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.

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.

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.