Category Archives: Annotations

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.

Big-Bad-Wolf-and-Three-Little-Pig-Hand-Puppets_34875-l

Advertisements

Growing Pains

For me one of the hardest parts of writing is putting the first word on the page (or at least getting down the first decent sentence). I’ve heard you shouldn’t edit while writing, but I find it hard not to. I can’t see going forward if what I started with isn’t right. My method probably does slow down progress, but at least I’m still “in” whatever I’m writing instead of standing outside looking at it and turning up my face.

Even with editing sometimes what you set out to write isn’t always what you get. I wrote a piece during this last residency that had a good storyline, but I felt my characters were stale and there were other issues. After the second day of hearing him read my stuff and then listening to the stuff the other people in my workshop wrote I was sincerely hoping he wouldn’t waste good class time reading anymore of mine. Looking at it now I realize that what I was writing about was competing for attention with what was actually going on. It was about this mother who kept losing things (possibly entering the early stages of dementia) and a daughter who was battling depression. The overarching depression kept butting heads with the mother’s strong, controlling personality. I think it just seemed to go nowhere. My characters didn’t go anywhere either so it probably wasn’t a joy to read.

Soon I began to feel the same about everything else I’d written. I was embarrassed and began to wonder what on earth the committee who approved my writing for admission to the program was on at the time they read my piece. Maybe they had several bottles of wine. I wanted to meet with them and discover what on earth they’d ever thought I’d done right. I became so depressed several mornings driving in I found myself crying while driving. That’s a new one! One morning I really hit bottom when R. Kelley’s “I Believe I Can Fly”  came on the radio and I started to sing along. I began to think about my journey into this writing program: packing up everything and leaving my friends and family in Houston,Texas which was huge, and moving to tiny Jackson which has absolutely nothing and where I know no one, and the misery of CASHIERDOM all for something it turns out I wasn’t even good at. Then I started bawling. Really bawling. It was a sight to see. Just picture a woman in a Taurus with make-up running down her face who wants to fly the way Pinocchio wants to be a real boy. You could say it was a low point during the residency.

After residency I came home to find out CASHIERDOM cut everyone’s hours so I had no miserable position to return to which meant financially we were screwed. Then while frantically searching for another position I took a moment to look at everything I tried to absorb while at residency. I realized that some aspiring writers are denied admission to graduate school so maybe I wasn’t a complete loser. I re-read my hastily jotted down notes from residency and then decided to jump head first into my first craft book. It was amazing! I chose Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley who is the Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which is coincidentally my mentor’s alma mater. I loved this book. It really helped me pull away from simply stating facts and delve into the fiction I was all the while trying to create. The first book of short stories I studied this time around was a collection by Shirley Jackson. Since I’m out of the loop on short story writers I’d never heard of her, but really enjoyed her style. She’s not afraid to “go there” and I found that encouraging.

I took in all of this and sat out to write a set of short stories similar to the method used by Crystal E. Wilkinson in Water Street where the characters all knew each other but the stories were different. The first story I submitted to my mentor had the main character dealing with a conflict and it introduced all the other characters that will be in the other stories because they’re family. This time around when writing I kept asking myself “What is this particular story about?” Doing this helped me stay focused on the person’s story I was trying to tell and made it a bit easier when I was trying on the skins of different characters. I could see and hear them. Apparently my mentor could too which is always a good thing.

Speaking of mentors I’m clicking with this one which makes 2 out of 3. It’s strange when you meet someone in person and the vibe seems tense, but when you talk to them on the phone it’s more comfortable. I’ve said before that my mentor is someone I think who was meant to teach. He has the skill, the patience and truly seems to want to help others learn as well. It’s like he does invisible “are you getting this” checks while teaching. I think that’s special and rare. I was worried the phone conversation would be tense and I was afraid of speaking at the wrong time, but it went fine.

It’s so funny that before we talked I had been preparing for the worst. I’ve got to stop doing that. Stop bracing for the next disaster. Anyway, it wasn’t as long as I’d wanted and I wasn’t sure I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. I’d anticipated him saying something that really meant “this is crap” and I was going to thank him and say that I’d figured out maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a writer (during my final year in the program) and that after this semester I was going to withdraw from the program and focus on something that required a learning skill (like a human resources degree) instead of talent which I clearly didn’t have. I’m so glad I didn’t say any of that. His comments were extremely positive and not fluffy “Oh great job” positive, but “I wanted to turn the page and read more” positive which in my opinion is the best compliment you can give to someone wanting to become a writer. In fact after we talked I felt more encouraged than I’ve ever felt about my writing (not “toot my own horn” encouraged, but “maybe I can do this after all” encouraged).

In my quest to write short stories it seems I’m still churning out stuff that reads like novel chapters. But only this time they’re good novel chapters or at least the start of something good. This bodes well if I’m going to write novels which is what I originally intended to do, but my MFA program needs short stories for my thesis so that complicates matters a bit.  It worries me that I’m still unable to write a short story when I’m really trying to, but my mentor says not to worry (we can always scale down) if need be, but for now this is worthy of completing. So for now I’m going to keep attempting to write short stories using the same methods as before in hopes that they continue to appear as novel chapters. Who knows what I’ll have when I’m finished, but if this twisted mentality works for me I might just one day become a writer after all.

Here We Go Again

IMG_1444I survived another residency and I’m glad to be home – sort of. Before I get into all the bitter-sweetness of driving back to TN let me first tell you about my latest residency.

It amazes me how they can pack so much into nine days. Towards the end my brain was turning to mush and pleading with me to pull the plug and succumb to my hotel mattress, but I persevered. It took me about 1 hour and 40 minutes  to drive from Jackson,TN to Murray, KY. I arrived with time to spare and a really full bladder. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Like the last residency I brought along the entire family: my daughter/pet sitter/emotional picker-upper, an extremely touchy Cockatiel, two high-maintenance tabby cats, and a twelve year old Jack Russell Terrier aka The Light of My World. The bird didn’t adapt well the last time I put him into a smaller traveling cage. In fact he was so angry he screamed all the way to Kentucky, so this time I decided to bite the bullet and take his much larger cage. So large that I had to tilt it quite a bit just to get it in and out of the car – hence the birdseed all over my back seat. The cats hate car rides, so we dulled their anxiety by placing one carrier on top of another and covering both with a sheet. The overly eager Jack Russell rode in a carrier in the front seat with my daughter, because (1) there was no place for her to fit in the back seat, and (2) she’s just special like that. She wasn’t too keen on the carrier though, and expressed her thoughts on the matter in a shrill whine all the way into town.

I’d filled up on water and juice on the drive with no bathroom break because I’d gone before we left home. Apparently my bladder is shrinking, because by the time I pulled into the parking lot at MSU I was fighting the urge to wet my pants. After I parked, I sat in the car and wiggled a little, trying to decide how to inconspicuously get into the building and to the bathroom without it being obvious that I had to go.

My daughter offered to show me some potty dances she does when she has to go really bad, but I declined and pleaded with her not to make me laugh. Finally I just went for it. I opened the car door and walked as fast as I could into the building. Each residency the kindest volunteers are waiting by the front doors to welcome you back to the program. They hand you your packet of materials and get the info for your parking pass. I breezed in, then in a flash gave my name, told them I was in fiction, and said something like, “I’m about to wet my pants. I’ll be right back.” So much for being subtle.

After that the ball got rolling and a banquet kicked things off.  The next several days were filled with meetings, speakers, teaching presentations, craft lectures and mentor sessions. Speaking of mentors, I got a new one this semester. After last semester I wasn’t sure what to think; in fact I was preparing for the worst. I hate to jinx myself, but I’m really hoping something extremely positive comes out of this.

For starters, this time around the rules changed quite a bit. I’m no longer working on the novel I spent my first two semesters revising, revising and revising. My program doesn’t recommend students do a novel as a thesis project, but never before had it been told to me or explained in the method my mentor did. I have to thank him for that.

Short stories are sort of the meat and potatoes of the writing world. Once you master that process and develop your writing skills the sky is the limit. Was I disappointed? Hell yeah! I was so devastated it took me a good two days to wallow in self pity before I could put my big girl pants back on and give the short stories a go.

Looking back on it now – I’m okay with it. I’d much rather start from the beginning instead of the middle and work my way up. I just wish someone had told me sooner.

As you can see from this semester’s reading selections I’ll be reading a lot of short stories as well as a few novels. As far as my relationship with my mentor goes – it’s different. Not bad at all – just different. My mentor genuinely loves teaching and he wants to make sure I’m learning. So much to the point that sometimes when we’re one-on-one, and he’s talking he’ll ask if I’m listening (which annoys the hell out of me), but alas his heart is in the right place so I try not to get offended.

My goal this semester is to learn as much as I can and try to turn out some decent short stories. Thesis semester is up next and I need to be prepared, so I’m going to try and milk this semester for all it’s worth.

Thanks again for following along with me on this journey. I don’t know where I’m going, but I promise there will be few dull moments.

Dis(en)couragement

Discouragement

I know strange title. Why not just put discouragement? Because it is going to be a strange post about encouragement out of discouragement – and it was a lot better than WTF??

It’s the day after Christmas and sadly I didn’t get to go home as planned, but I got over that (a little bit), and then something told me to look and see if my last mentor posted my grade for this past tutorial session.

I was calm at first and a little bit optimistic. Then after I saw my grade I frantically began to search the site for my transcript to find out the status of my current GPA.

There it sat, barely intact, to the right of the offensive B. It stared at me weakly from its new level of 3.57. I stared back, helpless to remove it from life support and return what had been lost. Gone was my 4.0 after the July residency, but even that left it at a 3.8 which meant there was still hope. Now there’s not much of it left. One more hit and we’re done.

Confusion, anger, and discouragement assaulted me while depression waited in the wings, anxiously awaiting its turn. “I will not let them win,” I thought as what was left of me longed for the safety that could only be found in my bed, beneath the covers, underneath my pillow where only quiet and darkness dare to exist.

Am I logically correct in assuming that a “B” means the student writer has not worked as hard on creative output that the mentor desired? For if they had the mentor would have given the student writer an “A” right? If so, who sets the bar on creativity and progress?

How does one grade creative progress? Is it determined by how a piece makes you feel or by the growth the writer has shown piece by piece, revision by revision? What differentiates an “A” writer from a “B” writer for each mentor and what chance does the student writer have of determining the formula before final grades are due?

In undergrad it was easier to discern an “A” piece from a “B” piece because they had a similar format, and all followed the same general direction.

Creative writing programs are different. Students work on different pieces, there are different paces; they sort of guide themselves. But if the point of an MFA is to help the student become a better writer so that (1) they may teach others (if they so desire), and (2) hopefully write literary-worth material, how is the student supposed to jump through the necessary academic hoops if they’re constantly changing while embracing their individual creativity? Does it mean I have to like what you like? Do you have to like what I like? Am I supposed to wow you or is it based on how much progress you feel I’ve made from the beginning of the semester to the end?

To date I have completed one year of my MFA program. A semester that ends like this doesn’t encourage me to write – it leaves me confused. I think there are times when we all feel discouraged about our writing. I know grades are not what matters most, but when annotations and personal writings are all you have to go on each semester, and you receive positive feedback each time please tell me how all of that factors into a B at the end?

I encourage you all to use your discouraging moments as motivators. This is a knock down time and I know there will be others. I’m sure this is mild compared to some of the rejection letters I will receive when I complete and attempt to publish my novel.

I know it hurts – but give yourself time to lick your wounds, and then start writing again. Life won’t always make sense – especially during the times when it should. No matter what keep writing.

Happy New Year

Long Time No See

It has been a good while since my last post – I missed the entire month of October. Man what an excruciating month that was.

In October, I was preparing to submit my third annotation which included two short stories I’d been working on. My mentor wanted me to get in touch with my emotions and use those feelings to enhance my characters. So I revisited the beginnings of a writing sample I’d started, but never finished which I called Three Days Grace. It was about a woman on the verge of suicide, but I hadn’t really gotten anywhere with it. It was raw and dark.

Then I began work on a piece I called Happy, because it seemed as if unconsciously I’d been contemplating the simple meaning of the word. It kept appearing in whatever it was I was working on, and I realized I was searching for the meaning of it. Then I added a twisted ending to Happy and called it a day.

My novel chapters needed work as well, so I began rewriting the character entrances and adding depth to the scenes to add vitality. I also did a lot of heavy work on the showing/telling and character development areas, thanks to the help of some excellent craft books, Showing & Telling, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition).

The month of October was so grueling, not only because of the increased work production, but my part-time job (which qualifies as its own private trip to hell) refused to work with the schedule I’d given them for my availability. I was also finishing up a literature class which required a minimum 5,000 word paper at the same time. Needless to say I was working too many hours, had too many assignments, and was extremely overwhelmed. By the time I got everything submitted (on time) I think I must have collapsed.

Surprisingly the feedback from my third annotation was extremely positive. I was shocked. My mentor liked where I’d started with Three Days Grace, but cautioned that I’d need to open it up and add some additional characters/dialogue. She also liked the quirky ending of Happy but pointed out that I’d started off in second person and switched to third midway through. My first thought when I read that was “I can’t believe I wrote in second person. I never write in second person. No wonder I switched to third.” Then I made a quick note to rewrite the whole thing in third and of course lengthen it since it was presumably short. She also liked the additions/revisions I’d made to my novel chapters, and looked forward to reading more.

I submitted the fourth and final annotation a little over a week ago and I’ve yet to get feedback, but I should hear something very soon. For this last annotation I first went through a period of about four days of absolute (curled up in fetal position) illness during the time I was supposed to be writing, and then once I was able to sit up again I tormented myself over what a horrible writer I was. Ever experience those days? Then I lamented over the fact that now, because I’d been ill, for the first time my annotation would be late (which was totally unacceptable).

After my pity party I sat down at the computer and started writing. At first I had an idea of where I wanted to go with Three Days Grace, but it didn’t feel right. I started on it anyway and by the time I finished the almost final draft and read it to my daughter/editor, she realized that what began as Happy was really a missing part of Three Days Grace so I added it. When I finished it was thirteen pages and had gone into a direction I never thought I’d write. It had romance and a happy ending. Definitely not how I thought it would turn out, but I was happy with the progress I’d made.

Then once again, I started on the novel chapters. I swear it should be called Those Chapters Still Need Revisions, but once again I tackled the opening, revised some areas which I’d put off for later, and started on the next chapter. Anyone who says writing a novel is a piece of cake has no idea what they are talking about. Writing truly is a labor of love. It’s the number one reason why we torment ourselves.

This entire semester has been an experiment in pushing me beyond my limits (as far as writing is concerned) and something tells me the worst is yet to come. I have a new semester beginning in January, with a new mentor, and word is he’s intense. I’m sure the time I thought I spent in hell this semester will seem like a cakewalk compared to next semester. As it stands I have no idea what letter grade I will receive for this semester. Remember, this is the mentor who gave me a B for residency, so I can honestly say I’m just glad it is finally over.

Even though the semester was difficult, and even though I’ve temporarily put my criminology studies on hold, I have to admit I learned a lot this semester. Nothing truly worth having comes easy. It felt like I was always trying to rise to the occasion this semester, and when you think about it, that is really not a bad thing. Complacency doesn’t make good writing if you have nothing to strive for. Of course I’ll complain throughout the experience, because I have to vent, but in the end I truly believe it has made me a much better writer which makes me look forward (just a little bit) to next semester.

Happy Writing!