To Surprise Myself Again

I feel pretty guilty that my unplanned hiatus from this blog lasted so long.  I’ve kept up with other things—Facebook, posting relevant articles and lists I’ve found on Twitter, trying to keep up with events in the writing communities I follow—but what began as taking some time off blogging to finish my final assignment for my MA grew into procrastination, and I guess a little bit of avoidance.

When I submitted that final section of my novel for my final class, I was excited, scared, and relieved.  I was a little unsure about my experience in the MA program.  While I had made some wonderful friends, learned some things, and got to work with excellent writers/professors, I hadn’t felt as pressured to improve as I had hoped.  Yes, I did improve as a writer, but I feel like that happened more in the final push to complete assignments before they were due, rather than regularly over a long period of time.  I continued to do what I’ve always done: have a general idea of what I’ll include in an assignment or story, do some work on it, but not get it all down in writing until just before it’s due.

Of course I was relieved and excited to submit my final work for my master’s—I had just spent a while finishing writing it, then reading through and editing it quite a few times.  I had completed it before the deadline, and while it wasn’t perfectly how I’d hope for it to be, it was very close.  I could relax and enjoy the fact that, regardless of my grade, I knew I would graduate with a pretty decent overall average.  I had completed my master’s degree.

Yahoo. I’m actually missing the graduation ceremony though.

But that’s where my trouble began—I relaxed.  I let go of worrying about deadlines, and after the (I think) allowable week of said relaxing and being lazy, I didn’t pick the reins of writing back up; or if I did, I did so lightly, without much drive or intent.  I didn’t want to write about writing when I wasn’t doing very much of it.  It felt a little like lying, and it was easy just to keep putting off updating until later.

When I let a piece of writing lie for so long, I begin to feel I am losing the threads that hold the whole piece together.  The only way I’ve been able to describe writing a novel is that it is like building a tiny world of balsa wood.  For everything to stand, to make sense and flow naturally, there has to be a balance of many elements.  If you aren’t careful, pieces can fall on you, and you have to rebuild that section, which inevitably leads to fixing the adjoining sections (whether in narrative or subject) as well.  In the time before completing that first draft, some of the pieces might be held up by little strings of ideas, and the tension in those strings maintains the balance of it all, when you have not yet built the rest of the structure that will support it in the end.  So maybe it’s a little like Jenga too.

The longer I spent away from my work, the more I felt these strings loosening.  When I talked to people about my novel-in-progress, I would feel them slipping, and I couldn’t produce a cohesive synopsis of where my story was going.  The more I felt this loss, the more I knew I needed to reimmerse myself in the world of my story.

I have known for a while that I am a slow writer.  Where some writers seem to be able to crack out immense amounts of creative work, on a number of projects, in no time at all, I am the type to slowly chip away at a story.  Even a short story seems to take me a while to compose.  This is not a fault, and I know there are many other writers who are like this, but it can be disheartening at times.  I ask myself, how long am I really going to take with this project?  How can I even make a dent on the writing world if I’m so slow at generating pieces to submit to competitions, magazines, etc?

As my friend and fellow writer, Kelvin M. Knight, said in a comment recently, my Northern Writing Award is my “base camp.”  Even when I felt most disconnected from my novel-in-progress, even when those threads felt most far from my hands, I remembered the feeling I had when I read the email telling me I had won, so many months ago.  It was like a balloon filling in my chest, making me so full and in awe.  I know my luck.  There are writers in the world who are as good or better than me, there’s no denying it.  They could have won my award and flown by me already with the amazing things they could write in this span of time.  But for one moment, I mattered in the writing world.  I know I cannot disappoint the judges who believed in me enough to award me that honor, but even more than that, I cannot, I will not, disappoint that part of me that is still surprised I have not woken to find that it was just a dream.

So I will keep writing.  I will keep pushing against the everyday forces that deter me from making progress on my novel, I will keep working to better my writing, so that one day I may surprise myself again.

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Why I Write

In one of my recent classes for my MA, we discussed the origins of our desires to write.  As usual, most people talked about either always having this drive, or, in later years, suddenly desiring a change or experiencing something which led them to write.  I fall into the former category.

Thinking about why I write led me to depths of consciousness and memory I’m unsure how to express.  I know this: it all began with a story of a dog and a cat.  Written in kindergarten, my teacher said it was advanced for my age, and that I should be a writer.  This is of course sounds a little over the top now; how could one simple story by a six-year-old really anticipate such a serious undertaking?  But I feel my life would have been entirely different without that remark, given so early.  It has become my drive, the core around which I have built myself and my life.

Throughout elementary and middle school I delighted in creative writing projects, and penned a few ill-formed stories.  I drew on my wild imagination and my favorite game: “let’s pretend.”  The game was simple, and really just involved running around the woods of my parents’ back yard imagining we were fairies, or swimming in the public pool pretending to be mermaids.  My best friend grew out of the phase a lot faster than I did.

Reaching adolescence saw a change in my focus of writing, to poetry.  I began with trying to force rhymes, but soon sought a more confessional style, channeling all my over-wrought, teenage emotions into still pretty amateur verse.  I remember being a lonely kid, the shy kind that have trouble making friends, much less articulating how I felt out loud.  Writing became my voice, my means of expression.  As I reached high school, I became more confident, mainly because of our after school Writers’ Society.  It was the first time I read my work in front of others, and while I was encouraged by my peers’ support, I also felt the pressure to improve in response to the quality of others’ works.

During the first year of my undergraduate degree, I wrote my first serious short story.  It was heavily influenced by the first few pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but even in its contrived and clumsy state I felt I had found my ideal format.  I was further convinced of this when I began writing flash fiction a few years later.

I am currently working on my first novel, still trying to find time to write short stories on the side, but I continue to contemplate how I first began writing.  This reflection grounds me, and informs my writing today.  The memories come in fragments of sensation and sentiment, the undercurrents we have been encouraged to feed into our writing throughout my master’s.  They are in the soft clay that squished between my toes on the banks of the creek behind my parents’ house; the fireflies I chased across the grass; the warm summer rains I walked in; the golden sunlight filtering through the magnolia, maple, and tall pine trees.

Now I have had my first significant success, and I am dying to share the news, but it will have to wait until mid-June.  All I can say is keep writing, keep dreaming.  Keep working at improving your art, and if it winds so tightly through your life and soul as it does mine, may you have your own successes.

Thank you for reading.

Applying to an M.A. Creative Writing Program

Recently, one of my old classmates asked me this:  How did you apply to your M.A. program?

I remember how lost I felt while applying to my creative writing program.  While I asked a lot of different people for help, I was frustrated by how uncertain I still felt about the whole process.  Was I doing this right?  Were the things I had in my applications good enough?

The easiest way to answer her question is this: I found programs/universities I liked, looked at the website a lot, and put together whatever was required for the application. The longer answer follows.

The Research

I had the luck but also the limit in knowing that I wanted to come back to the place I did my exchange program. If you know somewhere you’d like to live and write, that’s a good place to start. Programs differ in how much class time you actually have, especially between the US and UK (more on that later), so I think living somewhere you feel you can be inspired is important.

 

Pretty.

 

Since I came to the UK, I didn’t actually need to take the GRE, but I did anyway. I didn’t do well on it, but I still managed to get accepted into a few grad programs in the US that I liked. That being said, it didn’t really matter since I already knew I wanted to come to the UK. When you take the GRE, you can send it to a certain amount of places for free. After the day of the test, you can add more places to send your scores, which is what I did since I didn’t know everywhere I was applying yet.

Research the programs from various places, and find one that seems to fit your needs, as well as your personality as a writer.  My top choice after places here was Emerson College in Boston. I visited it for undergrad and loved it, but decided I wanted to stay closer to home, and promised myself I’d go there for grad school. They have a great focus on getting you ready for life/a career after graduation. I also applied to Georgia State University, because as a school it still feels like home, and I had some great creative writing professors there.

Some places in the US offer teaching assistant positions as part of the program, and that was one draw back for coming here—English universities generally don’t have TA spots, and if they do, they go to PhD students. Some US programs also offer fellowships.

 

Still relevant for graduate school.

 

Another draw back for here is the class time. I’m enrolled full time, and I still only have two 2-hour classes a week. I had really wanted to do a lot of workshops while doing my MA, and within the program we barely have any. However, this area is a great place for writing. There’s different groups and organizations to find—like a writing group that meets every week in different parts of Newcastle, regional organizations, etc. I tracked down a small literary journal to become a part of. So wherever you choose to go, look for opportunities in the area as well as at the school.

Some universities will already have prestige, but may also have a reputation for the professors caring more about their own research than the classes. Other places may still be developing their program, but the professors can in general be more grounded and interested in their students in that situation.

My final decision came down to choosing between two universities.  When I studied the information given about the programs, the main deciding points for me were cost and, at one, professors that interested me more, while at the other the class descriptions did.  I went in favor of the professors.

I read the professor profiles at both universities.  University 1 had a lot more who had similar interests to me and seemed they would be helpful in the types of writing I want to pursue. So that’s another thing to look at—if a place has professor bios, read them. These are the people who will be giving lectures, reading your work, offering tips and comments, and ultimately helping you shape your work and advance your ability to write.

After all your research and reading and considering, you may still end up somewhere that doesn’t push you enough. If that happens, you just have to push yourself—but that’s part of being in grad school anyway.

 

The Personal Letter and Portfolio

Your portfolio and personal letter are really, really important.

I had a friend (who was the current editor of the graduate literary journal at my undergrad university, and enrolled in the M.A. Creative Writing program) look over my personal letter, as well as a few other people. I also read a lot of tips and articles online about personal letters. This is a small space you use to present yourself as a person and a writer. You are trying to sell yourself, what you can do and what direction you want to go in with your writing. Especially with smaller programs, the people reading your application are trying to see if you would fit in well there, if you can excel there, and obviously if you’re “good enough”—which is such a subjective thing.

I was unlucky with my portfolio, since I feel like I hit a really creative span of time during a class I took in my final undergrad semester.  By that point I had nearly finished most of my applications. I had more time on applications for places in England, since the deadlines were later. Different places will have different specifications for its size, and over time you will probably add or take out different pieces, depending on what you’re working on at the time. Some of the most important pieces of earlier versions of my portfolio became the less important when I added new work, and I know for at least one I had to scrounge up some horrible writing for filler.

You do want to start on the portfolio as soon as you can though. Pick the pieces you think are your best, pick ones you think represent the type of writing you want to focus on, as well as the range of work you can do. Do some editing. If you have time, write some new pieces. All you can do is do your best though.

 

The writing life

I don’t have a good, concrete reason why I haven’t updated since October.  I know last semester I got caught up in things that were going on, personal struggles, and simply getting any creative writing done in the midst of that was an accomplishment.  Like other things, this blog fell by the wayside a bit.

Writing requires a level of devotion similar to other professions:  You must juggle individual work with networking, making your presence known in the world of that career if you want to move forward.  However, I feel that for me creative work can be so much more difficult than other forms of work.

I don’t mean to seem like one of those people who constantly implies that what I do is so much harder than what you do. I’m simply talking about difficulty levels for me as a person.  I can’t claim to know what it is like to work in a scientific field or write lesson plans, but I remember how easy it often was for me to construct an argument within essays for my literature classes during my undergraduate work.  It reminded me of the ease I felt, once reaching understanding, when working with a mathematic equation in high school.

Creative writing makes me miss that sometimes.  In crafting a story, I have often felt like I am attempting to climb a sheer cliff, all while taking note of the flora and fauna hanging on along the way.  Now that I have begun working on my novel, some days are like that.  On others, it feels like all the characters and ideas for events are clanging around my head in no particular order, failing to catch onto something and remain still long enough for me to form it all into a cohesive and plausible story.

But the truth is, if I wasn’t doing this, my mind would be in turmoil from the urge to create.  If I was doing anything else, I would be bored.

This New Year’s, I resolved to finish the first draft of my novel by the end of the year.  During this time I will still be working on my master’s, and luckily I began my novel as part of a long project for one of my classes.  I’ll be doing over twice the amount of writing and editing I would be doing for my assignments alone though.

Alongside this, I plan to make more of an effort to get my writing “out there.”  This includes submitting work to literary journals, and therefore crafting/editing short stories in addition to my final assignments.  I’m also beginning to explore (for about the hundredth time) the idea of writing freelance.

I began this blog as more of a personal venture, but over time I’m hoping it will develop more to help my professional pursuits as a writing, both as an official online presence and as a means of networking.  I’ve reached out to other writers’ blogs before, with some minor success.  Hopefully this year I can expand that.  If you are a writer, feel free to contact/comment, and I will do my best to respond in kind.

 

 

Recommended recent articles/posts for writers:

3 Ways to Get Published, by Brian Klems

4 Ways to Make Money Freelancing, by Robert Lee Brewer

A Second Glance at “Rejection”, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

 

Recent reading:  The Snow Child, debut novel by Eowyn Ivey

“Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.”

Hope: On The Gathering, Blue/Orange, and The Guardian Angel’s Journal

Despite my last post, I’ve been doing more reading than writing recently.  It began with The Gathering by Anne Enright.

(Jonathan Cape, 2007)

I’ve never been very good at getting reading done for class in a timely manner, so I decided to read it before my graduate program started.  While it did have a lot of small bits that seemed to ring with truth in a deep part of me, it was with a sigh of relief that I finished reading and set the book aside.  It is a book about loss, but it is not the kind of book that made me feel the sadness you would expect to be provoked by a story focusing on the death of the protagonist’s brother.  The loss in The Gathering seems so much more than that, and the experience of reading it was a kind of slow, grating frustration mixed with a loss of hope.

Maybe I read too much into that, but the second book I picked up for class was only a little better.

(Methuen, 2000)

Blue/Orange, by Joe Penhall, focuses on mental healthcare and racism in a London psychiatric hospital.  I appreciated the way Penhall flipped ethnocentrism, a concept considered in various anthropological studies in order to rectify early assumptions about the “evolution” of cultures.  In the play, instead of using this concept to prevent delusions of cultural superiority, one character suggests that the existing mental healthcare system is ethnocentric, and therefore proposes a change of view that is essentially racist.  Parts of this play did make me laugh, but again the overall feeling prompted by reading was not entirely positive.

Not all stories have happy endings, and often happiness is hard to “sell” to the reader.  But can’t we, as writers, inspire a little hope?

This has been drilled into me:  One of the most essential characteristics of a story is that it contains a dynamic element—something, often in the main character, changes or progresses.

At the end of Blue/Orange, the young, earnest psychiatrist has been made nearly powerless by the actions of his superior, and the patient he has been trying to help will likely not get the aid he needs.  He has discovered the racist and skewed ideas of his superior, and while he is prepared to react, bureaucratic elements weigh against his ability to effect real change.  While change has occurred, in his occupational situation and judgement of his superior, it seems like Blue/Orange merely brings the reader to the instigation of the real action of the story.

In the conclusion of The Gathering, the protagonist does not seem to have reached any sort of resolution following the death of her brother or in response to the events that occurred during their childhood.  Woven throughout the entire novel, between her odd imaginings of the past and real memories, are (1) her conviction that her husband hates her, and (2) the sense that she is entirely unhappy with her life.  Imagination and reality can be almost impossible to divide at times in this book, but the protagonist’s perception of her life as frustrating and smothering is tangible.  In the closing chapters, by deciding to simply return home after “running away” to the airport, the protagonist seems to have given up and condemned herself to an unhappy existence.  She has returned to where she started, one brother short, (spoiler) one nephew more, and no less confused or unhappy.

Now I have moved on to The Guardian Angel’s Journal, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  Remember my summer reading list?  Well, I’m finally getting to this one.  (And yes, I realize I talk a lot about CJC, but I enjoy her blog and she was a good creative writing professor.)

(Piatkus, 2011)

What is pulling me quickly through this novel is hope.  Although dealing with the supernatural, the characters in CJC’s book feel much more real than the distant ones of Blue/Orange or the grieving, sometimes-insane protagonist of The Gathering.  I am encouraged to become invested in the characters, and to hope with the guardian angel protagonist that she can effect a change in the life of her “Protected Being.”  Despite all the sadness and obstacles life throws in, there is an ever-coursing stream of hope beneath it all; and even if change cannot be instigated, there is a hope that a deeper understanding of it all will be uncovered.

Perhaps it is just something I need to feel right now with all the depressing reminders I’ve been encountering recently of how difficult writing as a career can be, but I think everyone needs these encounters with hope.  Reading is such an immersive experience; anyone who loves to read knows how close you feel to a character after joining them for the journey through a novel.

So even if hope is hard to write, like comedy or happiness, I’d like to try.

 

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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If any readers live in the northeast of England, take note that the Durham Book Festival is coming up!  I know I’m going to try to make it to a few events.

See a schedule of this year’s events here:

A cup of tea

I’ve never been very good at keeping these things updated.

Well, I’m back stateside now.  As soon as I got back I was caught up in a whirl of traveling, seeing family, and just trying to spend time with my boyfriend.  Life has a way of catching you up in a blur of passing time.  Looking back it seems like it hasn’t been that long, but in the process it seems forever.

Then of course classes began, and the current only got faster.

I’m finally in the process of narrowing down the selection of stories I want to include in my samples of work I’ll be submitting to master’s programs.  Nothing feels right though; I feel like I have so much more inside me to write than what I have on paper.  They’re only unclear impressions, so in the long run this should hopefully be a good thing.  At the moment it just feels like I’m not well enough prepared.

Recently I asked my creative writing professor from last year if she had any advice in making this decision.  While her response was the customary, “Whatever feels right,” she also brought up the question no one had yet asked me:  Why now?

“…why are you going right into a graduate program?  My advice is to live a little. Enjoy your early 20s. Get to know yourself a little better before signing back up for the academy.  I believe most students entering MA programs are in their mid 20s (23-25)–I could be wrong. You have time.”

My reasoning is a lot more complicated than the fact that I question if I could jump back into academia after a hiatus, involving bridging a vast distance for the sake of my own sanity.  But her question gave me pause, and I began to think of how much I’ve recently imagined taking time off to work a crap job and just write.  It all seems really possible, but at the same time very impractical.  Who can get a job right now?  A hiatus would end up being a lot more trouble than its worth.

But it does make me desire time off after my master’s much more than I already do.

   –

Happy writing, everyone.

P.S.  This post is titled “A cup of tea” because I do my best thinking when I can pause and enjoy a nice cup, preferably somewhere quiet and outside.  I need to get out of my head a lot.

When to Hold Back

My problem right now is concentration.  And willpower.

I keep jumping between stories.  I have so many that I’ve begun, but am unsure how to complete them.  At the moment, my primary concern is one I’m working on about an illegal immigrant in Texas.  It began as a five-pager for my creative writing class last semester, complete with depressing ending.  Now that I sit with it more, I feel my character deserves better than that.  So now I’m treading ideas like water, just trying to latch on to what feels right, and at the same time I’m worrying that this is growing much bigger than what I can handle right now.

Part of it was started by finding the creative writing master’s program at Chatham University, a program that is probably too expensive for me but focuses on human relationships with places.  Another part was probably the fact that I’m reading The Tiger’s Wife, and am just growing antsy wanting to draw together place, story, and folklore in such a way.

Really the biggest problem is worrying this story will grow long-winded and aimless, and suddenly I will be left with a watery mass of foderol, successfully losing the (more concise, but not fully developed) piece I began with and was hoping to use in my portfolio to apply to master’s programs.

On a brighter note, it was sunny yesterday.