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.
On High Alert for Rhetorical Tics
Ticks are gross; they take up residence and suck your blood, often without you being aware of them.
Rhetorical tics are a little less gross, but can have an equal impact on a narrative, sucking it of vitality. Growing up in the very rural landscape of Mendocino County, I had my fair share of ticks. Apparently, I’m also prone to the other kind, the ones that are slyly working their way under the skin of the narrative, gorging themselves on the story’s lifeblood.
I’ve written my second novel, One Man Reservation, three times now, and a series of trusted readers have consistently given me the same feedback: more action, less thinking, and a more finessed sense of landscape. Since the book started out as memoir, it might be taking me longer than many people to get the required objectivity on the work (and which part of the dope-growing, pistol-wielding, student-kissing is true, I’m loathe to share).
Since much of the feedback concerns the action – or lack thereof – or thinking in the wrong places, I decided to take one big humble pill and do a search for certain words I sense I rely on too much. (See the note at the bottom of the page for specific directions on how to do this). Despite the chagrin I feel about STILL HAVING TO LEARN THIS ISSUE, I will share with you the sad, sad findings. Here’s the tic tally:
- “remember” 56 times
- “imagine” 43 times
- “thought” 89 times
- “think” 89 times
- “wonder” 45 times
- “reach” 45 times (Zane is often “reaching” toward other characters with her thoughts)
- “urge” 31 times
- “wonder” 25 times (oh, please, Zane – stop wondering!)
and the most startling finding:
-195 instances of felt (although I have yet to dig further and see how many of these are synonyms of touch)
I have worked through two of these tics, reducing “remember” to 11 and “imagine” to 6. This is only one small aspect of the required changes, but it’s a start.
And for a writing teacher that constantly encourage students to make sure to include a visceral quality in their work, I doubly cringe at this: in a draft that has over 68,000 words it appears there are only six tastes and one touch (but, again – maybe those are some of the “felt.” Please, let’s hope that’s what is going on). Refreshingly, there are 34 smells and 62 references to something being “heard.”
I’m grateful to the readers who slogged through all that thinking and feeling and imaging, humbled by their persistence in a narrative with so little action, decision, and consequences. And even if I didn’t feel beholden to the characters in One Man Reservation, I’d need to return to the work, revising, revising, revising, because of the faith shown to the work by these early readers. I’ll get rid of those tics, so the story can live more fully. So help me, I will.
(To complete your own tic findings, follow these steps:
1. In word, open up your document
2. Under the “edit” function, open the “find” option
3. Once this tab is open, choose “replace”
4. This will open up a window on the left-hand side of your document that allows you to search for specific words).
5. Have fun and take a few deep breaths to see what your patterns are.)