Friday, June 27, 2008

Guest Blogger: Kathy Briccetti on a Reading Drought

By now you all know I am but a few weeks shy of finishing the MFA. Which is the same as saying that pieces of my mind have been drifting off with alarming regularity as I frantically go about completing the final requirements. With time and mental clarity in short supply, I've asked a half-dozen friends who happen to be very good writers, to do some guest blogging. So here goes.

My first guest is
Kathy Briccetti, a year-and-a-half ahead of me on the "after the MFA" curve, having graduated from the creative nonfiction track at Stonecoast in January 2007. Since then, she's been shopping her excellent memoir, collecting awards and a Pushcart nomination, and publishing memoir excerpts all over, most recently in the edgy new anthology from Seal Press, The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change. She's got another in a 2009 anthology, Who’s Your Mama: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers (Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint). Kathy is also an editor, writing teacher, a school psychologist, and the mother of two sons.

Welcome Kathy!

"Before I was a writer, I was a reader. Make that Reader with a capital R. A bibliophile. Someone for whom reading is therapy. Bibliotherapy. Ever since I devoured the
Nancy Drew series in fourth grade, I have carried a book with me wherever I go. But since my move to El Cerrito, California (a town I consider a suburb of Berkeley) in April, I’ve lost my lifelong reading habit. It’s been a time of personal turmoil, and anyone who has moved knows how time-consuming setting up a new home can be.

During the move, I put a freeze on my requests at the library, and my subscriptions—
Poets & Writers; TIME; New York Review of Books; River Teeth; Bellingham Review; and Gettysburg Review—have piled up unread. I’ve ignored all the great book recommendations on Shelfari, and I even stopped reading the daily newspaper.

Reading is an addictive habit. The more you do it, the more you need to do it. At least that’s been my experience. And since I stopped—cold turkey—I haven’t quite figured out how to start again. After spending days scrubbing floors, hanging pictures, and planting a garden, I crawl into bed and collapse. No more bedtime stories for me. No lounging on the couch on Sundays and telling my kids I’ll see them at the end of the book.

But lately, I’ve made it a point to stop working on the house in the evening and instead plant myself in my oversized reading chair and look at a printed page. One night, I read the Sunday New York Times all the way through and the next, I made my way through the Author’s Guild Bulletin (and a fascinating article on book reviews and reading online vs. reading print which perhaps fittingly, I can't link to because it's not online!). When I took one of my kids to the bookstore the other night, I bought David Shield’s collection of essays, The Thing about Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, and put it on my To Read pile.

A couple of days ago, I picked up the July issue of Oprah’s magazine to check out her summer reading recommendations. While it’s frustrating to know I won’t be at a beach this summer or even lying around in my new (gopher-ridden) garden in a lounge chair reading a book a day (my usual and preferred reading pace), I still feel the familiar tingle of anticipation when I scribble out the list of books I want to read—the ones that will end my reading drought.

On top of my list is my friend
Bunny Goodjohn’s novel Sticklebacks and Snow Globes. Yesterday, I unfroze my library requests and am eagerly awaiting Careless, a novel by Deborah Robertson; How To Build A House by Dana Reinhardt; Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks; and No one belongs here more than you: stories by Miranda July.

It won’t be a book a day, but if I can make room for these books this summer, I may be on the road to recovery."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

After the MFA: T minus 25 days. Or, what was I thinking?

The countdown has begun.

Twenty-five days until the MFA is completed. And today I'm in that I can't wait till it's over / I never want it to end stage

Meanwhile, freelance writer Daisha Cassel interviewed me for a piece in
today's Wall Street Journal online about attending graduate school in midlife. As usual with short newsy pieces, there wasn't room for but one quote, so I took a look back at the answers I gave to Daisha a few weeks ago. Her asking me what I was thinking about before the MFA, gave me a chance to begin the process of preparing for after the MFA.

Here's an edited outtake:

On whether the MFA was something I had thought about for a awhile, or a sudden decision….

I thought about graduate school in my late 20s and again in my 30s -- business school or journalism. Then later I toyed with the idea of an MFA degree for five years before doing anything about it. When I turned 45, it suddenly became urgent.

On whether I was planning a career change…

I worked as a freelance equestrian sports journalist, and then in public relations agencies and as a freelance feature and business writer. By the time I was in my early 40s, I was doing part time research and limited freelance writing while raising young children, and looking ahead and wondering what my next move could be.

I think I knew from the outset that an MFA in creative nonfiction is a somewhat indulgent degree; it won't exclusively get one hired for anything other than an academic job and while I'm considering teaching, I'm probably most interested in magazines, literary journalism and publishing.
The MFA was more for the development of my writing muscle. I wanted a big, dramatic new challenge.

On the financial impact a degree may have on a career….

I am counting on earning an income by writing, which is more or less what I've always done. But no one needs an MFA degree for that. Still, I found the experience of working through a tough program to be good training for developing the mindset for a second career at this stage of life. Speaking strictly financially, I could earn more by returning to pubic relations rather than writing.

On full- vs. part-time vs. low-residency and how to juggle…..

I did the low-residency
Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Two weeks on campus, five times over two years; then one-on-one faculty mentoring, with deadlines every few weeks for writing, reading and annotations.

I continued to freelance, but found that the program took more of my mental energy and time than I anticipated, so I scaled back on work, though I think it's fair to say I got a bit over-invested. I decided early on that I would dive in 110 percent and make it a priority; not everyone is emotionally, logistically or financially able to do this and so I know I was very lucky.

I kept thinking, if I want this program to help effect a huge change in my life, I had better give myself over to it completely, and so I did and it's paid off – both in pushing my work to the point that it has been published in some good places (the New York Times, literary journals and anthologies) and in completely
revamping how I think of myself -- as a writer, not just someone who happens to write and get paid for it.

On combining grad school with family obligations….

When I was gone for residencies, my husband ran the house, cut short many work days, and took the boys along with him when necessary. Several of my friends pitched in too.

During the two years I was in grad school, we had a running refrain in our house, "Mom's doing schoolwork…" followed by: make your own lunch, help your brother, find a ride, figure it out yourself! I think it's been a good experience for my sons to see that education can happen at any age, and that one can change.

On balance….

As for "balance," I'm not a huge fan of that word. I doubt it's truly possible. I think at times in your life, especially when you've made a choice to pursue something, other stuff simply has to get jettisoned. I concentrated fairly singlemindedly on school for two years. It's ideal if the people around you support that; my family did, but I think they will all be slightly relieved when it ends.

On the differences this time around compared to the undergraduate degree…

Maturity is wonderful in any situation that requires prioritizing, and grad school is a fine example of that. It helps to be good at pushing aside distractions. Also, when I went to college (Syracuse University, B.S. in journalism), I never saw a bill. So student loans are new for me. The financial realities were also a factor in how aggressively I attacked the program – I wanted to get every dollar's worth.

On age (mine and other students)……

I think in general in low residency MFA programs, the average age is close to, or sometimes even over 40, and in my particular program, I was pretty close to average age. That's actually one reason I steered away from the "brick and mortar" grad school program I was admitted to, because when I visited it seemed populated by people in their 20s or early 30s.

On the challenges of a low residency program in terms of motivation, faculty involvement and participation…

A low residency program requires a self-motivated, self-disciplined student. I had already worked independently from a home office for 16 years. But it does require that you make much more of an effort to stay connected to faculty and other students; you must begin to grow and nurture your own colleague network while in the program and it's important to establish and maintain good relations with faculty members beyond what is required. It's not for everyone.

Finally, advice for returning adult students…

I wouldn't put it off for some future "better time." Life will keep unfolding no matter what. My father died during my first semester, my mother became ill during my final semester, and my sons kept growing and needing things all along – breaking bones, choosing a high school, you name it. But we all got through.

don't let age discourage. You are going to be two, four or six years older one day anyway; why not be two, four or six years older AND have a degree?

So, 25 days from now, I'll have that degree. I'm a better writer than I was when I entered the program. But the degree doesn't make it so. The experience of working on that degree – that's what's priceless.

When people (who don't write) ask me what jobs – other than teaching -- the degree will qualify me for, I've said honestly, "Not much. It's a really indulgent degree, sort of like a honeymoon I decided to take after I fell in love with writing again."

The honeymoon will soon be over. Like all wedding-related hoopla, I guess it's what happens next that will determine if, after all the expense, drama, time and energy, the day-to-day reality lives up to the honeymoon -- kind of like marriage, only this time, the relationship is between myself and my craft.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Getting Unstuck, Getting Tech-y

►From A Room of Her Own Foundation comes this terrific little piece of poetry/defiant determination, Pull The Lever, by Lauren M. Baldwin. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

you are writing what your mother didn't want you to write
you are telling secrets you were supposed to keep
you might not be that good you might get bad reviews you've never won a prize
maybe you're just an ok writer and that's all you'll ever be
nothing extraordinary just a middle class woman writing little poems and

essays and stories
that you publish in journals with a distribution of ten when you count your family members
and you don't have time
and you don't have space
and your children need you to make breakfast
need you to make a living
need a college education not a mother who's a writer living in the desert on her words
and your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your husband needs attention

I'm going to print out the entire poem and hang it over on the wall I stare at (in my own writing room, yes!) and when I'm feeling stuck I can read it, and I don't just mean stuck writing-wise.

►I'm really not tech-geeky enough even to understand them all (well maybe a half-dozen of those listed), but friends who are, tell me that the
50 Awesome Open Source Resources for Online Writers list is well, awesome. There are sites -- all free-- for submission tracking, research, formatting and organization, reference, and helpful tools including a PDF creator (#36).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Debunked memoirists, thoughtless email writers: Who's to Blame?

►Does anyone else feel as if we are all just waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the next debunked fictionalized memoir? In the meantime, you might want to read what Andrew F. Altschul has to say on the topic. Yes, Altschul has a new book to promote, which explains the timing of his remarks, but I also think he makes some interesting points about who is to blame, and it's not just the writers. It may be, or it may also be, the book buying market – meaning book buyers,

►Some time ago, a colleague "responded" to an email inquiry of mine by accidentally hitting reply and what I got, instead of an answer, were a few rude and crass remarks about me and my inquiry, which she had intended for a mutual acquaintance. (Think of intercepting a mean note about you sent from one teenage frenemy to another. Really, are we still in high school?) Instead of sending her immature ramblings to that third party, she had hit reply and it came right back to me. Oops. (Come to think of it, maybe "colleague" is no longer the word I ought to use to describe this person?) But her flub gives me the opportunity to pass along, via
Seth Godin's blog, his exacting 36-point email checklist – things to think about before hitting "send." I especially like numbers 13 and 16, about not composing emails when angry, and not putting anything in writing you wouldn't be glad to have your boss see.

In the middle of reading (skimming?): The bills, junk mail, a few magazines and reams of newspaper that piled up while finishing off my creative manuscript so that I can actually, really, and finally get that MFA. Next month. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writers' Houses, Cash Flow and the Geography of Creativity

And now, it's Mark Twain's house on the chopping block – maybe. Recently, it was Edith Wharton's house, also running out of funds. And so, I've been asking myself how much – and indeed whether – the houses of accomplished, revered writers matter. Is it important to keep them open for visitors, scholars, and tourists who have a vague recollection of having once read at least one of an author's great works or perhaps simply bored on a rainy vacation day and heeding the advice of a bed-and-breakfast owner?

I can recall being mesmerized, as a teenager, to be in Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon, but then I was equally awed standing over his grave marker. And had I known then how very little time The Bard actually spent in the Avon house, that he wrote mostly in boarding houses in dicey sections of London, I might have felt differently. Then again, I was awfully young.

When I travel, I do make an effort to stop in at any important writers' houses along the way, but usually only if they fall right in to my path; I can't say I make it an integral part of my trip, like a writer acquaintance of mine
does. I don't keep track of which and how many I've seen and nor am I devoted to the pursuit, as others seem to be. But I've been wondering lately if either I've been remiss, if the place where a writer's most intriguing work happened is more important than I've yet to understand? Surely that must be partly true, or else those who are pouring selfless amounts of time and energy into raising funds to preserve writers' abodes are missing the point and I'm pretty sure they're not.

Does it matter – to history, to modern day writers, to literature in general – where a writer composed the best work of a career? And if it does, why? For inspiration? Motivation? To allow a deeper understanding of the writer's frames of reference? For the sheer good will toward literary arts generated by a well-preserved, revered site? These are all good and noble reasons, of course. I'm just not sure shrines are the right idea when it comes to promoting a healthy appreciation of literature among the general population.

Among writers, is place paramount? What do you think?

Some writers will tell you that where one works is incidental; that the place that matters, the one you need to be in, in order to write well, is the one you create in your own head. Others insist that one's writing space is all, that without their physical surroundings, the work of some of history's best writers would have gone nowhere.

There's a distinction I suppose between where one writes – an attic office, a corner of the basement, a shared studio away from home, on the 7:10 a.m.train, on the dining room table or edge of the bed – and the home a legendary writer has inhabited for a good chunk of their most productive writing years.

I saw Margaret Mitchell's tiny table and typewriter (always covered with a cloth when not in use) on a side wall of her extremely small apartment, when I visited Atlanta for a wedding a few years ago. It was at a time when I already had an unused bedroom in my house – a real room of my own -- to write in, but felt held back by the clutter, the proximity to my kids' antics, an older computer, a cranky radiator. Excuses, of course. Seeing Mitchell's "work space," I knew that what she was looking at when she wrote Gone With The Wind was hardly as important as the place she was at in her head.

A conversation with a noted memoirist not long after that convinced me that, while I could write anywhere, why not create inside my room (which hundreds of writers would no doubt be jealous of) a writing space that fed me? And so I did, tossing out boxes of detritus from my former work life as a public relations specialist, lining the walls with bookcases, upgrading my computer and -- closing the door. No writers will ever trek to my suburban colonial as they do to the homes of literary legends, but that's okay. It works for me. I even have a window with a nice view of my little neighborhood.

Which makes me think about where writers work as much more than a room; a writer's home is also about the rhythms of their household, the outside view, the milieu of their neighborhood, the social and cultural and historical nuances of their community and region, and the natural geography in which their particular house exists. Maybe for some, seeing where a writer sat while crafting a work you admire can translate – into inspiration, understanding, and a kinship. The creative process is still mysterious to me and the influence of place is something I don't quite understand myself. Why can I write most insightfully about my family when I am away from them? Why does being isolated for a writing retreat help coax essays with pages and pages of dialogue and a cache of characters?

I'm interested in seeing where writers lived, not so much because I think I'll learn some important insight that will make me a better writer, but simply because it's fascinating, often in a strangely ironic way, to see where anyone creates anything: The horror writer looked out on a placid farming vista. The author of romantic sagas had a cemetery out their back gate. The science fiction writer refused to move up from legal pads to an electric typewriter. The author of children's' books about animals barred pets from her writing nook.

But I'm equally entranced by visiting historic houses of the non-literary. The inventor of the telegraph machine which enabled Morse Code transmissions? His house revealed no more technological advances than any other house of the times, yet one has to wonder if perhaps the self-sufficient, closed world of his family's enclave, encompassing house, farm, and factory, fueled his desire to devise a way to move at least messages beyond the fences that bordered their hundreds of acres?

Do I think I'll be a better writer from walking the same floorboards as Twain or Wharton? No more than an amateur musician thinks they'll hit gold because they saw Graceland. But I still want to walk that floor, touch that desk, look out that window. And I can't precisely say why.

Still, it it hadn't landed in the pages of the New York Times, I probably wouldn't notice if the houses of some of America's most revered literary artists were, one by one, foreclosed, sold, turned into condos, or a pricey rehab center (all possibilities having been mentioned). Perhaps I should be embarrassed about that, but I also don't think I'm alone; unless one is a huge fan of a particular writer, the location, even the continued existence of their home, much less whether it's open for visitors, is probably unknown to you. And while I'd rather see these sites remain open, I'll probably be more likely, with my very limited funds earmarked for literary pursuits, to buy another book or book myself at another writing conference, rather than donate to the cause. Do I hope some deep-pocketed foundation or institution or individual more reverential or civic-minded than I saves these houses? You bet.

But I do wonder: Would all the time, energy, money and effort that would have to be poured into such a feat, do just slightly more good if it were targeted at getting people – not just writers – to read the works that were once written there?