Balancing Act

I’ve been meaning to blog sooner but I have been so busy lately trying to balance work and school. It is not easy. I’ve been asking my fellow MFA friends how they do it. It is doable they tell me, just extremely difficult.

The thing about writing when you are just starting out is you have to have some kind of job that pays the bills while you pursue your dream. I don’t know many people who expect to become rich by writing or who enter the field expecting to make a lot of money. Like me, they simply write because they love it. With that being said, there has to be a way to find a better balance between the two.

An amazing opportunity opened up for me to enter a new career field and learn a new skill and I accepted the challenge. As it turns out I have a knack for it so there is a possibility that this temporary part-time position that became temporary full-time could become a permanent full-time position, which would be great – I think.

Living out here in this barren employment wasteland I’d be a fool not to take it if offered, but what about my writing? How do I find time to do homework? Work on my book? Hear myself think long enough to be creative? How do I find a balance between the two? What’s the secret to having a job you truly enjoy and staying on the path which leads from aspiring writer to accomplished author?

The thing is, the job isn’t stressful – not really. It’s actually quite fun. It involves meeting new people on an almost daily basis and is in an air conditioned office – a big step up from “cashierdom.” For the most part the clients are nice, the office staff is extremely pleasant and my boss is a jewel.  It is a wonderful opportunity. So how do I make it all work? There was an article in either Poets & Writers or Writers Digest about this particular issue, but I didn’t have time to read it when I saw it. Now I’ll have to dig through my back issues and see if I can find it.

The whole reason I moved to Tennessee was to be closer to campus. An hour and forty minute drive from Jackson is a major improvement from the three-day drive from Houston I did during my first residency. I have a year of the program left and am getting closer to seeing my hard work turn into something positive. My thesis semester officially begins in January so I am trying to get everything ready for it now. Meanwhile, fall semester begins in two weeks. I will be taking my last literature class and working on our campus literary magazine.  Just thinking about it stirs a mix of excitement and apprehension, but I’m hoping it all turns out well. Here are the books we will cover in the literature course.

American Literature 1870-1920

I’ve been in Tennessee almost fourteen months, but it seems like much longer. I’ve met some really amazing people and even a few new friends. I still miss home though. The other day a fellow Texan was on his way to Tennessee and asked me if there was anything I wanted him to bring me from Texas.  The first thing that came to mind was Fry’s since we don’t have one here, but my daughter reminded me that I’ve been going on and on about Whataburger. She said the first thing I’ll probably do when we get back home is stop off at the nearest Whataburger – while we’re still in the moving van.  She’s right about that, so I guess I should have said bring me a Whataburger!

I’m not going to make any traveling plans, even though I would love to get home this year for the holidays since I couldn’t last year. It might be pushing it if I drive back to Texas in December when I’ll only have to be back in Kentucky in January. There is also work to consider which may be a more stable situation by then – who knows. AWP is going to be held in Seattle in March and I’d really like to attend that. I hope to be finished with the story collection (or whatever we’re calling it now)  that I’m working on by then, but that’s optimism speaking not set plans.

More than anything I’d still love a solitary or really small writer’s retreat. No workshops, no lectures, just amazing scenery, peace and quiet to allow the creative voices that live in my head to start communicating again, maybe some jabber here and there from a few fellow writers because they always make everything better, and a little wine because – do I even need to explain this one?

As always I will continue to take each day one adventure at a time. It truly has been a remarkable journey and I’m grateful for every opportunity – even the ones that didn’t go so well because it provides good learning experience and great starting points for stories I might someday write. I know this is only one chapter and there are many more to come.

Until next time.

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Road Warrior

I have a million and one things I should be doing, but the only thing (besides writing) that sounds remotely interesting is taking another road trip. My road trip warrior partner is all tripped out, but my heart yearns to see something new even though Tennessee is beautiful this time of year. About this time I would normally be surrounded by numerous suitcases and getting ready to head back to Kentucky for residency, but I’m sitting this one out. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m used to going. I postponed my thesis residency until January because I knew (1) I wouldn’t be able to afford it without financial assistance and (2) I’m not finished with my thesis pieces. This last mentor semester was amazing. I was really able to make a lot of progress, but when it ended I think life stepped in and I haven’t been able to really focus on my writing. I’m in the final week of the summer literature class I mentioned in my last post – the Latin studies one. Surprisingly it hasn’t been bad at all. I still would prefer not to do cultural studies classes, but I was amazed to find some new authors I really liked. We just finished reading Drown and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. I found both books to be extremely helpful in terms of my own writing – especially my thesis project. It was as if someone handed me a book with answers I didn’t know I had been searching for. When I actually find time to give my thesis project attention again I will at least have more authors to reference in terms of trying to piece everything together in a manner that will stand up to a defense. It seems as if whenever I have a serious project or impending deadline the sky decides to fall about that time as well. Since I’ve been in Tennessee the job situation has been unstable. Besides the fact that the economy is still in the toilet, small towns like the one I’m in don’t really have many options. I never imagined when I decided to get my MFA that there would be times when I would have to pay out of pocket for classes. Financial aid is not what it used to be. Add out-of-state tuition on top of all that and you’ll get the picture. Right now I’m working, but it has been insane trying to jump through hoops to meet the demands of my online class as well. Unlike past online classes I have taken, this particular one requires daily postings and a paper every week. It is only a five week course, but I started it and the job around the same time and I can honestly say there have been times when I have only gotten about two hours of sleep before having to go to work the next day.  Basically it is a five-week course with seven books. To me that is insane. This week I’m scrambling to put together a final major project which requires  reading, research, writing, and some desktop publishing. If I had more time it would actually be fun, but I also have to make time for the last book we are studying and frankly, I just don’t see how it will all add up without me losing my mind in the process. I don’t know how to successfully balance all this with work, but when the class officially ends I will have about four weeks to pull my thesis works into order so my new advisor can have something good to work with. I might have collapsed from exhaustion by the time thesis rolls around, but as long as it’s ready I’m okay with being a zombie for a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about home as well. I miss Texas, but feel I have so much unfinished business to tie up before I return. I can’t believe it has been a year since I have set foot in the state. I don’t know exactly what I miss about it – maybe familiarity for the most part, but there is a sense of pride that develops for one’s hometown once you leave. You never know how much you miss something until you have the courage to leave it. I strongly recommend everyone leave their comfort zone at least once. It definitely builds a stronger appreciation for what you left when you return. On the movie front, I haven’t found time to see Man of Steel, but I hear the soundtrack is great. One thing I’ve had to sacrifice during this MFA journey is watching movies. There are so many I want to see and they just keep adding up. If only there were more hours in the day. Weekends are reserved for reading and completing assignments and everything else just sort of falls wherever it lands. It’s hard trying to explain that sometimes to people. The other day someone accused me of being self-absorbed because I don’t have time to devote to them like I used to. In all honesty, I didn’t have time then, I just sacrificed some things to make myself available. In graduate school there is no free time. If it doesn’t come first you may as well pack up and go back home, because it is impossible to succeed in this program playing catch up. That is why I love having friends who are doing this too. It is like we are suffering together. We feel each other’s pain and speak the same language. We are there to give encouragement when the rejection letters pile in, to collectively indulge in spirits to nurse our wounds, and to kidnap a highly opinionated muse who doesn’t’ know when to quit. I don’t think I’m going to get to do any traveling this year, but if I do you can rest assured I will fill you in on all the details. For those of you lucky enough to get a summer vacation, safe travels and remember to have lots of fun. Happy reading and happy writing! Oh, and Happy “early” Independence Day as well.

A Remarkable Journey

923511_4981788099482_1111083140_nA year ago today I left what I’d always called home – Texas and set out for an adventure in Tennessee. It’s amazing how fast time flies when you’re dreaming. A year in and my future is still as uncertain as ever. What I mean is, the sky is still the limit and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Since I left Texas I’ve put close to 1,000 miles on my car, yet I’m dying for the next road trip to someplace I’ve never been before. It’s as if my spirit is restless and my body is thirsty for a new experience. Being open-minded is truly a blessing and a curse because at some point in life it’s good to become grounded – in something. I can’t say I’m any closer to finding myself or feeling content than I was on the day I left, but a lot has changed.

For starters, the MFA program has made me a better reader. I don’t say writer, because I don’t think writers can be made – something has to be there in the beginning in order for the program to work and yield positive results. Whether those results mean getting published, completing a story, or learning something it’s different for every person, but through the reading I’ve learned to recognize what works and what doesn’t work and why – that in my opinion has made me a better writer.

I still haven’t gotten anything published, but I’ve only tried once and with a piece I was iffy about, in a genre that is not commonly my own – creative non-fiction. I write fiction. There is so much I’ve learned since submitting that piece that makes me shudder at the thought I actually let someone else read it. But it was a start – I keep my fiction on lockdown and it felt good to finally let go of something.

I think I write better when I’m not trying to write. When I’m trying my voice gets lost in what I think I’m supposed to be doing instead of just transcribing what is being said. Since my mentor left I suffered a serious setback. It was as if he was the wind beneath my wings encouraging me to keep cranking stuff out and telling me it was worth reading. It’s really funny when you think about the fact that I didn’t think we’d click at first. I felt like someone had taken my closest ally hostage and the ransom was for me to write something good. I couldn’t even begin to do it. Everything creative in me seemed to leave when he left – only he’d left willingly because he has his own life, his own pieces to work on and more people to inspire. He had become my confidence and now that he was gone I’d once again misplaced it. How on earth had I let that happen – again?

When I left Texas I also left behind one of my closest supporters. He encouraged me to leave to follow my dreams, told me to “reach for the stars” and even helped finance my journey. After I’d been here for a while I missed the connection we had that a phone call couldn’t replace. Like my mentor, he kept me going when the waters got murky, but what I couldn’t see then, that I can see now, are all the wonderful lessons they both left behind. They knew the journey wouldn’t be easy, but they felt it was one I could successfully complete and both just waiting for me to see within myself what they could already see. Wow! It’s like having the keys to the kingdom in a glass jar and not having the courage to try and take the lid off.

So with that in mind I’m determined to not only write the final chapters of the piece I’ve been working on, but to fix the holes in the earlier ones so that I can be that much closer to being ready for thesis. Right now I’m not focused on publication. I just want to finish what I’m working on. Occasionally there are brief moments when I think it would be great to be able to do this for a living, but then I pull my head back out of the clouds and submit another resume in hopes of finding something to finance my journey to Writerland.

In the past I’ve planned and scheduled and fretted about my next steps, but it feels really good to hide the calendar and just be in the moment – wherever that may be. I’ve always said happiness comes from within and it’s nice to finally understand what that means even if just for a moment. It’s not about being published, although one day that would be really nice. It’s not about having a 4.0 GPA or finding the person of your dreams. It’s knowing that if today you write only one paragraph, if you’re granted tomorrow, there’s a chance you’ll be inspired to write several more.

I signed another year lease which means I’ll be hanging out in Tennessee for another year, but I plan on being productive while I’m here. I want my next hundred miles to be memorable ones. Thanks again for coming along with me on this journey.

Solitary Confinement

solitary-confinementI saw the cutest comic the other day on Mashable from Josh Mecouch of Formal Sweatpants. It was about how Trolley the Procrastination Troll easily convinces the character to blow away his entire day watching videos instead of working, and it made me think about my own procrastination when it comes to writing. I like Mecouch’s idea of giving an identity to that which pulls us away from being productive, because it creates an entity which can at some point “I hope” be tied up and gagged.

I don’t know the name of my procrastinator, but I know he/she isn’t working alone. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve anguished over losing touch with a piece and then spent more time analyzing the reasons why I think it happened. I don’t recommend doing this. It always leads to intense introspection with turns into self-deprecation and eventually depression.

Last week I completed my third residency/tutorial semester on the path to obtaining an MFA from Murray State, and it was the most productive one yet, but that is not to say there haven’t been some serious bouts with procrastination. A typical “good” writing day begins with me awaking feeling energized and ambitious about tackling whatever piece I’m working on. That feeling lasts for maybe an hour or so before my visitors arrive, causing it to flatline.

First there’s Distraction which brings in every noise imaginable and puts them all on blast. Then there’s Guilt which reminds me that I’m needed elsewhere and whatever that is is more important than what I’m presently doing. Entertainment comes along to suggest that I take a break since I’m not making much progress on what I’m supposed to be doing anyway then it holds me hostage with social media. Sometimes the order of entry changes, but the players remain the same as does their agenda – procrastination and sometimes their voices get really loud.

There’s a great section in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that discusses how to handle the voices:

“Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contacts, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want – wont give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.”  (27)

rubber-roomI used to think my only chance at really getting any work done was solitary confinement. A room without a view (maybe even a rubber room) with no people, no pets, no music – just enough air to breathe and most importantly – no wi-fi, but I’d probably go stir crazy from all the silence. There’s nothing worse than being trapped inside your own mind – or at least mine with thoughts and ideas running amok.

Lately I’ve been dying for a vacation. My daughter keeps reminding me that we already are on vacation – our move to Tennessee has been almost a year long and already I’m eager to see something else before returning home to Texas. More than anything this move has taught me that relocating doesn’t mean escape. Problems no matter how big or small will always find you and if not, new ones will be created just to keep the balance between happiness and chaos unstable.

So now going into my thesis semester (next January) I’m focusing more on completion than innovation. I spent this semester preparing for thesis by working on a new piece and I have five chapters/stories to write before I can truly say the story has been told. I’ve been trying to focus less on what I’m writing and just trying to be the mouthpiece for whatever story my characters want to tell. It’s something I never saw myself writing, but when the characters appeared I knew they all had something to say and it was my job to help them do it. My summer (when not job hunting) will be spent taking a summer literature class at one of the Texas A&M campuses (which I’m stoked about because I like the course and the professor) and when August rolls around I’ll be working on New Madrid, a required field study course at MSU.

Since I decided to postpone my thesis residency until January it means I won’t be finishing the course with two of the special people I met when I first began this journey. I thought we’d all be there together and it kills me to know I’ll be going the last trek alone, but I can’t be happier for the two of them.  Both girls, Whittney and Jayne, have had pieces published since we started which gives me hope in possibilities. I’ll forever have our special spot on the couch seared into my memory along with Whittney’s laugh and Jayne’s welcoming smile. That experience alone is enough to make me recommend an MFA program to an aspiring writer like myself. There’s just something you find there that doesn’t exist in any other place.

I haven’t tried the mason jar trick yet or hog-tied and gagged my trolls or whatever they are (I think maybe mine are pigs. Greedy little pigs), but I’m going to name them and then practice locking them up when they get too noisy in their quest to drag me down the halls of procrastination. If I put them in a mason jar I’d have to then put the jar in a desk drawer or paper bag for the whole “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing. Either way it’s a really good start.

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