MFA Update: Research Trip

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Later this summer, I’ll be taking a trip to upstate New York. My main goal is to do some research in the collections at Fort Ticonderoga, but I can tell from their massive card catalogue on manuscripts alone that one journey won’t be enough. So, I think I’m going to go ahead and get a student membership for the year.

What I’m Hoping To Find

I haven’t looked through the card catalogue of manuscripts yet but I definitely want to check out any first-hand accounts of the early years of the fort. I’d also love to take a look at the artifacts from the mid-eighteenth century.

Now that I’m moving my book up about a hundred years, it’s amazing how much more information there is. I mean, that was sort of predictable, but I’m really excited about it since I was having trouble finding a lot of primary sources before.

The Rest Of The Trip

Since research appointments can only take up the morning, that leaves two afternoons to explore the fort and the general area surrounding it. This is perfect, I think, for my needs right now.

I’ve invited my mom to come along, because I think she’d enjoy it, and if she does join me, we’ll also take Zoey, our dog, along. Though it will be important to keep Zoey away from any weapons demonstrations as muskets and the like are loud enough to scare her.

Hopefully the weather will be decent, but I will go regardless.


There was one hotel that tries to provide a sanctuary from the modern world. I was so tempted to book that one but because of that sanctuary feeling, they don’t offer WiFi. It’s not that I can’t go without the internet, but I don’t really want to–plus the chain hotel where I booked a room is much closer to the fort and accepts pets.

Final Thoughts & Discussion

I’m so excited to take this little three-day trip! I’ve never actually taken a research trip far enough away that an overnight stay was merited. But the idea of traveling to connect with the past in this way, to gain a more intimate understanding for my novel, enthralls me.

If you’re a writer, where have you traveled for your research? How was the trip? Would you take another?

Guest Post: Traveling in Times of Unrest by Wendy Brown-Baez, Author of Catch A Dream

I’m so grateful to Wendy for sharing this post with us. Her experience and insight are inspiring, and I’m adding her book to my post-MFA reading list when I have the chance to read just for fun again! Enjoy!

cover (1)-1What I remember about being in Israel is that normal daily life went on through the Palestinian uprising. In 1988, we traveled around by hitch-hiking and were picked up by all sorts of people, including soldiers in military jeeps. We joined business men, male and female soldiers, college students, even seniors at bus stops to other cities, hitch-hiking while waiting for the bus. But by 1989, people would walk up to me and place shekels in my hand, saying, “Please don’t tramp. Take the bus. It isn’t safe.”

I eventually rented an apartment in Haifa and got a job as a nanny. I never felt afraid because of the intifada but I was followed due to being blond, more than once.

In Jerusalem, the violence became more ominous as my character Lily explains, “But in the morning there is a radio report that sends the mind reeling, brings into sharp focus the tension, the hatred, the frustrations seething beneath every life here. A Jewish man opened fire on a group of Palestinian workers waiting to be picked up for work. Seven people were killed. Ahmed informs us that massive demonstrations have begun in the territories and six hundred people have been wounded.” Her parents have come to visit with a tour group and “they tell us that Benyamin recommends staying out of the Arab quarter of the Old City. Everything has been shut down.  

“…We had planned to stay another night but instead I decide we should go back to Haifa. It feels too strange to be here; I want to go home. We gather our things and head for the central bus station. Everything is eerily quiet, every building shuttered and closed. The tension is suffocating. Police vans cruise by with steel meshing over the windows; otherwise, the streets are completely deserted. Teen-agers are rolling over a parked van to set it on fire. At the bus stop, police are asking youths for their identity papers. We stand apart until the local bus arrives to drop us at the central bus station, glad to get away.” –excerpted from Catch a Dream.  

I recall one incident in which a group of us including my nine-year-old son and a babe in arms arrived at Hezekiah’s tunnel and encountered village boys wrapped in kafias armed with rocks. Just as we were backing away terrified, a young man came riding up the road on a donkey. He yelled at them: “They are Americans, not Israelis” and escorted us to the Arab village at the top. The women insisted we come into the courtyard for tea and cookies. “The Israelis have arrested all the older males of the village,” they explained. “That’s why they are angry.”

I also became aware that the reason the radio was always on in the local busses was that was the way soldiers heard the call to go on active duty. These soldiers included people you knew personally: your son, your brother, your school mate, your boyfriend, your boss, your co-worker, your colleagues. High school graduates do army serve after high school, the boys three years and the girls two, but the men give up a month each year until they turn 45 for army duty.

The violence was an undercurrent in daily life and yet daily life went on. Shopping at the shuk, hanging out in cafes and at the beach, going to the synagogue or the disco or the movies, riding public transportation to work or to visit the museums and ancient sites, and making friends with these amazing generous, gorgeous, vibrant Israelis—I would not give up my experience for anything. It changed my life. I fell in love; I wanted to stay. 

You have to be alert and on guard and yet, remain with an open heart to the possibility of hospitality. Every person I spoke to wanted peace. It was heart-breaking to see no end to the conflict in sight.

About Wendy Brown-Baez

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Wendy Brown-Báez is the author of a poetry CD Longing for Home, the full-length poetry collection Ceremonies of the Spirit (Plain View Press, ’09), and chapbooks: transparencies of light (Finishing Line Press, ’11) and Elegy for Newtown (Red Bird Chapbooks, ’14).  She has published both poetry and prose in numerous literary journals and anthologies, both in print and on-line. She received McKnight, Mn State Arts Board and Saint Louis Park Arts & Culture grants to bring writing workshops into non-profits and community centers.

 Wendy has facilitated writing workshops since 1994 including at Cornerstone’s support groups, the Women & Spirituality conference at MSU Mankato, Celebrate Yourself women’s retreats, All About the Journey healing center, The Aliveness Project, Unity Minneapolis,  El Colegio High School and Jacob’s Well women’s retreat. Wendy received 2008 and 2009 McKnight grants through COMPAS Community Art Program to teach writing workshops for youth in crisis. The project at SafeZone and Face to Face Academy developed into an art installation showcasing their recorded writings. When it was noted that students’ reading scores improved, she was hired as Face to Face’s writing instructor.

In 2012 she was awarded a MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant to teach writing workshops in twelve non-profit arts and human service organizations. She continues to teach at Pathways: a healing center, in Mn prisons, and in community spaces such as public libraries, yoga studios, churches, and cafes.

Wendy has taught memoir at MCTC continuing ed and through Minneapolis community ed.

In addition, Wendy has managed shelters for the homeless and visited incarcerated teens. She is trained as a hospice volunteer and as a facilitator of Monologue Life Stories. Wendy studied alternative healing, ceremony, and spiritual traditions with Earthwalks for Health and lived in Mexico and Israel. She has collected wisdom teachings from these diverse cultures, as well as written memoirs of her adventures.

Read more about Wendy and her book, Catch a Dream, below.

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MFA Update: 6 More Days

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With my final deadline of the semester in less than a week, I’ll be focusing my efforts this week on my craft essays. I have two more to write to close out the semester, and some reading to do in order to write them. My 30 pages of fiction are written, and I’ve taken them through one round of edits. Ideally, I’d like to do one more round before sending them on to my mentor next week.

What I’ve Learned This Semester

I had such fun this semester experimenting with my thesis. I played with structure, style, and point of view. I tried everything from an epistolary approach to writing the story as though it were in an online forum. I thought about my novel in terms of a linked collection of short stories.

After all of this, I’ve come back around closer to my original approach, but I definitely learned a lot about myself as a writer along the way, including the value of experimenting with my story.

I wrote the same scenes in so many ways that I now feel confident in my approach. Oh, and my story changed. I always expect that to happen, and it’d happened already a few times…but it’s changed even more and the change is freeing.

Speaking of freeing, I found a way to loosen up my prose. I’m sure my reading list has something to do with it–prior to entering this program, most of the books I read were classics. I am still reading classics, but for many of them, the language is a bit stiffer than contemporary prose. By bringing my reading list forward in time and studying more contemporary authors, my voice has loosened up a bit.

Residency Is In 2.5 Weeks

And I’ve critiqued three stories for peer workshop, but I still have five to go. I’m really enjoying them, and am trying to finish one every other day so I have almost the whole week before residency free.

Going into my third residency, the only cause for sadness is that it means I’ll only have one more left.

This summer, I’ll be teaching a self-defense seminar because so many people in the program have expressed an interest in learning. Some of my fellow MFA candidates have some martial arts experience already, and I know of at least one who also holds a black belt. At the least, it’ll be an opportunity to move around for about an hour or so. As wonderful as residency is, it involves a lot of sitting.

I’m looking forward to the trip up to the mountains this year, too. I’ll have the company of a good friend (who is attending her fourth residency), and with good company, the ride will be great. It’s about 4-4.5 hours.

For My Third Semester

Residency is when I find out who my next mentor will be, but I’d be more than happy with any of the three I requested. Third semester works a bit differently than the first and second semesters in that I don’t have to write the ten craft essays anymore.

Instead, I’ll be writing a 10-15-page close reading essay. I’m psyched about this because to be honest, I’m a little weary of the craft essays and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the close reading. I’m eager to dive deep into a text and really pick it apart.

My goals for my thesis are to produce as much of it as I can. Aside from the 30-pages-every-five-weeks deadlines, I’d love to have a rough draft finished by the end of this year. According to Scrivener, about 270 words a day will do the trick. That’s pretty easy, especially when I know where I’m headed with my story. I’ve been writing more than that each day, so I imagine I’ll hit my goal of 75,000 words before the year is out.

I’m so glad I delayed trying to pump out a first draft. Last residency, one of the other students (who is graduating this June), cautioned me against doing that in my second semester. He advised me to have fun in my second semester and to give myself room to play and experiment with my text. This was fantastic advice and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to slow down.

Final Thoughts

Time is passing so quickly in retrospect, but there are times when it passes so slowly in the middle of the semester. I think the next few weeks are going to fly by because I’ll be focused on preparing for residency and finishing my submission for the next week and a half. Then, the week after that, I’ll want to finish my Pride and Prejudice guides for Literature Lessons so they’re complete before I leave. Residency week always goes fast. Always.

When I get back from residency, it’ll be time to start my work for my next submission as well as planning for next fall, when I’ll be teaching freshman composition. I’ll also be teaching a creative writing class, but I have that course almost entirely worked out from when I was pursuing my M.A. I just have to look over the lesson plans and materials, and make sure everything still fits.

My main goal for next semester is to produce a complete draft. My other goals will depend on which mentor I’m assigned. I’ll post my next MFA update after residency.

Behind the Scenes: Choosing A Writing Program

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I got a new laptop yesterday. I’m so enthralled with the idea that I can now work on my novel and other projects anywhere. After years of primarily using an iMac–which served me well for more than half a decade–it’s nice not to be chained to a desk.

New computers always put me on the hunt for new software, so I’m currently reevaluating my writing software. I use Scrivener at present, but they want another $45 to download the latest version. I really hate that they want me to rebuy the software I already own just so I can keep getting updates. Despite everything great about the program, I’m not sure I want to spend it just on principle.

Plan & Write A Novel

Then there’s Storyist. I’ve heard wonderful things about this software but it’s $60. I’m not sure I want to spend that simply because I think it’s a little more than novel-writing software is worth to me (especially as I can use a word processor for free). But it is nice.

Plan A Novel

Story Planner is only $10, but you don’t write the novel in the program. After losing my data once in Scrivener (before I was backing up to DropBox), this is a somewhat attractive idea. It provides a place to organize all of your story’s data and allows you to, well, plan your story. It also allows you to set deadlines so you can track your productivity. This one is definitely a contender on my list.

Subplot, which comes in at $15, does pretty much the same thing. I’m not really sure what the difference between the two is, actually, except that this program has an ideas board. They don’t share a screenshot of it, but I imagine it’s something like Scrivener’s cork board. I could be wrong, though.

Edit & Revise A Novel

Continuity, which costs $14 is another piece of software on my radar, though I suspect this program will be more useful when editing a novel. It seems like a great way to check for plot holes and inconsistencies with characters without killing several trees worth of post-its.

Other Apps & Software

There are several other apps in the App Store, and then there are plenty out there on the internet–but these three are programs I definitely have my eye on. Of course, there is always the good ole word processor.

By the way, if you’re on a PC, there’s an open source program called yWriter that I used to love. The design is not that flashy, but it has some great features. They don’t make it for Mac though.

Behind the Scenes: Deleted Scene

This is part of a scene from an old version of a chapter of my novel. I like the conflict between James and Zaddock, but after this semester’s experiments with my tone, style, voice, and structure, the writing feels so stiff to me. I might grab a few descriptions to reuse, but for the most part, this scene will likely remain deleted.

Two days later, the bell rang from the lookout again. I was in the stables when I heard the chimes fill the air. The horses here were majestic creatures. Abner’s own reminded me of Katherine for they were both Thoroughbreds, but Abner’s horse—called Barnaby—was different from the mild-mannered mare of my childhood. He was younger, and far more spirited. But he had the same white star pattern between his eyes that Katherine had. My father had said it reminded him of a jewel, so that’s why he named her after the queen of one hundred years ago.

Barnaby nuzzled my palm and I pat that star before leaving the stables. The lookout was on the armory, which made sense as the two long guns were perched on the lookout deck. I wasn’t technically supposed to be in the armory without permission, but my curiosity got the better of me; I wanted to see what the bell was for. I slipped inside, spotting a trio of soldiers in the midst of the room. At the moment, all of their backs were turned so I took the stairs two at a time, and almost ran into Gibbons at the top. 

“Oh, pardon me.”

“Mr. Stanworth,” he greeted with a tilt of his head. “Weren’t you supposed to stay out of the armory?” He was smiling. I was certain he recalled giving me a brief overview of the fort and it’d been he who issued that decree.

“Was I? My apologies if that’s so. You can search me if you must.”

Gibbons cocked his head to the side, and it looked like he was chewing on his cheek. “No,” he decided finally. “I trust you. I imagine you’re looking for the Lieutenant?”

I nodded. Gibbons pointed toward the door across the landing. “He’s out on the lookout with the Captain.”

I thanked him and walked past him but then stopped. “Mr. Gibbons?” When he turned from the top step, I asked, “What do you think of the Captain?”

His smile fell from his face. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? What I think? He outranks me, so I do as told, Mr. Stanworth, sir.”

“I see. Thank you.” 

Gibbons nodded and went on his way. I pulled open the door to the lookout and stepped outside. Up here, the wind curled up from the river and smacked my face. The cold made my nose tingle for a moment until it started to feel stiff and numb, even when I tried to wiggle it. I watched the tip, but what I saw didn’t connect to what I felt.

“What’re you doing up here?” Zadock demanded. 

Not my captain. “I heard the bells.”

“You are not a military man. You shouldn’t be up here.” 

Abner shook his head. “It’s alright, James. See that?” He pointed toward the river. 

“Damn Dutch,” Zadock grumbled.

“Is there no one you don’t hate?” I asked the Captain, who turned and thrust his stubby fingers into my chest. 

“I don’t hate the English. Our own kind.”

“All evidence to the contrary,” I answered, pushing his hand away.