Days 4 & 5: Welcome to the Blur

Saturday was the first day of nothing but lectures. The first lecture was given by one of the graduating cohort. Giving a lecture is a requirement for those in their last residency period, as are submission of a final manuscript, submission of an annotated bibliography of all books read during your grad school process and giving a reading of your work. The grad student was sufficiently nervous and unprepared, as though in her entire undergrad life she had never had to stand up in front of people and give a lecture. Maybe she hadn’t. But the subject was engaging, and what I liked was how much she encouraged the discussion of those of us in the room. The second lecture, on minimalism (which lasted for two hours), was similarly engaging. The faculty member giving that lecture was soliciting answers from the class and was the sort of person who, when a comment was made that wasn’t perhaps what he was looking for or that seemed to contradict what was being said, had the generosity of intellect to take a second and actually think about what was being said to him and either say “Yes, I can see how that can be true,” or “I see what you’re saying, but I’ll tell you why I think differently.” It was the best discussion I’ve heard yet.

I contrast it with the last class I took, another two-hour lecture. This faculty member asked us to save our questions and comments for the end when she would have a question period, but by the end of her lecture, nobody had anything to say. I could see several people during the course of the lecture talking to the people around them; clearly they felt engaged with the material and had things to contribute to the discussion, but there was no discussion. It meant that this two hour lecture felt like just that. A Two. Hour. Lecture.

So, day 4’s tip: engage your listeners! Make your audience part of the conversation! Encourage them to think and participate!

Today, we chose our mentors. All the faculty who will be mentoring in fiction this semester sat in a “Dating Game”-style lineup and told us a little bit about their style, and then we got to ask questions of them. What surprised me was how many of them (7 out of 9) said “I don’t do genre writing.” Frankly, I find that hard to believe. My personal feeling is that if you have a well-written story with engaging characters, a good plot, etc., does it matter whether the setting is Middle Earth, or whether the characters are werewolves? I wasn’t the only person to be offended by the seeming blanket condemnation of genre writing as being somehow unworthy of graduate-level students.

We also had our first actual critique session with our writing groups. Because I am the newest to our group, I was worried that maybe I hadn’t “done it right,” but I was grateful for the experiences I’ve had with my other writing groups. It gave me solid grounding on what helpful critique looks like, and the whole process was wonderful. As with nearly any group who shares an intimate experience (and critiquing someone’s writing is very, very intimate), we are already inviting each other over to our houses and wanting to hang out.

I have to turn in my four top choices for mentors, and it turned out to be harder than I thought to pick just one. Do I go with the guy who’s really supportive and likes to talk on the phone? Do I go with the woman who really values experimental fiction, even though I don’t like the way she writes? Do I go with the guy who gave the absorbing and challenging minimalism lecture, despite the fact that he intimidates the hell out of me? We’ll see how it goes. We submit our choices tomorrow morning and we find out our assignments tomorrow afternoon.

Day 3: Buddies

Yesterday was the “getting to know you” sort of orientation where we all went around and introduced ourselves and tried desperately to identify with each other and pick out who our best friends were going to be.

Today was that “first day at the new job” kind of day. Paperwork. Orientation into the email system (I was booted out of their email system for reasons unknown and am still unable to access my email. This kind of technical malfunction is not at all unusual for me, and I am not worried about it.), into the stuff we’ll have to complete before we leave for our independent study periods (called “project periods” here). There was a sort of welcome breakfast, and then a “buddy lunch” where we were paired up with a current student who would answer our questions.

My person’s name is Isnel Othello. I emailed my buddy to ask whether the number of lectures I was planning to attend was a reasonable number, and after several days received the reply that I would probably want to take an afternoon off later in the week. I sat there in the room where the lunch was laid out wondering what my person would look like. Man? Woman? Old? Young? From the brevity of the response I had gotten to my email, I didn’t think I would have much to talk about with this person. I pictured a small Latina woman with hesitant spoken English.

Isnel is a 35-year-old Haitian guy. We have both worked as journalists and have a similar disgust for people who are intellectually lazy. We had a great lunch, and talked during all our breaks.

I met with my writing group. I had already read their submitted stories and made my comments on them, and I had already decided how I felt about everyone. When I met them in real life, the woman who wrote the absolutely delicious story about a small-time criminal with the priceless observation that he wasn’t built like a brick shithouse, but more like a kitty litter box, the one whom I thought I’d most like to hang out with, turned out to be a woman about my mother’s age.  A former lawyer wearing a Barney-purple pantsuit. Never in a million years would I have known how cool she was if I hadn’t read that story.

Every single orientation/welcome/familiarizing lecture basically said the same thing – “We know this is a lot to take in, but don’t worry…” And by the end of it, I felt like I had just gone to one of those extended-family gatherings where you’re supposed to remember everybody’s name and who they’re related to and whose kid they are and what their kids’ names are, etc. I have long since stopped pretending I was good at that shit. Nowadays I just take a lot of notes and hope that somebody will send me an email if it’s really important.

Not that I’ll be able to open it.

Day 2: Orientation

We were greeted at the orientation by representative members of the three writing concentrations offered: fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. The fiction guy was Steve Heller, chair of the department, so he went around and greeted everyone and shook hands and was genial and sort of majestic in that authority-figure sort of way.

He gave a speech whereby he promised us that participation in the program would change our lives. Those are the words he used. “Change your life.” I have to admit, I’m always skeptical when presented with claims of that magnitude. I can think of some ways in which I would like my life to change, and even more in which I don’t want it to change at all, but I also know that I’m terrible at predicting exactly what I’m going to take away from any given experience. I have a terrible habit of thinking negative, cynical things when presented with a situation (like, say, every single workplace “bonding” event to which I’ve ever been forced to go), spending my entire time at the event faking happy while secretly hating everyone around me for being so cheerful and gung-ho and myself for being such a miserable cuss, and then reflecting back on the experience later and admitting that I did get some value out of it. So…while I doubt I’m going to lose 20 pounds, become an extreme extrovert or suddenly become famous and sought-after, I’m sure that there will be a lot to take away.

Steve Heller left after his little speech, and was replaced by the heads of the poetry group and the creative nonfiction group. Ms. Creative Nonfiction got up and gave us a very helpful presentation about how our time will be spent over the next two years: ten days of orientations, lectures and writer meetings, followed by five months of working one-on-one with our mentors, doing a bunch of assigned readings and online book discussions with our groups, and completing papers. The the floor was turned over to Ms. Poetry, who talked for a long time about the “average” number of lectures people attend (we’re required to take 7, but most people take between 17 and 20 – I’m signed up for 22) and how it’s important to listen to your body and eat your normal foods like yogurt and fruit, get enough sleep because this whole process is so magical and that everything we’re doing here is going to change us as people and I thought she was going to break into Kumbaya.

I was happy to discover that I was not the oldest person in the group, nor the fattest, nor the most-tattooed or pierced, although I was the most-married. I was not the only harp player, not the only chicken fancier, not the only coffee hater…in short, I was in no way the odd one out, which is just where I wanted to be.

Lectures start tomorrow, bright and early at 9am. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

Day 1: The Trip Down

I mostly packed yesterday, hitting up Office Max for a giant cube of sticky notes and a few pads of graph paper. I like taking notes on graph paper because I take outline-style notes, and it makes lining stuff up easier. Yup. That’s exactly how anal I am.

This morning, I frantically searched my email for a confirmation of my hotel reservation, but a simple phone call confirmed that I did have a reservation. The drive was so uneventful as to not even warrant discussion. Mostly, I ate carrots and listened to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for about the fourth time.

I’ve created an entirely new calendar just for school that has all of my class choices on it. What frustrates me is that the schedule declares “Seminar locations are posted at the Residency.” That’s so frustrating, because the really, really anal part of me wants to be able to put a room number on all these classes so I know in advance where I’m going, and so that when I show up tomorrow, I don’t stand rooted in one place staring wildly around myself and freaking out.

I’ve been perusing the Residency Guide (which is the equivalent of the course catalog I got when I was a freshman that dictated what classes would be required to graduate in my major and that I had to hang onto for my entire college career), and it lays out, not just how many of what kinds of classes I’ll need to have, but exactly how many papers, projects, meetings, etc., I’ll have to have to graduate. When you look at the entire thing in one go, it’s a little intimidating.

I can do this. Right? Right??

Grad School Adventure!

Tomorrow, I leave for grad school. Classes don’t actually start until Thursday, but I’m not 22 anymore and don’t really fancy the idea of driving for six hours and then immediately jumping into things. I’m more of a get there the night before, scope things out, catch up on last-minute reading, have a relaxing soak sort of person.

I’ve been reading like nobody’s business, and as I expected, I didn’t get to all the 57 things I had to read before school started. I’m hoping that, as I did during my undergrad days, I can just keep my mouth shut, take a lot of notes, and hope the teacher doesn’t call on me. Some things never change.

Here’s what I’m nervous about:

  1. I’ll meet my critique group and they’ll all hate my writing – think it’s puerile, silly, unworthy of their time.
  2. I’ll attend the literary pedagogy classes and everyone in them will talk exactly the way the books are written, which is to say that they will be pedantic, boring and full of themselves. It makes the thought of teaching really unpleasant.
  3. I’ll miss my family so much that by the fourth day I’ll be ready to quit and just come home. This is the longest the Pirate and I will have been apart since he moved in with me ten years ago, and I’m afraid I’ll feel lost without him. I’m even more afraid that he’ll be lost without me.
  4. This is actually my biggest and most overriding fear: I won’t learn anything new. That I will have already heard everything that they have to say and I’ll be essentially wasting my time and money.

My current schedule looks pretty full. It’s funny, but low-residency grad school looks an awful lot like attending a writer’s conference. You get the schedule of all the “learning activities,” which are the same as the lectures given during conferences, and you don’t have to sign up for any of them. You just show up when the thing starts.

According to the student guide, students are supposed to attend “at least seven learning activities,” including participating in your assigned workshops. I’ve picked out 24 “learning activities” (that doesn’t include the required stuff like library orientation, mentor meetings, student readings, or new student orientations, of which there seems to be at least one a day), so I’m wondering if perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. On the other hand, it’s not like each of these is an ongoing class. Each one is, at most, a two-hour lecture. I can’t imagine only doing seven of these things, but then again, I’ve never done this before.

I’m off to start packing. I leave tomorrow morning and make the drive down to Los Angeles. I’ll let you all know how it’s going.