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 clichés, 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.
Bae.
 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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Commentary on a Hiatus (which is really just a commentary on other things)

Dear Reader,

Once, I was the type of person who'd roll my eyes at a blog that spent half its posts apologizing for not posting enough.

Now, it seems, I am that eye roll-worthy blogger spending half my posts apologizing for not posting enough. As Boy George says, karma karma karma karma . . .
Yes, I'm still here (no, I didn't move to Canada). But the world has been messy and I have been a mess with it. I wish I could be like Mary Oliver, who has said that she is simply too busy loving the earth to become political about it. Though I suppose as a hopeless empath, it's not really the politics, but all the restless emotions of others that get to me. Anxiety, anger, confusion, suspicion, vainglory, despair -- and how these things knot together to make walls between souls. I'm blessed (though some may call it cursed) to know and love people of all different shades of ideologies. (And no, it is not a one-side-or-other-side fence, it is not even a two-ended spectrum. Did you think humans could be that simple?) I'm blessed for that exposure, because it's given me a glimpse of how complex and un-boxable real people are, and I can say with respect that every person I know and love is good, and is motivated by goodness. So it's the intolerance, the simplifying, the categorization of others -- which I see coming from all branches of political thought -- that bothers me.
"Can [the patriot] hate it enough to change it,
yet love it enough to think it worth changing?"
 ~ G.K. Chesterton

I don't believe in assuming there's hate where there's disagreement, or malice where there's differences (despite sadly knowing that there is so much hate and malice in the world). I don't believe in that any more than I can believe that the mind of a terrorist, or of a man in the Oval Office, defines what every mind within an entire social group looks like. I'm a naïve idealist: I believe in dialogue and open-mindedness; in kindness and giving the benefit of the doubt; in understanding past pain and blame and agenda that the person in front of you isn't a robot of partisanship or ideology, but a complicated human trying to make sense of the world, too. I just wish more people believed in that nowadays.

Well, now that I've gotten all the somber stuff out of the way, I promise not all aspects of my life are so despair-filled. Grad school is still good to me, especially as I'm getting opportunities to branch out of my usual areas of writing and study. Last semester, I worked mostly on non-fiction for workshops; this semester, I again have the haven of the additional workshops in poetry. Note: this is my first experience critiquing and being critiqued by graduate-level poets, and it's terrifying, but enlightening, the way a massive moose that's vague about whether it wants to stand still and be beautiful or run you over is both terrifying and enlightening. (Oh brain, where do you even get these metaphors?) Then there's History of the English Language -- a far jump from my routine literature courses, instead looking at language with a left-brained nerdiness, while the right-brained geekiness in me still exclaims, "The growth of words! The blending of cultures! The metaphorical compounds! What a poetic story." (Did I mention I'm loving the class so far?)
Manuscript of "Caedmon's Hymn"
Oh, and possibly the nicest perk of the Last Full Time MFA Semester -- notwithstanding that, f**k, it really is the LFTMFAS -- is the four-day weekend schedule, consisting of Sleep-Til-Noon Day, Family Day, Unapologetic Writing Day, and S**t-That's-Due-Tomorrow Day. Well, there's also the perk that thesis ideas are finally flooding in, and I suppose that's a bigger deal.

Publications are still happening, albeit at turtle-pace as I've been anxious about searching for new publishers. If you appreciated my announcement about the goddess poems, you'll be interested to know that Bibliotheca Alexandrina recently published another collection with one of my poems, "Ammit Plays with Her Food." You can read about the collection "The Dark Ones: Tales and Poems of the Shadow Gods" here, and purchase a copy here (I'm on page 235). I also received word recently that I'll be getting an academic essay published soon -- more on that later.
The Egyptian goddess Ammit
(in case you want a sneak-peek of the weirdness of my poem)
That's all I can really say for now, folks. I'm hoping that, on a day when seasonal-depression isn't hitting me so hard, I can give the blog a proper revival, complete with literary gushing and philosophizing about the writing process and self-given pep talks. Thanks (assuming you're still there) for your patience, your reading, your interest in what Silly Me is doing.

Happy New Year. Grace and peace to you.


**UPDATE**

A preview of the above-mentioned poem is now available below (image may be clearer on Web Version):