Monday, July 22, 2013

The Good, the Bad, the Uncomfortable: The MFA, Five Years Later

This weekend, while I was doing nothing writerly -- okay, I did take notes for a future essay while in a gorgeous hotel that reminded me of traveling with my parents -- a guest essay of mine was posted on the Stonecoast Community Blog.  

It's my take on what's happened for me, and more importantly, what has not (yet?) happened in the five years since I graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program, and why both matter.

I hope it instigates some thoughtful questions for writers anywhere along the MFA trajectory--before, during, upon completion and several years out.

In part, the post reads:
Some of the mile markers I had originally set for myself upon graduation—maybe overly hopeful, surely overly confident—simply fell away. Others got moved further into the future. Most are in a constant state of revision. Getting from one point to the next was, is, taking longer than I liked. But as one year sloughed into the next, and X hadn’t happened on schedule, I watched myself respond with less of the judgment that is my initial self-critical reflex. Instead: 'Oh, not now? Okay, next year will be fine too. Or the next.'
So, some days, I don’t mind at all.
I’m not lazy or apathetic, but understanding that what seemed so clear to me in 2008 was an illusion, has been freeing, until suddenly, it isn’t. Like one day last month...
You can read the entire post here.

What about you?  Did you complete an MFA program several years ago, and looked back? I'd love to hear, in comments.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 19, 2013 Edition

Just a few links, because it's too hot here to even think. 

> Love brief writing? I just discovered Two Paragraphs.

> Need ideas to promote and market your blog? Here are 50.

> As usual, the Rights of Writers blog has good advice, this time on writing your own story without impinging on the rights of others.

> Finally, such fun: the 9 Stages of Grieving Over Your Rejected Writing Submission.  Because be honest, we do these things.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Old Habits, New Habits, Weight Loss and Writing

I often use my yo-yo weight gains/losses  as an example of what happens when old habits are invited back into one's life after a period of successfully developing new ones. In my adult life, I've lost (and gained back) considerable amounts of weight (60,80, 90 pounds) five separate times. I know how to lose it, and I do. I shop, cook, eat, exercise, dine out, and even begin thinking in ways that support the weight loss, and for a time, the maintenance of that loss. 

Then I get complacent, over-confident -- lazy. I let old habits back in, even in the face of successful new ones.

For writers struggling to develop and maintain good writing habits and reliable writing routines, this is a cautionary tale. For a while -- maybe you're in a class or graduate school program, or part of a writers group or other well-planned structure that comes with built-in accountability, deadlines and productivity milestones -- you stick to the writing routine. Pages proliferate. You get in a groove, maybe banish old procrastination habits, start new ones, understand and keep the few that already work. You're on a roll.

Then you get complacent, overconfident--lazy.  The old habits arrive, sometimes by surprise, sometimes not.

If I had the "answer" to this problem, I'd be rich -- and thin.

I only know this: new habits require diligence.  And, one other thing.  Those new habits -- writing related or weight related -- won't stick unless they are designed to take into account one's very unique, personal, individual life circumstances:  body rhythms, tastes, likes/dislikes, obligations, job/family, physical limitations, time availability, interests, etc.

Which is why I'm sending everyone I know --whether they are battling the scale or the blank screen (or running from either) -- over to Ruth Foley's blog.  Ruth's a poet, teacher and literary magazine editor (who earned an MFA at Stonecoast, as I did).  And, Ruth's lost 100 pounds. And, Ruth has posted 100 tips/stories/reasons about how she lost the weight and is keeping it off.

It's clear from reading her posts that Ruth understands about creating new habits in a way that honors her own body, mind, life, interests, inclinations, and family/home/work situation.  She explains the habits she adopted, adapted, created, tossed, embraced, tried out.  Her posts are a great combination of common sense, uncommon insight, practicality, innovation, motivation, and compassion. 

Ruth so clearly understands that it's in making small, big, sensible, simple, dramatic, major, minor, expected and unexpected changes, that humans develop the ability to create what they want. To me, her posts (broken into 10 tips at a time) are a valuable resource not only for those interested in weight loss, but for anyone trying to create a workable approach to any daily practice -- such as writing.  (And of course, Ruth is a good writer, so...bonus!).

Start here with #1-10.  Or begin with the final ten and work your way back.  Or find them all in one place.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 12, 2013 Edition

> Do you talk (and post/tweet/write) about your long-range work-in-progress?  Or are you in the camp that stays mum so as not to jinx the project?

> Wise post from Julianna Baggott about not getting carried away when you get a debut book deal. Take-away: "Protect your relationship with the page, at all costs, because no matter how the publishing industry defines your role, there’s one place you’re always a writer. The desk. Your long-term relationships is with words on a page."

> Just learned that New Pages (a terrific resource for listings of literary journals) also has a page with alphabetical listing of writers' blogs.

> Speaking of journals - does being published in a print or online journal help a writing career more? (Good stuff in the comments.)

> Memoirist Anthony D'Aries, wrestling with the after-effects of writing about family, on Marion Roach's blog: "In memoir, we live the epilogue."

> Later this summer, I'll be part of a writing program for talented teens. Another member of the teaching team, screenwriter Carol Forbes, has a cool blog where she offers up a daily photo prompt and encouragement for teen girls who write.

> My favorite writing "tools" to pack when leaving home are a slim spiral bound notebook and a smooth gel pen (total cost, about $3). That's because I like writing by hand.

> Narrator "likability" in nonfiction: Does it matter?  Jennifer Niesslein reports in The Virginia Quarterly Review.

> At The Millions, a round-up of notable books headed our way in the second half of 2013, including a novel in rhyming iambic pentameter from the late David Rakoff.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Guest Blogger John Merson on Writing Memoir About War and its Personal Aftermath

In my experience, related people and topics tend to show up which at first seem random, but after a time, the connections and meanings emerge. A couple of years ago, a student appeared in the nonfiction continuing education class I teach at Rutgers University -- a retired physician writing about his experience as an Army medic in the 1950s Korean Conflict. Having never before worked with a writer on this kind of memoir material, I think it is safe to say we learned from one another – and continue to, as he develops more meaningful narratives and I get the pleasure of seeing his work bloom.

Last year, I was asked to help edit a memoir by a severely injured Iraq war veteran, a project that is ongoing; with each new chapter, I learn more about parsing the multi-layered nuances of trauma. Thus my education in first person writing about war and its aftermath continues. Along the way, I've added key books to my memoir reading list.

Which brings us to how quickly I headed straight for John Merson's spot, when I saw his book, published by an imprint of Random House, propped up on the Local Authors table a couple of weeks ago at the Nantucket Book Festival.

Please welcome John Merson.

Teaching a writing class for second graders means expecting the unexpected question. The session was in Brooklyn at the Explore Charter School in February, just after students had finished writing their own stories and publishing them in a class book. One curious eight-year-old asked, “Have you considered writing realistic fiction?”

“No,” I answered, “because my memory is better than my imagination.”

But her question wouldn’t go away.  I began to think maybe I might have more freedom with a novelistic treatment of my subject, the Vietnam war.

My last book, War Lessons: How I Fought to be a Hero and Learned that War is Terror, was a memoir of what I experienced as a foot soldier in Vietnam, and later as a frequent visitor to the country over eighteen years afterward. The book was the surprise result of another unexpected question, this time at my 40th college reunion.

One classmate, recalling our freshman-year study of the Crusades, asked, “Why is it that the West is once again at war with Islam?”

The year was 2006, US forces had invaded and occupied both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I had just returned from my tenth trip to Vietnam. The first was in 1966, when I began a tour of duty as a marine infantry “grunt.” For the next thirteen months, I had a worm’s-eye view of the ground war in Vietnam, living with villagers whose lives were not so different from the farmers and ranchers for whom I had worked while growing up in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. We brought the war into their homes, schools, and rice paddies, gradually forcing them to side with our enemy.

Forty years later, I confronted the damage I had done. My classmate’s question became, for me, a question about the results of war. Having personally endured the years-long process of recovery from war, beginning when I was still in Vietnam, and following my return from duty, I could see that war hadn’t solved any problems, but only made them worse.

Motivated by wanting to explain this to my reunion classmates, I wrote a short story about an actual 1967 incident in which my platoon killed nearly twenty unarmed villagers during a night ambush in Dai Loc. The aftermath of the massacre reverberated throughout my life: during the end of my tour, while returning home, and over the years and decades spent finishing college and graduate school, getting married, going to work, becoming a parent, divorcing and re-marrying, and finally coming back to Vietnam. 

On my first return trip to Vietnam in 1995, Dai Loc was the only place where I had once fought, that I visited.  The site had been made into a war memorial, listing all the names of Dai Loc villagers killed between 1945 and 1975, the years of the struggle for independence.

This experience of revisiting the scene of the original incident became the fulcrum on which I constructed my memoir. I had first tried a thematic approach in which each chapter of the book was devoted to a lesson I had learned, but comments from readers of a draft indicated that this structure was confusing. As a result, I switched to a more chronological story line in the next draft, starting with my arrival in Vietnam in 1966 as a very green and scared infantry scout, moving through my tour in Vietnam, my return to the US, and finally my trips back in Vietnam between 1995 and 2006. The chronological approach worked much better for readers of later drafts, since they understood how and why I had learned the lessons I was describing. The entire writing process took less than a year.

Still, the climax of the story was the massacre, where I was forced to confront the central truth of my experience as a foot soldier: that I was the instrument of destruction for the villagers of Dai Loc. What had led me to that night? Why had I volunteered to fight in Vietnam? I had gone to war with dreams of becoming the hero I thought my father and uncle had been, so why had fighting in Vietnam not made me any stronger or more able to confront the challenges in my life? Understanding the mistakes I had made, how could I make amends?

On subsequent trips to Vietnam between 1995 to 2006, I worked with government officials, tech industry leaders, young Vietnamese who had grown up after the fighting had ended, and with American veterans who had returned to Vietnam to remedy the damage done by the massive American bombing of civilian targets. On one trip, I learned about a project in Quang Tri that clears unexploded bombs, providing new land for farmers. I had spent my boyhood working on farms not endangered by bombs, and so I had found the right project to support with my modest book royalties and speaking fees.

The memoir I wrote weaves two distinct threads -- learning to be a soldier, and finding a way to recover from war. The second graders in my writing class taught me that writing a memoir might be a first step but not the last word.

Note:  You can read excerpts from John's book here.  Some resources and links to information about teaching and writing initiatives, organizations, conferences and classes for veterans:  Warrior WritersWriters Guild Foundation Military Writers Workshop, Veterans Writing Project (featured in this New York Times article, and Veterans Voices). Other programs are underway at many colleges, including at Syracuse University.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 5, 2013 Edition

> Alice Munro says she's done writing, and you can put money on it. In the same interview she also says "probably". At 82, she's entitled, either way. What a body of work.

> I stand with Edward Kelsey Moore. Never too old to be a debut author. Never.

> On the New York Times  Opinionator blog's "Draft" column, Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction (the magazine, and some say, Godfather of the genre), writes  about the art of listening during in-person interviews, useful for any writer who sits down with a source. 

> It's like Writer TV!  Store this link from Aerogramme Writers' Studio to watch TED talks by and for writers. Catch Amy Tan, Billy Collins, Isabel Allende and ten others (via @CNFonline).

> I often work in a semi-lit room. Maybe--aside from being a cheapskate and/or too lazy to get up and turn on more lights when the sun goes down--I intuited that dim lighting spurs creativity?

> Elizabeth Gilbert's return to novel writing is getting folks excited, and if this book trailer for her upcoming release, The Signature of All Things, is any indication, I'm in.

> Been enjoying catching up with Jessica Morrell's blog, including this post about why she writes. Favorite line: "I just realized that the worst that can happen is that I can be rejected—been there. Didn’t feel good; but the sting of rejection fades and you wake up to discover you’re still writing." If you wander over there, check out her list of "25 Reasons Why Manuscripts are Rejected."

> Erika Robuck, author of the novels Hemingway's Girl and Call Me Zelda, in the spirit of solidarity with writers who are feeling the sting of rejection, offers up some of her worst reviews. Scroll the comments, where other authors chime in with theirs. (And if you're not subscribed to Bill and Dave's blog, you're missing other great Bad Advice Wednesdays.)

> Some pics of great women writers at work.  My office used to look like Anne Sexton's, but now it's more like Agatha Christie's -- a simple table floating before bookshelves and (outer) calm.

> Finally, literature I like overlaps with what my husband and teenage sons read, watch, know, understand, live, eat, breathe.  What dost I speaketh of? Why William Shakespeare's Star Wars.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Notes From the Third Row: Nantucket Book Festival, Part II

A bit more about my activities at the Nantucket Book Festival in late June. To get the whole story, visit my previous post.

Also heard, seen, experienced...

> At a panel on The First Novel, four debut novelists whose books are gathering heaps of positive press, awards, and reader response, renewed my faith in the joy of savoring the breakthrough literary moment.  Among NoViolet Bulawayo, Alex Gilvarry, Madeline Miller, and Vaddey Ratner, none had depressing tales of having submitted to dozens of agents or collecting impersonal rejections. Indeed, this seemed like a group with a Midas touch, but all sounded grateful, a little stunned at their books' successes, humble.

All four talked about being so very committed to their writing and persevering long before submission even became possible --  one ditched an entire draft and rewrote from scratch; another worked on multiple drafts for 10-plus years; another wrote on even though the idea of anyone else being interested in the subject matter seemed laughable at times; one wrote in secret, not sure the manuscript would ever be done.

> I am now surprisingly interested in Bunker Hill (the book) and Boston's role in the American Revolution, thanks to historical nonfiction author Nathaniel Philbrick.

> One of the highlights of my time there was strolling the local authors' tent on the library lawn, where traditionally published authors shared table space with self-published. Many had written (and photographed or illustrated) books about Nantucket's people, history, culture, art, geography, seasons. Without a podium, microphone, and timetable, conversation swelled. Here, I picked up a signed book for my weather-geek son, met an affable poet and his lovely daughter, extended a blog post invite to a war memoirist, and bought a novel almost purely because I was intrigued by the artisanal expertise of the main character (sure, the author is a friend of a friend, but I don't part with book money just for that reason!)

> Finally, how cool is it that the owner of Nantucket's two bookstores, who is the founder of the Festival, asked all authors to sign the inside of an orange Penguin Volkswagon Beetle?

This is part of a very occasional series in which I pass on some tidbits I've gleaned from sitting in the audience at one literary event or another.