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 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.”
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.
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.
This morning, I took Caridad Svich to the airport: we talked about her trip to Cuba during the Clinton administration, what she saw, what she taught, what she’d like to return to see. Last night I had dinner with her and Amparo Garcia-Crow, and it was my privilege to listen to these amazing playwrights, songwriters, translators, women discuss their craft, their loves, their challenges and joys. Prior to dinner, Caridad gave a brilliant talk about her work, specifically her play about the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, The Way of Water (and yes, I was a fan of the play before I heard her speak about it, simply because of the title).
My notes include from last night include:
-write outside yourself to know yourself
-write outside and inside yourself
-we have the means to tell the important stories
The third point really hit home: in this country, we have the means, the time, the latitude, the camaraderie, to delve into what really matters. For Caridad, this means an exploration of activism and artistry and the very important choice of whom we choose to put at the center of our work. In The Way of Water, two primary characters are fishermen, men raised on the Gulf, now poisoned by the spill. With no interest in leaving what has become a deep connection to the water that informs their lives, one of them faces his impending death with a clarity and insight that makes the heart break – with the true eloquence of the vernacular, the play gives us the human struggle still unfolding along the Gulf. In June 2012, a NoPassport theatre alliance international reading scheme for the play sustained 50 readings between April 3-June 4. In real time, actors and directors across the globe engaged in this work, diving into the material with a passion and a commitment, blogging regularly to sustain one another.
We have the means to tell the stories that matter, to reach inside our readers and engage the empathy muscle. I will remember this as I revise and as I teach. Storytelling matters – it’s part of us, and it might be the necessary means to weave our world together to create a more coherent narrative for all.
Amparo Garcia-Crow is the host of The Living Room: Storytime for Grownups, which takes places the first Saturday of each month at Galaxy Studios.