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!

David Sedaris and Humor

I had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris on stage again and he inspired me to, this morning, try and write something funny again. I consider myself a funny person but it seems that whenever I want to write something lighthearted, happy, or funny, it always ends up crushing and tragic. This isn’t an aspect of my work that I particularly enjoy and don’t like being referred to or know in my program as “the trauma writer.” Mind you, I do like to write about trauma and I think it is critical to my healing, but I don’t always want to write about it.

I don’t know what changed for me this morning, but I was able to write a funny story. Perhaps it was really listening to Sedaris and the way he blends trauma and the serious with his own form of humor. I realized that my stories don’t have to be either/or and that was key. Anyway, I’ll be unveiling the new nonfiction short at the Graduate English Association party on Friday. I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s about food so maybe I’ll send it to Alimentum. I can’t remember if it would mean my third or fourth rejection from them, but I’ll keep trying. One day…

Supporting the (Local) Arts

I finished my one-act play a couple of weeks ago and it go me thinking about what is going on theatrewise in my local community. When I was in Colorado, I went to a show every couple of months. Out here in Columbia, I haven’t been to any shows. It’s kind of sad really. Part of what has held me back has been the cost of tickets. I realized though, that there are lots of affordable options (matinees, non-premium seats, student rates etc). As a writer and artist, I really need to be supporting my local community. Besides, if you want to get good at something you have to immerse yourself in it. If it is playwriting, one of my latest passions, read plays and go to plays. I’ve been reading The Playwright’s Guidebook: An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing and I find it helpful too but it is no substitute for getting your butt in the seat at a theatre.

Last night, as part of my support for local arts resolution, I went to a Jasper Magazine Salon (check out their FaceBook page for details). They had some folks out from Trustus Theatre who will be performing in the upcoming The Motherfucker with the Hat. It was a great evening and I learned a lot about theater, particularly acting and directing. Who knew there are acting theories? I didn’t. I found it fascinating and realize that in addition to reading plays, I also need to do some reading about acting theory if I want to become a better playwright (this is in addition to poet, memoirist, and educator).

Hearing about the dedication of the cast to their craft and performances really had an impact on me. I already had tickets to Trustus’ Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche ($15 tickets) but now I also plan on going to Motherfucker (that abbreviation makes me smile). I’ve got tickets to the Koger Center’s balletSnow White ($15 tickets!) and I am going to Columbia Marionette Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast tomorrow ($5 tickets!). There’s just so much going on around me that I haven’t even noticed. By nature, I am a workaholic and I think being a writer and painter adds to my isolationist tendencies. It was nice to get out of the house last night and do something that got me out into the community and taught me something new. I didn’t have the balls to ask about script submission (yes, my play is looking for a home) but baby steps. I also tend to operate out of lack, or perceived lack. I’m a grad student and the sole support of my household. I don’t have money but there are places I could save so I can support the local arts more. Priorities people – I need to reevaluate mine.

Next week, the Jasper Salon is on the dark side of Snow White. Come on out. I’ll be there!

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.

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.