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.

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.