This blog post is a summary of a panel I attended last January for my MFA in nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts. This presentation dove into the subject of writing about one’s own life for both fiction and nonfiction. The audience was deeply encouraged to put the concern of how people will receive and respond to the work aside during the first draft. If we worry about the material when it will be out in the larger world, we are not giving the story its best chance. Melissa Febos emphasized we need to not censor our work in the process of creating it. For her, she works to find her biggest, most uncomfortable questions and then tries to write her way to those answers. We’ll have time later to consider what should stay in and what should come out. Melissa added that, “Chases out the things I have been hiding from in my mind.” Elissa Washuta opened with this great nugget: in the two different process of writing and publication, we will change the work greatly and there is enough time for us to consider what should stay in the work and what should not.
Then a discussion followed about how each writer creates a complicated and compelling persona/narrator on the page. It is important to remember that we will never be able to represent our full selves on the page. Melissa put it this way: (and my, how helpful these words were) pluck out a single thread within the work and consider the version of yourself defined by a single thread of pursuit – Ask yourself: what am I chasing? And are the scenes revealing this chase? Once a single thread is identified, search for what to leave out and the surprising news is that we might need to leave out almost everything.
Regarding audience and writing about people in our lives, it was suggested that a consistent voice was one of the most important ways to engage them. For Melissa, she thinks of one person she might be writing for, and often, this person is a younger version of herself, offering something that might have provided resonance and meaning to that younger person. For Elissa, she tries to implicate herself more than anyone else. She stated that, “The narrator’s culpability makes for more interesting reading.”
This makes me remember a thought from the writer/priest Frederick Buchener – he says that the phrase, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” needs to be flipped – to love thyself as thy neighbor because we often treat others in our lives with more compassion than we do ourselves – and to show compassion to all the various selves we’ve been along the way – and if those selves are unseemly, all the more call to show compassion.
This past week, I attended the fourth residency of my MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. And again, what an incredible rich set of offerings. I began feeling pretty low about the memoir I’ve been working on—it is worth it? Do I have the skills to tell a compelling narrative? Do I understand enough about the story I’m drafting to complete a 120-page thesis? Even though I had excellent insight and feedback from my third semester mentor, Elissa Washuta, I was experiencing the typical memoir blues.
On the first night, a conversation with Marie Helene Bertino helped me understand how important confidence is to finding one’s voice. And feeling lost is a huge part of the journey. Then, for lunch the second day, I sat next to Manuel Gonzales who reminded me that we have to write 5-7 drafts before we begin to understand what we’re writing about.
That night, I had the honor of introducing one of the evening readers Lidia Yuknavitch. I’d heard her speak at AWP last year, and this experience was transformative. And she certainly delivered, opening our hearts with honesty and vulnerability, and healing us through craft and insight. Her talk helped restore some of the initial spark I felt when I started this memoir.
I was feeling stronger about my material, and being in workshop with Melissa Febos was a big part of this. She would often ask us, “What stood out as high topography” in the given piece we were discussing. This simple question helped me strengthen my revision sensibilities–I’ve written over 250 pages while in this program, but what should stay and what is left to be written?
I attended craft talks about what it means to be a part of a Native-writers focused program and how we can learn to deal with cultural conflict in the classroom. Other topics included how to deal with competition, how to make the personal public, and writing as a healing act, Natalie Handel.
I also watched two films: Drunktown’s Finest, written and directed by Sydney Freeland and Imperial Dreams, co-written by Ismet Prcic. All of these experiences, along with the side conservations between talks and at meals, helped me gain traction on the material.
The final craft talk and reading was offered by Joy Harjo, and, of course, she shared so much that was instructive and resonant, with the top take away being that healthy systems need movement, and memory is a system, and in writing memories, they will change, and that is part of the point.
I left feeling restored and connected and part of something powerful and important. I am grateful for this program and the level of insight it offers again and again. If you are looking for a MFA program, put this one at the top of your list. The deadline to apply is February 1.
I recently received an email from a student, with this question, "How difficult is it to enter into the publishing world for a writer? I understand and accept that it's a competitive field, but would a GOOD writer have very extreme amounts of difficulty selling a work which deserves publication?"
It's not surprising if you've never been given a straight answer because being published is such tricky business, especially as the industry changes so much. I do believe that if a writer consistently works to improve his/her craft and is relentless about improving the craft and submitting work, he/she will get published. Starting small is helpful - stories or essays in journals/lit magazine helps build one's confidence and craft - those are important carrots to weave into one's writing life. There are probably 1,500 people in the US, apart from screenwriters, who make their livings as writers, and this includes folks who are wildly successful such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. Most writers have a day job . . .
This may be super frustrating to read, but being in it for the process, rather than the publication, is probably helpful. It has helped me focus on healthy factors I can control:
-finding joy in figuring out plot and character, line and image
-creating a community of people who are also committed to process and actually hone their craft
Then, the publications I have had become side benefits, not the focus. It's not an easy shift, but it's made all the difference.
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.”
Glissando: “Derived from the French glisser, to slide, the Italianised word is used to describe sliding in music from one note to another.”
When I was in my first graduate program, I struggled to bring forth By Way of Water (it was called The Wall of the Pacific then—a phrase that has found a new home in my current novel, One Man Reservation). One key aspect of the story involves how the main character, Justy, could image and be in the realities of her parents. Specifically, in a given scene, readers “slide” with Justy to other locations, other moments where her parents are but she is not, physically. Whether she does this out of clairvoyance or arrogance is not clear, but I knew this was essential for the book I wanted, and maybe even needed, to write.
One day, while meeting with my thesis advisor, she told me I couldn’t do this: I was breaking the rules when it came to point-of-view. And this wasn’t allowed.
Recently, while working on One Man, I came across the term, glissando. I read the definition with a sense of deep relief. This is what happens in my first book.
As I think back to the me that sat in her office taking in the comment, I wish, for us both, she had said, “You’re breaking rules and you’re not doing it well. Let’s talk about why this is important to us and how you could do this better.” I graduated six months after my classmates, after my thesis advisor grudgingly accepted the draft of the book with these shifts in point-of-view.
In essence, a conversation that focused on the difference between story and craft would’ve helped; a little more time spent on how to move between these two aspects of writing might’ve illuminated the craft problems for us both. I needed to earn the write to make the shifts in point-of-view seamless and credible. This is something I hope to remember as I continue to teach, to mentor, and to bring new, well-crafted narratives into the world.
My mom is an excellent cook. She bakes magnificent pies: chocolate cream, coconut cream, apple, lemon merengue, and my favorite, blackberry. She makes the crust from scratch, cutting the flour into the butter with a patient, knowing hand. For the merengue, she cracks each egg into a separate bowl first, making sure not even the tiniest bit of shell might find its way into the mix. My mom taught me all this, and I didn’t pay enough attention when I was younger, my impatience for all the sequenced steps nonexistent.
Austin Community College offers a national poetry and fiction prize, and this year the winners were Natalie Diaz and Hannah Pylvӓinen. Both authors visited Creative Writing classes and offered insights into the process and into their work. Natalie’s collection, When My Brother was an Aztec, is a powerful body of poems exploring family and the impacts of addiction. Hannah’s first novel, We Sinners, explores the ways family and religion come to bear on the lives of seven siblings, trying to live out the values of a very traditional and conservative faith. Family, that delicate shell that shapes us, rose to the surface of their visit.
I was fascinated that Hanna does not discuss her family’s response to her writing. She pointed out that the question of whether or not one’s fiction is based on ‘real life’ is a question that is most often asked of women writers, not of men. She also suggested that academia has a tendency to marginalize or mock people of faith and that was a dynamic she didn’t want to participate in.
I admire her responses; it helps me understand some of my gut reactions to the implicit judgments whirling around me during graduate school. For people of a lower socio-economic status, college often asks us to change our behavior, our attitudes, our relationship to the people we come from. At the time, I didn’t have the confidence nor the insight to put a finger on these re-negotiations of identity being asked of me. The emergence from my family cut both of us a little, leaving bits of eggshell in all of our ingredients, a measure of grit in our relationships.
Hannah’s comments helped me travel back to the self I was in graduate school (and undergraduate, too, if I want to take the long view) and have some compassion for the ways I might’ve chosen to identify with the dominant culture I was being immersed in rather than the family, the place, the many minority cultures I came from (rural, poor, Jehovah Witnesses, mixed-blood).
Perhaps I can offset some of my chagrin at ways I may have decided to swim in the academic, superior mindset by reminding myself that I have consistently put these minority cultures at the forefront of my writing. Hannah’s comments can help me fine tune my approaches, help me earn the write to pen the people I come from. Another writer’s perspective can allow me to handle the self’s delicate shell with a bit more grace.
I recently traveled to Boston for the Digital Media Learning Conference where I’d been transformed by the ways we need to change how we think about learning, engagement, and community. New phrases, new approaches, new strategies whirl in my head as I think about ways to open to what students have to teach me and how I create more bridges to them and their learning.
I also have new-found respect for my daughter and her relationship to technology—rather than feeling like technology is driving a wedge between our opportunities for connection, I am committed to joining her explorations. We can learn together, and she can be the expert, teaching me to embrace alternate ways of engaging. I can teach her about deeper reflection about the worlds she is falling into (specifically Minecraft) as well as discernment about how she consumes technology. The session, Complexities and Contradictions – Examining Girls’ Participation in Digital Media Programs, revealed the importance of my daughter (and all learners) creating with technology, whether its making movies or digital stories or games or apps. During this coming summer, I plan to work with Hope on creating a digital story – subject and style to be determined by her, letting the process link us together as we unite in the process of creating.
As parent, teacher and citizen, these ideas rise to the surface of my awareness:
We must cultivate confidence in all people—this is the key to engagement. Three frames that Zumix grounds their work in:
What if we started each class with those frames? Or each night we can sat down to dinner, what if we discussed our days in terms of what “I can/I create/I connect”? Would we have different kinds of classroom discussions as well as family links?
Confidence in our days—This be one way to foster empowerment and engagement. I’m going to try to create deeper, stronger, more visible pathways to confidence and connection.
This spring semester, I am teaching a Digital Storytelling class - I'm learning a lot and it's cool to embrace technology to explore story and meaning. Here is my second piece - I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Last night, I attended a workshop called “Embodying the Muse: Where Creativity and Spiritual Awakening Converge.” We had an intimate group, and my anxiety was definitely present even though I know that engaging, listening, and connecting to the body are key activities in creativity, in letting go of hyper-vigilance. I even talk about this in my classes.
In fact, here’s something I wrote last week for an online course:
I think part of the problem lies with Descartes’ famous statement: “I think, therefore, I am.” To me, this radical demarcation between thought and the knowledge of the body has emphasized the power and privilege of thought rather than giving us all, and writers in particular, a place to explore and connect with the knowledge of the body. Put another way, our stories come through our lived experiences, the sounds, smells, tastes, touches, sights we have gone through – the visceral is our most direct route to the stories, poems, plays we’d like to write.
I believe this to be true, but to dive into my own viscerality, to actually experience my body’s knowledge, awkwardness, and fear—that’s another matter. It’s not just being vulnerable, which is HUGE, but there’s some class anxiety as well. I think I’ll dive into the relationship between class anxiety and body work in another post – there’s plenty to explore.
In essence, the workshop was incredibly profound (yes, I did the exercises despite my reluctance) – and the insight that rides forefront today comes from the idea that I get to be as big as I am. I’m guessing for many people, this concept is about taking up space, inviting all the different aspects of themselves into their everyday, but for me, this idea connects to my first memory:
My father is on top of my mother, hitting her. We’re all in the kitchen; she’s under him and my brother and sisters are yelling for him to stop. Me? I’m tucked into a corner, maybe trying to look away.
Ever since that night, I’ve been told I was the weak one—skittish like a badly broken horse. In a hard scrabble existence, I became known as the delicate child, prone to stomach aches and tears.
Last night, I was able to let myself, through time, let that three-year-old be as small as she was – she didn’t need to be bigger than those few days under her belt. She gets to be tiny, frightened, confused. Not pretending that she’s bigger than she actually was will allow me to relax a little, let me soften into what my body was communicating to me in that moment. I was little, I was scared, and if I acknowledge that, maybe I can now be bigger and less scared. Like relaxing a half-tensed muscle by finally engaging it fully, a fuller self can greet each day, both as big and as small as I am.
One of my projects is another book – I’m not sure yet whether it’ll be memoir or fiction. There are pros and cons to each genre, and topping the list of considerations is the impact on my family—especially my daughter, Hope—if I choose to stick with memoir. I’m sure I’ll explore this decision in future posts, but for now, here’s one possible chapter.
Hope’s suggested steps for having a child:
1) First, go to a hockey game.
2) Then you meet at a Valentine’s Party.
3) Grab a box of chocolates and the nearest bouquet.
4) Suddenly, find yourself in a fancy restaurant (you are transported).
5) Move in together.
6) But always sleeping the other way.
7) Expand the house.
8) Make a spa room.
9) Tell ghost stories to each other at night; have trouble going to sleep.
10) The wife starts to buy new bras.
11) The man starts to buy new underwear.
12) Try to get into the Olympics; don’t make it.
13) Buy a dog; housebreak it.
14) Finally, marry.
15) Go to Hawaii for your honeymoon; the plane breaks down—be rescued by a ship.
16) Get to Hawaii. Think is it over rated. Go back home.
17) Make a garden. Plant fruit trees.
18) Buy toys for the kid.
19) Buy diapers, bibs, bottles, finally, a crib.
20) Get condoms in case you’re not ready.
21) Then do it a couple of times with the condoms.
22) Have sex without a condom.
23) People call the lady fat.
24) She starts having pressure.
25) Go to the hospital. Lie down while maids talk to their boyfriends.
26) Finally, have the baby. Think it looks like an over-sized prune.
27) The kid will grow up and go to a hockey game . . .