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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writing Advice

I detest giving advice. No, that’s not a strong enough sentiment. I hate giving advice, so I generally avoid giving it unless someone forces my hand. Advice pretends to be universal, though it really isn’t. Our situations are particular, complex, and fraught, and advice rares brushes the surface of this complexity. Advice pretends to be applicable to everyone while knowing it never is. I’m leery of people who willingly offer up advice, especially unsolicited advice. I didn’t ask I want to say, but never do. I often wonder what those who spout advice envision human experiences to be, and I figure what they envision looks remarkably similar to their lives. Something worked for them, so it must work for us? Their certainty makes me twitchy. I usually look for an exit.

It is hard for us to imagine the lives of others, their circumstances, their situations, and their constraints because often we aren’t aware of our own. How do we get outside of our own heads long enough to grapple with someone else’s reality? (Can we?) This is why I hate giving advice because of the needed particularity. I understand fully that life is hard, but what if I can’t imagine the particularity of that hard for you? I know there are others who can’t quite imagine why a task takes Herculean effort for me and barely any from them. What advice can I offer you without knowing more about your situation? Some of the most common advice that I’ve received proved to not work for me, and I beat myself up about it for awhile. I tend not to now. Advice is cheap; lots of people clamor to offer it up. This is why I hesitate and pause and usually fumble the question when someone asks me for advice. This is also why I tend to be searingly honest about my own situation. I provide the context for what I end up saying, even then, I still hate giving advice.

Three weeks ago, I did a reading in front of audience of mostly undergraduates. This was my first reading, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I made it through the last paragraph of my essay and choked up. This essay is one of the personal and vulnerable that I’ve every written. I read and reread it aloud because some of the paragraphs were hard for me to get through without tears. I made it through, but the last few lines hit hard. I took a gulp of bottled water and another, cleared my throat, and waited for questions. The undergrads were hesitant, but they started asking questions, good ones about craft, research, process, and audience. The last question of evening came from my friend, Richard, who asked what kind of advice I would have liked to heard as an undergraduate about being a writer. The question, one I should have seen coming, threw me.

I paused to gather my thoughts and then offered up the first thing that came to mind: “I never imagined I could be a writer.” (more…)

Exits and entrances

Dearest Liana,

Structure? Yes, I also need structure. Like you, I find myself craving the structure of a classroom. I want someone else to ride herd on my writing process. I want a group of people to read and comment on what I write. I’ll admit that I envy your class on personal essays. I want to take a class. I want to take classes, which is why I applied for an MFA program in December.

I want structure, but I need it too. Currently, my life lacks the firm structure that will keep me on the task of writing. Structureless structure abounds, and I still haven’t got a handle on it yet.

My days have a familiar rhythm that start with getting children ready for school and preschool and wind down when I pick both of them up from the after school program. I’ve tried to map my days to create my own schedule. Kids out, writing starts. Kids in, writing over. I imagined that I would stay at my desk for hours working on assignments, essays, or blog posts. I would leave my desk only for short breaks and refills of coffee. I would write all of the words. All of them. In my imagination, there’s a writer who always writes if not at her trusty laptop, then in her beloved journal or any scrap of paper she could find. She would write and write and write and publish and publish and publish. Always writing and always publishing. The schedule of her own design would allow for only productivity and not much else. There would be no sick days, interruptions, or distractions. She would be a writing machine, and others would likely die of envy from her commitment to her craft. She would be a serious writer. Serious writing would be what she does. (more…)

Missed Turn

I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.

Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.

On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.

As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.

Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.

(more…)

Motherhood and Creative Work

12279060_1151170324908256_2735112922242816204_nDearest Liana,

I keep looking at this quote from Miranda July on motherhood and creativity. It has made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and I shared it too. I read this quote 10 days after reading your most recent letter, and I cried in my office while the dogs stared at me and the cat chose to ignore me.

July describes how our culture grants men the freedom to pursue their work, their careers, and their creative projects without much discussion of family obligations. “We give fathers all kinds of permission to focus on their work, to be creatively consumed,” she writes. Mothers, unsurprisingly, are not granted the same privilege. When mothers are creatively consumed, we face cultural pressures about what mothers should and should not do. (Often, these are pressures we’ve internalized and assume are the way things are.)

Creative work, like many other forms of work, comes with a host of gendered expectations, which I’m still learning to navigate.

In October, I did a series of public lectures that kept me away from home for six days. At the end of my last trip, I was riding in a cab on the way to Fargo airport and making small talk with the driver. He was telling me about the money he was saving by living in the nearby Moorhead, MN, where I just lectured. He asked if I traveled much for work, and I admitted that I didn’t. I let it slip that I had two children. He took his eyes off of the road to stare at me and asked increduously, “Who is watching your children?” I explained that their other parent had the situation under control, but he looked skeptical. I kept the conversation going until I arrived at the airport, but I was unnerved by his question. All of a sudden, I felt remarkably guilty about my trip. My kids were at home while I was off on my own. I was living my life without them. My mood soured. I was annoyed at my reaction to his question, but also his assumption that mothers were the sole caretakers of children. The mommy guilt appeared and remained with me. My trip was no longer as enjoyable as it had been. I ate Skittles for lunch in protest.

For mothers who want to pursue creative work (and any other work), July notes, “The guilt is unreal.” (more…)

Story

I’m confronting a strange sense of déjà vu. This week, I’ve alternated between studying for the GRE, writing a personal statement, wrangling both kids by myself (Chris is on travel for work), and relying on coffee to keep me mostly alert.

I feel that I have done this process of applying for graduate school before because I have. In 2001, I applied for my MA in Religion. Now 14 years later, I’m applying yet again, but this time for an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on creative nonfiction. The process feels simultaneously familiar and strange. I know what’s expected of my application. I can prepare. I can still get hives from worrying about a test. Yet, I never expected to consider graduate training again in the middle of my 30s. I imagined a different life than the one I have.

My life changed significantly in 14 years. I’m married with two children. Our 14th anniversary is in December. The cat remains mean, but she’s less playful. The first dog is older, grayer, and deaf. There’s a younger dog, but she’s already middle-aged by canine standards. My sister got married, so did my brother. I now have a niece and nephews. My grandmother died. I haven’t spoken to my biological father since 2007. I earned a PhD and never found that career I trained for. I started freelance writing.

(more…)