Fitting That Stuff In

I was talking about my time getting my MFA at Lesley University, and I mentioned how in awe I always was of the moms who worked full time and also decided to go to grad school.

“Mom’s just figure out how to fit that stuff in,” my coworker said.

And I realized how bad of a job I’ve been doing of that, of fitting my writing and editing and blogging into my life. Yes, I’m busy, yes, I’m sleepy, yes, I’m way too anxious, but writing is important to me, and I can’t not do it.

I starting by keeping myself accountable, marking off time spent on writing (or writing related tasks) in a notebook, little purple blocks for every 20 minute increment. So far it my log looks mostly like a single column of blocks, as most days I squeeze in a little time while she’s sleeping. But keeping count forces me to not let myself just skip a day, so I don’t have a horrible little blank spot.

I’m also remembering just how much I can get done in a block of time. Twenty minutes, if I’m on a roll, is 2 notebook pages of writing. It is a short blog post. Even when that’s all I do in a day (and right now, that’s usually all I do in a day) it stacks up noticeably.

I was never the best at utilizing my time before I had a kiddo. With her around, I’m forced to go against part of my nature and be organized and motivated. Kind of like when I was working on my MFA, and those deadlines nearly crushed me. There is less spare time, and that can make me feel like I’m getting less done, but maybe those little chunks will, eventually, add up to more.

Writing Problems: Keeping Up Connections

Spider webBig reveal — I’m an introvert. I like spending time alone, away from people. It’s how I started writing in the first place: hiding in my room, or staying up later than everyone else so it felt like I was alone in the house.

But to make writing something that I continue, something that I actually improve on, I can’t just sit alone in the house. I have to get out, and learn, which was a big reason for starting my MFA. On my own, I was stuck in place, and in order to move on I needed more eyes, more ideas, more guiding hands. And through my mentors and the friends I made at Lesley, that’s exactly what I got.

Then I graduated, and I left my nice little pocket of guaranteed advice. While it’s been nice to go back to completing things on my own time, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue without some sort of continued support group, only this time it wasn’t going to be maintained for me. I had to keep it up myself.

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Final MFA Residency – The Last Days

Today was my graduation, my final day of being a Lesley graduate student. But let me backtrack a bit for the days leading up to it.

Thursday night, I read the first chapter of Speaksong, my middle-grade fantasy novel, for my graduate reading. My hands shook, and I stumbled on a sentence, but I’ve been practicing this, so I read it carefully, and I think clearly. My aunt, grandmother, and sister came up for the reading, which absolutely thrilled me. I think everything went well. I got hugs from Susan, Tony and David (the three greatest teachers I could ever know), and went out for drinks with my husband, Lesley peeps, and an undergrad friend.

Friday was my seminar (cutting out the narrative distance between the reader and your third person point of view character). I had been worried that I would fall short of the minimum time limit, but between questions asked by the students and the writing exercise I coasted right in on 45 minutes. After that was Rachel Davis’s (my residency twin) seminar, which focused on how you can characterize your setting.

Then came today, graduation. In the morning we went to Sharon Chan’s seminar on showing your character’s emotion. Then was a publishing panel with a group of editors, followed by breakout sessions where some of the editors looked over the first pages of people’s work. I went to the session with Liz Bicknell from Candlewick Press, and she gave me some good notes on Speaksong. Following this were the last readings, which included both Rachel and Sharon. Both were so fantastic.

Finally came the graduation. Pam Petro gave the faculty speech, but the real show was Jodi Sh. Doff’s student speech. Jodi’s speech was funny, and touching, and was the greatest sendoff we could get.

Afterwards was the usual reception. Tired as I was (still am) I stayed for a while, talking to friends and mentors. I kept dry-eyed through the final goodbyes, until Rachel Davis gave me a wonderful, unexpected gift: a piece of art commissioned from an ex-MFA student we both know, based off a scene in my first chapter. I fell apart. I love her so much. I miss this already.

I have some retrospective things to say about the program in general, but I’ll save that for later. Now it’s time to rest, soak it all in, and remind myself that it’s real.

Last Residency: Day 3

Today I sat in on Jacqueline Davies’ seminar, Chiaroscuro. This seminar focused on the interplay of light and dark in children’s literature, and she had some picture books that both worked very well, but also that didn’t quite handle the balance just right. The big focus was at the end with Peter Pan, which is a great example of a children’s book that both light and dark in an uncomfortable but also wonderful way.

My good friend Rachel arrived today, so my residency group finally started feeling complete. Tomorrow is the start of graduating seminars (not mine, yet). I plan on going to one about finding your story through revision, since that is, basically, what I’m doing with my work right now. Then my husband will arrive, and time for my reading… wish me luck.

Final MFA Residency: Day 2

Today the big event was a series of graphic novel seminars run by Mark Siegel, the president of First Second Books and the author/illustrator of Sailor Twain. Siegel went over how he came up with the idea for Sailor Twain, how he created the images (with charcoal), and what he did over the 9 years it took him to create it. Part of the discussion went into the language of graphic novels, which I already know, but it was interesting when he went over one of the reasons many people don’t like graphic novels, that they don’t understand how to read them. Overall it was extremely interesting and engaging. Lesley put this seminar on in part to test the waters about creating a graphic novel track in the MFA program, and though I won’t be in the program anymore to see it, it will be great if that happens.

There are still a couple of days until my reading and then my seminar. Oddly enough, I’m not too worried about the reading, but the seminar has me nervous — I’m worried it won’t run for as long as it should. Hopefully people ask some questions so we can stretch it out.

Final MFA Residency: Day 1

So technically residency started Friday, so this is day 4, but I just got here this morning, so it’s day 1 for me.

I don’t have anything I’m required to do until Thursday, but I decided to come today so I could spend time with my Lesley friends (the ones that are here, at least) and relax with the group. After checking in to the inn I did some seminar crashing, stopping in on Pamela Petro’s Indoor/Outdoor Writing seminar on place. I had taken this one before, but for some reason much of it fled my mind, so I was glad for the chance to take it again. I got plenty of inspiration, and may even get an essay out of it.

For the afternoon all of my friends were busy with their workshop, so I spent time with local friends and their brand-new kitten! (I think they poor caffeine in his food, he didn’t stop moving for one second the whole time.) I made it back in time for the readings: Erin Belieu, the new and hilarious poetry faculty, and Laurie Foos, from fiction. There was also a short word from a woman from Gemma Open Door, a publisher who publishes books meant to promote adult literacy — basically, short, easier-to-read, but still fantastic novels. Five people connected with Lesley have been published through Gemma, so it was interesting to see what many of our peers are doing.

Later I went to part of an awesome open mike session at a small music lounge with some other Lesley people, since another MFA peep was singing. This kind of thing is a bit out of my comfort zone, so I stated off uncomfortable, but she was amazing, as were the other people who sang and played, and I’m thrilled I did it.

The End (of my MFA) is Nigh…

The schedule for the January residency for the Lesley University MFA program has been posted, and it carries a lot of different meanings for me.

First, there is the thrill of all the things I’ll be doing at this one. Obviously there’s the whole graduating and getting a degree bit, but I’ll also be running my own seminar, and reading a chapter of my thesis work.

This, of course, bleeds into my feelings of anxiety and fear. Getting up on stage to read is nerve-wracking enough, but everyone will be tucked into their seats, and with the bright stage lights in my face I probably won’t be able to see them so they can all just take a nap and I won’t even notice. Now, the seminar, for that I’ll have to hold people’s attention for at least 45 minutes, and those people, whether few or many, will be sitting close enough that I’ll be able to see the disinterest in their eyes if I make a muck up out of this.

There’s also the general excitement of the residency. Since it’s not required, I’ll be getting there a couple of days in, but for the first few days I won’t have any responsibilities. I can hijack seminars I never had a chance to go to, I won’t be freaking out over upcoming workshops, and I can just hang out with all my Lesley friends.

There’s also a bit of depression over the whole thing. While the end of the whole thing is exciting, it’s still THE END. While I’m personally close enough that I can still conceivably poke my head in on the residencies, most of my dearest Lesley friends do not. Instead, they are completely ridiculous and live in other time zones, or even countries, and will no longer have student loans to help cover airline fare over to the east coast. And, even if I do go back to Lesley, it’s not going to really be mine anymore. Even if I’m there, it will belong to a whole new crop of writers.

I’m excited for the upcoming residency, and there are so many things that I have gotten out of this program that extend well beyond just an improved ability to write. But it’s also a little sad, and it’s going to be a bittersweet feeling when it’s finally over.

I’m in the Home Stretch…

…for my MFA, at least. Yesterday was the due date to send my manuscript to my reader, and my seminar (I HAVE TO TEACH SOMETHING) to my mentor. I’ll have time to do a few more edits before I send off the FINAL final thing to Lesley…but basically, I am done. Now I just have to show up in January and read.  It’s filling me with weird feelings that I’m having a hard time pinpointing, except that I know that all I want to do is lie on the couch reading children’s books, and bake things that are bad for me.
I promise I’ll have a real post this week. Just not today.

MFA Semester 4 – Days 8 and 9

The last couple days are always hard for me to get written up on time. That’s when the exhaustion starts to really grip at me, and also scrabbling to spend every minute with the people I’m going to miss. (It also doesn’t help that Lesley turned off the internet.)

Anyway…

Friday began again with more graduating student seminars. I went to Alissa Butterworth’s about absent characters (characters who aren’t present due to death, divorce, simply not being around, who are silent, etc.) and the techniques you can use to make them just as vivid. Afterword I went to Elizabeth Gitten’s on writing a synopsis for your story. This was something I actually did have confused, and it’s good to see how it’s supposed to be done, in the case that I’m ever called on to do it.

We had finished our small group workshop, so I had the afternoon free. Part of it was used very wisely to go out with Tony Abbott and some other students before the graduate student readings began. These went on both before and after dinner, and they were so fantastic. One of the plays had men crying… (so unfair, something that sad when I’m that tired.) Later I hung out with some friends, including someone who is graduating. I kept making myself stay up, but eventually I went to bed…

…and woke up to start the next day. I woke up early to pack the car, and Rachel and I got breakfast elsewhere since they don’t serve real breakfast on the weekends. Then we had to go to our thesis meeting with Steven Cramer, where he tried to clarify just what, exactly, is expected of us. We were also told when we had to file our intent to graduate, which I was thankful for since the auto-emails from Lesley kept scaring the crap out of me. We nominated our graduating speakers, and while nothing’s official it’s looking like it will be Jodi for the students. I made sure to nominate Tony for our faculty speaker, but we’ll see what happens when people actually vote.

Then, more graduating seminars: Brenda Bickham had one on secondary characters, something I’ve had a few problems with in the past. Then I went to Cate Johnson’s seminar on how to write a teenage voice. We went over what’s involved in a teenage voice, and examined how some author’s pull it off. We then did a writing exercise with it, which I really liked.

After lunch I went to the first foot forward agent session, where we read a page of our manuscript. I had read to this same woman last time (there was no new person to pick from) and I was thrilled to find out she recognized my story when I read it. It was great to get some real pinpointed advice on the page, and I can already see how I can fix most of those problems. There was plenty of extra time, so we were able to ask her questions about the industry and the author/agent relationship — like, for example, it doesn’t actually matter how close you live to your agent since almost everything takes place over the phone.

The final graduate readings happened after that (there were a lot of students graduating this time) and once again, there was some amazing stuff. I chose to leave after that, before graduation, and somehow managed to find almost all the friends and mentors I wanted to say goodbye to, including the elusive David Elliott. Now I’m home, and I’m tired, and nervous, and I miss everyone there so much, but I’m ready to get started.

MFA Semester 4 Day 7

Early this morning (okay, 9 o’clock, leave me alone I stay up late) we had the adaptation seminar with Jami Brandli. I wasn’t terribly excited for this seminar since I didn’t see how it exactly applied to my writing. While I still don’t think it will have a huge affect on what I write, I really enjoyed it — we learned what should go into a play or movie adaptation, and how it’s brought about. We also had the chance to bring up really terrible adaptations, something I always love complaining about, so that was a bonus. (Oh,A Ring of Endless Lightmovie…)

After that, the graduating seminars began. I went to one on using meditation and mindfulness with writing. Mindfulness is something I’ve been interesting lately, as evidenced by all those Thich Nhat Han books I own. I liked seeing how that could be applied to my writing life, and I’m motivated to work the whole meditation thing into my day.

After that was lunch, then small group! A Fiction genre student joined our group for this. When I first heard of the set up I was a little uncomfortable; his own work was the opposite of fantasy, and while everyone at Lesley seems open to and excited about the different genres there’s the stigma in parts of the actual real world that writing for children isn’t as challenging or important, so I was initially out of my comfort zone. It was great. He gave excellent comments, and while he kept apologizing for not being familiar with the genre and what’s generally accepted, he noticed things that slipped right by my attention that I should have noted as problems from the beginning. The other Writing for Young People person in our group gave me great comments as well; these are things I think I can carry through the whole piece, which will be great when I go back to edit for my first submission to Tony.

The last two days are coming up, where I basically coast through graduate seminars and bonus sessions. Everything’s been great — I’ve learned so much — and I’m going to miss everyone all over again.