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!

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?

Norman Mailer Rejection

At the beginning of the year, I submitted to the Norman Mailer 4-Year College Writing Award for Creative Nonfiction. Last week, I received this rejection from them. It’s a bit of a bummer because I will not be able to enter the contest again. The email came in on my cell-phone and I had to keep scrolling through trying to figure out if I won.

October 13, 2011

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for participating in the 2011 Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award for Creative Nonfiction competition. On behalf of the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English, we honor your commitment to the craft of writing.

Norman Mailer produced extraordinary writing in many genres, and he was a true pioneer in the emerging realm of creative nonfiction. Evaluation criteria for this award reflected qualities of writing he pursued across a lifetime: originality; insight; clear voice and style; artful arrangement of elements and materials; and overall aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual effect. While your work is not among those very few pieces selected for national recognition, by entering the awards contest you have distinguished yourself as a student who takes this challenging genre seriously and is committed to high levels of achievement.

One way that we can help you find a broader audience for your work is to invite you to submit it to the National Gallery of Writing. It takes only minutes to submit your work, and if it is accepted, it will become part of the portrait of America’s writing spotlighted on the National Day on Writing. It will remain online in the National Gallery through next June, thus reaching readers from around the world for most of the year ahead.

Thank you for participating in the Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award competition. Great luck to you pursuing your gift as a writer. We hope that the resources of the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English can be of service to you across your life journey.

Sincerely yours,

Kent Williamson, Executive Director
National Council of Teachers of English

Lawrence Schiller, President and Co-Founder
Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony

I am not sure if I am going to submit work to the National Gallery of Writing or not. Maybe. Does it count as a publishing credential? I suppose so as they have to accept it. I would need to read through the submissions and see. Rejection sucks but I am in an excellent writing program now. The $10,000 prize would really have helped me next summer when I won’t have an income.

Thanks Natalie Goldberg

One of the books I return to over and over again for writing inspiration is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. One reason I like it is that it is composed of short sections. I don’t have to sit and read for a long time. In fact, it is perfect for reading just before writing. Anyway, I picked it up about three days ago and the first section I came to was the part where she talks about filling one notebook a month as a writing goal. I went to Wal-mart and bought a couple of pretty spiral notebooks so I could get started. Luckily it was the 15th as I only like to start writing notebooks on the 1st or 15th of the month.

So far it has worked. It is hard sometimes to fill the required number of pages (works out to rough 4-5 pages a day). That just takes time and adjusting to the writing practice again. Most people have this romantic images of writers but it is actually hard work. Very hard work. The discipline is the hardest part. It is probably easier for those who have deadlines, which I don’t. Deadlines have always helped me get my but in gear. It is just hard when you have no one to hold you accountable.

Another Acceptance

I received an acceptance from Emerson College last week. Nothing yet on funding though. I would really love to be on the East Coast and Boston is a major publishing hub. We’ll see. I am sure no matter where I end up it will be a great program. Part of the reason is that I, contrary to advice, submitted work about trauma and social justice. I figured that I had no idea what a school was looking for and I would rather present my work honestly. If I had tried to write something more mainstream, it would not be in keeping with the way I write and what I would be writing in my program.

Anyway, I am gearing up to submit a couple of short stories to Glimmer Train. To be honest, I never pay reading fees and I don’t enter contests with fees. There are enough places out there that you can get your work published without having to pay for it. Glimmer Train does charge fees, $15 per story, but they are reputable and well known. I think I am going to take a chance and pay my first entry fee in April. I am going to enter in both categories as I have something I think will work for each. I have also noticed that some college journals are now charging reading fees. I can see $3-$5 towards administrative fees. I would pay as much sending a manuscript first-class anyhow. So when you decide on whether you should pay fees or not, think about how much the paper, ink, mailer, postage, and delivery confirmation cost.

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.

Overworked but Loving It

I sent my article off today, the one I queried by email about a week ago. Switching the citations from MLA to Chicago Manual took an awful lot of time. The paper for the Cesar Chavez scholarship is finally done. I still have tons to do, on top of regular homework, but I like it. I seem to work better under pressure.

I started my food writing class on Wednesday. It was fantastic. We did some in class writing and I got a lot of good material. I didn’t realize how much the way I was fed as a kid impacts the way I think about food and eat as an adult (I operate out of a fear of lack). Two prompts that were especially fruitful for me were: what foods did you dread as a child and what foods did you look forward to. I had assumed the foods I looked forward to would have been candy and other junk but it wasn’t. Growing up in a big family on a single (military) income, we had to make do. We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper, hot dogs and Kraft mac-n-cheese, and instant mashed potatoes. There were no rules on candy (another prompt was what were the food rules in your home) or sugar of any kind. I was not allowed to drink milk as it was “for cooking” and dad’s whole-grain cereals were off limits. I was stuck eating Captain Crunch when I wanted plain shredded wheat and Grape Nuts. Anyhow, the foods I looked forward to were fruit, grilled chicken, real mashed potatoes, turkey, and homemade chocolate cake. I also loved milk.

Try out the prompts. I think you will be surprised. I had no idea how much material was there and how much my life revolves around food.

Taking Yourself Out of the Story

This past weekend, I finally got an opportunity to go to the Tattered Cover. It has to be the most well known bookstore in the state of Colorado. I enjoyed it so much, that I ended up visiting two locations before I left (Colfax Avenue and Historic Lower Downtown). I really appreciated the fact that the Tattered Cover carries a good selection of literary journals. Down here in Colorado Springs, most of the bookstores don’t carry them and if they do, it is only a few. I picked up a copy of the Colorado Review while I was there and a used copy of Writing Creative Nonfiction. For me, this was restraint. If I had the money, I would have bought a copy of the Copper Nickel and a few others.

Last night, I started reading Writing Creative Nonfiction. The first essay I read was “Writing Yourself Out of the Story: Narrative Stance and the Upright Pronoun” by Philip Gerard. The essay discusses the overuse of “I” in creative nonfiction. This is something I have struggled with. My stories tend to focus on the internal and I have wanted to writes something more external. There are events that I have witnessed but not participated in that I want to write about. By not using “I,” I can focus on the story that is unfolding and keep myself out of it. Well, as much as possible.

Gerard writes that the author still participates in the story. This happens in the form of tone. He says, “Tone is nothing more or less than the attitude of the author, expressed in the words he chooses, the selection and ordering of events, and the rhythms of language. It is the intelligence behind the words, the author’s implicit sense of what things mean.”

One of the exercises at the end of the section was to write about an incident you witnessed without using first-person pronouns. I tried it and it was quite effective. When I was about eight years old, I saw my grandfather gut a catfish. It was so disgusting that I stopped eating fish. When I tried writing the story from the first-person, it was one dimensional and not much happened. By using the third person, I was able to talk more about my grandfather and how his sensations would have differed from mine. In short, I was able to take a fragment and turn it into a flash nonfiction piece.

The use of third-person can also provide a sense of distance from the subject. Gerard gives some great examples from short stories. He even discusses the use of “we” when talking about issues that affect entire communities, like Hurricane Fran. I have wanted to write on experiences like watching the events of September 11th unfold on the television and the way it impacted my community. “I” doesn’t feel appropriate because I was just an observer of what happened on the television. The events were much bigger than myself and what happened in my community was a very small piece of what was going on. I think, by using distance and avoiding the first-person pronoun, I can write something that is true to the experience, emotionally powerful, and that honors the experiences of others.