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.

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.

Re-entry to Life

It’s been almost a week since I’ve returned from my master’s degree residency at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and it has been an interesting re-entry. I left my almost-19-year-old in charge of the household and the pets (two cats and two dogs) while I was gone, and, well, let’s just say it could have gone better. Think I’ll wait until she’s about 30 before I do that again.

The residency was great, but exhausting and emotionally taxing. As I’ve written before, I am “genre jumping” into poetry from creative nonfiction for the next six-month semester, and the requirements of my mentor this time are strenuous. I also have to complete my field study (an internship with a nonprofit), a five-page paper and a 10-week online translation seminar this semester. If I don’t write another blog until Christmas, you’ll know why. (Kidding!)

A friend said to me last night, Are you sure you want to do this? The answer is yes, unequivocally. I have planned to do this master of fine arts in creative writing program for several years, and while this semester will be challenging, I’ll manage. In fact, I’ll do well, because that’s my commitment to myself. I’m still writing my memoir, which is the main reason I am doing this program. And my poetry can’t help but be improved with the feedback of my mentor, who is an accomplished poet and teacher.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep posting publishing news and writing tips on my Facebook Writing & Publishing group. Look for tidbits there and here. I always love to hear from readers, so let me know what’s going on in your writing lives. And keep writing!

Reading Inspiration at the Electric Lodge

Every night during my master's residency at Antioch University in LA, we have student and guest author readings, and Sunday night our readings were held at the eclectic Electric Lodge in Venice. Funky, off-the-beaten-track, small and intimate, the Electric Lodge is the perfect spot for performance poetry and readings.
Four graduating students started the evening, with powerful readings of poetry, nonfiction and fiction.
Learning how to present your work and read in public is an important skill, a critical diagnostic tool that gives the writer/reader specific feedback on not only the work but the effectiveness of the delivery. 
I tell my students it's important to read one's work out loud. It helps pinpoint problems in rhythm, voice, cadence and logic. And it forces the writer to engage the material as a reader, which can reveal unresolved questions and pitfalls in the narrative.
I have spoken to many groups over the years, but reading my own work sparked feelings of terror and inadequacy like nothing I've ever done. The more you do it, the better you get at it. And the more you can learn from it.
Rounding out the evening at Electric Lodge were readings by Rob Roberge and Peter Selgin, accomplished authors and scholars who this semester have joined the adjunct faculty at Antioch.
Roberge, the author of two novels and numerous literary magazine pieces, read from his forthcoming noir novel, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life, a hilarious and twisted story about two junkies so desperate for money they dig up the grave of one's grandmother to steal and pawn her gold jewelry. As Roberge read, the audience both guffawed and cringed at the horrific nature of the men's task. His prose was so strong, so descriptive, we were with these two losers throughout the awful deed, from falling through the top of the casket and listening to the grandmother's hip splinter, to squirming as they fished around what once was her neck to find her gold necklace. In the end, we were laughing and exclaiming "ewwwww!" at the same time. That's some awesome writing.
Selgin, the author of Drowning Lessons (winner of the 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction) and the novel Life Goes to the Movies, read from his forthcoming memoir Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, which will be published this year by the University of Iowa Press/Sightline Books. He is also the author of two books on craft: By Cunning & Craft and 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers.
Selgin's poignant and wry account of his best friends in junior high, including the notorious liar Victor, had the audience roaring with laughter, but also wistful over the evocation of that tender time when we cling to falsehoods, because that's the only safe thing to do.
Read your writing to yourself. Give voice to it and listen. If you can read it to a group, all the better. It's instructive for the writing, but also a powerful way to find your own voice and learn how to express it with strength and confidence. Isn't that what we all want in the end? A voice?

Immersed in Learning

I’m off to Los Angeles today for my master’s degree residency at Antioch University. It’s 10 days of seminars, lectures, workshops and readings, and while it’s exhausting, I am very much looking forward to engaging with other students and embracing the academic life. I’ve learned so much these past six months. I’m writing a memoir, and have had to dig deep within for insight and understanding. There was a time when I almost gave up. But with gentle encouragement and direction from my professor, I’m on the right track and feeling good about my progress.

As I wrote several months ago, I was stuck on how to structure the book when I first started the master’s program. One of the gifts I received in my first residency was the realization that there is no one, right, way to do this, and I didn’t have to have it all figured out. I could just write and the structure would come as it needed to, organically. Also, that experimentation was OK! It freed me to explore my experiences and reflect on them, plumbing them for meaning and depth.

Memoir is not a simple recounting of facts and happenings. It’s not an episodic account of events. It’s reflection on those events that allows the reader to come away with greater insight into the human condition. And perhaps some understanding of a universal truth the reader has experienced in his or her own life.

I have 18 months to go on this journey, and I am very enthusiastic for where it is taking me. It’s a two-year low-residency program, meaning I work from home during the six months between residencies. The professor/mentor is available by phone and online during that time. (If you’d like to know more, visit Antioch’s website.)

I’m switching from creative nonfiction to poetry for the coming six months, but will continue to work on the memoir. I also have a “field study” to complete, which is a project or internship with a non-profit organization of my own design. I’ll write more about that in coming days, and I’ll post here as often as I can over the residency. For now, wish me luck! I’m off to LA!