My own private MFA: the final project proposal

Thanks for all your responses, here and elsewhere, to the last post about beauty. I loved reading what everyone had to say. I’m trying to hold onto that momentum, and trying to remember how lovely the trees were last fall (see that picture above?). It’s been a bit gray here lately.

Coming into Year 3 of this private MFA and the second anniversary of this space, I’ve been thinking about the Final Project. Yes, I’m on the 3-year program. Tortoises, represent.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading still, which is lovely. I still find myself itching to get things when I’m in bookstores, but I no longer feel the rush to buy the latest must-read or bestseller when I’m there. Instead, I find myself making lists of things to place on hold at the bookstore. Now, I know that writers need to make a living (boy, do I know), but it’s also gratifying to know that the books I really want to buy now are the books that I want to keep around forever.

I’ve been drafting pieces of my book project all along, here on this blog, as well as in a separate document that I call “Book journal.” But the other day, I realized that I haven’t really laid out what the project will be for you, here in this space.

So it’s a good time to describe the final project of my private MFA to you. I want to tell you more about it, to give the project some needed rejuvenation, to kickstart me back into action (remember, go) and to bring some narrative flow back to this space (for you non-lit types out there, some “what’s going to happen next?” action).

I’ve been thinking about it for so long, I can’t believe I haven’t explained it to you properly. I wrote about an earlier version of it in a writing contest, almost 2 years ago. Over the last year I’ve been reorienting myself to life outside the academy, rethinking myself into writer identity, and looking for a job. But lately I’ve been talking about the project to a few people, and I can feel some energy coming back. And I’ve found that two things motivate me: 1) making lists, and 2) making promises to other people.

Here’s the project. And aaaaah, I can feel the fear creeping up as I type, so I better type fast. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain the book, and I’m going to keep figuring it out over the course of the project. So this is not my elevator pitch, or my NPR “Fresh Air” draft, but another draft of my explanation to you.

I’m writing a memoir.

It’s a memoir about the aftermath of two—no, three—major events which have affected my life. The first event is my father’s death. He died when I was 10 years old. The second event is the Japanese American incarceration of World War II, which affected my father’s life and continues to affect my own. The third event, the one that made me turn to writing this project at all, is the loss of my job and my return to the writing life.

Here’s another way to explain it: it’s a triple-voice memoir, one that intertwines my writing, my sister’s artwork, and the voice of our father, who died when we were very young (10 and 6 years old, respectively). We have our father’s voice in many things, but perhaps most concretely, we have it in an unpublished memoir manuscript that he wrote about his incarceration experience. I plan to intertwine parts of my father’s manuscript, some of my sister’s artwork about memorials and memory, and my own musings about the aftermath of death, as well as the aftershocks of camp history. For right now, I want to organize the book into chapters using different forms of documentation, and writing about the different forms of memory that they evoke. For example, there will be a chapter about a family recipe, a chapter on the albums of Polaroids that he took of me when I was a baby, a chapter on his diary when he was in the military, well before I was born. There will be a chapter, or a series of chapters, about my dad’s typewritten book manuscript itself. I hadn’t seen the manuscript in twenty-five years, until I reread it a couple of summers ago. And when I began to read, I realized just how much I hadn’t worked through my feelings about his death.

And yet here’s another way to explain it. No one knows everything about the lives of their parents. When they leave us, they leave so many unanswered questions. I wanted to look at one particular stretch of time when I know the least about my father’s life: the time after his memoir, after his wartime incarceration, and before he married my mother.

Writing has helped me to clarify and discover and process what I’ve learned about my father’s death, and myself, and memory, over the last two years. So it’s a book about a writer’s (and visual artist’s) struggle between loss and memory, the ways that we memorialize our dead in an age where so much information is “in the cloud.” In some ways, it’s a present for my daughters, who never got to meet their grandfather.

Over the next few months I’ll share pieces with you, some revisions of blog posts, and updates about the writing and publication process. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about the project in process, and I look forward to sharing the journey with you. I’ll continue to post intermittent musings like these, so it won’t all be about the book. But I need to move forward, to keep writing, and to keep moving towards this bigger goal. Comments mean a great deal to me, even a quick line or two, so please don’t be shy. I promise to respond, too. Thanks.

In print

Here is a link to Kartika Review, the wonderful Asian American literary magazine that accepted my creative nonfiction essay, “How It Feels to Inherit Camp.” You can download the essay and the issue, but please consider buying a copy of the journal itself–it is a small, volunteer-operated nonprofit organization. Even before I submitted anything to the journal, I had been reading and using it as a resource in my literature classrooms. It incorporates both established and emerging generic ventolin inhaler voices in Asian American literature, and I’m honored to be included in this season’s issue. This month’s issue includes an interview with Jessica Hagedorn, who is one of my very favorite Asian American authors.

As some folks might remember, I tried out a version of the essay here, in this space, and the comments here encouraged me to submit it. It’s a heady thing to see it in print. Thank you, everyone, for reading.

Reflections on the private MFA, year 1 (part 3.5): the reading list, with commentary

If you’re a writer, a reader, here’s what I’ve been reading for my own private MFA, year 1, with commentary. The books don’t make a lot of sense together, except that the list means that I have read for myself this year more than I have in a long time. And maybe that’s an accomplishment, in itself.


I think it’s safe to say that I’ve read more nonfiction in this last year than I usually do. Novels are the bread-and-butter of my reading diet, or if you’re me, the rice. Nonfiction was a category I rarely touched, a whole section of the library that I rarely visited until graduate school, where literary theory, ethnic studies, and food studies (and food literature) really entered the menu. It’s still not the first section of the bookstore that I’ll visit, but I no longer avoid it like the plague.

  • The Brief Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks*, Rebecca Skloot. An amazing feat of science writing, journalistic reporting, memoir that travels fluently between several time periods. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up; you’ll probably be shocked at what you probably didn’t know. It took Skloot something like 10 years to research and write the book, and I can see why. Side literary note: she cited Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes as an influence for her own book’s structure.
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Chip and Dan Heath. I thought I’d be reading this book as a career changer, and in some respects it’s been useful. But I found their lessons highly memorable and applicable in settings from teaching freshman composition to political change and policy creation. Perhaps a bit too business-oriented for me?–but an entertaining and provocative read.
  • One Person/Multiple Careers, Marci Alboher. Another useful read for career changers. Some useful suggestions and inspiring examples, but not as memorable as the Heaths’ book.
  • My Reading Life, Pat Conroy. As a novelist, Conroy has hit some of the same notes far too often for me, but his appreciation of food and his zest for storytelling can draw me back in spite of myself. This memoir is Conroy’s set of love letters to some of his most influential books, and as a fellow lifelong passionate reader it’s fun to see how he approaches each book or author with reverence or nostalgia or hero-worship.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown. I really love this author’s speeches on TEDtalks. For those who are drawn to her material there–with all due respect, because I really do think her work is valuable–I’d suggest sticking to the talks. Part memoir, part advice–this book felt to me like the PowerPoint slides without as much of the author’s engaging and compelling presence.
  • The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp. I liked this book more as a memoir than as a writing/creative advice manual, but I think I am not quite her audience. I don’t think I need to be convinced to be creative, or that creativity is valuable and part of everyday life. But, I appreciate her willingness to include so many people and activities as “creative.”
  • On Writing, Stephen King.* This book surprised me in so many good ways. Because I don’t really like the genres that King uses typically (horror, noir), I don’t read his work very often. But this book reminded me that he is a master storyteller, and some of the memoir sections told me about why he writes in the genres that he does. I found myself wanting to keep my library copy; it’s a book that I could see myself returning to over and over again. A great precursor to Victor LaValle’s work (more on that in a minute).
  • The Writing Life, Annie Dillard. A lovely set of meditations on the writing life–not really Dillard’s life, necessarily–but a set of gentle suggestions or mantras about how to approach life as a writer and working artist. One of my favorite moments in the book involves seclusion and fireworks.


As always, so many good books, so little time. I don’t think this list is complete, but it’s a good sampling of what I read this year (except for the books that I like to reread). Sometimes I become too ambitious and order a whole slew of books at once from the library and can’t read them all in time. I’ll tell you this, though: my 50-page rule still holds. (If the author doesn’t have me by page 50, I will usually not finish the book. See the first sentence of this paragraph.)

  • Honoring Juanita, Hans Ostrom. My good friend and colleague wrote this historical novel, cheap ventolin online based on events in the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the author’s presence from fiction when you know the author, but Mary Bluestone’s voice is engaging and the novel’s exploration of the aftermath of historical figures made me think quite a bit.
  • The Atlas of Love, Laurie Frankel. Another colleague wrote this lovely book about “atypical” forms of family, friendships, and love. Readers who have gone to graduate school in the humanities will especially appreciate this warmhearted book and its engaging narrator, Janey.
  • Big Machine, Victor LaValle. One of the craziest books I’ve read in a while, but I want so many more people to read it. Both page-turning and experimental: a huge accomplishment in itself. Stephen King (horror) crossed with Ralph Ellison (modernist experiments with race) and Haruki Murakami (magical realism) and James Weldon Johnson (deep knowledge of racial politics). And set partly in the Bay Area, home of my homes. I kept thinking, “No, you can’t do that! or go there”–and he kept doing it. Go read it, please, so we can talk about it together.
  • Great House, Nicole Krauss. Krauss has gorgeous prose. I found myself writing down bits of wisdom from the book, short lines and quotations. But I never quite felt that this novel came together as I felt it should. Four narrators/narratives, all centered around a single object: a writer’s desk (think The Red Violin in novel form).
  • Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt. After I became pregnant with my first daughter, it was hard to read anything where bad things happened to children. (Exponentially so now that both of my daughters are here.) Thus, Leavitt’s novel was an emotional test for me: can I read a novel where bad things happen to children, and the bad thing is the death of a parent? Yes, I can, but not without difficulty. More about this in a later post.
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay. Outing myself as a fantasy/historical fantasy reader, since junior high school. I don’t read very much of it anymore but Kay, I think, is one of the very best. He rarely sacrifices character development for plot, when so many in this genre seem to do the reverse. This novel’s set in China, around the time of the Tang dynasty, involving an impossible and terribly consequential gift.
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans. I had to take this book back to the library because I wasn’t quite in the mood for it (read: it made me sad), but I admired Evans’s craft. I’d like to revisit the collection someday.
  • A Thread Of Sky, Deanna Fei. Some important (and highly readable) work here if you are interested in transnational relationships between Asia and America and immigrants. Five main characters, all with large and looming issues, made this novel at times overly ambitious, but it provides an important crash course in a number of Asian American issues.
  • Take Me Home, Brian Leung. I was excited to read Leung’s historical novel set in Wyoming in the 19th century, about  Chinese immigrants and the Rock Springs massacre. Not many have ventured into historical fictional territory (ha) with this incident, if any. I am hoping my scholarly friends in Asian American Studies and American Literature will pick this one up.
  • Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Amazing prose, well-drawn characters, hilarious at points–and yet, as with a number of postmodern pyrotechnics, the ending did not satisfy me.
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim. A staggering feat of feminist historical fiction, especially given Kim’s audience and what we would probably (not) know about twentieth-century Korean history and the Japanese occupation. I was awed. I loved the narrator and the narrator’s mother, and I wanted to know what would happen to them both.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith. This book is a classic, I know, but I did not read it until this year. It was startlingly honest about maternal love, about tenement poverty, about adultery and about female adolescence. You probably wouldn’t get away with publishing this book as a “coming of age” Young Adult novel today, and yet in so many ways that’s exactly what it is, the prototype for the female bildungsroman all the way up to The House on Mango Street and beyond. I am still thinking through this book’s honesty.

I had a number of “books I like to reread,” but I’ll save that for another post, another time.  I am working on Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone, and I just picked up The Tragedy of Arthur. Have a good weekend. I hope you’re able to enjoy some reading time.

5(ish) Questions: Elizabeth Wade’s Own Private MFA

My friend Elizabeth and I have bonded over food, Twitter, grief, writing, and many things  in between. She has been an informal writing mentor for me in this private MFA process, and while she’s  published quite a bit (poetry, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction), she doesn’t have an MFA, herself. I’ve admired her bold and sensual writing for a while now, seeing various pieces online (more about where to find her writing below). She’s married to a longtime dear friend, Colin Rafferty, which is how we met. I’m happy to introduce her here, as the inaugural guest poster in my “Other People’s (Private) MFA” series.

1. Did you go through an MFA program? If so, how was it structured?

I do not have an MFA, and I’m not sure I’ll ever pursue one. I’ve told myself that if I ever reach a point where I can’t find the time or the community I need to do the writing I want to do, I’ll think about my commitment to writing, and, assuming it still holds, I’ll then consider the MFA. From my vantage point, those two things–time to write and a writing community–appear to be the most valuable aspects of an MFA program. For those reasons, I’d probably gravitate toward a longer, residential program instead of more compressed options.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your MFA program—what would it look like, and why?

I’d love to answer the question you’ve actually asked–what I would do. But I think it’s more honest to tell you what I have done in “my own private MFA” (thanks for the term!), and to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been intentional or well-conceived.

I spent several years running from writing, for various and complicated reasons, most of them concerning my twenty-something-self trying to figure out how to make her way in the world, and exactly what sort of way she hoped to make. Eventually, I realized that writing was an essential part of that way. I think that realization was an important thing for me–it took embarking on a life without writing to make me see how crucial writing is to the life I want to live.

Once I acknowledged that, I started setting my life up to make it conducive to writing. Some things—and, frankly, some people—weren’t really amenable to my choices. I got out of a bad relationship in part (though certainly not entirely) because my then-partner disparaged my longing to be a writer and actually referred to his belief that someday I would “wake up and realize this writing thing isn’t real life.” When I did go back to graduate school, I was too scared to acknowledge my fervent belief that my critical sensibilities and my writerly tendencies are intricately connected, so I applied to PhD programs and pretended for a time that my creative work was outside of my academic interests.

I was wrong about that, and things got easier once I sorted that out. So here are the things I’ve done in “my own private MFA” that I’d recommend for others.

  • Surround yourself with a variety of talented writers and readers. You won’t agree with them all in issues of aesthetics or craft, and that’s okay, even good. Learn from them. Talk with them extensively about writing and reading, about art and process and anything else that comes up.
  • Find a local writing group. Take a class.
  • Go to AWP, the yearly conference of writers and writing programs, and spend a lot of time in the book fair. Find some journals you love (one of mine is Hayden’s Ferry Review, which published the first prose poem I ever wrote ) and support them loyally. Read them. Subscribe to them.
  • Read voraciously. Think about what you read. Consider why it works or doesn’t work. Talk to others about what they read. Ask people you admire what they are reading. Ask what you should be reading.
  • Read in different genres and forms and time periods and traditions. Read classics from the canon–I especially like Homer, Donne, and Woolf, but you should read enough to figure out who you like and why.
  • Read contemporary work–start with Brian Oliu‘s new collection So You Know It’s Me, any of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poetry collections, and the weekly advice column Dear Sugar. Read anything that interests you–not just literary works, but history and biography and field guides and maps and instructional booklets and anything else you can get your eyes on.
  • Memorize the writing of other people. This works best if you’re into poetry, of course, but I think you could pull off flash prose pieces, too. Let words generic ventolin percolate. Let them be the rhythm that undergirds your daily life. You know how songs can get stuck in your head sometimes? Try to switch out songs for poems.
  • Write your ass off. This is something that gets overlooked a lot, which is weird. But a lot of writers–at time, myself included–go through phrases where they pretend that writing is a mystical thing that just comes to you. Sometimes it does, and that’s lovely. But in my experience, that’s rare. Be attentive enough to listen–if you notice your inner voice or your muse or whatever you want to call it tugging at you with an opening line or an idea, then certainly be mindful of that. But don’t sit around and wait for it. Write. Get a schedule going. Have regular times when you commit to writing. Sometimes you’ll produce crap. But sometimes you won’t, and that is good.
  • You’ll read a lot about people who write every day. This is interesting to me, though I’ve never really done it. If it works for you, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. My point isn’t that you have to write for any arbitrary period of time. Rather, it’s that you should allocate times to write and stick to those. Don’t cancel or postpone them for quotidian things. Keep those appointments as if they were sacred. They are.
  • Once you get a sense of what you do well, experiment with something different. If you write long forms, try shorter ones. If you’re a poet, try your hand at prose. Write a review, a letter, a list. Find things in your daily life that are not usually approached as writing opportunities, and make them writing opportunities.
  • Eventually, find readers you trust to look at your work. Accept criticism. Be willing to change things, but always know how to stay true to your vision. Recognize that your vision may not always be marketable or publishable. Figure out your priorities, and proceed accordingly.
  • To the extent that you’re able, think about working in projects or units. I picked this up from my friend & fellow writer Brian Oliu, who’s also one of my favorite people to engage in conversations about writing. Writing a poem or essay or story is like planting a tree. Be mindful of the forest.

3. Do you teach creative writing, or do you teach in an MFA program now? How do you measure student progress, or grading?

I currently teach literature and writing (i.e,, composition) courses at the University of Mary Washington. I do include some creative work in most of my classes, and I generally try to stress process. Work rarely emerges fully-formed. The real work of writing is in revision, and I try to teach my students that.

4. What have you read lately that’s just blown you away?

This essay on writing and gender by Lidia Yuknavitch. And this benefit e-book of Alabama writers in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that hit the state in April: (full disclosure: I have a piece in this collection, but that’s not why I’m plugging it. See the essay by B.J. Hollars. See the poem by M.C. Hyland. These are the stories of my town and her people. Please read them.) And this debut short story collection by Alissa Nutting.

5. What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out? Can you say a little bit more about it here?

I’m wrapping up a sequence of prose poems that synthesizes the protagonist’s medical history with a love story.
I’ve been writing a lot about grief this year.
I’m pretty sure my next project is going to concern the circus.

Later this year, I’ll have pieces from the prose poem sequence out with Packingtown Review, Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, and Shadowbox Magazine. I also have two nonfiction shorts forthcoming this year from Sweet. These pieces concern the recent death of my younger brother, Austin–or, maybe it’s more accurate to say they concern me as I learned to deal with his death. And my poem “Selling the Saddle” will be out in Cave Wall next year. This is a longer poem that traverses everything from sex to death, from tampons to Kentucky basketball legends. It sprawls. I kind of love it.

These are all great journals, and I’m thrilled to be included in them. Also, I tend to post little “behind-the-writing” pieces on my blog for each publication. To read those and see my previous publications, please see this site.

Many thanks, Elizabeth! As I said to you once, I look forward to some distant kitchen where we will bake and cook and eat and write together into the wee hours of the morning.

Reflections on the private MFA, year 1 (part 2)

(In which I continue to reflect on Year 1 of the “private MFA.”)

Have you submitted anything for publication?
Yes! And happily, it was accepted, by a kind editor with very encouraging words. I know this is not how submissions usually happen, but it helped. I will post more details when the piece comes out.

What writing projects are next?
Well, the memoir. I’m in a strange place with it right now, because it’s about grief. And while I turned to it as a way to process grief, I have found that I don’t need it in the same way at the moment. Or, perhaps there’s too much grieving to do in this moment. Or, both. There are ten pieces altogether so far, all in different stages of being.

I’m beginning to study other memoirs which are not quite so linear, such as Kim Severson’s wonderful read Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. I just finished Caroline Leavitt’s novel Pictures of You, partly about the death of a parent. I think I will need to read Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye, as difficult as it sounds, because it is close to the market that I want to reach. And I would like to read Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, for its work on memory.

I think I want to begin to write some longer essays next, ones that I can send out to other literary magazines as excerpts. I plan to create a work timeline by the end of this week.

Aaaand, I’ve got a historical novel in mind, or a series of linked novellas. It is a teeny seedling of a novel, scarcely more than an idea, a sketched outline and a hundred words, but it is incredibly exciting to me because I have never written fiction before (unless you count the fictional territory of some of my poems). I am not even sure what I am doing yet. Because it’s a historical novel, there’s a ton of research that I’ll need to do. But I am happy to be moving into this unknown territory. That’s the ultimate challenge, where I will feel the most stretched, and perhaps I would never have arrived at this space if I was in the tracks that a traditional program would have provided (moving from nonfiction to fiction).

Writing a novel strikes me as the ultimate leap of faith for me and my sense of my writing self. I look forward to being a memoirist, don’t get me wrong. But because I read ventolin over the counter novels and they nourish me like nothing else, I want to be a novelist. Alexander Chee, a former student of Annie Dillard’s, writes beautifully about one of her pieces of writing advice: go to the bookstore, and find the place where your book would go, and place your finger on the shelf to mark the place for your own book. I’ve done this a couple of times. It’s exhilarating, and terrifying. But that’s as closest to the heart of what I want to do as I’ve ever come. Where do I go? I go to the fiction section, the literature section, of the bookstore.

What would you like to see happen with this blog?
I never quite know who’s been reading the blog, except my husband, and my mom, and maybe the one or two kind friends who have subscribed via RSS. And I don’t want to become the person who always assumes that others have read her or contacted her or tried to keep in touch via the blog (e.g., “Oh, well, then. I thought you already read this week’s post.”).

Nevertheless, some of the best blogs that I read, that take advantage of the blog format (rather than a private journal) are also spaces to create community. So I’d like to see more dialogue here. It’s a “private” MFA, but of course it is also public and in the ether. It can be a lonely space—sometimes you feel as though you are speaking to an entirely dark theater, and you have no idea what or who’s in the audience—and since I’m venturing into the unknown with my career, I’d like to hear more from and about the folks reading here. Some company, if you will.

I’d also like to ask others what their own private MFA would look like, or has looked like. (I have asked a few kind writer friends, who have already agreed to do this. I’ve received my first set of responses already, so look for that soon! I’m very excited about this feature.)

And I’d like to post more frequently, creating a more consistent space for readers, and a clearer throughline for the stories that are here.

Readers: your turn!
Who are you? What draws you back to this space? And, what would you like to see happen here? Anything else you’d like to say, constructively? Comments, as always, are open.

(Part 3 will be a partial reading and rereading list for the year.)

Reflections on the private MFA, year 1 (part 1)

Approximately one year ago, I wrote yet another menu status update on Twitter. “You’re making me hungry!” my friend Shauna wrote back. Confession time for me: “I have always been auditioning to be a food writer.” “Well then,” she decided. “It’s about time we got you a blog.” A few clicks and keystrokes later, and my husband Josh set up this space. Thanks, Shauna and Josh.

It’s the first-year anniversary of this blog, and thus the first year of my own private MFA. Since reflection and self-assessment are part of any good writing program, I thought I’d try that out here.

Why the private MFA, again?

Well, honestly, at first it was kind of a joke. You know, my own private Idaho—although, truth be told, I’m more of a B-52’s girl. But I wanted a space to practice writing. And I’m not against traditional MFA’s, necessarily, but I’m just not in the right kind of space to do one right now. I don’t want to be away from my family (and my two little girls) right now, for a residential MFA. A non-residential MFA may be an option later. But financially, those are not an option at the moment. I do know that I want to apply to some short residencies like these, if our finances and arrangements become more stable.

Any drawbacks or rewards to the private MFA?

I would have had to specialize before I applied to an MFA program (poetry, fiction, nonfiction). Here, I’ve played with poetry, interviews, personal essay, memoir, literary mixtape, food writing, love letters to my family and my husband, graduation address. A lot of nonfiction and memoir, but I’m glad I also got to play.

Any assignments are my own. Both drawback and reward.

I wish I had more structure towards a larger project. However, that’s something that I can remedy, so I’m going to work on a plan and timeline next.

Sometimes I wish I had an advisor, a reading list, a set of classmates, a set time when I was supposed to be working on my writing. A space where writing is my primary job.

But I do have an advisor and reader in my husband Josh. He is usually my first reader, and my best reader. He’s an artist, too, but he’s a composer, so we’re able to have wonderful art-related, creative life-related conversations.

I do have a reading list—it seems rather scattered, but I have certainly read more new fiction and nonfiction this last ventolin online year than I have since graduate school. Certainly, many writing programs ask their students to read a great deal. And I have. The next post will be my reading list.

How do you think your writing has progressed?

At the beginning of the year I think wrote a lot of elliptical narrative in order to cover things up, rather than to expose them. There was a lot of throat-clearing, or waiting around to get to the point. As the year went on, I tried to reach for the guts, the heart of the post, and write towards that moment. As a result, I think my voice has gotten stronger, more confident, less apologetic. Last year, I wrote about my overuse of parentheses: they meant me ducking under my own words. I don’t think I use parentheses as often, or for the same purpose anymore, at least. I use commas a lot more now. I think that overall my writing’s moved towards the lyrical, the litany, the urgent. I use commas to connect, and I use commas to convey energy. I have noticed that the more I write and speak from the heart—not towards sentiment, necessarily, but towards the guts of the emotion or the moment—the stronger the writing becomes.

I noticed a common trajectory in my blog posts—linear chronology moving to epiphany–and tried to move away from using the same structure all the time. I think this shift marks the beginning of my experimentation with plot and linear narrative. Some of the trajectories are linear, while others are cyclical, and still others spiral towards their end.

And I’ve remembered what it is to be in “the writing zone.” I felt it when I went to speak at Evergreen, where I read the essay that’s coming out soon. (More on that in the next post.) It’s the space where I’m writing with both mind and heart absolutely committed to the work. I’m not there most of the time. I’d like to be there more often.

However, this is not to say that the rest of the time and words are wasted. I have found that I need all the other writing (good, bad, and in-between) to get me into the zone. I don’t know if being in that zone all the time is actually sustainable. It is consuming and exhausting…and still, incredibly satisfying.

Next up: reflections, part 2 (Have you submitted anything? What writing projects are next? What have you read?)

More death, and sandwiches (First thing I ever cooked)

The first meal I ever cooked? If we’re talking about assembly, I probably made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while before this memory. In a rare early-foodie moment, I remember explaining to my little sister that open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were “my way” of making them. When I made lunch one day, she got to choose which style of sandwich she wanted: my way, or the regular way. To be fair, my way had more peanut butter and more jelly.

But when I first read Gluten-Free Girl‘s Twitter assignment (“write about the first thing you ever cooked”), I knew that it was heat, change, and alchemy that meant cooking for me. The first meal I remember cooking was a grilled cheese sandwich on a coffee can.

I learned how to make this sandwich as a Brownie (get it?), so I must have been in second or third grade. Come to think of it, my best Brownie memories involve food and open fires: “dough boys” (crescent rolls wrapped around a stick, toasted over an open fire) and toasted marshmallows in order to make s’mores. And the grilled cheese, cooked over an inverted coffee can.

Here’s how we made the sandwiches: A grownup cut a ventilation door in a clean Folgers coffee can. Then we turned the coffee can over an open fire, placing the already-assembled, buttered sandwich on top. We’d learned how to build a fire, after all: we were Girl Scouts in the making.

The sandwich itself: what I remember is the netting of perfectly caramelized whole-wheat bread, wrapped around a bed of sharp orange cheddar. The grains in the bread were toasted and nutty, and while I had never liked sharp cheddar before, it was just right for this sandwich.In an age of spongy Roman Meal, the whole-grain toasted bread was especially lovely. I remember sitting in my troop leader’s backyard, sitting on her wooden deck, waiting for the sandwiches to finish.


For some reason, today I wanted to resist a nostalgic urge towards my childhood sandwich. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great sandwich. But nostalgia can tint all our memories sepia and soft-focus-camera every moment, creating those gorgeous auras around inaccessible women in Hitchcock movies. I wanted to go somewhere else. Heat, change, alchemy.


I wish I could say that my first grilled cheese sandwich opened up a lifetime of cooking, but I didn’t begin cooking full meals for myself until years later. I wish I could say that this sandwich opened the doors to adventurous eating, but I’m still a picky eater. (Subject for a later post: is a foodie a once-picky eater all grown up?). I do know that I made a lot more grilled cheese sandwiches in our large deep cast-iron skillet, standing on a stool next to our avocado-green stove. (It was the late 70’s, after all.)

Instead, I think the sandwich represented one dish in a line of comfort foods for me. While comfort foods are important for everyone, I think comfort foods for picky eaters are especially important. Picky eaters get panicky when we scan the menus and chalkboards and don’t see any foods that we think we’ll like. Our itch is for the familiar: I know that, I’ve liked that before, and I’ll like it again. In our defense, it may be the fearful urge for easy pleasure in the face of too much uncertainty.

And so I come to the source of the uncertainty and the need for comfort.

I made many more grilled cheese sandwiches during what my sister and I call “the “scrounge for yourself years”: the years right after my dad died. I remember meals out at Sizzlers, buffet houses, and Mongolian barbecues; frozen dinners (some company made an amazing, if incredibly fattening chicken fettucine Alfredo); thinly sliced frozen Philly cheesesteaks called Steak-Umm. I’m not telling you this in order to blame my mother for these memories: she was a single mother supporting two young daughters, and she’d just lost the love of her life. My dad had taught her how to cook many of the dishes she brought to our dinner table.

In response to my dad’s death, my younger sister moved towards adventurous eating: trying whatever was offered to her, wherever it was offered to her, perhaps in order to reach out towards life more. She’s a visual artist and a sculptor now, so maybe trying new foods even helped develop her senses of taste and touch. Part of my response was to become an even pickier eater: to move towards comfort food for its predictability and familiarity in a world that, for a long while, felt like it had lost both. And when I finally realized that “scrounging for yourself” could mean “cooking,” I came to the kitchen with so much more energy.

I’ve wondered how to explain more about how the loss of my dad has defined my life, especially at a relatively early age, 10 years old. I know that it’s one of those statements that will take a long time to unpack. But for now, there are sandwiches.

P.S. If you’re on Twitter, you can search for other bloggers’ posts by using the hash tag firstthingicooked. Sometime this (Monday) evening, you can also check out Shauna’s roundup of the posts here.

Assignment 1

Tell a story by using lists.

Reading lists, to-do lists, listening lists, grocery lists (etc.) are fair game.

(I made up this prompt.)

I thought I’d post mine tonight, but it’s taking longer than I thought. I’ll post the results in the next day or two.