Sunday, April 27, 2014

Leaping toward MFA

It has been an exciting ride from the moment I decided to apply for low-residency MFA programs in Creative Writing up to this moment-- a relative lull in the process-- in which I can rest in the knowledge that I've set up everything I can so far, including travel to the first residency in August. I have received such encouragement and support from friends, family, and peers, as well as from the two programs (the only two to which I applied) that accepted me for the summer of 2014. It was a difficult decision, but I ultimately decided on my alma mater, knowing that either program would be an amazing opportunity and solid place to grow.

Aside from the standard worries about money, I am not nervous about anything at this point. I know that I will step up to all the challenges brought to me, and I will learn so much in the coming years. I am absolutely sure that I will work my butt off. I only wish the whole thing started sooner.

In August, I will meet with other creative writing students and faculty. I will immerse myself in workshops and  other sessions. I will find out who will be my first mentor in the program. I will begin the journey that will bring me so many assignments and accomplishments and experiences along the way, and whose ultimate end in the earning of a Master's of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing will really be a springboard toward so many more beginnings and completions in my writing career.

Here I go!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

writing vs. being a writer

I know that I can write. Beyond the fundamentals, I am aware that I am able to string along an attractive cadence from words that otherwise simply describe, and it works. There is a modest number of fiction pieces and poems that have been published in small journals and anthologies to back up this claim. And there have been highly admired industry professionals who have even made such observations as, "it's clear [I] can write [my] ass off." But I often ask myself if it's fair to say I am a writer. I've written quite a bit-- most of which never reaches an audience of any kind. And I have many novels that are simply awaiting that defining revision in order to be ready for submission. But to be a writer...

Like everyone else, I go through phases in which I think I'm a phony. I think I'm wasting my time and that of others when I push my written word creations toward a life of something better than a handwritten journal or a digital file in my computer's lonely folders. I know that I can't stop. There will never be a time when the words will completely dry up. I will always write. But I struggle with the dilemma of whether or not it's worth sharing my work with others.

Tonight, I decided to sift back through some old work of mine. I've been presenting chapters of one novel in a read and critique workshop, and there have been equal parts praise and constructive criticism. The praise is usually for the writing itself-- the sentence structure, word choice, and pacing of scenes. The criticism is for plot points, characters and their relationships (this most of all), and sometimes even dialogue. It's been a great session so far. But I'm looking forward to the next novel I will bring to these fellow writers, and there are several nearly finished pieces from which I can choose. Sometimes I surprise myself. When I go through old writing, I occasionally come across something I don't remember being so well written or complete in its section of the whole. But all of these projects have flaws. This is why a workshop would be extremely helpful.

I think it is in these reflections upon work I have set aside that I see positively that I am a writer. Somehow, these pages are living pieces waiting to become whole, and all I have to do is finish them-- sew them together into a patchwork child of carefully chosen words. Perhaps it is this-- this realization, this drive, this insistence to complete the process-- that makes me a writer. Or perhaps it is simply that I burn with this longing to be something so intensely that it means I truly am.

In the meantime, while I figure all this out, I continue to write, and to revise the old stuff. What else can I possibly do?

Friday, January 25, 2013

solving problems with fiction

We read books to escape. We love to find new worlds and characters that will take us away from our real lives and all the mundane details. But as writers, don't we also write to escape? I know I do. I step away from my tasks and become the narrator in my stories, hiding from those things I know absolutely have to get done around the house or elsewhere in my world. But recently, I tried a different angle.

There is one aspect of my life at the moment that is really nagging for my attention, and I nearly refuse to listen. When I do, it's in tiny increments and the results are negligent. It's extremely lazy and childish of me.

I am avoiding my housecleaning.

I do enough to get by, reaching for new dishes from the cupboards or scrubbing off one spoon from the sink, cleaning the cat box but not the bath tub, and all sorts of other disgusting corner-cutting methods. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I figure writing it down to share will move me to action. And I started this in the most engaging and creative way I could imagine-- I began writing a novel about a woman who starts a quirky housekeeping business in an act of revenge and/or spite toward an ex-boyfriend and their old landlady. It sounds like a wacky plot, I know. But I actually have a true-life story to get the ball rolling. Think King's Thinner for a wannabe domestic goddess.

I have yet to determine if this method will inspire me to actually accomplish the cleaning chores I have been neglecting. But any muse will do, for me. If nothing else, I will get a good novel out of the experience.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Sometimes we must submit to our fears in order to come to a place of acceptance before moving on. I believe I recently accomplished this. And so I am doing some submitting of a different kind now.

In the past two weeks, I have begun at least three new stories, one of which has some great potential, and I have written two new poems. I have also begun to introduce readers to my NaNoWriMo novel from last year. This is in an effort to resume work on this piece toward finishing it, as it is my most complete work at the moment. And I have submitted nine separate pieces (including six of flash fiction and three of poetry) to three different publications. The freelance editing/writing project I accepted months ago is also finally moving forward, with a positive response from the clients so far. Even my jewelry has received my attention again after a long hiatus from the repurposing craft.

It's been a great period of productivity, and yet I feel that I am not creating enough. My current disappointment is that my house is in disarray, still the cottage of a brand-new tenant, rather than the freshly decorated home of a recently settled resident. I suppose that is always the case, that some project somewhere is unattended. Without them I would feel useless. And yet, the presence of such unfinished business makes me feel as if I am not accomplishing anything at all. Is there a happy medium in creativity? I'm beginning to think there is not.

Here's hoping the rest of you have been producing much work, as well. Feel free to share with me your projects. I'm full prepared to edge anyone from a "happy medium" toward a "super-sized ecstatic."

Friday, May 18, 2012

turning corners

When we turn a corner, we are changing the story. A direct path is usually easy to see, and as long as we continue in the same direction, we are not surprising ourselves. So, what if we decide during a comfortable journey to make an abrupt turn into unknown territory? What does this say about us?

I am currently staring at the screen of my laptop, where I have my novel-in-progress up and awaiting the entry of another page. paragraph. sentence. I’m stuck. Last time I wrote in this story, I pulled my protagonist from the main scene to disappear down the hallway and into a room to be alone. The problem is that I don’t know why she needs to be alone. And she’s not telling me.

This is only the second project in which I’ve started writing from the beginning and continued to move forward chronologically. The other story was the one I created for last year’s NaNoWriMo, and I didn’t have much of a choice in that case, with a deadline and specific goal to achieve. Usually I initially write a scene from the main character’s life that defines him or her, then I write other scenes that will happen before or after that original scene. It’s a bit scattered, but I’ve always told people that it’s how we learn about people we meet—first about the present, then maybe about something that happened to them when they were younger, then maybe about their dreams for the future. As a writing structure, it makes for a lot of editing later on, to be sure that there are no inconsistencies. But it was simply the way I wrote, until recently.

I’ve been very pleased with my progress so far on this current story, moving forward and keeping (at least my) interest throughout the first half. So, why did I send my protagonist on a sharp angle away from this path? I wonder if this says more about me than it does about my character. I’m very anxious to know what’s next and how this retreat will bring the story to the next scene. And I’m very curious what turns await me in my own life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


We all want to be recognized for our talents, whatever they may be. Recognition can come in many forms, and it often becomes more about our own acceptance than it is about validation from another source.

Last week, my ten-year-old saxophone student revealed to me during his lesson that he did not make it into the advanced band at his school. He was very upset, which is understandable, but the comments he made regarding this disappointment were so negative—even to the point of making mild threats toward his teacher—that I had to remind him that being positive will yield better results. I didn’t tell him all the reasons I thought he probably did not get promoted to the highest level. There are at least a few. Instead, I tried to explain to him that there are many factors that go into a band director’s decisions regarding placement in different band levels. I even suggested that perhaps the director thought he would be a good motivator for his intermediate band peers, and kept him from the advanced band for that reason. When my student grumbled that he wouldn’t play in intermediate band—it was advanced band or nothing—I used an anecdote from my own youth to explain why it might be a great opportunity for him to accept the position in that band and continue to grow as a music student. After several attempts at making him see all the possible sides to the equation, he was less frustrated, but he still fell back on his claim that his teacher “always hated him.” With this comment and his attitude toward the whole issue, I offered that perhaps his negativity was something the teacher saw as a reason to keep him in a developing band. I told him that if he worked hard and kept a positive attitude, then perhaps he would prove to the band director that he was ready for the advanced band. Besides, I reminded him, when he gets to seventh grade, he’ll have a different band director, and that may put him in a better match for a teacher-student relationship. My student did soften a bit by the end of our conversation, and during the lesson, he took my constructive criticism to heart. He’s got a long way to go, but he has improved so much already, and I reminded him of all the evidence of this.

What is it that we seek as a symbol of recognition for our talents? Is it awards? Public mention? Publication of our writing? Sales of our products? Shows in galleries or performance venues? Or even just a thumbs-up on Facebook? I find that I haven’t been putting myself out there enough recently to receive the recognition I feel I am due. So, I can’t complain. But with a short story recently being published, and more opportunities in which to play my saxophone, I do receive the encouragement to continue doing what I do. What I should be taking from these validating events is a motivating nudge to push myself harder toward my goals. I’m hoping to make this happen soon.

For my saxophone student, it may be several years before he understands that it takes more than just showing up with an instrument in his hands to prove his eagerness to succeed. But I hope I can help him to continue to grow and get closer to the recognition he seeks. Whatever that may be.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Experiences

The age of ten was very full of big and new experiences for me. I began going through puberty at this age, already taller than all the boys and most of the girls. I broke my leg, which was thankfully the second and last bone I broke (knock on wood), and had to spend most of the summer in a cast up to my hip. It became apparent that I had inherited my mother’s skin—specifically psoriasis—and I began the struggle of controlling a frustrating skin condition. And I began to play the saxophone.

I had always wanted to be like my sister, and so I had chosen clarinet initially as the band instrument I would play. But Vanessa, in her young wisdom, had convinced me that it would be better to have my own instrument—something that went well with clarinet. She chose the saxophone for me. I was good at the instrument from the start, picking it up rather quickly and excelling immediately. But as far as specifics, besides a few songs that will forever stick in my head as honking and percussive melodies that most likely ruined anyone’s love for the tunes (Beautiful Brown Eyes being one), I cannot remember exactly how I learned the basics. I can deduce from flipping through method books at the music publisher’s office where I work as an editor that there was a common pedagogy to the whole thing. But I can’t put myself back in that spot and remember what it was like to be a new saxophone student.

I didn’t take lessons until I was in high school, when my parents were convinced this was a path I would travel on for many years to come. I only practiced by myself at home the allotted 30 minutes per day, working on songs and scales, and I played in band class every day. Eventually, after elementary school, junior high, high school, and college concert and jazz bands, I received my degree in music composition. I have played in dozens of bands since the age of ten. I continue to play gigs pretty regularly now at the age of 38.

It had been years since I had taught any private lessons when a friend referred someone to me as a teacher. The timing was right, in that I needed the extra cash, I was working with concert band pedagogy and method books constantly at work, and the prospective student lived less than a mile away from my home. I wasn’t really prepared, however. I stumbled when asked how much I charge, although I had rehearsed the conversation beforehand, and I ended up changing my price later anyway. I was a little disappointed to find that the student was using a method book that my employer did not publish, since those were the series with which I was familiar and to which I could refer if necessary. But I was determined to make this a good experience for the student and for myself.

My student is a ten-year-old beginning band student playing alto saxophone. He is headstrong, often overconfident, and eager, but he is also very easily distracted. I could tell this from the first meeting, but I was encouraged by the fact that he had already taken drum set lessons. After learning that he had not yet been taught how to read music, as his lessons only included playing by ear, I realized that I would have to take his familiarity with rhythms and apply the tones and fingerings necessary to playing a wind instrument. I knew this would be a challenge for him, but I was up for helping him through it.

Now that we have been meeting for months, I am beginning to find what does and doesn’t work for his learning process. He is very much aware that everyone does not learn the same, which is a good thing. But I have been set back by unexpected obstacles.

Although he has drumming experience, he has trouble with staying on beat. This was not so apparent when I would clap my hand against my leg as he played, because I could be wavering in my own pulse, possibly because of his varying tempo. But when I suggested to his mother that she buy him a metronome for use on his own, and we tried employing it within the lessons, I realized there is a disconnect somewhere here. I asked him to practice only playing one pitch—quarter notes initially, then moving on to half notes, whole notes, and possibly even eighth notes. When we tried this it was satisfactory. But when he tried to read music along with a metronome, there was no regard for the tempo. He suddenly failed to hear or see the pulses as the machine clicked and flashed. I realize that this is a common issue with beginning musicians, but I was surprised by its presence in a child who had already learned to play drums.

Another issue that has given me much to think about is that my student is very easily distracted and quick to lose attention. I had realized this early on, but because of his insistence on taking on large tasks in each lesson, I moved forward while trying to take notes on what I could do to work around this. I have decided that we need to take breaks often. Sometimes, when he gets completely off track, he plays something totally different from what’s on the page. It will be subtle at first—he’ll miss a rhythm but keep going, then he stumbles on the notes. Other times, however, he’ll just keep on playing for measures and measures, but the rhythms and notes will be nowhere near what is written on the page. It’s as if he’s daydreaming in improvisation. I have to reel him back in, ask him questions about the baseball trophies he has, taking a minute or two to clear his mind before continuing on with the song. I have realized that this point arrives sooner than I would hope within the lesson, so now I know I must find a way to work on concepts and songs in even smaller chunks than we have been already. Like the television and computers that rule his life, I have to give him only flashes of information.

One thing I have discovered that is pretty impressive about my student is that he has an amazing ear for mimicking others. I had realized early on that he was memorizing what he heard others playing, rather than reading the actual notes and rhythms on the page. But I figured he was applying both the listening skills he already had and the reading skills that were new to him. When I decided to try something fun in between the monotonous and grueling playing of concert songs, I offered that he should mimic what I played, but without being able to see my fingers. After a fumbling first attempt—starting on the right note, but getting tripped up a couple of times before repeating the entire phrase—he nailed every single pattern I gave him. I started on different notes, I played different rhythms, and I mixed up arpeggios with scale patterns. He nailed every one. I was amazed. Although I knew that he had learned the drums by ear, I was thoroughly impressed that he was applying pitches and fingerings to this exercise without any effort. I plan to use this sort of exercise much more in the future, ramping up the difficulty and testing him further each time.

It has been no surprise to me that the process of teaching fascinates me. This has always been true. But I had been afraid for years to attempt to teach students, for fear I would have not enough to offer them in order to propel their talents forward. Because I took the challenge on this one student, I have been really enjoying the experience—one in which I am both teaching and learning. I hope that this continues for a long time to come, and that I can possibly add more students to my lesson schedule.