Days 10 & 11: The Home Stretch

Friday was our last session with our writing groups, and to celebrate, our writing mentor brought us sparkling wine (we are, after all, adults). We sipped sparkling wine while giving our critiques, and I was surprised at how amazing the critiques I got were. This particular piece of writing was a comedic piece that I’d read on the radio two years ago, and at the time I thought it was pretty good. I was amazed at the great comments I got, things that really got to the heart of what was missing. Now I’m really torn between spending the next five months working on the piece I had originally started for Nanowrimo and spending that time on this thing.The even better part was that one woman ended up a bit better for the drink and ended up doing that thing where every sentence tailed off in quiet giggles and she kept having to put her arm around the woman next to her and sort of lean on her. We decided that letting this particular woman drink anything is probably not a great idea.

My mentee group met with our mentor to get our contracts signed, and I really thought there would be more of a process to it. More of a discussion, if you will. But deep down, I also knew that it was really going to be up to me, and I was pretty happy with what I’d put together.

Saturday, our very last day, was a guest lecture by Fr. Gregory Boyle. His book had been required reading in preparation for the lecture, and while I had tried to read it, I found the stories so touching that I was never able to read more than two pages before I would break down crying. The lecture was called “The Literature of Witness,” but Boyle talked far less about writing and far more about his own experiences. And, of course, I started to cry. Worse, I was sitting in the front row, so whenever Fr. Boyle glanced at the front row, there’s me and my streaming nose and sopping hanky. By the end of the lecture, I noticed that he was tearing up whenever he looked at me. Whoops.

I drove home, and I wasn’t able to leave until after another meeting that got out 4-ish. Crying always exhausts me, so between getting to bed late (I was up packing), getting up early (to put stuff into my car) and weeping for two solid hours, I was exhausted. The Pirate, being the sweetest man possible, encouraged me to stay for another day so that I could leave early in the morning, but I wanted my own bed, my own husband, my kids, my own dogs. I didn’t miss the cats.

Here’s how amazing my best friend is: when he heard that I was going to have to leave late and make a 6-hour drive alone, he offered to drive up with me and fly home today. Could anyone possibly ask for a better friend than that? This is a guy who’s been my best friend for 25 years, but we had enough to talk about that the time in the car seemed like nothing. By the time we got to my house, I was more awake and feeling better than I had all during my residency.

I’m home. I’m tired. My first residency is behind me. Only four more of these to go.

Day 9: Are We There Yet?

Thursday was easily the most emotional day I had. First, the Pirate admitted that on his way home from taking our daughter to school, he heard a song that we had first heard together, and it made him so sad that he almost had to pull over. Of course, while he was telling me this at lunchtime, I got all weepy, and that just set him off again. The lectures were interesting (including another great revision lecture), but the best one by far was a lecture called “Destroying the Book” by one of the outgoing cohort, Raymond Gaston. Its premise was that the form we think of as “book” is a recent construct created by current printing technology. His definition of “post-modern” was a thing that was easily digitizeable and replicable, and therefore “post-post-modern” books are things that cannot be digitized and replicated, such as Anne Carson’s work Nox, a handmade “book” consisting of yards of accordion-folded paper containing the epitaph she wrote for her brother’s death. The class spent time creating visual art to accompany a reading by one of the other students. I was flattered that the author of the work asked me if she could keep mine.

I hurried home Thursday night so that I could finish writing up my “project period contract,” a list of the work that I’m going to accomplish between now and May 18th (the end of the marking period). I’ve committed to between 20 and 25 pages of new material every month, as well as two book annotations (I have a reading list of 10 books), a bunch of online meetings, and anything that I need to do for my field study (you’ll hear more about this later, as I’m not sure we’re allowed to talk about it yet). I wrote everything up, and then sat back to talk to the Pirate. We’ve been using Facetime, and it’s been mostly amazing, allowing me to see my adorable baby’s face and the Pirate’s handsome dimples every night before I hit the sack. This time, though, I started misting up, then the Pirate started choking up, and before I knew it, we were both crying.

And then I went to bed.

Days 8: Girls Just Want to Have Fun

I must admit, most of the reason I haven’t posted for a few days is that I’ve been so busy that I could scarcely think.

On Wednesday, I went to a revision lecture with Rick Moody. I’ve heard him speak on the subject of revision before, and at the time, I was surprised that anyone should go through such a detailed, down-in-the-weeds process of editing. In the four years since I heard him speak, either his process has gotten more detailed or he just gave us a lot more in our 2-hour lecture. In addition to the whole “use each of the 4 sentence types in every paragraph” thing I heard before, he had something like 17 other rules for good writing, each of which he made for himself to address a perceived weakness in his own writing, and each of which he still occasionally breaks when he feels justified. Moody said that what he’s aiming for with each of his works is pushing the envelope of what constitutes “story” and “narrative.” At one point, someone asked him when he addressed larger plot and character issues, and he said something to the effect that if you are down in the weeds enough, paying enough attention to individual word choices, the larger issues will take care of themselves. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that, but there it is.

After another lecture with which I disagreed whole-heartedly (you can’t win them all, I guess), two of my friends and I went to Hard Luck Tattoo Studio in Inglewood. I got a bar in my left ear (here’s a picture of one in someone else’s ear), my friend Susan got three studs in her left ear, and my friend Kat got a lovely tattoo on the inside of her right wrist. I feel that I should mention that my friends are both within spitting distance of my mother’s age, and the three of us had an amazing time. Although my friend Kat, as she was being escorted to her car on the last day by her very handsome husband, said “So long, troublemaker!” But she was smiling.

Normally, I didn’t go to the evening readings because by the end of the day I just felt overloaded and anxious to get back to my room to sort things out, but on Wednesday, I went to the Rick Moody reading. As an added treat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey was giving a reading.  While I thought her poetry was excellent (and there’s so little poetry I really like), her reading had that artificial pace that for me marks bad poetry reading. A SORT…of EMPHASIS…on…line ENDINGS…and…ELLIPSIS. To me, it shows a lack of faith in the listener’s ability to hear the poem’s form and internal rhythms, which goes back to a lack of faith in the work itself. I forgive it in newer poets, but I wouldn’t have expected it of Natasha Trethewey. Rick Moody’s reading of “Boys” bore out so many of the lessons he went over earlier that afternoon.

I went back to my hotel that night after stopping at a taqueria for dinner, and had to sleep on my right side, my left ear being too insulted to allow for sleep.

Days 6 & 7: I’m SO Tired

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!

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??

Writers Read

Part of the grad school process is that I have to read a bunch of stuff. To start with, I have to read the works of the folks who are teaching at Antioch, because I have to choose one of them to be my mentor, and it had better be one whose writing I actually admire and would like to emulate. Then, I have to read the works of the other folks going through the program with me, and I have to critique their work and offer them my feedback.

Here’s my dilemma: thus far, of the three books I’ve read from the teachers in this program, I only like one of them. Steve Heller, the head of the MFA program at Antioch, writes in clear, lyrical prose that didn’t get in the way of the touching story he was trying to tell. I’m in the middle of reading Father’s Mechanical Universe, a novel about a boy and his father in the 1950s. The subject matter is not normally my cup of tea, but Heller’s style is wonderful. I wish I could say the same for Jim Krusoe‘s Blood Lake and Other Stories, which relies too much on plot at the cost of character development. Characters in his stories don’t act like actual human beings, so I can’t relate to them or understand their underlying dilemmas at all. Even worse is Dodie Bellamy‘s The Letters of Mina Harker. Thirty pages into it and not only does it not have any discernable plot, but the “letters,” are all the stupidest sort of expository crap (kind of thing that opens with “Dear Sing, You are my best friend confidante a staple of every Hollywood biopic…” I mean, do you start out letters to your mother with “Dear Mom, As you know, you are my mother”?) cobbled together with the occasional use of  “cunt” to keep our interest piqued. If I wanted to hear someone fling epithets around, I’d talk to my mother.

I’ve got two other books that I haven’t even cracked yet, and next week I’m due to get the first work for the Borderlands Press Boot Camp, which doesn’t happen until January.

With all the reading I’m doing, I’ve made a huge decision with my writing. After having an email conversation with Annie Finch about my work, I’ve decided that I’m not doing myself any huge favors by trying to work simultaneously in several different genres. Right now, I’m doing a young adult piece. The last thing I had published was psychological horror. My best work is magical realism, but it can also be classified as spiritual. So, with that thought in mind, I have to do some thinking and planning, and figure out what my literary home is.

And I’d better do it quick. National Novel Writing Month starts in a couple of weeks, and I will be starting my next novel then.