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!

Mastering Writing & Time

The first six-month period of my master’s degree program is drawing to a close. Tomorrow my final packet of writing and book annotations is due to my professor. I have more last-minute writing to do today (each month I have had to produce twenty pages of my memoir - about 5,000 words), and I still have to finish the second of the books and write both annotations. But I’ll make it.

I’ve discovered a number of things during this first six months of the program; primarily, there is so much I don’t know. Remember when Donald Rumsfeld, talking about the Iraqi War, said something to the effect of, there are things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know? I am awash in unknown unknowns.

It’s like a floodgate of knowledge has opened and suddenly all these new concepts and ideas are flowing over me.

I’ve been a writer, editor and journalist for more than 30 years, and I’ve picked up a fair amount of knowledge in that time. But the books I’ve read and the ideas I’m discussing with my professor are deeper, more satisfying and more personally challenging than anything I remember from my earlier college days. (Okay, yes, I spent a fair bit of time partying in college – it was the ’70s, after all.)

But this master’s degree experience has created a new unfolding of my intellectual life. And it has slowed me down. I wrote several weeks ago about taking time to think and ponder. That, if nothing else, has been the great gift of this program.

After tomorrow, I have a month to relax before I go to Los Angeles for a 10-day residency at Antioch University. (There are two residencies every year. You can find out more about Antioch’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program here.) I am looking forward to the opportunity to reconnect with faculty and students I met last December, and to the vibrant and varied offerings of lectures, workshops, readings and seminars that are the essence of the residency. In fact, I would go so far as to say I look forward to it with relish and even giddy anticipation.

My memoir, which is the reason I am doing the program, is finally taking shape, slowly and in fits and starts. But it’s coming along. During the next six months I will continue to work on that project, but will shift focus during the project period to poetry, a passion I have indulged over the past five years. I want to know if anything I’ve written is good, and I want to know and understand more about the great poets, both historically and in the contemporary canon. Then, in the final year of the program, I will complete and, I hope, polish the memoir.

When I’m done (target graduation date is December 2012, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise), I’ll have a completed manuscript and my MFA, which will qualify me to teach creative writing in any university setting. Whether I decide to do that, time will tell. For now, this time, this pause in my life, has been a blessing. It has stretched me emotionally and intellectually – a gift for the ages.