Posts Tagged ‘grad school’

I’ve been posting much more often over here these past few weeks, and I think that reflects my general state of being. I am very busy with teaching and being a student and writing, but it isn’t what occupies my mind for the time being.

I feel this sharp juxtaposition right now between “grad school” and “real life.” I guess because I’m getting married, planning for the future, dealing with the stuff of adulthood. (Because really, grad school doesn’t completely require you to be an adult, although it helps.) That juxtaposition is part truth and part illusion, because life is whatever and wherever you’re living in a moment, not some abstract concept. And yet when it comes to where I imagine myself being, and who I imagine myself to be, this MFA program is transient. Important, desired, but over in another year. I’m not entirely certain what lies on the other end of that year, but I’m eager to find out.

Committing regular time for writing has been difficult. Partly because of this blasted business, but also because my attention has been focused on other things. I find that writing requires a balance of stillness and activity. Too much of one leads to stagnation, too much of the other doesn’t allow one(/me) that interior quiet that’s necessary for creation.

If good writing captures the spark of life, it seems to me that it’s necessary for the writer to life a full life (which isn’t the same thing as a busy one). But when life is exceptionally full, I often find myself drawn away from writing, or simply forgetful. (Except there is always that guilt gnawing away at the corners of my mind, asking me how I can call myself a writer, which will only be silenced by writing, and writing, and writing well.)

I’ve no conclusion to this train of thought.


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… I’ve been submitting stories. To a contest and a literary magazine most recently; planning on sending another thing out in the next week or so.

I feel like a writer. Woohoo!

It’s been a bit too long since I last submitted anything, honestly; same as it’s been too long since I posted on this blog. One always intends to do that sort of thing over Spring Break, but then things happen. Like surprise bridal showers and apartment hunting. (Other things don’t happen as much, like homework.)

To be honest, it’s when all that Real Life stuff starts taking over that I stop and wonder, why the heck am I still in school, again?

And then, gradually, I remember Reasons. To be part of a writing community; to better myself as a writer and an individual; and, of course, to write.

And I certainly know there are many aspects of academia that I’ll miss sorely once I’m finished. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that I have absolutely no desire for an academic lifestyle on a long term basis. And there’s always a part of me that’s chomping at the bit, waiting to be finished.

I guess it’s pretty lucky time doesn’t listen to my whims.

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The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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I haven’t posted in ten days, and I imagine I won’t be posting before the semester finishes in two weeks. Dealing with finals from both ends–student and teacher–is not the happiest of experiences, even though I enjoy filling both roles. This semester is compounded by the fact I had a family emergency last week and didn’t make any classes (as student or teacher) or get any work done.

However, I did find this lovely bookstore, which I plan on visiting if I’m ever anywhere near Wichita, Kansas. I might order online from them, even; I admit, though, that I’m a cheapskate and very likely to buy from Amazon. But I like supporting bookstores.

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Today I just  gave the first batch of essays back to my students. It’s always a good feeling, leaving the class with your bag significantly lighter. A sense of freedom: now I can do my homework. And write.

Until, that is, you realize they turn in the next essay in a week.

I was excited about writing my connected stories. I was having trouble getting started on them; but I was wrestling with that trouble, and the stories were stewing in the back of my brain even when I wasn’t thinking of them. Which meant I got occasional flashes of “Aha!” It was slow, but stuff was happening.

Not within the last week. Responding to essays and meeting other deadlines has consumed my time. I realize I’m walking in a world of deadlines, jumping from one to the next with few pauses to catch my breath. Is it little wonder that writing becomes yet another deadline I have to meet? February 23rd is when I have to turn something in for workshop. And I’m starting to wonder how much writing I’ll get done before the week leading up to it.

The ironic thing is that I usually need the pressure of a deadline to motivate me. But self-motivation–even if it’s only by sheer force of will–needs room to be acted on. And I feel this is a very narrow space I’m in.

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I am up for workshop on March 23rd; but what I didn’t realize was that I had to be up a second time, since I was only doing a half workshop. We have to submit 40-50 pages during the course of the semester; for a half-workshop it’s 20-30.

So I’ve signed up for March 2nd as well. Which means that my stuff has to be posted by February 23rd. (The date I am giving my book report.) Which means, approximately: panicpanicpanicpanic.

What I am hoping it also means is that this story I’ve been struggling with will have more motivation to let me write it. (Although possibly it, the story, does not care at all whether or not I’m humiliated in class.) I have, I think, solved the point of view problems, and the solution–which came to me suddenly and unlooked for–was simply to extend the ending to encompass Other Things. I don’t know whether or not Character B will realize he was lied to, but the reader certainly shall.

This extension also will help the story be about what it’s actually about, which is what I’m still figuring out. Because a story’s “aboutness,” while a different thing than what happens in it, is not separable from plot or character and what happens therein. Or else it wouldn’t be a story; it would be a moral, or a sermon, or an intelligent saying.


Speaking of fiction, for those who write it and are under a certain age, the Kenyon Review is having a contest. Submissions are open February 1-28. I haven’t poked around much myself yet to see what types of stories have won in the past, but it’s being judged by Louise Erdrich, author of Love Medicine. Worth checking out.

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Does anyone know how to spell “workshopping?” It seems to me that 1) this needs to be a word, since “workshop” is used as a verb all the time, at least in MFA programs, at least by me; and 2) there is no other logical way to spell it. Is there? But it doesn’t matter where I type it–Word, Open Office, Firefox–it always gets the squiggly red line.

Anyway. I’m well into the spring semester at this point, and the work is piling up–though nothing “big” has been due yet. Still feel like I’m shaking off “break mode.”

I have been revising a short story I wrote last semester, and I am stuck. (Stuck, actually, at the same place I last blogged about.) So I have been going through the feedback I got from my workshop classmates, their notes in hand and Open Office document open. Ultimately, these notes don’t amount to big changes (at least not so far). Some feedback I dismiss entirely, because it is clear the reader didn’t “get” my story … whether because of different aesthetic tastes, or for other reasons. And that is an important part of workshop: knowing what to listen to, and what to forget. Any workshop ought to help a writer accomplish their aims–perhaps find out what those aims are. Advice that ignores or misses that is not of any use whatsoever. (As good old Flannery would say, “In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.”)

But even feedback from those who don’t appreciate your story–who, when they offer advice, are trying to make it into something else entirely–gives you another angle at which to view your story, things to consider you wouldn’t otherwise see. And I love reading these letters Fiona made us write each other, which some people wrote mostly as critiques but others just as reactions. After all, stories are written to be read. And they become different stories for different readers. That is the beauty of it; the control and complete loss of control a writer has over her own words. I like hearing how people took it, even if they didn’t get it; even if they hated it. (Yes, one person DID tell me she hated it.)


So we are blogging as part of my fiction workshop this semester with Cathy Day! Possibly some of those posts will make it over here.

I’m not sure yet how far this blog will venture away from “matters more bookish than not,” but I am willing to let it venture other thoughtful places.

I just finished Monkeys by Susan Minot. A good book. I started it yesterday, and finished it this afternoon, much to the detriment of my to-do list. It’s one of those books where there’s more than what you take in on a first read, even if you’re trying to be a perceptive reader. The prose is very spare, which works beautifully, as she is writing about intense emotions. I think I will have to come back to this one again.

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