Tag Archives: progress

Back to Basics – A Writer’s Journey

It’s never too late to start over. The original plan after graduation was to turn my thesis back into the novel it was on the way to becoming. At the time I was working on a novel of linked stories and to comply with thesis requirements I had to choose three to present. After thesis when I began to put it back into its original format I realized I no longer liked the way it was laid out. Not only that, I had grown as a writer and my characters had matured. So basically, I started from the beginning.

Many writers cringe when they look at their old writings. I started by separating what I liked about what I had written from what needed to be discarded, and now I’m in the process of rebuilding the story.

For me, the most difficult part of writing is self-judgment. I’m my harshest critic. I learned at a young age to aim for perfection, but in writing, as in life, perfection does not exist. Unfortunately, this habit of harshly criticizing my own work produced writers block and delayed the progression of my work.

I was pleased to discover I’m not the only writer with this habit. I follow @thewritelife on Twitter and saw their blog post “The Real Source of Writer’s Block (And and Exercise to Beat It).”  The post recalled how as children we effortlessly told stories because our audience mainly consisted of our parents. As we grew older we became aware of a larger audience and doubt settled in, which produces writers block.

To combat writers block the author recommends a five-minute free writing session before you begin to write. During the five minutes you are encouraged to purge your thoughts onto the page. The purpose of this exercise is to find your writer’s voice in a judgment-free place so that you can once again capture that childlike spirit of producing judgment-free work (that will one day be harshly judged by others). The exercise may seem menial at first, but if you stick with it, eventually when you do start writing again you’ve stopped judging your work enough to write freely.

I have not tried this technique, but definitely plan to do so. I have a novel to finish.

 

 

 

 

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The Right Fit

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Finding the right career is a lot like trying on shoes. It’s difficult to find the perfect fit and looks can be deceiving. Sometimes what you try on in the store feels different later because it’s the wrong size. Often, it’s just the wrong shoe.

After graduation the hope is to immediately settle into a career. Some students have positions lined up before graduation and already know where life will take them next. For others, it’s a struggle.

The first 6 months after graduation you’re optimistic and determined to find the perfect job doing something close to what you majored in, if only the right company will give you a chance. You flood the market with recent graduate resumes and stalk your own email.

Six months later, after no responses, you’ll take anything that pays enough to make your student loan payments. But it’s the anything’s that make for bad fits. The hasty “it’s not what I really want but it will have to do because they don’t have my size and I’m tired of looking” fit. In the end, these fits are uncomfortable and only leave you shopping for a new shoe.

So how do you find the perfect fit?

If helps to have a great network and a marketable brand that people are interested in. I’ve joked that finding a job is like prostitution for work, but reality is you have to sell your skills to get noticed. Everyone wants a job. Many want the job you’re interested in and employers are looking for the best fit. It is more than just being qualified. The competition may be just as qualified, if not more. To land the job, you must be the purple cow – you must stand out.

It starts with a spectacular resume that showcases your skills. No matter what field you are entering a poorly organized resume or one with errors (even one) can cost you an opportunity. So think outside the box and find a unique way to showcase yourself. Second, prepare to be frustrated with the application process. Imagine spending an hour filling out a job application only for a computer program to sift through it in search of key words to determine if you’re a good fit.

I hate uploading a resume I’ve spent weeks revising only to have to parse it into little boxes that make it look ugly. Whose brilliant idea was that? Sometimes I wonder if it’s a test of patience. If you survive cutting and pasting your beautiful resume into an undesirable format you’ve passed the first test. To save your sanity, prepare a simple version of your resume as well and save it in rich text format (.rtf) for easier parsing.

Reality is we must work to survive. Sometimes in order to do that we must wear shoes that some days feel cramped and confining until we can get a better pair. But don’t stop trying on shoes. The right fit is everything.

Think about how much time you spend at work and the people you spend most of your time with. Are you happy? Do you like your coworkers? Do you feel satisfied in what you do? If not, you should. Happiness, not a paycheck, should be your ultimate goal, because you spend more time at work than any other place. What good does it do to drive a chariot if you have to meditate in the parking lot each day before you go into the building and avoid your coworkers?

Steve Jobs said it nicely,

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.
As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.
And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.
So keep looking until you find it.
Don’t settle.”

It may take some time to find the right fit. There may be some imposters along the way. Just be more selective in the brands you try and get to know your preferred style. They should be attractive and comfortable, with just the right amount of space. Nothing beats slipping into a pair of shoes that feel good, but still leave you room to grow.

Best of luck in finding the right fit.

Tennessee Texan

DSCN0151Hello again! Long time no see. I know it’s been ages since I’ve updated you on my progress along the road to my MFA. I apologize for the lengthy absence. I have truly been busy. Since my last update I got through another Tennessee Christmas without seeing my family in Texas and went back to Kentucky to attend my thesis residency in January. Right now I am in the middle of my thesis and to say I’m stressed is a huge understatement.

It has been one year, nine months and ten days since I have seen my friends and family back home in Texas. Sometimes I miss them and sometimes I just miss Texas. I’ve added Texas memorabilia around my apartment to remind me of home, but nothing takes the place of actually being there.

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What is it about Texas that makes me long to return? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it is familiarity. Maybe it is simply me being tired of the cold weather and limited choices here in Jackson, but I’m sure once I’m back home I will be wishing to be someplace else (after a little while) because I just have one of those restless spirits. The good thing is I truly feel like I have stepped foot into Dorothy’s shoes. Oz was beautiful, but there truly is no place like home. Tennessee is nice (for the most part), but there is for me, no place other than Texas that I want to live permanently. I wasn’t so sure about that before I left. Leaving was good. Now I know.

Today is the first day the weather has warmed up in quite some time and it is greatly appreciated. I’m sitting outside now on the patio with 5/6 of my household trying to work on thesis materials for my second packet which is due in sixteen days. Yes, I’m counting days because lately there is never enough time. While I’ve been here I’ve experienced many things, a double (almost triple homicide) too close for comfort, numerous tornado scares, racism, a sweet little place that makes the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever tasted, snow, frozen car doors that won’t open – then won’t close, true southern accents, and apartment leasing.

Have you ever received a blessing that brought complications along with it? I guess you might say then it’s not a blessing, but I think it is. It’s just complicated. I’m now working full time – right in the middle of my thesis. The major difference about this position and the positions I’ve held for the past several years, while in school, is there is no downtime and no allowances for being a student. Considering the fact that I moved out here to be closer to MSU one would think I’d drop anything that interfered. It’s not that simple, but I’m doing the best I can and reminding myself to be thankful for each and every blessing. I’ve learned that even hardships can bring about amazing outcomes.

I was planning to attend the AWP Conference in Seattle this year and had booked everything but plane tickets. Then my pet sitter canceled on me so I had to cancel AWP. At first I was really upset about it. Not only did I want to attend my first AWP Conference, I really wanted to see Seattle. If I weren’t working I would have loved nothing better than a road trip, because then I could have seen other parts of the world I might not ever have a chance to see. I do believe everything happens for a reason – even reasons I may not understand. Had I attended,  the packet I’m so desperately trying to complete now would have definitely been late and I would have been even more stressed. There’s always next year’s AWP in Minneapolis. What can be better than checking out Prince’s digs?

Thesis residency in January went better than expected. I chose my first mentor as my thesis advisor and it turns out she only had one other person. We were able to cover all of our material during the residency – something we would not have been able to do had we had a larger class. It was pleasing to have her read the material I’m working on now and see that I have truly grown as a writer. If you asked me what I’ve learned or what changed, I can’t point to any one specific thing. There are so many little things that make up the big picture of progress. I can definitely say if you are on the fence about whether or not to pursue an MFA to go for it. It really is worth it. There is no formula for writing (at lease I don’t think so).  Sure there are things you learn to make it better and methods that help you get to where you want to be in the story, but if you have no creativity inside, no drive to write something really good, and no willpower to keep going even during the tough times then school won’t help. As writers we all have something special inside that churns out stuff that makes us unique. If I had not pursued my MFA I probably wouldn’t have recognized my strengths as a writer or learned  how to nurture them to become a better writer.

It amazes me how you go along in life with one idea about where a journey may lead and end up with so many other amazing gifts when it is almost time for it to come to an end. Since I’ve been here we’ve started a “Something Good Happened Today” box. It was actually an idea I got from someone back home. She was posting on Facebook things she was grateful for, but on a daily basis, and I realized how much easier it was to complain than to recognize the good things (even if they are sometimes small) that happen to us. My daughter and I take a tiny scrap of paper, jot down the event and the date it happened, and put it in a box. At the end of the year we put the little scraps of paper in a plastic bag and read through them. If I were really disciplined I would do it on a weekly basis instead of every time something good happened, but baby steps.

To help me deal with thesis stress I’ve started an exercise program – one that was long overdue. I wanted to lose weight to fit into an outfit I wanted to wear for the banquet after thesis defense, but I also wanted healthier eating habits and a change in my lifestyle. I have a definite goal, but once again baby steps. I’m focusing on three miles a day right now, and getting up in the mornings when I’d much rather stay in bed for an extra fifteen minutes is brutal. So is exercising in the evenings when I get off and remembering to cut down on portions, but I’m optimistic. Exercise is a great way to burn off stress, especially after a day at work.

The leasing industry has a lot of potential for a creative person with tons of energy. With that being said, I don’t recommend it while in the middle of thesis. Time off is unrealistic, writing time must be crammed into a lunch hour (if nothing else is more pressing) or after work, and sleep is the enemy. The great part is that you get to meet some really amazing (and some not so amazing) residents and you get to work with some really fun people. I love trying to meet the needs of our residents and take pleasure when things work out. On the down side I had two evictions this month, but knowing I did everything I could to try and help them, before it got to that point, allows me to not be too upset. I’d be even happier if some of the proposals I’ve submitted to improve our property got approved, but then again baby steps.

My goal when all this is over is to leave here with a completed (or close to finished) novel of fiction. I’m working with linked stories and really enjoying the characters that have introduced themselves to me. Defense is in July and if all goes well, graduation is in December. Who knows what journey will be next after that. Right now, I’m just focusing on one thing at a time. I put them on the refrigerator in case I get sidetracked or overwhelmed.

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Until next time.

 

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.

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.

A Little Progress Never Hurts

I can’t remember where I originally saw this picture, but it was probably somewhere on one of those encouragement posters you see. You know the ones that tell you though the road may be long, and though you feel lost to keep going? Sometimes I just want to jump inside one of those posters and run off into the unknown – maybe then I think I’ll find out where my story is supposed to go.

This week I’m learning to appreciate glimpses instead of focusing on entire chapters of progress. I consider myself to be an instrument through which my characters can tell the story. When I think too hard and try to control things we end up off course. Residency is an eye-opening experience, and not for the faint at heart or those with an iron grip on their stories, but it does not all end there. So far I have gotten a lot out of the two residencies I’ve attended at MSU. However, usually about a week or so afterwards I find myself clogged as if someone pulled open the top of my head and stuffed wads of Viva or rolls of three-ply toilet paper inside. Everything is all fuzzy, clouded and staunched. For lack of a better term – I get creatively constipated trying so hard to remember what I learned, weed  through workshop suggestions about my story, and meet deadlines.

Since I’m still new at all this, I feel comfortable sharing with you what I find helps me if your creativity is ever backed up. Yes, I’m going to give you another list.

TIPS TO CURE AFTER-RESIDENCY CONSTIPATION

1. Realize that residency is one of those take what you need- leave the rest type of things. The program is there to help  you – not remold you. If your writing was really that crappy in the beginning you wouldn’t have been accepted. These people see potential in you, so stop whining about what you could have or should have done during residency, and now do what you do best – Write!

2. Every person is different so every person writes differently. Not everyone can whip out something spectacular in 2, 4 or even 10 minutes so give yourself a break. Maybe you are the kind of writer whose stuff tastes better once it has had a chance to simmer. Work with what you have and expand upon it. Be yourself and embrace that which distinguishes you from everyone else.

3. Creativity is not a faucet and should not be treated as such. Allow yourself to do what writers do best: dream big dreams, hope for what is utterly impossible, make up ridiculous things, and allow your characters to have a little freedom. Form is important – yes, but don’t get so caught up in form that you choke on it. Most importantly your job as a writer is to tell the story, so stop worrying about being grammatically correct, varying sentence lengths or if you are telling too much instead of showing (I promise you can fix it all later). The point is if you suffocate the creative voice beneath layers of format you will never tell the story and it will die. Just write it down already and fix it later.

4. Stop trying to be a writer and just write. In reality, the ones who came before us wrote where they could, sometimes in uncomfortable surroundings like bathrooms and laundry rooms. Stop imagining there is a special place, desk, chair or environment that will improve things. Sure it would be nice, and maybe after you sell several books you can get that happy place, but in the meantime work with what you have. If there is something good there location won’t prevent it from being shown.

Needless to say I’ve made a little progress. I’ve almost finished (for now) In Pieces, but trust me I’ll probably do more to it later. it is at least to the point where I can submit it or get feedback. I don’t know if it will ever go anywhere, but just completing or getting close to completion with that piece is progress and I’ll take it. Last night I was playing with the novel I’m working on and had a breakthrough about a few of the characters. I say “playing with” because unless I’m actually writing or revising I’m just tossing thoughts around in my head and listening to my characters.

I’d been wanting to give more depth to Jaxon, my male major character, but have been dragging my feet, unsure of who I wanted him to be. He has come a long way, but something was missing. Yesterday I saw this guy on my way out of the grocery store. He had beautiful eyes and held the door open for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and realized later that he was my Jaxon. I’m such a visual person maybe that was the problem before why there was a void. I now can see where I want to go with him, which opens my mind up to other aspects of the story.

I also did some soul searching about Austyn and Macey. Since I’m working with three major characters I sometimes get lost in the making-it-all-fit nightmare. Last night I saw them finally for the individuals they are, which made it easier to build the story into one where it fits – if I want it to. Austyn’s character seemed to be missing something as well. I didn’t want her to come off as a wuss, or a witch or too crazy or too perfect. So it was a challenge since I like all my characters to be a little quirky. I found a new beginning for her, and now the old one is in the middle. I can also see her ending and so far like the way it is heading. Macey’s character lacked purpose, so I gave her conflict a background, which broadened the role of another character. Needless to say the ship is once again moving after being trapped on land for some time.

I’ve got this title in my head for something else. Something different. When I get a minute I might play with it in short story form and see how it develops. The criminology I’m studying has been planting some seeds and I’d like to at least try it. There is a story there. I can partially see it, but have a long way to go.

The last time we spoke I said I’d post a picture link for my travels. It is a constant work in progress, but I’ve uploaded some pictures from both residencies, the move from Texas to Tennessee, some pieces of home and even my trip to Baltimore for a job interview that went nowhere. I plan to be doing a lot more traveling, hopefully attending writing conferences and wherever else the road takes me. Here’s the link. I hope you enjoy my travels http://photobucket.com/thenexthundredmiles

Before I go I’d love to hear your stories about being creatively constipated or anything else you’d like to share with me. I feel like we’re in this together and can’t thank you enough for your support.

: )