty. I’m also a big girl and have been made fun of or shamed throughout my life for it. To see my body as something that can create is strange. So much of trauma is invested in the body. It is why I use food to self-medicate (working on that). It is also why my body physically reacts to yelling (my therapist has called my reactions PTSD like). So much of what I went through is trapped in my body but also in the times I can’t remember. I’ve tried to protect myself.

It’s very scary and threatening to try and take away those protections. I’m working with a nutritionist on my eating and I am seeing a therapist and psychiatrist. The memoir I am using to try and take away the mental protections, to try and find out what else happened. The strange thing is that once I painted, I was able to write. The tie is so strong in the body that I needed that freedom of movement and thought to be able to move forward. Perhaps I will start painting regularly.

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.

Acceptance?

I just sent off a submission to Narrative Magazines’ Thirty Below Story Contest. The entry fee was $20. This is the first time I have ever paid for a submission. I don’t mind though as it is a contest with cash prizes. Entrants also get three months of backstage access to Narrative Magazine. Very cool. I really like that they include something extra. My last few submissions have resulted in rejections so here is hoping this one goes through.

So I’m glad I got that done. This past weekend was fall break and I planned to spend most of it writing. I didn’t. I finished a collage for my creative nonfiction class and revised a short lyric essay. That was it. Since Thursday I’ve been in a dark mood. I just don’t want to do anything. I’m tired and burned out. It seems that I always find myself feeling resistant at this point in the semester. I really wish I could get past it.

On a side note, the Writer’s Digest Yearbook is out. It is The Writer’s Digest Guide to Creativity this year. I haven’t read all of it but I did find a great article on creating mini-writing retreats. That’s when it hit me. I told my husband about the cubicles on the quiet floor of Cooper Library last week. I didn’t even think about using them myself. Sometime this week I will schedule a writing session there. Maybe a homework session too. Less distractions.

Rejection…Scholar Style

Here’s a rejection for a research paper I recently received. Thought I’d share. Changes are italicized. Figured it would be rude to put somebody’s name out there.

Dear Sigma Tau Delta Member:

Thank you for your submission to “The Sigma Tau Delta Review: Journal of Critical Writing.” As always, we had a high number of quality submissions, which made the editorial selection that much more difficult.

At this time we are unable to publish your work. We hope, though, that you will submit new material for next year’s edition. We encourage you to also consider presenting your work at the Sigma Tau Delta convention next spring. Be sure to look for the next call for submissions and consult our website, www.english.org, for further information.

Once again, thank you for considering “The Sigma Tau Delta Review” as an avenue for publishing your creative work.

Sincerely,


Editor of Publications

- On a side note, I finally figured out how to get WordPress to send me notifications of comments. Here I thought it would be a default setting. No more delayed responses. Per a user request, I have posted my USC statement of purpose under the writing resources tab. -

MFA Application Season…Again

A Twitter post from my MFA program here at the University of South Carolina (@scmfa) was a reminder of the 12/15 application deadline. It is hard for me to believe that this time last year I had just decided that I could do a full-residency program and was starting the application process. It was a lot of work but I had three great teachers/mentors to help me through it. If you are applying for graduate school, I would suggest getting help. I had all three of them looking at my writing sample and statement of purpose/intent. I didn’t always follow each person’s advice, which sometimes was conflicting, but I really needed them to push me to revise. If it had been me, I would have done two or three drafts and not the seven or eight it took to get a quality submission.

Something else I want to talk about is writing for the program. I have heard people say that they try to write something they think fits the aesthetics of a particular program (i.e. something not true to their own writing style). If you do this and you don’t get it, you will regret it. Who knows how you would have done if you had been true to your voice. If you are accepted, the program might not be the right fit as they expected to work with a different kind of writer. For the main portion of my writing sample, I sent the first couple chapters of the memoir I am working on. It is about weight issues, both events from my childhood that add to it and events from my adulthood. I was cautioned by one person that it may not be the best thing to submit because academia is not accepting of that kind of writing. While I understand and appreciate the advice, I sent the work anyway. I sent it because these are the kinds of issues I write about. I didn’t want to get into a program that did not support the kind of work I do. Long story short, I was accepted at three of the five schools I applied to. Starting here at USC, I know I made the right choice. The courses are hard, but I can already see how they will push me to grow (both in my writing and in my understanding of literature). If you are applying for an MFA, I encourage you to be yourself and highlight/celebrate your writing voice in your work.

You can find more information on USC’s MFA program here. There are programs in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.