Costa Rica in the Rain

It’s spring in Costa Rica, and there’s a reason they call it the wet season. It’s been raining almost non-stop for two days. Driving, reverberating downpours. Monsoon-like washings that seem to cleanse the soul as much as the air. I look out at the sea and watch it roil, brown sand billowing up with each crest of wave.

This is a beautiful country. I am in Guanacaste, on the north Pacific coast, and while it’s lush and green now, by February it will be hot, dry and dusty. In almost every case, the only way to get anywhere is to go through San Jose, the capital in the middle of the country. All roads lead from there to every place else for the most part. As a consequence, most travelers fly to and from the major tourist areas through San Jose.

When I arrived, I took a bus from San Jose to Playa Langosta, where I am staying, a six-hour drive. It was a great way to see the countryside. Major roads are paved, for the most part. But many are dirt (or mud) and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to pave them. In Tamarindo, the small pueblo nearby, the road alternates between dirt and broken pavement, and the dirt road features great maws of pot holes scattered with rocks. Still, the small taxis (mostly some kind of tiny Toyota) blast through at breakneck speed.

Everyone drives all over the road, edging out into traffic without regard for oncoming cars, beeping horns that no one seems to pay any attention to. Small dogs, thin, brown or black, with tall ears and long tails, run freely across the roads and loll in the front yards of tiny haciendas painted bright colors. Horses and cattle graze on the sides of the road between the pavement and the fences, oblivious to traffic.

“In my country, the horses are on the other side of the fence,” I told Olman, my driver, and he laughed.

People are warm and generous. Every taxi driver asks (in varying degrees of comprehensible Ingles) how many children I have and how old they are. Where I am from. How long I am here. Where I’ve been. My Espanol is limited, but somehow we manage to communicate. Olman speaks exceptional Ingles, so when we went to Arenal Volcano, in central Cosa Rica, I got a two-day lesson in Espanol.

Como se dice, What is the name of this town?” I asked.

Como se llama, a qui? (How do you call this place?) o Cuantos el nombre esta pueblo? (What is the name of this town?)”

"Como se dice, I went to the Arenal Volcano and was lucky. I saw lots of animals?”

“Yo fue volcan Arenal y tuve mucho suerte. Puede ver mucho animales.”

“Okay, si. Gracias.”

And so it went all the way over and back.

Except for the cook and maid (neither of whom speak more than a few words of Ingles), I’ve been alone for the past five days and I’m feeling a little homesick. Last night I Skyped with my friend, Leah, who is staying at my house, and got to see my dog, Chevella. That cheered me up.

I head home in just eight days, and the best news is my memoir is almost complete. It was the reason I came to Central America, and finishing it feels like reaching a huge milestone after working on it for almost five years, mostly in fits and starts. In December, I graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, with a master of fine art degree in creative writing. After all that’s happened since 2005, the past two years seem like a flickering light, a reverie, a bright sliver of reassurance that life can be good, it can be hopeful, indeed, joyful.

Standing in Gratitude

I am preparing to travel to Costa Rica for the month of October, where I will finish my memoir (sans any more earthquakes) and complete my final manuscript for my master’s degree. It’s an opportunity that I am very grateful to have, and I am looking forward to experiencing Costa Rica as well as finishing my book.

As I’ve written over the past two years, I embarked on this master of fine arts in creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles to force myself to finish this memoir, which I started more than five years ago. Along the way I have met wonderful friends and colleagues, and learned to have faith in my long-term writing goals. Given the current state of publishing, I have no idea whether my memoir will attract the attention of a publisher. But I advise my clients to try traditional publishing first, so I will too. Stay tuned on that.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past two years: 

  • Go after your dream, no matter how outrageous.
  • Take one concrete step toward your goal every day.
  • Do not be discouraged by setbacks, because you can be sure they will happen.
  • Believe in yourself, even when it seems no one else does.
  • Let the past be the past; learn from it and then let it go.
  • There will always be people who try to make you feel small or pooh-pooh your dreams. Do not pay any attention; it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.
  • Take time each day to read, to write, to meditate.
  • A walk on the beach with your dog is balm for the soul.
  • A walk on the beach with your dog, your friends and their dogs is super balm.
  • Feeling gratitude is more empowering than feeling put-upon.
  • The world owes you nothing. Create the life you want to live.
  • Never, ever give up.

I never imagined in my wildest dreams where my life has taken me. Great failures, deep sadnesses, wonderful friends who stood by and supported me. I stand in gratitude every day, and wonder at the capacity of humans to love.

Completions, Pending

I sent my last packet for this semester to my professor last week. I can hardly believe I have only one more semester to complete my MFA in creative writing. I will travel to Los Angeles in mid-June for my next-to-last residency at Antioch University. Then it’s six months of writing like my life depends on it. My thesis, a memoir, is due to the program office in December. It has to be at least 100 pages of stellar writing, including insightful and thoughtful commentary on early-childhood experiences, authorial interpretation, exceptional offerings of universal teachings. Yet suddenly I am feeling terribly insecure about this process. The more I write the more I question its veracity and my abilities. Who is this person writing this story? Why should anyone care? I am in existential crisis – creatively, anyway.

I’m about to abandon the whole project and submit my blogs from the past two years as my manuscript. But I won’t. I will keep going, even if I haven’t a clue where I’m headed.

That’s what writing – and life – is all about, isn’t it? Continuing on in the face of adversity and uncertainty? I don’t know where I first learned that. Probably from my stoic Michigan-bred parents, who never gave up. It’s in my DNA.

So, I soldier on. I keep writing. I trust that in time it will come together. That I will experience the sense of purpose and creative outflow that will allow me to express the things I have to express. That they will be heartfelt and inspiring and helpful to others. That is my prayer.

This is the hardest writing I have ever done. And writing has always been easy, second nature, the place I was most comfortable. Now as I struggle to bring forth the past, emotional barriers emerge, blocks rise up and I am flummoxed. Writing has been my respite, the place I go for succor. Suddenly, it is my enemy. It keeps me in a place of uncertainty, a place unfamiliar and frightening. I want nothing more than to be back in equilibrium, trusting that my words serve me. Instead, they betray. They do not let me express what I want to express. They are like the childhood I want to write about: obstinate and inaccessible and riddled with grief and sadness. How to circumnavigate this? I don’t know. I look for inspiration. I hope for guidance from mentors. They offer good advice, but I can’t seem to access it.

I keep trying, but I feel so frustrated. So I wonder, should I stop pushing? Stop forcing? Stop doing? Allow the words to come when they will? In the way they choose? If I have learned anything these past few years of upheaval and change, it is to let go of control (well, at least I’m trying to learn this). It is all illusion anyway. Still I fret.

This is important to me. More important than almost anything (except my daughter, of course). I want the writing to reflect the grief, the joy, the whole journey, and I fear it doesn’t. Not yet. So, I am going to Central America for the month of October. I am taking my writing, and the thoughts of trusted mentors and friends. I am going to write and revise and look out upon the ocean and try out my limited Spanish on the natives. And maybe, just maybe, I will arrive at my residency in December with a coherent manuscript that I feel good about. We shall see. Wish me luck.

Catching Up

Happy April and National Poetry Month!
I've been immersed in writing for my master's program the past couple of months, and so haven't had a chance to blog. But I did want you to know about some exciting happenings.
First, The Writer magazine is excerpting the first chapter of my 2010 book on publishing industry changes in its May issue, which should be on newsstands soon. I am delighted! Many of the trends I saw emerging two years ago have come true in spades, particularly the explosion in self-publishing. Pick up a copy if you have a chance. And thanks to Elfrieda Abbe and Writer mag senior editor Ron Kovach for publishing it.
My column for April is up (see it here), dealing with how to improve your writing platform by speaking and becoming an expert in your field.
Tomorrow, tune into WTBQ in New York (9 a.m. Pacific, noon Eastern), when I'll be a guest on Dr. Stephen Frueh's radio show, "The Marriage Conversation." We'll be talking about how writing can be a powerful tool for strengthening a marriage - or any relationship. You can listen to it live online. Just click on the "listen now" button.
I'll be reading my poetry with my Sunday Poetry Group here in Santa Barbara on Sunday, April 15, from noon to 2 p.m., at Karpeles Manuscript Museum. Come by if you're in town. This month there are dozens of poetry events in Santa Barbara. You can see the schedule here.
Let me offer a plug for my friend Christopher Moore's new book, Sacre Bleu, out this week. If you haven't discovered Chris' wonderful, wacky and fun books, you are missing out. I can't wait to read his latest.
Wishing you continued success in all your writing endeavors! As always, would love to hear your news.

Halfway Through

I can hardly believe I’ve finished my third master’s degree residency. I’m halfway through! If all goes well, I will have my master of fine arts in creative writing degree next December – and a completed memoir.

This past semester I have focused instead, though, on poetry, and one of the things that surprised me is how much writing poems has affected how I think about and approach the writing of my memoir.

Writing poetry – at least for me – requires a deepening of time and space. A pause, a respite, a lengthening of presence, so that the words that arrive come from a deep place, a place of unseen possibility and unknown potential. They allow for an unlocking of dark places, places that have been embedded in emotion and experience.

So when I began to write poetry in response to exercises over the past semester, verses emerged that evoked ideas and experiences I had not been able to access while writing my memoir. Places and people came forth after decades of burial. And I began to consider the possibility of incorporating my poetry into my memoir, exploring a hybrid work, an experimental form.

One of the guest authors at our residency was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Tretheway. She read some of the poetry from her forthcoming book (to be published in fall 2012), and also conducted a 90-minute question-and-answer session about her three books of poetry and her nonfiction exploration of the Mississippi Gulf Coast (where she was born) after Hurricane Katrina. That book, Beyond Katrina, incorporates her poetry into a nonfiction narrative about how Katrina affected her family. I’ve been toying with the idea of blending my own poetry into my memoir, which is my master’s thesis (read this blog to learn more about my master’s degree journey). One of the gifts of doing this program is the realization that a memoir can be an experimental work. It might incorporate poetry or artwork or photography. I want to explore all of those options, (keeping in mind the practical fact that it likely would make it harder to sell to a publisher).

I’m going back to writing my memoir in the coming semester, and hope to have a completed draft by June. Then I’ll spend my final semester polishing it and getting it ready to go out to agents. (Also this semester I have to write a 25-page critical paper. It will examine mother-daughter relationships in memoirs about childhood trauma. I’m looking at three memoirs in particular: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, and Road Song, by Natalie Kusz.)

If you write both poetry and nonfiction (or even fiction) I would love to hear how one has affected the other in your experience. Does your prose become more lyrical and poetic?

Terzanelles and Villanelles and Blazons, Oh My

It’s been weeks since I wrote about my master’s degree journey, so I thought I’d let you know how it’s going and what’s new. I’m making progress! This second semester (out of four) has been intense in that not only am I doing specific writing for monthly packets due to my professor, but I had to complete a field study (more on that in a minute), a 10-week online translation seminar (I’m in week three), and a five-page critical paper (yet to be tackled).

And, I’m in the middle of moving to a new house this week, as well. Yeah, I know, I’m nuts.

If you’ve read any of my earlier blogs about my master’s degree program, you know I’m in a low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program through Antioch University in Los Angeles. Low-residency means I spend 10 days at Antioch’s Culver City campus every June and December, and work online with a professor the rest of the time.

My emphasis is creative nonfiction, and my thesis will be my completed memoir, which I’ve been working on for about three years. This semester I decided to do something called “genre-hopping,” which means for one semester you can “hop” into one of the other emphases, which are fiction, poetry and a new one: writing for young people. So I hopped into poetry.

I was placed with a faculty member who is particularly demanding and requires his students to write in specific forms, trying them out and then discussing the poems extensively with the others in our mentor group. I had a goal of working primarily with the poems I had already written, so at first I was a little – okay, a lot – disappointed. What do I know? It turns out I really like writing in form. Sestinas, ekphrasis, sonnets, villanelles, terzanelles, postcards, prose poems, blazons, fugues. There is a virtual cornucopia of poem forms out there, and I am starting to dig them! There is almost a mathematical puzzle to many of them, and while I am no math genius (far from it), I appreciate the challenge. So I’m having fun, in spite of myself.

As for the field study, this is a requirement based on one of the tenets of the Antioch University mission, which is to engage in and promote social justice with your writing. You are supposed to do an internship with a nonprofit that incorporates your writing and helps the nonprofit in some way. I have been helping to establish an after-school interactive arts center in Santa Barbara, where kids will be able to drop in for workshops/instruction on any number of art forms for free. We are targeting at-risk youth, but the center will be open to all students, from ages 6-18. For my field study, I developed the writing program for the center. It took several months, but I finished it last week and mailed it off to my professor.

The online translation seminar has also turned out to be an interesting, challenging and fun experience. We are given a poem or short prose each week in another language and have to translate it into English. No, you don’t have to know the source language to do this (though I think it probably helps). So far we have translated a poem by the French poet Pierre Reverdy and a piece of a myth narrative written by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. We are given the poem or prose in its original language, a short bio of the author and a glossary of all the terms in the piece. Then the trick is to translate the poem in a way that captures the intent of the poem but also makes sense as a poem in English. Again, it is somewhat akin to a puzzle, and I am enjoying it a lot.

As you can see, I’ve been busy, hence the few postings here. I’ll try to get back to a more regular blogging schedule. Or maybe not.