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.

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.

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!

Feeling the Burn

Ok, I hit the wall. Yesterday was the fifth day of my 10-day master's residency at Antioch University Los Angeles, and I was weary as a jaguar after a 60-mile-per-hour sprint. My bones ached. My muscles ached. My head ached. I couldn't remember what day it was. I was emotional and overwrought. Did I mention I was tired?

I love these residencies. They are chockful of seminars, workshops, lectures and readings. But after four days in which I arrived before 9 and left after 9, well, let's just say I can't go the distance like I could when I was 20 - or even 40. So I skipped the cohort dinner last night and went to the movies with a friend, just to clear my head. (By the way, loved "X-Men: First Class.") And I slept in a little this morning.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am "genre-jumping" - moving into poetry for the upcoming semester from creative nonfiction, which is my emphasis in this program. I had some specific ideas of what I wanted to do this semester. So yesterday my mentor laid out the expected work. Whoa. It wasn't what I had planned, and I spent the better part of the day struggling to get my head around the new agenda. What it came down to is this: I had to let go. You know that old yarn, If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans? Yeah, she was getting a good guffaw at my expense.

Today, I'm feeling better, realizing I'm likely going to learn a lot of things I didn't know about poetry (and probably writing), and I'll be stretched by that. Also, I'm discovering much about myself, and about giving up control (geez, that lesson just keeps coming up and up). Good thing we're never too old to learn. Yeah, that.