So far this week, I’ve drafted 20 pages for my thesis. Granted, I am writing some of the same scenes over and over in different ways, but I threw in something new too. There’s something emotional that happens early in the book, but I’ve been told that two attempts didn’t come close enough to earning that emotion.
What does it mean to earn it?
I used to think that it would take a lot of space–a lot of words on a lot of pages–to really earn emotional scenes. The scene in question–I knew it was emotional, but I thought that I could earn that with backstory. This week, I learned a couple of important things:
I can earn emotion in less space than I thought by finding new ways to focus on scenes and handle the passage of time.
At least some backstory necessary to earn emotion has to happen before the emotional moment–the climactic moment of a scene or chapter.
I knew this time I did a better job earning that emotion because while writing, I felt it. I got a little choked up. Given that I’ve written this emotional climax so many times by now and I’ve not had that reaction, I feel like this is an important difference. Might there still be tweaks to make? Yes. But I’m a lot closer than I was.
All it took was a few pages explaining how my protagonist got to that emotional climax. I thought doing so would not interest me or my reader, but by changing up my structure, I think I’ve found a way to make it interesting.
We’ll see what my mentor has to say about it later this month/early April.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with my mentor again for an hour. We talked about my first submission and the peer pages I sent her last week for June’s residency. Starting yesterday, I’m exploring some new avenues after our discussion.
The books I’ve read for this semester thus far have all used structures other than straight-forward, plot-driven prose. I find it so refreshing that I want to do something like that with mine, but I haven’t landed on the sweet spot yet–or maybe I have.
We talked about the pastiche I wrote after reading Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation. A pastiche, in case you’re not familiar with the word, is when you try to write in the style and voice of another author–using your own story, of course. After I’ve made some small revisions to mine, I’ll share it on my Patreon page. The great thing about this pastiche was how free I felt writing in this style.
My mentor and I discussed why this might be: Offil’s style isn’t stream-of-consciousness really, but somewhere in between that and the prose most of us are used to reading. It moves like stream-of-consciousness, but stays tethered to the plot. This, I think, creates energy that propels the story forward; I read Offil’s book in just two days because I couldn’t put it down.
I want to read more by writers who take this approach, but there are also other elements I want to see at work in fiction, so I might not get the chance this semester. Having been exposed to it though, I can say I rather enjoy reading and writing in this in-between way that acts like stream-of-consciousness but isn’t.
This semester, my mentor and I both want to focus on exploration with my thesis. To that end, I’m writing the start again (this is the fifth time I’m starting this story, but I’m having fun exploring different ways to do so) in a different way. I’m using this bridged style and also writing from both my protagonist’s POV and his daughter’s.
I still plan to include letters and another element that I want to keep as a surprise.
My story takes place in the 17th century. Last semester, I grappled with whether or not to write it in the diction of the day. I have enough primary source material that I could adopt that type of diction, but after polling friends and family, I decided last term not to do so. It would be too distancing, too hard to get into. I tend to agree with them. It’s not like in a play or film where you’re immersed in the sound and visual of it as well (not to say a novelist can’t help the reader imagine those things, but it’s different), or like you’re only asking readers to do the work of reading that diction for two hours.
A novel is a much larger commitment for a reader, so the language needs to be accessible. However, mine was still antiquated, even with this consideration. I think I tend to gravitate toward that type of voice anyway–perhaps because I myself feel I’m an anachronism, or perhaps because when left to my own devices, I tend to choose to read classics. I’m used to that voice.
All the same, there’s something freeing in writing with a more modern diction, especially in historical fiction. With each subsequent draft and revision, I loosen up more and more on the antiquated voice and I think the result is something stronger.
These are just two of the shifts I’m making in my thesis. I don’t mind taking this semester to explore; there will be plenty of time to draft, especially since I used to do NaNoWriMo. Yes, I originally hoped to get my novel to a sensitivity reader prior to graduation in June 2019, and that may still be possible–but if it has to happen after I’m finished with this program, that’s fine. It’s more important that I produce the best and most engaging fiction I can at this juncture.
For my peer pages, I submitted the first 20 pages of Rings of Saturn to my mentor. Peer pages aren’t due to my program until midway through April, so there’s plenty of time to make changes. And I will be making one significant change.
Originally, the character in these pages was going to travel back in time to save Pompeii. I’m still going to write that story but after talking with my mentor, thinking about what she said and sleeping on it, I’m going to do with a different character.
The peer pages will be something else–a short story. She remarked that after a first read-through, she was surprised at where I took the story at the end–but not the kind of surprise that I was going for. So I’m going to explore making these twenty pages into a complete story.
I told my mentor that whenever I try to do such a thing, everyone tells me that the short story should be a novel. She said that’s a nice problem to have, and I agree, but I’m going to take the next month and change and really make sure this story is a complete short story.
Freedom to Experiment and Explore
Last semester, the mentor I worked with drilled into my head the value of giving myself this opportunity–and I couldn’t be more grateful. I’m discovering new and different ways of telling stories and strengthening my fiction. I’m learning so much and really enjoying the process as I go.
So…if you are a writer, my advice to you is this: Remember that a first draft is just that. Revisions don’t have to follow the same path; don’t be afraid to mix things up, to feel around in the dark for awhile. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover about yourself and your writing when you allow yourself to take a new approach to your story.
Earlier this year, I was happy to host a guest post by Sarah Foil about why she writes. I thought today would be a great opportunity, almost one-half through my second MFA semester, to talk to you about why I write. Each of us has our own reasons, our own inspirations, and mine are two-fold.
Why I Write: I’m An Artist
When I was in high school, I participated in a program called the Center for Creative Youth, or CCY. This program invited high school students to spend five weeks on campus at Wesleyan University over the summer, working with artists. I focused on drawing, because it was my strongest visual art.
CCY was a great program. I had fun, learned a lot, and got to explore some other art forms as well, such as storytelling through sign language and ballroom dancing. Regular practice with drawing led to some strides made with that skill, but then I put that skill aside. Why? Because I wanted to be a paleontologist. Art was just for fun at the time. I’d wanted to study dinosaurs since as far back as I could remember.
I considered myself skilled with drawing dinosaurs. I wish that I still had some of those drawings, but I said goodbye to them when I went through my first minimalist craze.
Anyway, that was back in the late nineties. In 2003, I decided paleontology wasn’t for me. More accurately, it was the math that wasn’t for me. In my program, I needed to pass calculus in order to obtain a geology degree. I’m still not sure why that was, as I recall using geometry and trigonometry in geology, but no calculus. And wouldn’t you know it? My brain just couldn’t process that kind of math.
I also happened to hate going to school where I was. I felt like a number, and after a particularly harrowing experience with the administration at my school, I felt like the worst sort of number a person can feel like: the kind that comes with a dollar sign.
I decided to transfer. New school, new major, new life. Unsurprisingly, I went back to the arts and decided to major in art education. How fast I learned that drawing is the only kind of fine art I had any raw talent in! After a year which included student observation hours, I had an existential crisis–how could I possibly teach students how to create their best fine arts when I lacked both the skill and passion to pursue any but drawing?
Caveat: Looking back on my younger self, I could have done some career research to discover that there are plenty of paths for those who can draw. Part of the reason I didn’t explore those paths was because of lackluster advisement, but I own the other half of that. At that time in my life, I was not good at advocating for myself.
By 2004, I was three years into my undergrad career, and essentially undecided. That’s when I fell in love with art history. I was required to take the first survey course, and in a class most students use as nap time, I flourished. My parents and I agreed that it was time to settle on something, regardless of career outlook, and just get my degree.
In the next two and a half years (yes, I took five and a half to get my BA), I learned a lot about art, artists, history, culture, and myself. I learned that I love learning. I learned that I love writing. Not only did I love writing, but I felt I had a spark of talent.
In January 2007, I graduated with my B.A. in Art History. I knew that I wanted to pursue writing, and while I’d discovered this in time to write for the university newspaper for one semester before graduating, I did not discover it in time to make a convincing case to change my major and stay in school for yet another two years–even if I was footing the bill via loans.
What followed was six years of taking writing courses on the side while I tried not to be broke and unhappy with my career trajectory. I worked in a number of jobs, usually offices with 9-5 roles and cubicles. There, I learned that environment is not for me. I was unhappy, and broke.
In 2013, I made a decision. If I was going to be broke all the time, I might as well be happy. Why not go for not being broke and sacrificing my happiness? Because being unhappy, to me, just isn’t worth it. What makes me happy is writing, so I enrolled to study English and Creative Writing, and in 2015, I earned my M.A.
From M.A. to M.F.A.
Is one writing degree enough? Sure. Many writers–stellar ones at that–don’t have any writing degrees. Many of them, or maybe all of them, are lifelong learners. They didn’t take on thousands in student loans to pursue learning their craft. So why did I?
Well, after taking some workshops and one-off courses, getting my M.A. was like learning there’s a world outside of my own little bubble. It opened my mind. Not only did I thirst for more of that, but I want to teach at the college level, and while many can do so with an M.A. or even a few novels under their belts, I discovered in 2015 that schools want to see that incoming teachers have experience (not surprising). The best way to get that experience was to go back to school and become a T.A.
I’m loving that, by the way, but just as exciting for me is the opportunity to study with talented mentors who are guiding me to become a stronger writer. Would I have learned many of the lessons I’ve learned so far studying solo, or just through the practice of my art? Probably. But it would have taken a lot longer, and I might have missed out on something. Besides, thrusting myself into this M.F.A. program has forced me to do what I didn’t between B.A. and M.A.: Put my art first.
Being an Artist
As an artist, it’s my job to hold a mirror to the world. It’s a cliche saying but I’ve always liked it because I personally believe that reflection and growth is the purpose of life. If the sole purpose of life was procreation, why did we bother to evolve past the amoeba stage? Being an amoeba probably isn’t that exciting, so I’m glad we’re humans, but if we’re humans for any purpose, it’s the expansion of our minds.
I write in order to do that for myself, and hopefully, for others. I write because I’m an artist, before I’m anything else. I write every day, in some capacity, because I believe in improving my skill as an artist more than I believe in any other pursuit…so I’m broke, but happy.
Why I Write: Lineage
My father wanted to be a forest ranger. I didn’t know this until my mid-twenties. In fact, I didn’t know what he’d wanted to be because he didn’t often talk about himself, his thoughts, his feelings. He liked to talk about politics. He liked to philosophize. But rarely, if ever, did his own self come out directly in those conversations.
I remember the day he told me he wanted to be a forest ranger. He was counseling me to find a good 9-5 job that would pay me a decent salary, benefits, give me vacation days, etc…and write on the side. I explained to him that I just wasn’t happy with that situation. His initial response was, “Work is work, not because it makes you happy. If it made you happy, they would call it play.”
I responded that writing is work, but it makes me happy because it feels like I’m giving something back to the world. Then I asked what he’d wanted to be, and he told me about his dreams of being a forest ranger.
He gave that dream up in order to afford to raise a family. I have two older sisters and we grew up in a comfortable setting. I don’t ever remember a time when I was a child when I had to wonder how I would be provided for, and I’m so grateful to both of my parents for that. I know, as an adult, that such a narrative isn’t common, and even though we didn’t grow up rich, many children have to worry about how they’ll eat or whether home will be safe for them. The fact that I didn’t is a mark of my privilege, true, but also a mark of my father setting aside his forest-ranging dream to work in sales.
But I don’t have children to look after, nor have I ever planned on having children to look after. I’d like to think that if I did, I wouldn’t be so selfish so as to put my own dreams ahead of their welfare. As I only have myself to look after, I’d rather focus on the immaterial needs that I crave rather than material comforts. I get by, but I’m not raking it in, either. Sometimes that causes stress in my life, but I’m willing give up financial surety and comfort for the opportunity to write more.
For the opportunity to make writing my vocation, not my avocation.
A Promise Made
In June 2016, my father was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Recovery wasn’t on the table, but he hoped that with chemotherapy, he could live out the rest of the year. However, on September 9, 2016, his battle with that disease and the chemo ended. This was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced. I’m so similar to my father in so many ways, and we were close–his loss hit hard and took us by surprise, as not three months prior to his diagnosis, he seemed fine.
Before he passed, I made him a promise: That I would immortalize him through my writing. My dream of practicing my art became, in that moment, not just my dream, but a promise. A vow. As much as I write for myself, I write for my father, and for his memory.
Why Do You Write? Why Do You Read?
Why do we do any of the things that don’t immediately serve some survival need? Because, my friends, we’re not amoeba. We’re humans, and as I said above, if we can’t expand our minds, then what are we doing here? I’m not saying that’s the only reason for living–there are many–and I’m not downplaying raising children. For those who want to raise children, I think it’s wonderful and beautiful to give so much of oneself to someone else.
My goal in sharing this post with you is, in part, to let you know me a bit better, reader to author, so that when I hold up that mirror, you’re willing to take a peek and examine what you see in the reflection.
But I ask you to think about why you do anything that you do–especially where the arts are concerned. We need the arts in our lives, in this world, but what do they mean to you? What do they give you? Ask from you? What are you willing to invest in order to flourish your relationship to the arts–any arts?
Six out of 20 weeks into this semester, and I’m feeling pretty good about where I am. Even though my drafting has slowed while I await my mentor’s feedback, I’ve still drafted enough work in my thesis to get me through the semester. I expect I’ll have plenty of revision work to do, but this is a far stronger position than I could have been in at this time last semester.
I had to write my first ever fiction pastiche. It was difficult to get into the voice and style of Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation at first, but once I got the ball rolling, I fell into a rhythm with it and ended up having a lot of fun. What I didn’t expect was that my story went to a pretty dark place. Also, given that it was just a writing exercise, I didn’t expect to fit a whole story into ten pages–but I managed to pull that off anyway. I’ll have to see what my mentor thinks of it.
So what’s next? I’ve been working on my peer pages for June’s residency. Sure, June feels far away, but they’re due to the program in mid-April–and to my mentor on March 2. I have a few options, as I see it, for this submission:
I can send my first chapter of my thesis. Yes, I did that last time, but it’s been drastically revised more than once since then.
I can build out the writing exercise I mentioned above. Peer pages submissions can be up to 20 pages.
I can submit the first 20 pages of another story I’m working on, Rings of Saturn. This one involves time travel, though that hasn’t happened yet in the first 20 pages. This is what I’ve been drafting this week, for revision next week if my mentor wants to see this. I got to page 18 today, with a goal of reaching page 20 by the end of the day tomorrow, so I’m feeling good about that.
My mentor and I will discuss which of these options will make the best option for June’s residency, but it’s strange to think of it so early in the semester either way. Last semester the deadline didn’t fall until the end of term, but in the spring there’s no month-and-a-half holiday break. While I went to a June residency last year, I wasn’t in school leading up to it.
In fact, it was about this time last year that I applied for the Mountainview MFA program. Who would have thought that a year later I’d have so much fiction to work on? I’m enjoying myself, learning a lot, and meeting great people.
My next MFA update will be in the middle of next month. I’ll share my mentor’s feedback for my first submission, and thoughts about my second submission…which should be in revision by that time. Also, I should be on solid ground regarding my peer pages.
Last week, I was on the road for about a 2.5-hour trip. Naturally, during such an expanse of time, I thought of the story I’m writing for my MFA thesis. That’s when it hit me–at 70 mph–a connection between my character’s past and present that would offer an opportunity to show his growth!
But at that speed, alone in the car, and with no safe space to pull over, I was worried I would forget about my idea.
Sure, I could have left a voice memo on my phone for myself, but those often end up getting garbled, and I didn’t want to distract myself whilst on the road. It’d have been even more dangerous to take out a pen and physically jot it down.
With the next exit miles away, and with my eagerness to reach my destination, I did the next best thing: I made up a tune. It was a simple tune, just four lines long, but I sang it occasionally throughout the rest of my trip until I could safely stop driving and write it down for later use.
Off the Road
What came next was figuring out how to integrate my idea into my already drafted outline. I ended up deleting most of my outline, but that’s okay. It’s important to stay flexible, to stay fluid, and to accept that the brain is always writing.
I think that’s the thing so many non-writers don’t understand: Writing happens constantly, and the most powerful ideas often occur to a writer at the most inopportune times.
How About You?
Where are you when inspiration strikes? I’ve gotten ideas while out walking, driving, and hiking. Epiphanies have struck while I’ve been in the shower, while I’ve been teaching, and while I’ve been mixing bread dough so I was too messy to write. Only once did a big idea hit while I was actually in a place where I could easily record it.
Sunsets, snow, and mountains…that’s right, I had another residency, this time in the deep arctic blast. Now I’ve attended two out of four residencies, and while I enjoyed myself immensely and am chomping at the bit to get into my work for the semester (and I already have), it was also a reminder of how fast the time passes. With two residencies down, I have only two more to go. Out of “the bubble,” that space we refer to where we’re in a safe space where all of us value the craft of writing and share pieces of ourselves, here are my reflections as a second-semester MFA student.
Something special happened in my peer workshop group–not that it didn’t in June, but I’m not writing about June’s residency right now. Not only did we find a way to help each other with our stories, but we also laughed together. There were only three people in my workshop who I felt I knew–two other women in my cohort and a woman from the class ahead of mine whom I befriended last residency.
There were three other students I didn’t get the chance to get to know last June, and it was fantastic learning about them. One of them kept astonishing me with an openness and personal courage that is nothing short of inspiring. Then, there were two students from the incoming cohort. Both great writers, and great people.
Finally, what made this group so special was the pair of mentors facilitating the twelve hours we spent together. I’m not going to name drop, but they’re pretty amazing and so is their fiction. Their insights, good humor, and approachable manner made it a joy to learn to from them.
Thanks to the feedback I received from both of them and my peers, I have decided to make a drastic change to my thesis novel that will solve the pacing issues; scenes were moving too rapidly and they confirmed for me that as readers, they didn’t have the time to get settled in them. They also confirmed that my proposed changes would solve this issue. I don’t want to get into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away…but suffice to say instead of covering a 65-year lifespan, my novel will cover about 5-6 months.
Craft & Elective Workshops
In addition to peer workshops, part of the residency curriculum features craft and elective workshops. The craft workshops were fun and helpful. Some of the information was something I’d learned before, but I really enjoyed hearing another writer’s take on a subject and letting lessons sink in again. At other times, the information was new and entirely helpful.
Elective workshops I attended (of which we had to choose two) included discussions on the unreliable narrator, an agent Q&A, and a talk on beginnings by Zia Haider Rahman, who might just be one of the coolest people I’ve had the honor to meet. If I ever had the chance to take more classes from him, I’d jump at the opportunity.
At each residency, there are several types of readings: nightly faculty readings, nightly student readings, and a special students-only reading on Wednesdays. I won’t say who read what, but there were texts shared that required open hearts to read and listen, and I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to have participated, even as a reader.
For my own readings, I chose a portion of my short story, “Hunger,” and a rap/poem I’d written based on Hamilton: The American Musical. For that one, I got the audience involved, repeating the chorus.
The graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort, the dance party afterwards, the several hours spent in the game room with friends, the night of no water, the visit from the fire department when pipes burst, the tiny snowman we found, the hours chatting with friends and fellow writers, the four hours with my roommate and cohort-mate traveling to and from the hotel, and everything else that goes on residency was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to leave. At least…not until the temps dropped back into the negatives.
My next residency is in five months and two days. I’m so looking forward to jumping back into it, even though it will be my third of four residencies, and I will likely be even more sad to leave.
Happy New Year! Lots of people make resolutions at this time of year; not me. Resolutions are too easy to break. Usually, I go with them for about two weeks and then I skip a day or two–and then it’s over. Instead, I prefer to come up with goals for the year.
I have my own personal goals, but I’m going to share my writing goals, as this is (mostly) a writing blog.
As my primary writing endeavor, this will take prime focus. If I write a chapter a week, I can finish a rough draft of my thesis novel byMay 27, 2018. That’s my goal.
After residency (which is in less than a week, woohoo!), I’ll be living in New Hampshire for the semester so that I don’t have to drive three hours to campus in potentially inclement weather. I found a sublet situation with a friend from my MFA program, so I’m looking forward to some productive writing sessions.
The good news is this: While I will still be working as a freelancer, I will be able to get by with meeting my required quotas because of student loan disbursements, my tax refund, and the TA stipend.
So I’ve decided I will treat this time like a working writing retreat. It’s a great opportunity to get my rough draft hammered out. I’ll be in New Hampshire through April, which leaves a month to go of drafting when I get home, but I’m confident I’ll be able to keep up with my goal.
I’m still working on my goal of writing one short story each month. I missed last month by a couple of days, but as I was away for a week with family–and it was rather difficult to write over the holiday with much going on–I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I should have December’s short story drafted by the end of today, and out for submission by the end of this week.
This month’s short story is one that’s already written and critiqued; it’s just a matter of addressing its weak points and playing up its strengths before finding it a home by the end of the month.
I will participate in writing contests this year. Last year, I gave myself a $50 budget for the year; I might bump that up to $100 this year but I haven’t decided.
Either way, I will enter some contests–paid and free–in hopes of getting my writing out there. It’d be cool to place in one of them; I came close a few years ago when I got an honorable mention in the WOW-Women on Writing Flash Fiction contest in winter 2015.
Writing About Writing
I also want to pitch articles about the craft of writing this year. I pitched two last year. The one in November was accepted and I haven’t heard yet about my pitch I sent in December.
These articles can be to magazines, anthologies, or blogs–I’m not picky. Last year I pitched two; this year I want to pitch four articles.
Finally, but not least important, is this blog. With school and my TA work, blogging daily just isn’t possible. But I’m aiming for three blog posts per week, with one of those three being a writing prompt.
What are your goals?
I’d love to know what your goals are–writing, reading, or otherwise. Share in the comments for some accountability (not that I’ll hassle you about meeting your goals).