Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Post-Thesis Post

It's absurdly fitting that, as I'm writing this, it's a perfect afternoon. It's sunny and 78-degrees. I have a porch with shade and a view of my favorite trees (yes, I've picked them all out by now). It's Saturday, and I have tea -- Pure Leaf's Black with Vanilla, if you're curious. In the house there are James Dickey poems and "The Nature Lover's Quotation Book" for when I need a quick break in writing. And nothing feels rushed today. It's a good feeling.

I can now happily tell you that, as of last week, I have successfully completed my MFA thesis project and defense -- and, consequently, my MFA degree. I'm sure every MFA graduate has felt this way, but right up until the moment I submitted my novel to my advisors, I thought I'd never see the end of this process. In the throes of a big, personal project like this -- especially one with a deadline -- it's easy to focus only on the unpleasant parts of the experience. For the last several months, there were plenty of despairing moments and embarrassing crying sessions: over writer's block; over deadlines; over the work-writing-sleep-health balance; over the guilt-ridden fear that I'd butchered the story in my head, and that what I'd written didn't do the conflict, the themes, or the characters justice. (Funny how even flat characters can become real like that, deserving of dignity.) It was only once I crossed over to the other, calmer side of that process -- the end of it -- that I could fully appreciate the experience. I can even be proud of what I've done.

Was my self-criticism about my work unwarranted? Definitely not. As a reader, a writer, and a literary scholar of sorts, I know perfectly well that my novel in its current form isn't brilliant or publishable by any means. Its characters are weak and its plot is skeletal. The themes I address -- mental illness, genius, the nature of evil, sibling relationships -- are treated much more simply, more black-and-white, than I'd hoped. I can just hear the mental health advocates criticizing my "stigma-reinforcing" treatment of mentally ill characters. (And as someone who's had brushes with mental illness personally, that was certainly not my intention, but it was what ended up on the drafting pages.) I can't be proud of this thesis as a finished product.

What I can do is give myself credit for the hard task that I accomplished: I wrote a novel. To boot, I did it in one year, and without having ever written a novel before. I did it without the encouraging workshop community of fellow MFA writers. I did it coordinating everything with my advisors long-distance, via Skype and e-mail and phone-calls (HUGE shout-out to the MFA faculty at SCSU for their amazing accommodations). I did it while adjusting to a new life and a new job. The results weren't perfect, and weren't anywhere near what I'd set out to do. But looking back, I realize that they were better, if utterly different, than what I had expected from myself under those circumstances. I set the groundwork for what I, and my advisors, consider a good story. I delved into darker territory than I ever have before, and didn't burn and crash in the process. Despite deadlines and a new area of writing, I managed to keep up my careful, perfectionist attention to the prose.

I didn't produce a complete, publishable novel, but I did complete the first, important step: a strong draft. And that's worth celebrating. (Which I did, by the way, with ahi tuna and B. Nektar cider and poems and an anime binge-watching session. Ahhh.)

Maybe I sound like I'm bragging a little at this point. Trust me, this comes after a process that was 99% self-loathing, so I'm not that full of myself! But in all seriousness, I think it's important for us writers to celebrate our accomplishments. There were many times during the drafting stages that I hated my novel, and planned on abandoning it once the degree was done. But the relief of finishing my manuscript, the little distance I've obtained from it since submitting, and the good feedback I got from my advisors during my defense, were all helpful in revitalizing my love for the story, and making me see the potential in it. And that's vital. Validation is vital. Some writers, more mature ones perhaps, can live and write without validation; I'm not one of them. For me, those moments of celebrating milestones (or stepping stones, maybe) are fuel for future writing: necessary reminders my goals are achievable and worth the effort. We have to like our work, even as we keep a critical eye on it -- or what's the point of it all? I don't have to lie to myself that I'm a genius, but I do have to acknowledge when I've produced something good.

This is all a long, garrulous way of saying: be good to yourself, fellow writer. Yes, set high expectations for yourself, don't call bad writing good writing, and keep a critical eye for self-improvement. But don't forget to celebrate your hard work, either. Cheer yourself on. Be happy.

Congratulations to my fellow MFA students who are also finishing their theses this Spring. I look forward to sharing our work together at the MFA Thesis Reading next month. (More on that when it happens!)

Happy spring, and grace and peace to you.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The New Year's Post (Including a Publication Alert for River River)

Mysterious teaser photo, for ending announcement.
Morning, all. And happy 2018.

My first order of business is to give you all a long overdue publication update. Back in December, my short story "Work Day" appeared in Issue 6 of the Hudson Valley-based journal River River. (Bonus: it's perfectly paired with a moody urban scene by Sharon M. Paster.) Written during my undergrad years, "Work Day" was for many years my favorite fiction project and is probably my most-submitted work to date (or most-rejected, technically), so the fact that it's finally found a home at a place like River River means a lot to me. You only need to read the issue's introduction to see how passionate the staff is about storytelling, and their activeness in promoting local artists makes them a valuable resource for the writing community. It's an honor to be included in their publication, and I hope you'll take a look at all the great things they're doing.

You can read my story "Work Day" here.
Second order of business, a brief summary of life in the South. Besides the adjustment to the climate (actually, not a hard adjustment -- Christmas in New England was -5 degrees, so I've quickly come to embrace the relative warmth), I'm adjusting to the ups and downs of novel-writing, especially where there's a thesis deadline concerned. It's messy, it's hectic, and there are plenty of times when it sucks to the point that it's the LAST thing I'd rather do -- but it's a good learning experience, too. Since my fiction-writing before this consisted exclusively of short stories, the transition to a novel has taught me how differently the drafting process looks. It's not just extending short story drafting into a larger project -- it's an entirely different way of envisioning a story. It's working with a bigger timeline; it's building a larger network of multiple conflicts and subplots; it demands more development of and then more resolution from the characters. And all those things requires more discovery on the writer's part.

When I write a short story, the smaller format means I can usually picture the plot and the characters pretty fully in my head before I start. Yes, there's discovery involved (what comes out on paper is almost never exactly what I originally envisioned), but for the most part I know my protagonists and the basic structure well enough to feel fairly confident where they'll end up. Novel-writing (for me at least) isn't like that. The mere size of the story means there are countless more directions a plot or character could go, and the image of a protagonist that I start with turns out to be barely a skeleton for the flesh-and-bone person they need to be to remain sustainable. So, there's a lot of blindness in novel-writing. That's where the messiness comes in. Discovery happens through experimenting, and in drafting that means pages upon pages of exercises, monologues, shaky chapters, half-formed sections -- making my characters walk around, trying to see what they'll do and where they'll go.

And what happens to a lot of those pages?

They turn out to be unusable, and end up in the trash.
For a perfectionist like me, this has been the most painful part of the novel-writing process. To write anything takes an inordinate amount of time and energy for me, so to go through all those hours and all that effort to write something that I can't use -- utter agony! It felt like such a horrific waste, and in the beginning, I wondered if I was doing something wrong. But I'm fortunate to be working with an insightful advisor, and to have had enough reflective down-time during the project, to figure out that as awful as this looks, it's okay. It's necessary, even. Writers explore their writing through writing, so what looks like countless pages of wasted material is actually the necessary labor of world-building -- or, more appropriately, behind-the-scenes building. If I write a chapter I can't use, the best case scenario is that the chapter helped me understand my characters more so that I can write them better in other chapters; worst case scenario, I've crossed off one more direction my plot cannot go. Even if a lot of drafted material remains "unseen" by the end, they have hopefully served as a reference or building block for what I do want seen in the finished product. That's the beginner's optimism, anyway.

Item 3 on today's post: I kicked off the New Year by starting a new position in a public library, and I'm LOVING it with every fiber of my being. I've been attracted to the library profession for years, but while I have done internships at libraries in the past, doing "the Real Thing" is better than I could've ever dreamed. It feels amazing to be busy in an environment that I'm passionate about -- helping provide an educational, enriching, and safe space for patrons and families free of charge. (Plus, I'm surrounded by books all day, so there's that.) I feel absolutely at home in this line of work, and hope to be in it for a long time.
For those in doubt of what public libraries do, I present this brilliant meme.
More another time. Hope you all enjoyed the holidays.

Grace and peace to you.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Shifting Gears

New Life, New Places, New Projects

Sooo . . . a frickin' lot has changed since we last chatted.

For one, I'm not, by address, a New Englander anymore. I now live in the very hot, fairly southern state of North Carolina with the Loved One (all writers need cheesy nicknames for their spouses, don't they?). We have our own, small house, where -- unemployed, introverted, heat-wary -- I'm currently spending a LOT of afternoons in solitude. We're busy adjusting to cohabitating married life, to adulting, and to my jarring transition from an 8-person household to a 2-person household. We're contemplating getting a dog.
One of many scenic sites from the New England - South East trek.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, somewhere in Virginia.
Second, while my marriage has gone from long-distance to full-residency (ha), my MFA adventures have now shifted to entirely to the internet -- a feat made possible by the fact that the only classes I have left are my thesis and one online independent study. You could say that I'm the MFA program's first and only low-residency student! At any rate, my professors' predictions were right: those two years at SCSU went by appallingly fast. I regret not updating the blog more frequently about my time there, as it's hard to summarize everything I've learned and achieved through that experience. Hopefully I can share many of those lessons in future posts, but for now I'll say that I don't regret one moment spent in that program, and I am indebted to SCSU's writing faculty and community for their excellence and constant support.

Third, briefly acknowledged but not emphasized enough in my last post: I finally, finally, FINALLY have a thesis project underway, and I'm so damn EXCITED about it. (*Insert confetti and kazoo-sounds.*) But seriously, after almost two years of agonizing, having absolutely no ideas or spark of inspiration for a novel-sized project, I'm still stunned by how this story came crashing into my life, out of the blue, only six months ago.

Well, not entirely out of the blue, I suppose.

I don't want to spoil the plot or speak too freely on its origin, but suffice to say that this story is inspired by true events, and has hovered over me, blurry and distant, for some years. The possibility of turning it all into a book had crossed my mind, but I never felt like it was my story to tell; it was too big and too dark, and so utterly alien to anything I've ever written. But six months ago, it stopped suggesting itself quietly to me and starting yelling, demanding. Some writers talk about stories that "take on a life of their own," and while I abhor clich├ęs, and like to believe that the artist is ultimately master of his own art and not the other way around, I have to admit: this idea has had a staggering presence. No idea has ever demanded so much of me, pulling me far outside my usual style, ambitions, and comfort zone, almost as though I have no say in the matter.
I've written some chapters for workshop, and as dramatic as it sounds, the project has altered my entire fiction-writing process. A lifelong polish-as-I-go writer, I've found myself now writing first drafts that -- surprise! -- really do look like first drafts. (If that sounds like a bad thing, you may want to check out my previous posts about the downsides of perfectionist writing.) I find myself taking risks I'd normally never take, such as sacrificing compelling prose for compelling plot, at least in the drafting stages. As one of my professors put it, I've gone from writing "neatly" to writing "messily" -- and, lo and behold, the feedback is positive thus far. Is it all a joy-ride? No. Does "messy" mean I'm able to write stress-free and effort-free now? Hell no. But it is flabbergastingly interesting to see a project able to defy my own inhibitions and perfectionism, all because its content is more important than my aesthetic.

At any rate, I'm excited, nervous, and pleasantly confused to see where this novel takes me.

Other news? A lighter school load and temporary unemployment means, I hope, an abundance of writing time, and a new home means I have a new cozy office to write in. (View below. Much proud.) See that cushy wall-to-wall carpet? Perfect for shoe-less pacing, or lying on the floor for a better thinking-position. See those windows? Good for gazing at trees, or spying on neighbors, or at the very least letting in natural light to allay seasonal depression. Also, bookshelves: meticulously arranged with a personalized revision of the Dewey Decimal System, because I'm geeky like that and I can. And the mysterious reflective bench in the left-hand corner belongs to my Baldwin home organ (view subsequent photo). You know, in case I need a break from stressing over just one artistic pursuit.
Muh writer-cave.
 Well folks, such are my new digs and happenings. I've designed a weekly schedule of rigorous reading and writing for myself (we'll see how well I enforce it), so with luck blog updates should be more frequent and more interesting now. Thank you to everyone who, God knows why, continues to read my work and support my writing from afar. With the relative solitude of living in a new place, it really helps me to feel connected to people in that way. So, much obliged.

Grace and peace to you.