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Posts Tagged ‘life’

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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This post was originally composed last spring, when my grandmother passed away. I’ve thought more since then about place, and about the women in my family and what I share with them. Parts of these thoughts will probably end up here eventually, because they’re something I’d like to write more about. These are things that have often preoccupied me, but I believe this is the first time I tried writing about them.

The post has been sitting in my drafts folder for quite some time, and the only reason I can imagine for this is because I didn’t know what word came after “part of this” … so I have put a period there, and now I give it to you.

~~~~~

I have been absent this week, six hours away from Pittsburgh and immersed in my other life: the life in Philadelphia.

More accurately, it is my life in Doylestown, because although my grandparents (both sets) lived about an hour away from the city and I visited them several times a year growing up, I’ve only been to Philadelphia proper twice that I remember.

It is another life of mine, that part of Pennsylvania, with the stone houses and the red roads. It was a secret that my friends in Michigan couldn’t see, and that I couldn’t describe to them, and so a part of me that I knew couldn’t be known by many. And so, even though I’d lived in Michigan since age 2, I, like my parents, knew what it was like to live somewhere other than home, to feel like you belonged somewhere else.

That home is disintegrating, falling to pieces bit by bit. My grandmother passed away a week ago today, meaning that now an entire generation is gone. (“It’s down to our parents now,” I said to my cousin, and it was a sobering thought.) The house I spent so much time in–the living room with Pop-pop’s chair, the red maple we used to climb out front, the 11 acres of woods out back, the pipeline next door, the split driveway that my grandparents shared with Great-grandma Ivy–these things are gone, belong to strangers now, even though as I drove past them yesterday they looked the same.

But the roads still hold something. Those red, narrow country roads that can’t really handle the congestion that excessive development and suburbanization has brought. The feeling that I associated with them–something tangible in my chest, something different than anywhere else–it’s still there.

And I am sitting on the couch with a stack of essays next to me which I haven’t touched since Monday, seriously behind on my work; but I am still lost in stories: my stories, Grandma’s stories, my mother’s stories, Great-grandma’s stories. Right now they pull me back to the past, and I can get nothing done. They tell me that grieving is never really over.

But they also push me into the future, teach me that my stories, too, are a part of this.

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Anti-Baxter?

Currently reading chapters from Charles Baxter’s book, Burning Down the House. I like his fiction, what I’ve read of it–partly, I suppose, because it’s set in Michigan, but also the flavor of it. I used “Snow” in the class I taught this summer.

But I am not really liking these essays. They are too antagonistic, for one thing–which I think is deliberate. I suppose it may just be that I don’t agree with him. Flannery O’Connor’s essays about writing could also be seen as antagonistic, but I always think she’s right.

There is really no point to this post except to say I’m not enjoying reading Baxter, which is a disappointment to me. In fact, I ought not be blogging right now at all. I am ridiculously busy, because I got no work done this weekend, because I got engaged Saturday morning. That has a way of distracting you.

Happy Tuesday to you all.

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I am a bad blogger.

Granted, I can use the but-I’m-teaching-a-summer-course excuse, and that is a good reason to have huge gaps on your blog. But I am also a horrible procrastinator, so when I’m online I spend my time reading design*sponge and watching “Lost in Austen” on Netflix. (I thought the concept for this miniseries had the potential to be fun: a modern day Jane Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, thus causing havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. But I stopped watching it about an hour in because I didn’t like it.)

Perhaps the habit of blogging isn’t so important, but I believe I need to cultivate more habits of discipline in my life. I’ve heard and read many times–mostly in spiritual contexts–that discipline is liberating. The more I live with myself as an adult, the more this makes sense. Like how I tell my students, now and again, that rules are what allow creativity and originality to blossom.

I tell them things like that, usually because something I’ve said (or they’ve said) sets me off on a ramble on one of my pet subjects. I used to worry about these diversions, but not any more. I think one of the most basic truths about teaching is that you have to be yourself; and this is doubly true of teaching writing. Even if that means going off on the occasional tangent or simply being a little weird. (I have also reached the point where I simply don’t get embarrassed in class. Ever. I need to learn how to do that as a student.)

Today was my fourth 3-hour-long class (of twelve). I am surprised, every day, at how quickly these three hours pass. At the fact that they are full, and that hardly anyone ever looks like they’re about to fall asleep. To a large extent this is because I’ve been blessed with good students; they have a lot to say, they are perceptive readers, and they are serious about writing. Thank goodness.

I told them on the first day that while I would try for variety, I was only going to teach from stories that I loved. That is all I can do, really: share with them from my store of treasures that nourish me as a writer, and hope it also speaks to them. I can usually judge who connects with what by their faces, by their level of participation–and no, not everyone loves what I do. That is okay.

We have talked about dialogue, characterization, point of view. Today the topic was Plot, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that eyes wandered to windows and empty corners of the classroom. Now and then I would catch one of those deep, involuntary sighs coming from a desk outside my range of vision. Time still passed quickly enough; but I set all of us free early. Plot is not my favorite subject. I don’t know how to talk about it. So I borrowed words that didn’t move me, words that I didn’t care too much about when I was an undergrad. Maybe I could have found some excitement in Plot; maybe I would have tried harder if I knew my own lack of enthusiasm would affect the classroom so much. But part of the problem was that it was reciprocal:

I say words that aren’t mine because I don’t have many of my own to say;

I am faced with eyes that are glazed over or squinting skeptically;

I catch the same itch to get things over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I barrel on through.

Perhaps this situation falls under the first soundbite I stole for this class: 1 character (complete with personality, desire, etc etc) + situation (say, a classroom) = plot (things happen, which causes the character to act, which causes more things to happen).

The latter half of the class was devoted to structure, which does interest me; the way relationships other than strict cause-and-effect can be implied, the way a story changes when you fiddle with how it’s put together. But by then we’d been in class an hour and a half already and lost steam.

But I feel pretty good about the other three classes, and hopeful about the next (Setting and Detail).

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I am, for the first time, writing about people who I have known in my life.

It’s kind of funny. People have often assumed, when they find out I am a writer (“Do you mean journalism?” “No, I write fiction.” “What do you want to write? Books?” “Hopefully.” “Books about what?”) that I will write about them, about my own life. Coworkers at workplaces teased me about finding themselves in my future books. Friends ask where I get my characters–if I model them on real people. My uncle jokes that I don’t have enough experience to write yet.

It is this mixture of curiosity, laughter, and sometimes skepticism. But part of it is often serious.

I’ve always said no. You will not be in my books. None of my workplaces, none of my friends. I’ve never had the desire to write about real people. The effort to capture someone on the page–especially someone you know well–to be faithful to them and follow them, is too much stress, to much responsibility. I have always felt it would mean surrendering the freedom of creation. To try and know what a person you really know would do and say and think–it is too much, it is not the same as the exhilaration of letting a character define himself as you define him. The limit of my “real life” characters was when I planned on killing off a teacher in a NaNoWriMo novel.

(I should clarify this. First of all, I never reached that point in the novel, so the character never died. Second of all, I have no personal grudge against this teacher–I got an A in the class–but the personality was too perfectly suited to this character’s role to pass up. Thirdly, it would have been an awesome and mysterious death, and very important to the novel.)

But lately I have been writing–or trying to write–a story about a family I knew growing up.

They are definitely the same people. The same wife and husband are married to each other, with the same children–although one of them is male and dead rather than female and alive, and they are younger than when I knew them. The father has the same hobbies. The mother has the same creativity. Various members have their various medical issues. Although the central event of the story is made up, it is based on two things that actually happened to this particular family. And I know that, outside of the story’s scope, this family will suffer the same losses.

But they are not the family I knew.

In fact, I find myself needing to completely forget, as far as possible, that these real people existed. To make the story even possible, I need to take it from them and give it to these other people: my characters, who must be free to think their own thoughts and live their own lives. I may even need to give the wife a different face, because she is stuck: stuck trying to be true to the real woman that, after all, I knew very little about.

The past few days I have been freewriting about this story, discovering things about these people–the characters, rather than the people whose street I remember, who are so richly complicated that I could not possibly capture them. (And that is one of the dangers: I want to put in everything I know about this family. Everything I remember. But I can’t. I can’t possibly.)

And I’m realizing, now, there are all sorts of ways I can write about the people I know, the things in my own life. To have a girl, somewhere, sometime, who is afraid and goes down steps one at a time; to have someone who feeds Oreos every evening to skunks in the back yard; to have the mother in charge of the children painting the set for the Wizard of Oz following the little boy who is painting v after v–“eagle” after “eagle”–in the sky and painting over them; to have a rented house with white carpet in the kitchen that the landlady always examines closely every time she visits … these are gifts to me as a writer. Facts that can be borrowed, rearranged, rewritten in the search for truth.

These people have given me their story, and perhaps part of my respect for them should be to make sure it is not them I am writing about.

***

I have just written the first rendered scene of this draft. First as in “first one I’ve written,” not “first in the narrative.” I would like also to write the beginning today. We’ll see.

***

And shoot, now I want to write that death. I do need to write that novel someday.

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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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