As many of you know, I began a MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts this summer. Five times I will travel to Santa Fe for a week-long residency, and during the four semesters, I will work online with the nonfiction mentor I have been assigned (Melissa Febos) and the four other folks in the group.
Sherman Alexie is a big supporter of this program, and he and the director, Jon Davis, have been cooking up ways for Alexie to take a more active role that also accommodates his busy schedule. So, two weekend intensives have been organized as well as Skype sessions. I cannot travel to Santa Fe or Seattle for the workshops, and I was reluctant to sign up for a session. My reasons:
1) It’s individual – meaning I cannot hide behind other student writers. It’s just me and Alexie, talking.
2) I didn’t want to take the spot from people who might not have had access to writers of Sherman’s caliber, experience, and perspective,
3) I’m intimidated (I’m listing this again in case it’s not clear in point number 1).
A friend told me to go ahead and sign up anyway. My guts coiled at the thought. But, I’ve done it. I will send Alexie 20 pages a week before and then he will read my work and we will talk about it. Doesn’t that sound terrifying? And what I do want his help with? Being funny. How to strike the balance between pain and laughter. How to honor the stories of people you love and not mock them. To me, this seems like a tall order. But he does it in his work. And I want to in mine. I want to be able to find the right focus, of highlighting surprise, of the freshness of new flowers emerging from the decomposing leaves, of people and their resilience.
Now, I have to decide which of the currently muddled new pages to send to him. Yikes. But it’s just me and Alexie, talking. As terrifying and human as that.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
I haven’t written a blog since I started my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Life has been busy! But, I am thoroughly engaged by this program, by the caliber of the faculty and the teaching, and by the incredibly warm-hearted general vibe.
We had many craft talks, where a member of the faculty shared insights on a specific aspect of the writing life. Here are a few of the highlights from Marie-Helene Bertino’s talk. Later this same day, she read from her new novel, 2 am in the Cat’s Pajamas, newly released. She’s a rich writer and a generous human: in other words, a true inspiration.
Marie-Helene offered such a charming, hands on approach to the writing process as well as living the writer’s life. As she said, “I’m going to give you the nitty gritty practical: looking at a line the way a mechanic looks at a car.” She emphasized that studying craft is a process entirely different than focusing on the literary themes and symbols; analyzing the themes of a work doesn’t help us learn to write. One aspect of her talk I appreciated is the honesty of how long things take. The fact that she shared that it took her ten years to complete her novel depicted a realistic picture of the writing life, especially for novels. And in the process of creating and revising over this extended time period, we have to learn to manage our crippling self doubt.
Marie-Helene’s homage to her mother nicely informed the talk. What her mother offered both by example and by actual, specific support was delightful. All of the guidelines offered were extremely useful; the biggest moment of resonation came when she discussed finding your one true voice. This helps me commit to some of the material I have been avoiding. In listening to my true voice I have been both listening to and avoiding, two aspects of this portion of her talk were of particular help: 1) cultivating the ability to sit and be quiet so I can dial into what the story wants and 2) in cultivating your own true voice and ability to sit quietly, learn to address the human being as well as the writing.
Other nuggets: Listen to what the work is asking for. Be serving the work. Listen to the connective tissue of the work and trust the process.
Her set of revision questions offered me wonderful points of entry for strengthening our work: What else could I be doing? Am I being efficient and creative? What am I not thinking of? How have I seen this written? Challenge yourself to do in new ways: put yourself into the mind frame of how can I do this differently? If writing a sex scene: a little goes a long way. When writing the loud things: sex, violence, racism, make sure they are working for you rather than them working you.
I loved her discussion of point of view – it made me want to instantly read Henry James to develop my ability to identify the tone of the voice of the omniscient narrator. Again, that distance between the writer and the narrator is where I think my biggest growth in terms of craft will happen.
Another salient point: Don’t be scared to fly; figure out what you’re avoiding in your own work; dig in. The other aspect of this is to dive into what you’re bad at, write two pages of what you’re scared to write. There are quite a few on this list I could “encounter.”