I can’t believe how long it’s been! Ayayayayay!
Part of this is…summer is precious now for a teacher, going, going, gone, which is fine, it’s all good, I’ve always been that girl who loved all the seasons, and even to the Ms. Raina version of me, September is just as exciting as June. But the summer does go fast, and it’s filled with so much to do: first sleep off the exhaustion accumulated during the year, and then cook and bake and swim and read and write and travel and just be, breathing in the sweet breeze, doing nothing when possible.
Okay, so underneath all the breezy summer excuses is another reason I haven’t been blogging.
I think I am becoming more private as a writer. I think I need that.
When I went to VCFA, I was happy to put my learning on display to my very appreciative writing community. I found it helpful to me, too. It was like college notes for all of us! But now…college is over. Now it’s just me and my work. I am still learning, still discovering something about myself and my craft, maybe even every day. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. But now I think I need to stay in a dark hidden space: just me and my discoveries.
So, why even have this blog then? Yes, I asked myself that very relevant question. I even started writing a good-bye post. But I haven’t quite made that decision, either. So that’s where I am. That’s why the long, indecisive silence.
Blogging takes commitment. Energy. Long silences are getting weird. Nothing we do in life should be a maybe.
On the other hand, I do love the small community I’ve built here. Would I be able to find you all again if I started another blog on another site when the time is right God-knows-when?
Enjoy the rest of your summer, friends. Whatever I decide, I am grateful to you all for being here all these years — seven years to be exact, at least for some of you, wow! ❤
When I was little, my mama was my treasure. Maybe this was true for me more than it was for other children, because we lived apart and I missed her. My mama was my princess, my hero, my sparkling sorceress, she was the queen of beauty, she was my dream, she really was my everything. At 11 years old my dream came true and I moved in with her, and continued to worship her well into my adolescence. Of course over the years I’ve had to learn that my mama was human; I’ve learned that she made mistakes, and that she couldn’t always rescue me; I’ve learned that she wasn’t always right and that there were more important things than her approval.
But looking back today at the things I do and the way my life is turning out, I realize that I have learned so much from my extraordinary mama. She made me fall in love with art and music. When I was little, she played Vivaldi to me and made me identify the four seasons; she showed me Salvador Dali’s paintings and dared me to write school essays that flip the topic on its head. She encouraged me always to be “free.” With an in-your-face mama like mine, you soak it in: that being different is a good thing and being brave matters. Maybe she didn’t mean to, or maybe she did, but when she told me stories of seeing me in a magic mirror from afar, she also taught me to believe in magic. She taught me to be happy, to seek the joy and beauty in whatever life throws at you. My students say to me sometimes that I am like no other teacher they’ve ever had. They don’t know it, but I do: it was my mama who taught me to be extraordinary.
One of the most important things she also taught me is to try again. And again. And again. And then, to keep trying.
You see, my mama is killer at chess. I never quite inherited her passion and patience for it. But one bit of chess wisdom managed to stick: even when you’ve lost most of your pieces, even when the king is cornered and all seems bleak, you keep fighting, you keep playing, you keep dancing, you keep smiling. A check is not the same as a check mate. And even after a check mate, there is always another round. She applied to college seven times before she was accepted into the most prestigious performing art school in the nation. At various times in her life she dealt with poverty, anti-Semitism, KGB threats and more; and yet she found a way around every block she’s ever faced.
With a mama like that, you soak it in: you only lose when you decide you lose.
Today I live her lessons as a teacher, as a writer, as a human being, as a mama, myself. Life is beautiful and crazy. I am bold and brave (and crazy, at times). I am teaching and learning, sometimes flying, often falling, always getting back up again. I am writing and plotting, submitting, dreaming on, moving on. I am trying. I am smiling. I am dancing. Because I know, when one song is over, another one will come on. There is always another round.
Happy Mother’s Day! What has your mama taught you?
What do you do when you are too busy to breathe? When student notebooks compete with certification studies compete with long commutes compete with meetings compete with lesson plans compete with my own kids compete with oil change compete with laundry compete with PowerPoints compete with sleep…?
You do the best you can, of course, because you have to and because you want to, you smile through it all, so your students ask you, over and over, “Miss, why you always so happy?” and you love it some days and others you fake it, some days you’re a flying bull breaking through barriers, some days you dance through (sometimes literally!), sometimes you take a chance, sometimes you take off, lift off to space, then more often than not you crash back to reality, then you dust yourself off, begin again.
You just do it, right? We all do. I bet most of you have your own manic daily music to dance to.
So you do it. Each morning you wake up at 5, you dress up and you do your daily dance.
But what if underneath your daily dance clothes, you are also a writer?
How are you supposed to handle that? If you cannot spare your sleep? If your feet cannot afford to run marathons while dancing?
So here is what you do. You tiptoe back to your deeper truth: step by tiny step, you make your way back to writing.
That is what I have been doing lately: taking tiny writing steps every day.
Five minutes one day. Fifteen minutes the next. Then ten. Every day. It’s like a bathroom break or a quick surf through Facebook, only better. A little sip of writing here, a little gulp there. I don’t care about quantity. I don’t have time to obsess over quality. Just a few ticks of a timer, just a couple of daily beats of a writer’s heart, ten minutes at lunch, fifteen on Sunday evening.
And you know what? I like it. I like it a lot.
Even today, on a blissful break of a snow day, I could have kept going, I wasn’t stuck or anything, there was more to write, but after maybe 20-25 minutes, I felt good, I was complete for the moment. I was no longer thirsty, and so I stopped.
It may sound a little strange and maybe not very “writerly,” but a stolen writing moment to me is a lot more fun than a wide-open afternoon pressuring me for thousands of words. I don’t know if I ever had the stamina for it, really. Of course I tried it, and I did it; I did it for years, I did it plenty of times. But I remember after many a long writing session, I felt depleted and disoriented, out of breath, out of juice.
Maybe it’s a cosmic joke: that inside my workaholic body lives a very delicate, very laid back, do-not-disturb-me muse.
Sure, one day I hope to build back up to maybe Hemingway’s 500 words a day. Yeah, that sounds nice. Five hundred words, that’s, like, half an hour of drafting, okay, one hour max. Five hundred is really not a lot of words at all. I am not in a hurry. But I don’t see why I can’t get there. One step, one sip, one lungful of writing magic at a time.
Thinking about Hemingway, with his quick morning writing sessions and his leisurely afternoon visits with friends and Parisian cafes, maybe I am not the first writer who is not interested in heavy weight-lifting. Don’t get me wrong, if you are that 5k a day writer, bravo, truly, I applaud you. I used to be jealous of you; I used to try to turn myself into you.
Now writing’s simple, almost like back when I was 11 years old, just doodling and telling myself stories. A moment here, a breath there. How delicious. How re-freshening. Stealing back a few minutes of each day. Spoiling myself. A tiny daily victory.
So, this is what I have been up to lately.
What do you do when you are too busy to breathe?
Still, I wanted to take a quick minute to wish you all a happy 2016.
The year 2015 has been that turning point year I have been wishing for. It was the year of an important ending, as I graduated with that dream MFA degree. And it was the year of a huge beginning, as I embarked on a brand new dream job and career.
In my ever-evolving and exciting life, I have moved around in every way; I have started and ended many things: friendships, manuscripts and yes, jobs and careers. Now though I find myself in a different place.
I declare this year 2016 to be the year of continuing.
My top wish/goal/hope and resolution for 2016 is to continue strong and stronger on the teaching journey I have begun, to become a true and real professional in every way and to bring my students toward real, life-changing gains.
My other resolutions:
to continue to honor every part of what it means to be human, which includes keeping my body in shape and taking joy in my family;
to continue the new novel I started this summer;
to continue this blog, even if that means incredibly patchy and sporadic postings;
Endings are bitter-sweet; beginnings are exciting. But continuation is what allows us the time, the space and the strength to make great things happen. So, here is to a great new year of…continuing!
Love and best wishes to all,
“Life is a narrative we have a hand in writing.” Henriette Anne Klauser
The reason I love life is because it’s a series of adventures. Almost eight months ago I graduated with my dream MFA degree from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now I am starting another one. This adventure feels just as important, if not more so.
Oh, I am a writer, and I always will be. That’s how I see the world, through a writer’s lens; that’s how I feel it too, through a writer’s heart. I have attempted things, made messes; I’ve started and finished and not finished; I’ve tried and played and failed and failed and failed and failed and failed. I will keep up with this, at least eventually, because isn’t that what writers do?
But, ironically, in the last two years especially, during the intense period of delving deep into the world of writing at VCFA, I discovered that my writer’s heart has many other chambers. (Lots of hallways and stairs, a basement and an attic, too.) And so I embarked on a quest to find more meaning still, to build a new career I could love. And now I am pretty sure — God I hope so! — that I found it.
Tomorrow, I’ll be stepping across a threshold of a High School English classroom in a high-needs district in my state, as a brand new 11th grade teacher. I feel honored to work beside my dedicated colleagues who have so much heart and knowledge to give.
Most importantly, tomorrow, I’ll be talking to my students about how in many ways we write our own life stories. Tomorrow, I will ask them what theirs is going to be.
Tomorrow: what a big day it is going to be. Huge. This month is going to be a big month, too. Tomorrow, this week, next month loom vast and enormous and important. This means that as a new teacher I might not be able to carve out the time for writing. (Of course this is going to affect my blogging schedule. In truth, it might not be much of a schedule. 🙂 Just don’t be surprised if once in a beautiful moon, you’ll get a little “hey guys!” post in your mailbox. But don’t be surprised if you don’t get one for a while, either). Of course, as my wise classmate and fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe said here on this blog, there are always excuses to put the writing off, and all we really have is the “cumulative power of now.” So I hope to find my footing as a teacher soon, so that I can find a way to sneak the writing into my daily schedule once again. In the meantime though, I’ll still be writing — I’ll be filling new exciting pages in my own life’s story.
Last month I had the good fortune — and the great fun! — of hosting my fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe with her sage writing advice about working in the NOW. Today, another VCFA classmate, Tziporah Cohen, agreed to share the wisdom she picked up with her MFA over the last two years.
Darling Assassins is the name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class of January 2015. Recently I asked them: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Vermont? These posts are their answers, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
And here is our Tzippy!
WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT WRITING ANYWAY? ONE WRITER’S QUEST FOR CRITIQUING CONFIDENCE
by Tziporah Cohen
One of the ironies of writing is that the better you get at it, the worse you think your writing is. In the beginning, there is a lovely sense that everything you put down on a page is, well, lovely. Only later comes the unpleasant realization that your work only seems good because you don’t yet have the skills to assess it. And how are you supposed to build those self-assessing skills? You can put the answer at the top of my list of lessons learned at VCFA.
In my other life, the non-writer one, I’m a psychiatrist and a mother of three. I feel pretty competent in both those arenas. And heck, while I’m patting myself on the back, the last couple of years have seen me managing a psychiatry practice, family, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the same time. No easy feat, believe me.
But put me into a workshop, also known as a critique circle, and watch my feelings of competence disappear like a hot dog bun thrown into a flock of pigeons. Workshops are a critical component of the program where I completed my MFA degree. Six to twelve students and one to two faculty meet for twelve hours over several days. Students range from those beginning their first semester to those just about to graduate. Their works in progress are a smorgasbord: picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, fiction and non-fiction, verse and prose.
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not the being critiqued that has my palms sweaty remembering those early workshops. I’m lucky in that I generally don’t experience much anxiety when my work is reviewed. Perhaps it comes from being an older student, coming at this writing thing from the safety of an established non-writing career, or from having seen enough of life to know that a disappointing critique is just that, not a tragic event. Or perhaps it comes from knowing that the work will be better in the end with the input of others.
But critiquing someone else’s work? That makes me very uncomfortable. What if I send someone down the wrong path? What do I, unpublished newbie, know about writing, anyway?
I spent a lot of time listening in that first workshop, as others debated the writers’ choices of point of view and tense, discussed word choice and voice, and analyzed story arc and desire line, all about of which I knew practically nothing. It’s not an option to say nothing during twelve hours of workshop, though. So I started out, tentative, introducing each of my comments with an “I don’t know, but…” or “It could just be me, but…”
Before my MFA, I either liked a book I read or I didn’t. I didn’t know why. Sixty hours of workshop over two years taught me the why behind that snap judgment. And the real lesson? Workshop taught me that learning to identify the jewels and flaws in someone else’s work is important not just because of how it helps them, but because it is how we learn to identify the jewels and flaws in our own work.
When we leave the security of our writing programs and classes we travel from the safe sanctuary of the workshop circle to the much more challenging wilderness of self-assessment. Yes, we have critique partners, but they don’t want to see every page of every early draft. (They do have their own writing to do.) We need to have confidence in our own ability to see what works and what doesn’t on our own pages. And in submitting our own work to the critical eye we have honed critiquing others, we improve our own writing skills.
I still face every manuscript I critique with some dread, and preface my thoughts with a too-long apologetic paragraph about how unqualified I feel to comment in the first place. But I remind myself that I have as much to offer my writing friends as they have to offer me. And that the process will turn everyone involved into a better writer.
Thank you, Tzippy! I totally know the feeling!
Tziporah Cohen graduated in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a psychiatrist who works in the fields of oncology and palliative care. Hailing from New York and Boston, she currently resides in Toronto with her husband and three children.
A lot has been going on over here behind the Magic Mirror: some of it writing-related, much of it big and exciting life changes and I promise to explain more soon(ish) 🙂
In the meantime though, I wanted to reach out to my wise and talented writing siblings, my Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, The Darling Assassins, to see if they had any writerly wisdom to share.
I asked them: what is the biggest “lesson” you learned in Vermont?
Now I am excited to introduce you to the powerful Monica Roe and her wise answer to my question. Read on, enjoy the views and see for yourself why I love her so.
Take it away, M!
THE PROBLEM WITH WHEN (AND THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF NOW), by Monica Roe
I’m just not feeling it today.
I won’t write anything good if my head’s not in it.
Today my schedule is crazy.
Any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me!
Hey, I like my sacred desk space as much as the next writer. But there are many days or weeks when that space is simply not available to me. When life gets in my way.
For about four months every year, I travel around the Alaskan bush as a physical therapy consultant for 16 schools in small villages off the road system. Think frozen tundra, -35 temps, the occasional bear or musk ox roaming through town. Four times a year, I remain almost constantly on the move for one month at a time—hopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month’s worth of supplies in a backpack, sleeping on cots, bare mattresses, or sometimes on nothing but a spare gym mat in an unoccupied classroom, library, or closet. It’s wonderful, rewarding work.
But it can be tiring.
From those of you who may not be familiar with itinerant bush travel, it is anything but fancy. Personal space becomes little more than a distant memory. You get used to sleeping wherever, often sharing bunk space with any number of other itinerant specialists who may also be passing through the village. By the end of a month on the road and in the air, I sorely miss my home, my husband, and my cherished and peaceful private writing space. I’m dirty and sleep-deprived and unbelievably tired of scraping together yet another dinner from the dwindling contents of my backpack. Worst of all, though, that constant upheaval of daily travel can also make it feel nigh onto impossible for me to maintain a consistent writing schedule.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a tough balance to strike.
My situation may be a bit more extreme than some, but I think this holds true for most of us on some level. We don’t always end up in the same place from hour to hour, let alone from day to day.
So what are we writers to do when life doesn’t allow us large chunks (or even small chunks) of time to sit at our desks and thoughtfully scan the horizon for a glimpse of that wayward, shiny-winged Muse?
I used to think that if I didn’t have that perfect space—both physical and mental—in which to write, I’d maybe just be better off waiting until I did have it. Until I was back home, until life calmed down enough for those perfect conditions to coalesce.
All of that changed abruptly when I entered the program at VCFA. Suddenly, I no longer had that luxury of putting off the writing until next week or next month. If I did not find some way to pound out those essays and generate those creative pages on the road, they simply would not get done. It was a tough transition to make, and I can recall more than one instance where I frantically finished writing an essay during a bumpy inter-village flight (including one memorable time when I also got airsick coming over a mountain range) in order to make a midnight packet deadline. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned working on my MFA.
But somewhere along the way, it finally sunk into my brain that my life wasn’t, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of “writing” and “other stuff.” To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing—regardless of which phase of my life balance I was currently inhabiting.
I’ll try again tomorrow.
When I have more time.
When I’m not dragging my backpack through three feet of snow to get to the airstrip.
When I can actually sit at my own desk.
The problem with when is that he’s a tricky little demon. Always dangling that carrot, promising that one day we’ll have the perfect time and the perfect headspace in which to sit down and pound out that masterpiece…or even that so-so first draft.
As an unexpected side effect of my time in the MFA program at VCFA, I have lost all faith in that sparkly and Puckish when.
I have gained a firm belief in the unglamorous and dependable now.
I am camped in a school and it’s evening open gym night. I will write 100 words now, even though I can hear the basketballs thumping right through the music from my headphones.
I am in my sleeping bag, lying on a mattress in a supply closet and desperately wishing to fall asleep so I can be at least somewhat rested in the morning. I will scribble one paragraph now, even though I cannot think of one interesting thing to say. Those nows, I have discovered, may be unglamorous and arduous at times. They may feel like throwaway writing, a waste of precious moments.
But those tiny little nows also do something amazing.
They add up. Become paragraphs and pages. Become chapters and messy first drafts. Even more important, they keep us in the game. The arduous, unglamorous, and massively rewarding game.
Stay in the game now. Get messy now. Even if it’s an airplane essay.
You just might surprise yourself.
Monica M. Roe is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She also holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Clarkson University and works as a consultant on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Her YA novel, THAW, was published in 2008 by Front Street Books (she’s a very slow writer!). When she isn’t traveling in Alaska, she can often be found in rural South Carolina, where she and her husband run Old Swamp Apiary, a small-scale farm and beekeeping operation.
And maybe some writers do. Okay, many do. Most.
I guess I did, too.
I enrolled in the program with that shiny goal in mind.
And then, after intense writing and reading and studying, one of the biggest lessons I got out of Vermont College of Fine Arts is the importance of … life.
The writing life. But also, the life outside of writing.
As I started to pay closer attention to the ebb and flow of my process and my creative habits, I discovered that the busier I was with other things, the more often I took time to step away from the keyboard, the more passionately I lived, the more productive became my writing output.
The less tightly I clutched my work in progress, the easier the words came.
The less the writing mattered in the big scheme of my life, the more I wrote, and the happier I felt about doing it.
I decided to try and build a new and meaningful professional career. In preparation, I committed to a one-year-long in-office literary agency internship, smack in the middle of my studies.
Did that new commitment affect my writing? Yes it did, in the best possible way!
Turned out, I had more to give to myself — and by extension, to my writing efforts — when I gave more to the world.
With this discovery, my real writing goal became not chasing publication, but building a meaningful and sustainable writing life.
Did that mean I’d stop submitting my work?
Not at all.
It’s simply about the shifting of the emphasis.
1. A regular writing routine
2. A story to work on
3. The next story waiting in the wings (this one’s maybe not a strict requirement, more of a nice bonus).
4. Setting aside some time for reading fiction
5. Being able to help support my family
6. Taking one day a week and/or occasional vacation time to just decompress and breathe and luxuriate in the life part of the equation
7. Giving something to the world, something else, something other than writing
As part of my studies, I read up on habits of writers, artists, thinkers and scientists, from Pablo Picasso to Jane Austen, from Ingrid Bergman to Sigmund Freud in a super fun collection of biographical sketches that deals specifically with the working habits of composers, choreographers, sculptors, filmmakers, poets and lots and lots of novelists. The book, which I highly recommend, is called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. What I saw in these entertaining sketches reassured me that there is no ONE right way to build a meaningful artistic life. Some of the greats wrote in bed for 12 to 14-hour stretches. I know I couldn’t do that — in bed or otherwise. Others (sadly) could not work without the help of some powerful chemicals. I choose not to do that. 🙂 Some wrote 500 words and called it a day. (Hemingway, anyone?) Many had low-paying day jobs. Some built meaningful careers alongside but separated from their art.
What did all the greats have in common? A meaningful, consistent and productive artistic life. So, okay, maybe the #1 thing on my list is a must: a regular writing routine. Honestly, I’d say #4 also. Ask Stephen King, if you don’t believe me.
Everything else, though? You tell me.
What are the most important components of your meaningful writing lives? I’d love to know. But whether or not you share them here, I hope you take the time to answer that question for yourselves. And then follow through!
Sorry for the delay. Figuring out post-MFA grownup life is time-consuming business! That, and completing the revisions, of course 😉
But now, let’s continue the (quite ambitious) list of all the things I have learned during my intense two years in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. There may be more parts. We will see.
Over the last two years, I have really learned to pay attention to story arc. An arc means change. An arc is growth. Movement. In a good story, everything arcs. There is an external arc, and an internal one to mirror it. A good romance should have an arc. Every scene should have one. It might help to think of an arc as a journey. You know your story has a good, interesting arc when your character/scene/relationship/situation starts in one place and ends up somewhere different and when the reader looks back, she can see how things got to where they are.
8. A Scene is a Mini Story
We all know this instinctively: every scene is an entity in itself. But I’ve learned it really helps to think of each scene as a mini-story, with its own build, its own movement, its own momentum. For every scene I write now, I have a series of general points and questions I want to make sure that I hit. I have four sticky notes stuck to the bottom of my computer monitor, each featuring a mini list of elements to consider when writing a scene. There are 17 such elements for me. (Just counted). Hmmm, a list within a list. I am thinking, it deserves its own post!
I am sure I’ve talked about it here before, and more than once, too, but this post is about what I’ve learned, and desire was a big one. Through the study of other books, through essays and through my own writing, I saw it clearer than I had before, how desire drives story. Desire is the most straightforward way to create a narrative pull that would make the story irresistible. I have learned that a character’s big desire must be crystal clear. And very specific. That it’s better when it can be translated into something “positive” (something the character DOES want), as opposed to negative desire (something the character wants to avoid or run away from). By the way, the latter can be the key to the former. Another revelation: what matters is not only what the main character wants but why he wants it. As I write, I am now more aware of the interplay, the juggling act that goes on as I balance my protagonist’s internal desire with her external one. And in every scene, in every chapter, it helps to translate this desire into goals.
10. Plot is Made of Moments and Bridges
Working with novels in verse critically and creatively (not to mention, reading a ton of them, of course) made me look at plot in a different way. When I considered closely the way verse novels are structured, I noticed they are really a kind of a beautiful necklace made of brilliant moments, each moment like a pearl, with the poetry form acting as a kind of a string to tie it all together. For one year I re-envisioned my previously prose novel in this exciting form. It liberated me, writing out of order, not worrying about ways to connect the moments. Not at first anyway. In my last semester however, I felt it was time to convert the story back to prose. When I did that, I realized I needed to add “bridges” or transitions between my moments. Now, this is what I see when I look at a story: I see moments and bridges. In her craft book, Steering the Craft, the legendary Ursula LeGuin uses the terms “crowding” and “leaping” to talk about this. Scene vs. summary, pearl vs. string, moment vs. bridge, showing vs. telling. However the writer chooses to think of it, I am now convinced it’s important to be mindful of the distinction and to be purposeful about it.
11. Write What you Know, But Don’t
Life is full of contradictions. And so is art. Two totally opposite things can be true at the same time. I picked that idea up from Davis Jauss, in one of his wonderful essays on the craft of writing, called “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and the Physics of Creativity.” This applies to writing ALL THE TIME.
For example, Write what you know, some say. That’s how you get to the treasure that only you can offer the world.
No, no, say others. Truth constricts fiction! Look beyond your life: ah the freedom! The possibilities!
Both pieces of this advice are two sides of the same truth. Dig deep into your memories, to enrich your characters’ emotions, or to make your setting real. But in doing so, why limit yourself to the things you know? With the help of our imaginations, oh the places we will go! I am sure Dr. Seuss would agree 🙂
12. Break the Rules!
Here is another two-sided bit of wisdom: mind the rules. And break them! This can apply to anything, from grammar to archetypical characters to plot. So many books I’ve read over the last two years, plus a few wonderful lectures I attended, reminded me how fluid the rules in writing can really be. Margaret Atwood switches back and forth between past tense and present in Handmaid’s Tale, leaving the reader dizzy. Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises a HUGE central question that never gets answered, not even at the end. In Sarah Aronson’s Head Case, the story doesn’t have much of an external arc; most of the change is happening inside the main character’s head. And I am still on letter “A” in the cumulative bibliography of titles I have read while in the program! In each of these cases and many more, though, the reader can tell, the author is well aware of what he or she is doing. Good writers follow the rules. Great writers know the rules and break them for excellent reasons. They play with expectation and create their own reality.
Thoughts? Questions? As always I hope you find these helpful. And maybe inspiring, too!
Hey all! I am, of course, back from my final VCFA residency, a shiny new MFA in hand. It’s fun to look back on the incredible, enriching, life-changing journey this has been and take a moment to talk about what I’ve learned. First, let me quantify it for you: two years of learning, what exactly did it add up to?
Two years equaled:
– surviving five residencies
– attending/or listening to up to 50 faculty and graduate lectures
– completing twenty packets of one-on-one work with an advisor
These packets included:
– more than a dozen critical essays
– a 38-page critical thesis
– a 45-minute graduate lecture
– a total of 200 books read, analyzed and annotated.
And then of course, came the meat of it all, the creative pages. It would be impossible to try and figure out an exact figure at this point. But I’d estimate I have revised and generated a total of more than 600 pages of creative work through it all. Plus, “side writing,” “free writing” and exercises the length of which I couldn’t even begin to guess. There were so many!
Add to that a scattering of poetry, several new short stories, attempts to bring back to life two other novels, and three starts of shiny new stories in genres I had never tried before.
So, what have I learned through all this?
Allow me to present my list: the craft, the personal, the philosophical, all of it, broken into two (or more) parts. Of course, as always, I hope that my discoveries will be helpful to you.
This is Part 1:
1. Inhabiting Characters
In order to write authentic characters, I have discovered that I must inhabit them. I think this was truly the biggest lesson I’ve learned, and one I got plenty of opportunities to practice. If you have been faithfully reading my blog over the last two years, this might no longer be a revelation to you either — that even though characters are our creations, they cannot be our puppets. We cannot move them across our fictional landscapes as though they were made of wood or tied to a string, just for the sake of plot convenience.
I mean, sure, I guess we can, right? But if we do, we shouldn’t be surprised with the results: characters who seem lifeless or characters who simply shut down and turn away from us. What I’ve discovered is that writing has so much in common with acting. Think method acting. Let your characters breathe on the page, let your characters react, act, say things only they possibly could! Let your characters’ words and actions surprise you.
Be your characters. Walk across the page in your characters’ shoes.
2. The Other Arts
This last residency confirmed another wonderful discovery, how much the arts cross-pollinate one another. Looking at the graduate lectures presented by our class alone, we had four other arts represented. One of my classmates, Lianna McSwain, talked about using Improv Theater techniques to make writing more spontaneous, to loosen up, to be braver. Another classmate, David Rogers, shared a presentation on how some of the top names in YA literature, from K.L. Going to A.S. King to M.T. Anderson rely on music to fuel their stories. Melanie Briend, who is a professional dancer and choreographer, shared a talk on authentic and expressive body language in dance and in writing. And then, in my own lecture, I talked about my experience last semester in painting the truth of my main character. My point? When the well is running dry, and even when it isn’t, turn to the other arts. Writing can feel so cerebral at times, while so many other arts are richly physical. Every art can inform our writing work in the freshest, most marvelous of ways. Allow yourself to be surprised by it. For more on other arts and creativity, read Eric Maisel and Twyla Tharp.
5. The Glory of Making Mistakes
Creating is really all about facing our fears. We know this.
One of my classmates posted this chart during our first semester, and it’s still hanging in my office and inspiring me every day: How to Be an Artist. This sketch is attributed to a British artist Kate Holden.
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler talks about the fear that prevents us from creating our best work. He invites the writer to defeat perfectionism by shutting down the conscious mind and getting into the flow state. Meditating, free writing and other arts are some of the ways I’ve tried over the last few years to circumvent and fool my inner perfectionist.
For my graduating residency workshop, I wrote 20 pretty rough pages, to share with two advisors and eleven other writers. I had no choice. The deadline was looming, and my final packet had to be submitted at right around the same time. Yikes! Boy was I terrified. I wondered, what would my fellow writers think of me? When during residency, it came time to discuss my submission, it turned out to be a real thrill. Sure, there were plenty of rough patches in those pages. But my fellow workshop participants also pointed out plenty of gems that seemed to delight them! If I had more time and allowed myself to try and make these pages more “perfect,” it is possible I wouldn’t have come up with the quirky, crazy details that surprised even me!
4. Paying Close Attention
But there is another side to the “letting go” coin. (So often two contradictory things are true, I have found.) At one point, I’ve learned, a writer needs to realize that sloppiness is deadly to a good story. Especially when revising, I have learned that it’s crucial to pay attention to the following on every page:
– cause and effect
I am sure I have mentioned this before. Now it’s time for me to say it again: read your work out loud! And not mumbling, either, read it loudly, really let your voice carry and resonate! During every one of my last four semesters, reading my pages out loud really helped me pick up on a lot of logic lapses and language inconsistencies. There is something about the sound of a sentence that just won’t lie. Yes, I know, it’s time-consuming! So often it feels like an extra step. I have learned to do it anyway. It’s been invaluable.
In good writing, things have to make sense on every level, from sentence to physical setting, to plot. As I wrote and revised, I learned to ask myself such questions as, why would he do this? Why would he do this now? What caused this story event? What’s it leading to? I’ve become more aware of geography in my writing. Things like, where is everyone situated in relation to one another? Can I truly visualize the whole thing? If I can’t, then how can I expect the reader to do it?
A related discovery: the use of maps need not be limited to science fiction or high fantasy. By all means, map out your kingdoms and your planets! Actually, I really hope you do! But also, feel free to quickly sketch out the outlines of your protagonist’s room, for example. Don’t feel silly imagining, sketching or even role-playing the smallest of events. The more real it is for you, the more real it could become for your readers.
Since first semester, I have been on a mission to write with more precision. Grammar makes all the difference: I knew that even before the MFA, of course. But over the last two years I’ve learned to slow down and really choose my words, really craft my sentences. I started paying closer attention to the way my particular word arrangements added up to meaning. I got into a habit of asking myself: Am I saying what I think I want to be saying? You might think you don’t need to read a grammar book. I thought so too. Yet, I was glad I did. Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style is a very slim and basic volume. Here are a few other titles, for more grammar fun: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
Finally, working closely with poetry over the course of two semesters awoken me to the glorious sound of language. This awareness of sound is something I carry with me now into every sentence and every story. If you would like to cultivate it, you can start by reading lots and lots (and lots!) of poetry.
Whew! So much learning. 🙂 Time for a break. But please stayed tuned! More soon!