First Drafts: Chapter One

snoopy writerIs it just me or has January flown by before you had the chance to get comfortable writing 2015? I bid farewell to Tennessee last Friday and returned to Texas after a long absence. To me, two years and eight months seems like forever, but in reality it wasn’t that long at all. I am grateful for the people I met and friendships I formed in Tennessee and will always hold a special place in my heart for the state, but I am happy to finally be home. Well, almost home. I’m not far from Dallas and a trip to Houston is less than 250 miles so that makes me close enough.

Almost Home

In the six weeks since graduation I have not had a moment to breathe. Immediately, I morphed into relocation mode and started considering my options. Then of course there was the actual move. There have been forward steps and backwards steps along the way, but progress by any means is always good. This latest move feels like a first draft. I’m on chapter one and the pages are all crisp and blank. The environment is new, my senses are awakened, there is anticipation mixed with uncertainty, and excitement about the possibility that in any moment something wonderful could happen. As usual, I unconsciously write outside the lines.

We did not get any pictures during this last road trip because we covered 529 miles in about nine hours. I now remember why on previous trips we checked into a hotel after driving for five or six hours. The good news is we arrived without any major mishaps. (That fire hydrant I almost took out with the truck doesn’t count.) The bad news is our furniture was not as lucky. I strongly recommend hiring professional movers to help with every aspect of the relocation process if you plan to travel across several states. The loading process is extremely important and you must make sure all items are firmly secured with tie-downs before traveling even a short distance. It is cheaper to rent a moving truck and do the driving, but I recommend saving enough money to hire a well-known company who specializes in relocation to do the driving instead. You might be broke by the time you arrive to your destination, but you will be less stressed.

Unpacking is moving slowly as we adjust to the new place and find ways to rearrange our possessions in unfamiliar surroundings, but there is joy that comes from seeing our favorite places and familiar conditions (like traffic jams, Barnes & Noble, Whataburger and Shipley’s). My writing room is almost set-up and I am already beginning to feel the familiar longings to put words on paper, create beautiful sentences and develop complex characters. The novel I was working on during thesis is waiting for the story to be finished and I need to feel like a capable, creative writer again instead of someone in transition. I think it is good that I stepped away from it for a bit to give the story a moment to breathe, but too much time away makes everything stale. I have a story to tell that won’t finish itself so my goal is to become more disciplined in order to reach my personal goals. Writers must write. It is what they do. It does not get more simple than that.

What I loved most about attending residencies at Murray State was the bonds formed with other writers within the program. Nothing replaces that kind of support and I cannot stress how important those relationships are. Just knowing the people you interact with understand why you are there (even if you haven’t figured it out yet) makes all the difference in the world. As fellow writers they share your frustrations and recognize the desire to create something remarkable from nothing and have it be appreciated. I find it difficult to explain why I do what I do – why I want to write or my love affair with words. An explanation isn’t necessary for those who speak my language. My only hope is that the rest who do not understand will some day find comfort and enjoyment in reading something I have written and that my words will speak for themselves.

My goals for the next several months are to work, write, read and spend time just enjoying life – once we’re settled, of course. Right now, I am not sure if I will be able to attend AWP 2015. Either way I will keep you posted, but first, I have to finish unpacking.

 

 

 

 

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Plot Twist: Destination Unknown

In fiction, conflict can arise and create a plot twist. These plot twists propel the story into a new direction and help “build” the character or get them to where you want them to be. If life were fiction and I were a character, right now we would be encountering my plot twist. It reads something like this:

The fearless Texan, with a yearning to travel and desire for knowledge, sets out to explore the unknown and pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. Setting her sights on graduate school, she heads to Kentucky for an MFA program in creative writing at Murray State and finds a temporary home in Tennessee where she discovers, unlike Texas, they worship pork, not beef, and are accustomed to tornados in the summer and single digit degree weather during winter.

With bachelor’s degree in hand she searches for work in her new surroundings, but encounters resistance within the economy. After completing a three-month sentence in Cashierdom, she loses one month of sanity in Printingville before making her way to Leasetropolis which is surrounded by Plexiglas, has extremely low ceilings and conventional thinkers.

Three residencies, three mentors, three meltdowns, 68 text books, an attempted thesis defense assassination, wretched teaching presentation, confidence-building reading, and almost 945 days later – it’s finally time for graduation, which also means, time to return home.

The festivities are bittersweet for the Texan. An obsessive planner, she is in “relocation mode.” Her thoughts are not on graduation gowns, mortar boards, tassels or honor cords (although they are an honor), but her future: the next job, next home and the next hundred miles wherever they may lead.

Desination Unknown

I have said in the past there is joy in adventure. Yes, there is, unless you are job hunting. There is nothing exciting about being an almost graduate, stalking employment boards, resume revisions, and rejection. You can say it is good practice for when you start submitting your work for publishing, but in reality no writer has positive thoughts about having their work rejected.

Job hunting is in some ways worse than having your writing rejected. At least you get rejection letters. Most companies seeking candidates for employment don’t bother to respond at all – even some placement agencies.  Why such cruel and unnecessary punishment? Is it unrealistic to hope for the career of your dreams? Perhaps, but the dreamer in me is willing to accept a happy-medium. Writers live to write and will usually do whatever it takes to be able to continue doing so.

The magnificent thing about plot twists in writing is the ability to shape the character into the person you need them to be. Sometimes this is through hardship, loss, or frustration, but as long as you are holding the pen or perched in front of your keyboard the story possibilities are endless.

Congratulations to my fellow graduates. We made it! To those of you still on the path, keep fighting for whatever it is that motivates you to be the person you have always wanted to be. No one can stop you from writing, but you. Dream it, claim it, capture it!

As for me, right now my destination is unknown, but there are still 41 days left for another plot twist and who knows what a page turner its may turn out to be.

Destination Unknown

 

This is only a chapter, not the ending . . . The story has yet to be told.

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.

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

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.

Home Sweet Home

This morning as I write this I’m sitting on my patio feeling a wonderful breeze and listening to the birds chirp as they build their nests in the tall pine tree behind my apartment. This truly is a peaceful experience. It’s as close to nature as I will probably ever get, unless you count the numerous baby deer back home. I still hate I didn’t get their picture before I left, but they’re so quick and they’re smart not to trust humans.Getting here was eventful and not without many casualties, but now that I’m here I’m truly happy. My goal is to get through some of these boxes then free my mind to write.

I received wonderful supportive comments from my mentor on the novel I’m working on so now I simply must go forward. I wasn’t satisfied with the way the story was going in the first six chapters I wrote, so I rewrote them and apparently it was a good choice. She laughed in the right places and felt my characters were believable. I would love to share some of the novel with you, but I must admit I’m paranoid when it comes to my stuff being “out there” and will probably keep it under wraps until I’m finished.

My pressing concerns now (other than getting rid of these boxes) are preparing for the next semester and all that it entails. Even though I’ve moved I’m still considered out of state until I find a full time position because you can’t just move to be closer to school (even though that is what I did). I’ve been trying to not stress too much and enjoy the moment, but when I figure out how to do that I’ll be able to choose a restaurant or make my mind up about something. I’m looking forward to the new semester of classes – I just have to find a way to pay for it all, but one step at a time.

My Jack Russell Terrier loves the new place – especially the patio. I swear she and I are kindred spirits. We feel the same things and even act the same. When we’re out on the patio she watches the kids as they make noise downstairs and the black neighborhood cat who keeps meowing at my front door. Even though this is my second Saturday here, it truly feels like my first because we arrived last Friday and since then everything has been a blur.

I have some advice in case anyone decides to relocate the way I did:

  1. Downsize – go through everything you think you don’t want and get rid of it. Sell, donate or gift. (You will need the money)
  2. Downsize again – I know you think one day you’ll actually use that appliance that has been sitting on top of the refrigerator since you bought it, but trust me – you won’t and you need to  travel light.
  3. Hire a Moving Company – I rented a truck, hired people to load it, had someone (my mom) drive it from Texas to Tennessee, then hired people to unload it. This was an expensive mistake, but a good learning experience. Cheaper is not necessarily better. Spend the money and allow professionals to package and secure your precious items for the long drive, and let them handle the driving too.
  4. Avoid Diesel – the truck I rented used diesel gas. It was 24 ft which at first I assumed would be too much, but they didn’t have a 20 ft and the 16ft was too small. If I’d properly downsized it would have been just fine. I didn’t realized the truck was diesel until after it was loaded and this little unknown fact threw my gasoline travel budget out of the water. I spent $165 one time alone filling up the truck. Never rent a truck that uses diesel.
  5. If you must do it yourself, use experienced people to load and unload – don’t use fly by night companies who leave advertisements on your door and mistake it for a good thing, and make sure to be present as they load and unload every item so you can correct them when needed. If not you will end up with poorly stacked boxes and many broken items, scratched furniture and destroyed appliances.
  6. Document everything. Make a video journal if possible, because there will not be another time to have this much chaos going on at once. When the boxes are all unpacked you can watch it and have a good laugh.

Since I’m a work in progress and learning as I go that is all the relocation advice I have for now. In the meantime until we meet again take care and remember to laugh.

: )

Boxed In

I’ve stopped remembering what day it is, but now focus on how many days I have left to get all the stuff out of the apartment. I think I’m down to nine now and as you can see still have much to do. My daughter has been doing the packing because (1) I’m incapable of NOT over packing a box, (2) she uses much less tape and (3) she actually takes time to wrap stuff whereas I just toss it all in together and hope for the best.

I’ve not been without tasks. In fact I’ve been extremely busy. While she’s been packing I’ve been wrapping up the last few assignments for grad school. I’m down to two (one in each course). I’m have to finish my final annotation packet which includes revisions to the novel chapters I’ve been working on and a new beginning for something I read in workshop. After that I have one final test over four criminology chapters (btw I’m also working on a masters at Indiana State) then I’m free to help pack. The criminology just sort of fell in the mix and probably originated from my love of psychological thrillers and desire to one day write one.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m so excited about the move and can’t wait to check out all my favorite places here in Tennessee. Of course there are places it doesn’t have like Fry’s, Einstein Bagels or Whataburger, but I’m sure they have some pretty awesome places that are similar. I look forward to finding some cool writing spots, coffee shops and of course making new friends.

My novel is coming along and I have to thank my mentor for understanding me. I’m one of those writers who likes quirky characters. For my characters life is not without obstacles and things aren’t always pretty. They’re not ridiculously over the top, but if I want something where the days are always sunny and there is always a happy ending I can read a fairy tale. Reality is just not like that and I feel I owe it to my readers to write something relatable. In the novel I’m working on Macey is the character I love most. Surprisingly she is the most unordinary and the first one that came to mind when I thought of the plot. When I wasn’t so busy with school I’d fall asleep writing and my characters would come alive to help out with the story in my dreams. Lately I’ve missed their input. My dark piece centers on a character with depression, but I’m still trying to figure out where I want to take it. I haven’t put a name or face to the character, but I can feel her pain as if it were my own. She may become one of my favorites.

 When I get a moment to breathe I may share some short stories, but first I have to find time to write something other than what I’m presently working on.

Until next time 🙂