Pomp and Circumstance

It’s New Year’s Eve and instead of making resolutions for 2015 or waiting to watch the ball drop in Times Square I am looking forward to the fact that tomorrow I get to sleep in. December has been a busy month and I have much to be grateful for. In fact, I am about to embark on my next journey which crosses several hundred miles. It’s time to go home.



Tennessee - Texas

If you have been with me from the beginning you know I have been a Tennessee Texan for the past two years and seven months while attending graduate school. Two weeks ago I attended Murray State University’s commencement and walked across the stage as they called my name to accept the keys to a dream I have been chasing. As I look at graduation pictures sometimes it is hard to believe I am the girl in the photographs. Surreal does not even scratch the surface of what it felt like to be in that room. It was the Academy Awards for graduates. Our procession in robed regalia to Pomp and Circumstance was the red carpet, and walking across the stage and being recognized for your hard work was like winning the Oscar.

Even though it was not the intimate graduation our English Department has planned in May and even though my immediate family in Texas could not attend, I am so glad I participated. My daughter, who has been with me along this entire journey, was there to see me graduate which made it even more special. If you are grauating soon make sure to attend graduation. Think of it as the Pre-Oscar party to the rest of your life. It is worth it!

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Now that I am officially no longer a student my focus has turned to finding employment, finishing my first novel, and traveling. My goal is to attend AWP – 2015 which will be held in Minneapolis and get settled once I return to Texas. I would really like to do more book reviews as well. I hope these posts have been helpful and encouraging, especially for those of you who may be considering entering graduate school. If you have any questions about the thesis process, low-residency MFA programs, road trips, or just want to talk about writing please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Right now, I am surrounded by boxes, but as always, I  am excited about the next adventure. The next time you hear from me I will probably be back in TEXAS. Thank you Tennessee for the Texas-sized welcome. Kentucky, I am pleased to be able to take a piece of you back with me. Texas, I will be home soon.

As always, keep reading, keep writing and keep dreaming.

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Happy New Year!

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BALLOONS

I do not own the rights to this image.
Copyright: Megan McMillan

Every morning at work part of my responsibilities includes putting out new balloons to welcome new prospects to the property. For the most part I get to choose what colors to inflate. Just so long as what I choose is inside the package of balloons within the office. I tend to like bold, bright colors (which are not usually inside the package within the office), but I have made good use of the colors that are available and managed to put together some interesting, yet presentable combinations.

“It is all in the twist of the wrist,” the balloon expert at another property said when I asked how hers looked so pretty. Actually, it is a bit more than that. The sizes have to be right, the pattern has to be right and the string has to be the right length. A thin balloon and a bit too much helium leads to a loud gunshot erupting from within the office. I can tell that my senses have either dulled or I’ve grown accustomed to the environment because now I rarely scream when one pops. I just dig in the bag for another one of the the same color and start the process again.

Once they are inflated, I wrap them with string. Then I do the same with the next sets, layering and joining until I have something that remotely resembles a pattern. Most times the image in my head doesn’t fit the finished product, but I acknowledge the fact that I’m not a balloon expert and make a mental note to ask a clown for some lessons. Then I maneuver the large, flying mass out to the road where the welcome sign is and do my best to tether it so that the string is least visible.

On a good day I accomplish this fete and am able to walk back to the office, task complete, with my head held high. Then there are days when, during the process of tethering, the balloons refuse to cooperate and instead find a way to escape from my grasp. When this happens I take my walk of shame back to the office and pray for rain. On sunny days I console myself with the idea that the neighborhood children were going to steal them anyway.

My thoughts are on balloons now because so much has happened since my last post. In fact, that is the reason for the long delay between posts. What has changed? For starters, I’m working full-time, and it is no longer temporary. The two classes I’m taking this semester are coming to an end, but the past few months have been filled with numerous reading assignments, editing assignments, writing assignments and discussion board posts. While this is the normal graduate school course load most students probably don’t combine it with full-time work, and if they do, there is usually another breadwinner in the family. Don’t get me wrong – it is doable, and I’m certainly counting my blessings, because I couldn’t have fallen into a better opportunity, but sometimes I feel like one of those balloons tethered to the welcome sign. Some days I too want to escape.

The life of a writer is not easy, but it is definitely one worth embracing. Every writer has a different path and each uses different tools to produce their craft. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them felt like balloons sometimes too – especially when the rejections start coming in. I haven’t submitted anything lately, although I did start a new piece the other day. My time at MSU has taught me to soak up every experience – with that in mind I’m currently working on a story relating to apartment life. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Thesis semester is just around the corner and I haven’t even booked my hotel room yet for Murray. I’m excited, scared, overwhelmed, eager, and apprehensive all at once. More than anything I’d kill for some away time. I’m definitely going to have to follow suit and lock myself away in a cabin like my poet friend Whittney. She will be defending this coming semester and I’m so proud of her. If you recall, we started the program together and were supposed to finish together, but I took this past semester off. I’m glad I did. Out-of-state tuition is a killer and I really needed the time to find my writing voice.

I can’t say I completely know my style or can give you authors I think I might share similarities with (the normal questions everyone asks when they find out you want to be a writer), but I can know when I’m not being true to myself and that is a great start. I’m so much farther along than I was when I started the program. I can even say I might have a smidgeon more of confidence. It has all worked out better than I could have ever expected.

I’m a balloon. Maybe today I’ve escaped and am soaring, enjoying my freedom in the skies. Tomorrow, who knows, I might be tethered to float above the welcome sign, providing a path for those unsettled.

I’m free. I’m floating. I’m good.

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.

Pipe Dreams

I couldn’t pass up today, 03/13/13, without posting because it’s one of those “I almost feel lucky” days, which if you’ve learned anything about me by now, is a pretty rare occasion.

I could spend all day going on about how the curves of the numbers look happy, or the roundness symbolizes harmony with life, but then I’d be venturing into what my daughter calls “Taylor Swift” territory since she’s obsessed with the number 13.

So much has happened since my last post. For starters, I got a full-time job after spending years (after graduation) searching, my mentor and I are still clicking, I finally put together a five-year plan, and oh – I turned 40.

The job came about through an employment agency in the area. I can’t tell you how many agencies I’ve contacted here and received no response. It still amazes me how they can have a city, but no real job opportunities. I’m surprised they have employment agencies here at all, because they’re really aren’t any jobs.

The mentor connection-thing is something I’d hoped for, but didn’t see coming. After residency I just knew when it came time for the phone conversations that he’d be sitting by the phone with a time clock and ruler, ready to chastise me and point out how unqualified I was as a writer. I don’t know how I come up with these dreadful scenarios. Anyway, I’m not usually so off when it comes to reading a person, so this was completely unexpected.

What’s different about him? He’s motivating. I’ve spoken previously about his teaching abilities, but this is different. It feels like he believes in me – which is hard to wrap my head around, so instead of analyzing it I just keep writing and working towards my goals.

Someone close to me recently said that this quest I’m on to become a writer is all a pipe dream. I knew exactly what the phrase meant, but for some reason it had a different impact than being accused of having my head in the clouds or chasing dreams. It stung as if someone had stuck a needle filled with arsenic through my heart and kept stabbing me with it until all the contents rotted and fell out.

At first I was hurt and angry, then the writer in me kicked in and I got literal with it:

A pipe dream is described as a vain but fervent hope for an impossible or unlikely situation.

So basically, this person thought I was the crazy person building an elaborate underground bunker, so when the green, bobble head, big-eyed aliens come with their powerful spaceships to take over our planet, suck out our brains with their laser guns, and use our bodies for experiments I’ll survive. Hmm. Yeah. Okay.

The idea that someone who played such an integral part of my life believed my goals were so ridiculous and unfathomable that I didn’t have a chance in hell at success was extremely unsettling  – I cried. Then I used what was intended for harm as motivation and started finding support in other areas and through other people – like my mentor. Although we won’t get to spend nearly as much time together as I’d like, I’m soaking up his guidance like a sponge and hoping that when this journey comes to an end he’ll be there to celebrate with me along with my other friends.

The five-year plan materialized early one morning when I only had a few more hours before I had to get up and get ready for work – but it was not without apprehension. A part of me knew that when I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life things would begin to unravel. It’s not karma, or doom and gloom, but more along the lines of the natural progression of things.

I think it’s important to set goals, but we must be realistic. To actually think we’re in control of anything that happens in the big picture of life is a bit naive. Sometimes life happens (good or bad) and you have to roll with it until the next ship comes along, which is what I did the  next week when I quit my job – the day before I turned 40.

Of that experience I’d say I’m grateful for the opportunity, but oil and water simply won’t blend and everyone has their breaking point.

Regarding turning 40, I do feel age is of importance, but you truly are as young as you feel. Right now, like Taylor Swift, I’m feeling closer to 22 – “Happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time” with the sky as my limit. One lady told me 40 is the new 30. I don’t know what it is, but me and Ms. Clairol are rolling with it, and I’m already looking forward to my next adventure!

By the way, I now have pipe cleaners above the desk where I do my writing. There’s nothing like a good bit of motivation to get the words flowing.

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