Monday morning’s discussions started with a required class on Thomas Payne’s “Common Sense.” You know, that one you read in high school. But when you’re talking about it at a grad school at a university whose stated mission involves social justice with a guy who’s the book critic for the LA Times, suddenly it becomes a a fascinating exercise in how writing can affect people and the duty writers have to be honest and committed to their work.
We turned in our mentor choices first thing in the morning, and by afternoon, our mentor assignments were posted for all to see. I know that I heard just as many sounds of disappointment as I heard sounds of joy when people saw whom they’d gotten as a mentor. I got Jervey Tervalon, my first choice. The mentor is the person who will be overseeing our progress in the five months we’re away. Before I leave here, I have to state some goals and create a quantifiable plan for reaching those goals (number of pages written, number of books read, number of online conferences attended, etc.) and have my mentor sign off on it. The mentor assigns some books that his entire group of mentees (each mentor gets 5 or 6 students) will read in common, and then each student has to come up with more books that they will read and annotate during the semester.
I chose Jervey because he seemed to have the most supportive attitude of the mentors. He expressed a willingness to look at our fiction on its own merits, saying that he prefers not to know too much in advance about his students because he doesn’t want what he knows about a person to color his opinion of their work, which I find to be a very fair attitude.
What I didn’t know is that he’s also much more hands-off when it comes to developing the project period plan. He basically leaves it up to his students to come up with the plan on their own, and then evaluates them based on the work they turn in as compared to the work they planned to do. Which is all well and good if you’ve done this before and have a good idea of how to work, but I don’t. I’m new and I was more than a little freaked out at just being cut loose like this.
And then I realized that if I let myself be intimidated by the fact that I have to figure this shit out on my own, I’m losing all the benefit this opportunity is providing me. Normally, if I have to do a big project and nobody gives me any input, I relish the thought that it’s all up to me and I have free reign, and I know now that this is no different. So, with the benefit of a bit of paradigm shift, I’m so lucky I got my first choice!
Today was another day of nonstop work, one of the highlights of which was the “writers at work” seminar where Kathryn Pope and Diane Wright (both Antioch graduates) talked about digital publishing and how it’s changing the landscape, both in terms of the process of getting published and in terms of the choices people are making as readers. Another was our fiction editing workshop. The discussion today was great, and I talked to one of the participants afterward about how he is mining the pain of his childhood for his stories.
It made me aware of the theme that has run through every class, lecture and conversation I’ve had: in order to make the writing work, we as authors have to question all of our beliefs and assumptions, write our characters honestly and fearlessly, and then surrender to where their stories go. It has made me realize some of the problems I’ve been having with my writing and why it’s weak in the ways that it is. I find that I’m really looking forward to working on my stuff in the next five months!