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.

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!

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.

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?

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.

Sixteen Days Left

I am leaving for South Carolina in sixteen days. I am excited but at the same time a little apprehensive. The program entails graduate classes (creative writing, lit, and theory), teaching classes, studying for a comprehensive exam, thesis and thesis defense, and a foreign language translation exam. It just seems like so much work (although that is the point right?). I know I will be fine as I work well when challenged but I am still nervous. Mainly because I don’t know exactly what to expect. I am glad we are arriving two weeks before school starts so I can get familiar with the area, that will help.

As far as writing, I have not been sticking to my daily goal. Mostly because I have been sick but also partly because I am avoiding it. I hope to start again on the 15th. I do have two pieces that need a final edit and then can go out.

On a side note, I finished The Two Kinds of Decay. I appreciated the way the stories moved back and forth through time but, at points, it was confusing. Her illness ends and she then struggles with alcoholism though not much information is given about that (perhaps there is another book forthcoming). It seems sort of thrown in at the end. Her treatment of the lack of details was honest and added authenticity to the work. She is up front with the  reader which always goes far. It was interesting and kept me reading up until the point where she started talking about alcoholism.

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.

Look Out Genre, Here I Come!

If you are like me, you have several novel ideas that ended up in a folder somewhere; lost and never written. When my sister suggested we write a genre novel together one of my old ideas came to mind. I got out the sample chapters and the two of us were able to use them and write an outline in a couple of hours. We are going to have to figure out how to co-author. Right now, we are going to alternate chapters. I am hoping that works. It is a fantasy novel. I am excited to try my hand at genre fiction again. I have to say, genre fiction is one of my guilty pleasures that I don’t get to indulge in often enough.

We’ll see how it goes. It is about the middle of the term and we are both incredibly busy. I should try and read some genre fiction in order to get back into the swing of things. I have the entire Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind which was the basis for the tv show Legend of the Seeker (LOTS). I am still pissed off that it got canceled. There has not been a good fantasy show since Xena Warrior Princess. Finally, along comes LOTS and the network pulls the plug after two seasons. Ok, I got that out of my system….sort of. You can check out the campaign to save the show here.

If you are new to the genre check out the following writing books:

The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction
How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy
The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference

Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy

Here are three that look promising. I haven’t read them so no guarantees:

Alchemy with Words: The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol I
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol II: The Opus Magus
The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Vol III: The Author’s Grimoire

I might have to try to talk the hubby into letting me buy more books. I have an addiction as I am sure most of my fellow writers do. Happy writing!