Beginning the book

I’ve got an idea for a book, and I’ve got some drafts of pieces. So what’s next?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure the book overall. There are a number of pieces that I’m juggling, several historical time periods, and at least several plot lines (my dad’s incarceration, his untimely death, my own job loss and the writing of this book). And a whole bunch of smaller pieces about each “document.” It’s quite a lot to juggle. I’m not exactly sure what story I want to tell, and so much of the writing will be about discovery. I know that I want to begin with an introduction of mine, and then move into physical documents, into virtual documents (like Facebook and blogs). And then end with a memory. It’s not quite a linear approach, but I know that non-linear can really turn people away from a book (‘too difficult to follow”). We’ll see if the book really ends up this way.

So I’ve begun to write a draft of the Introduction, which feels really exciting to me. As I’ve been reading (and rereading, obsessively) Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird By Bird, it strikes me that her Introduction does some of the work that I’d like my introduction to perform. It establishes trust and intimacy with the reader, and it does so with humor and wit. My book has heavy subjects (wartime history, death, loss), but I don’t want it to be a “downer book.” I do want it to be helpful for people who have gone through similar situations, or who are going through similar situations, but I don’t want it to be A Grief Book. So I want my introduction to establish me as a narrator, but a narrator that will bring people into the story, rather than pushing them away or putting up barriers right away.

I’m also feeling how the Introduction can and should be longer than the blog posts that I write here. I began writing as a poet, really, and longer forms terrify me. So creative nonfiction lets me integrate some of the sensitivity to language and keeps me grounded (at least for now) in a reality. The idea of writing fiction terrifies me, even though I have an idea for a novel already in mind. Maybe I’ll need to start with short stories after this.

Some books that have helped me think about structure, in no particular order:

  • Anne Lamott’s writing advice book/memoir, Bird by Bird (juggling of many pieces, intimate, funny)
  • Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Birds of Paradise. This lovely novel uses multiple third-person viewpoints, but also surprised me towards the end.
  • Kim Severson’s memoir Spoon Fed. Each chapter here centered on a different “subject”, a woman who inspired or changed the author, but changed it up a bit, because it did not approach each subject the same way. To do so would have felt repetitive, and I’m glad she structured the book this way.
  • Rebecca Skloot’s biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. One of the very best nonfiction works I’ve ever read, frankly. Skloot juggles multiple time periods, jumping back from our contemporary present back to the 1940s, 1950s, and so on. She also juggles multiple subjects, including Henrietta Lacks, and her children. And—this is a move that I greatly respect, especially because Skloot is a journalist—she examines her own role in the writing of the book, critically and thoughtfully. Skloot has said, I think, that the novel Fried Green Tomatoes helped her to think about how to structure her book, so perhaps that’s a lesson for me to consider. (Outlining Flagg’s novel might be interesting, just in terms of timing.)

In the meantime, though, I am working on a grant application. Lots of people are applying, I’m sure, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high. But it’s useful to work on this application because it’s another step towards writer identity. I’m having to write down my goals as an artist, and to think of my biography as a writer. And those two exercises, alone, are also worthwhile for me to progress towards this degree, another step in the MFA.
Back with another post next week. In the meantime, if you can think of any books that would be interesting for me to read, because of their structure, I’d love the suggestions.

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.

5(ish) Questions: Diana Abu-Jaber’s Own Private MFA

I am excited to have a guest post here from Diana Abu Jaber, an author I’d followed for a long time before we “met” on Twitter. I first read her lovely food memoir The Language of Baklava, then went backwards and read her novel Crescent. Animal lovers should definitely read her autobiographical essay “The Goddess of Flowers,” published in 2004. Diana’s writing has always been attentive, in the very best sense of the word. She pays thoughtful and generous attention to all of her characters and their settings and their actions. That thoughtful and generous attention can enliven the world; her writing helps to make me a more attentive writer and reader and person.

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of her upcoming novel Birds of Paradise, coming out in September. I hope to share more about that book with you, either here or in a review elsewhere–it is one of her best, and one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time.

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

DAJ: Confession: I teach in an MFA program, but I did not get one. When I was in graduate school, I knew I would need to teach in order to support myself, so I went for a Ph.D. I felt that it would give me the widest range of teaching options. And I actually tended to prefer attending literature classes to writing workshops. I wanted to be able to teach college literature, as well as to teach myself about my literary antecedents. It was a great opportunity to study writing from the inside out.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your own MFA program—what would it look like, and why? What would be your goals? How would you challenge yourself, solicit feedback, create a writing community?

My own private MFA program might look like the love child of Walden Pond and a Gertrude Stein salon. [TN: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.] Though I’d prefer a beachier setting—Key West, Provincetown, or the Bahamas. It would be a retreat sprinkled with conversations with a couple of working writers whom I trusted and respected. We’d hang out, maybe bake or eat or drink, maybe talk about writing, maybe not. Since we’re deep into my fantasy now, the writers would be people like Annie Proulx and Vladimir Nabokov. No more than two or so mentors total. There would be a Friday night dinner party that rotated among the homes of 7 or 8 other creative people—not limited to writers; possibly including painters, actors, dancers, critics. There would be long morning walks with a friend or a kid or a dog or myself. There would be a room with a great view. A balcony. Most of all, there would be stacks and stacks of reading—books by writers whose work I loved. Maybe a conversation once a month or less often with just one or two other people who were reading the same books. There would be the occasional cocktail party at some other person’s house—somebody wealthy, who could deal with the mess afterward.

3. Do you teach creative writing, or do you teach in an MFA program now? How do you measure student progress, or grading?
I teach in the MFA program at Portland buy ventolin State University. My grading is fairly intuitive and I tend to be compassionate. If I think you’ve done the work, you get a good grade. If you’re really engaged and writing a lot and commenting a lot and thinking about books and just sort of psyched about things, you totally get an A.
4. What is the most important thing that you try to teach your creative writing students, and why that? And how do you try to accomplish that goal?

We talk a lot about writing as a process and taking some of the pressure off of this idea of creating a product. It’s really hard to cope with that kind of end-thinking in this culture—we all want to be done with the work and to get our banana. The problem is, you may never get that damn banana. I try to help students learn to love and relax into the experience of being a writer. It’s like that Anne Lamott quote about how writing just to get published is like doing the Japanese tea ceremony just to get the tea. I try to nudge students to take imaginative and emotional risks, leaps, to mentally journey in their readings and writings. Maybe the best thing I can do for them is show them what a working writer’s life looks like. I talk about my process, my struggles, the highs and lows. Once I brought the mock up of a brand new book cover in to show them and we talked about the rollercoaster of bringing out a publication.

5. What have you read lately that’s just blown you away?
I really loved the detail and sensibility of [Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir] Blood, Bones, and Butter, and the narrative voice(s) of Super Sad True Love Story [a novel by Gary Shteyngart]. And the poetry of brain research in [Richard Powers’s novel] The Echo Maker.

6. What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out? Can you say a little bit more about it here?
My new novel is a bit of a family saga, called Birds of Paradise ,and it’s coming out this September. I got to go deep into the Miami landscape and really examine a lot of my own feelings about my adopted city. The family in the novel is devastated when the 13 year old daughter runs away, and the mother, who’s a mad pastry chef, disappears into work. A lot of my own obsessions are there—baking, organic food, anxieties around parenting, the shrieking of neighbors’ captive tropical birds—and I just really let myself chase them down, take a long, hard look at it.
The book I’m working on now doesn’t have a name yet but it’s a follow up to The Language of Baklava, another food memoir. This one toggles between the development of my academic and artistic career, putting together a writing life, and the more recent choice—in my forties—to become a parent. This book is a new kind of challenge for me because it’s a more grown up memoir about being accountable for your decisions—I’m trying to own up to the ways I may have backed down from things—while constantly trying to learn how to make life bigger, how to get a little braver. Creative self-excavation. With recipes.

Many thanks, Diana! Sign me up for your MFA program, too!

5(ish) Questions: Tara Austen Weaver’s Own MFA

I started reading blogs around 2007, but I can’t remember when or how I began reading Tea and Cookies, by Tara Austen Weaver. I’m not sure if I found her blog first, or Shauna‘s blog first–and was happy to see that they are friends. (Tea is also friends with Christine Lee Zilka, who also went to Mills College and appeared earlier in this series.) But I was hooked immediately by so many things about Tea’s blog: the sensitivity and sensibility of her prose, her gorgeous photos, her love for the Bay Area, and her expatriate sense of moving from the Bay Area to Seattle. Because she lived in Japan for a few years, I loved how she wrote about Japan, and we even joked later about a shared Japanese sensibility. We had conversations over Twitter, and eventually shared picnic blankets at Gasworks Park and a lunch table at Nettletown.  I am lucky to call her friend and writing mentor, and I’m so happy that she was able to spend some time here.

Visit her blog for more of her writing, but you should also read her memoir, The Butcher and the Vegetarian: a funny and thoughtful and intriguing look at when and how and why we choose to eat meat, or not.

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

I did the MFA in creative writing at Mills College, in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland). It was a pretty standard part academic/part studio program. We had workshop classes each semester, along with literature classes. Most people took one workshop, one lit, and one elective class (though there was the semester I took five classes and nearly died). It was a two-year program, with a written thesis of creative work due at the end. The program was divided into poetry and prose, with a mix of fiction and nonfiction in the prose section.

There’s a good amount of controversy over the MFA program. I know people who wish they could do an MFA, and others who wish they hadn’t, mostly for financial reasons (one woman told me, “$40, 000 could have bought me a lot of writing time”). When people ask what I think, I tell them it depends on the person and what they want to get out of it. For me it was the right thing at the right time. I had been working in publishing for five years, editing for more than ten years, and writing on and off since I can remember. But I’d gotten very much into the editor/publishing track. I was spending my days working on other people’s writing. I wanted to carve out the time and space to work on my own. I might have thought about teaching someday, and how the degree would be useful there, but I soon gave up any plan of that (one teaching theory class cured me).

What has been incredibly useful to me is developing a language around writing. I might have known instinctively what worked and what didn’t in a piece, but the MFA taught me how to talk about writing–how to analyze and convey this to another person. This has made me a much better editor–a more educated eye–which has also helped me in editing my own work. We’re fairly blind when it comes to our own writing, but I’ve become better at seeing the bones.

Of course, at the end of the day, it’s practice in writing and also reading that makes you stronger. My writing really improved when I started a blog (a year and a half after my MFA). Writing on such a regular basis–I posted three to four times a week in the early days–really steepened the learning curve. My writing has grown so much from working on the blog and writing for the web (more concise, ruthless editing). Regular and set practice is invaluable.

That said, I do think having feedback and assignments pushes you out from the comfortable places. During my MFA I was asked to write things I never would have otherwise, required to read and analyze in a way I wouldn’t have on my own, and told truths about my writing that I didn’t particularly want to hear, but which pushed me to a higher level. I’m not saying you couldn’t get that through a lot of personal work and a good butt-kicking writing group or mentor, but it would be a harder thing to orchestrate. I think a lot of workshopping also helps you be less precious about your writing, which is good if you have plans or hopes of being published. It’s the first step towards developing some perspective and a thicker skin about your work.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your own MFA program—what would it look like, and why? What would be your goals? How would you challenge yourself, solicit feedback, create a writing community?

My ideal program would have a big mentorship component. I’d love a strong mentor whose work resonated with my own and would ventolin inhaler 100 give me feedback on my writing. Good mentors are hard to find, but can be invaluable. I’d also have a lot of reading involved. I sometimes got frustrated with my own program, because it seemed like I was spending as much, if not more, time writing academic papers on literature as I was on my own creative work, but I do think the reading part is important (I might skip the analysis essays, however, and opt or group discussion instead).

My first thought was that I’d skip the workshops, where you critique each other’s writing. Not everyone is going to give you good feedback, and you pretty much know in the first few months who your good readers are. But if this is my ideal MFA, I’d pick a small writing group of people whose feedback I valued and keep that. I might also add in a book group–an opportunity to discuss the books I’d been reading (without having to write papers on them). And I’d have lots of writing time. The program I did had less of a studio component than I would have liked. The benefit, however, is that I learned how to talk about writing and dissect it, which has been very valuable to me as a writer and even more so as an editor.

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

I don’t teach in a traditional sense, though I did take classes in teaching theory as part of my program. I do work one-on-one with writers, however, as an editor, and much of what I know is passed down in that way. Because my work is project based, I’m focused more on the writing than the writer. That said, I’ve had wonderful experiences with writers who were eager to learn and took advantage of having the dedicated attention of an editor to soak up the feedback I gave them and apply it to their future writing, becoming much stronger writers in the process. Some of them managed to break chronic bad writing habits (one former client says she’s haunted by all the semi-colons she wrongly used over the years). One of my clients, who I walked through a major overhaul on her novel, later went back to an old editor of hers (she still had credit for hours she had already paid for). The woman couldn’t believe how much stronger her writing had become and wanted to know what she had done! That made me pretty happy.

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

I haven’t been blown away by much lately, I’m afraid to say. I’m working on a new book and during that time I find I don’t read a lot of full-length books. Shorter pieces work better, and fit into the spaces in my schedule and in my brain that are not devoted to the new book. I’ve been reading some pieces by MFK Fisher—I’ve been inspired by the recent biography of her that I read, An Extravagant Hunger by Anne Zimmerman, and wanted to read her stuff again with the new lens of knowledge I now have. I’ve also been really enjoying the advice column written by the anonymous “Sugar” on The Rumpus. She is writing about real life in honest and often heartbreaking ways, with a lot of compassion. She has a great post about writing. I look forward to Thursdays, to see what she has come up with this week. Another new-to-me read was Toast, by Nigel Slater, which I could barely put down. He tells the story of his very difficult childhood through the food he ate, and manages to capture the mind of his child self. It’s an unusual book, but sad and lovely. I’m also reading A Wrinkle in Time, which I never read as a child. It’s made me think about reading or rereading more kid lit.

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

I have a new book in progress. It’s early days still, but it deals with a garden, growing food and family and community. It will be called Orchard House. I also have a short collection of pieces about living in Japan (with recipes for Japanese food dishes I love) that I’m releasing electronically as a fundraiser for Japan earthquake aid. That will be out soon and is called Tales from High Mountain. I’m also working on some magazine articles, and always writing for my blog. I’ve been covering more writing-related topics there recently, and it’s been fun to write about the process.

Thank you, Tea! I really appreciate your insights here–I have done some editing myself, and I never (strangely) thought about how the MFA could help a full-time working editor. I especially like the insight about “developing a language about writing,” or “what we talk about when we talk about writing.” I’m looking forward to both novel and memoir.

5(ish) Questions: Brian Oliu’s Own MFA

Brian Oliu is the dear friend of my dear friends Elizabeth and Colin, and teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama. He’s just come out with his first book–more about that below. Through the wonders of social media, we’ve had grand exchanges about 80’s music (he’s also a DJ) and karaoke standards. And about writing. Despite my Luddite misgivings about poetry involving technology, video games, and Craigslist, there’s clearly a great deal of generous heart behind his work. I love this line from one of his Craigslist lyric essays: “You always opted for gin: you only trust things that you can see through: windows, keyholes.” Please welcome Brian to the “(private) MFA” series!

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

I received my MFA from the University of Alabama in 2009. One of the appeals of the program was the fact that it was a three-year program with the option of a fourth year (which I took advantage of), as well as the fact that it wasn’t genre-specific. I classify myself as a non-fiction writer and I was able to take non-fiction courses as well as fiction and poetry.

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? What would be your goals? How would you challenge yourself, solicit feedback, create a writing community? (Or, none of those things?)

I think the purpose of the MFA is first and foremost to give people the opportunity to write, which brings forth the other purpose of the MFA: to determine if people actually want to write and pursue it further. The MFA gives people the opportunity to see all of the things that go along with writing/being a writer. Furthermore, it gives writers the chance to teach, edit, get involved with the publishing aspect, so on and so forth and figure out if these are things that people would like to go forward with. Some folks realize that they want to write and only write, and thus go into jobs unrelated to the writing world. I think the other thing that is important about the MFA is that it provides a sense of camaraderie (if one is lucky with their program, as I was!) as well as finding an audience for one’s work in addition to finding folks who are good readers of one’s work. So, if it were up to me, I’d have everyone get involved in all of those facets: working on a literary journal, designing a chapbook, teaching creative writing to undergraduates/high schoolers, etc. As for ‘improving writing’ I do feel as if having readers and receiving feedback is important, although I think the drive to write is more important: thus some semblance of deadlines would be effective, as would a focus on the idea of a larger project–if the members of the MFA community could understand the larger ideas and projects that each writer is attempting to create, I think the feedback would be even more helpful, as a lot of workshop
seems to be explaining the context of each piece: one of the most beneficial classes I took at Alabama was a novel workshop where we all got to know each other’s work over the course of a semester.

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

I teach creative writing on the undergraduate level: I teach mostly upper-level courses- mostly ‘prose tour’ classes where we examine a bunch of different types of fiction and non-fiction and attempt to emulate the style of the writing or the concepts that are brought forward. On occasion I teach highly specialized courses as well–I have taught a class on the lyric essay as well as a class on video games/games in general as literature.

Furthermore, I’m a member of the Slash Pine Projects, which is a collective here in Tuscaloosa that puts out chapbooks, puts on poetry festivals, and tries to bring art to the community. I have approximately 20 interns, all undergraduates at the University of Alabama specializing in everything from English Literature to Creative Writing to Book Arts. One of the things that I hold most important when teaching creative writing is to view everyone as an artist and as a writer, no matter what level of writing they are currently at: some are Creative Writing minors who take their work very seriously, others are taking Creative Writing as an elective and know that they just enjoy writing poetry and would like to take a class on it and learn how to make themselves better writers. As a result, instead of grading or writing notes, I e-mail every one of my students after receiving their work and enter a dialog with them: tell them what I saw, and what I perceived that they were trying to do with the story. If they want line edits, I’ll be more than happy to do that, but overall I want to talk about the feel of the pieces and what the goals of the students are.

4. If you do teach creative writing, what is the most important thing that you try to teach your students, and why that? And how do you try to accomplish that goal?

To me, the most important thing to teach is simply to write. I try to debunk myths about writing: I’m very open about my relationship with writing as well as my process and I let them know that there’s no such thing as a muse–that I am struggling with finding time to write as well as with what to write about as much as they are. I like to talk a great deal about beginnings and ways to get over their conceived idea of ‘writer’s block’ (which I don’t believe in either!) as well as learning to think about themselves as writers, collaborators, and readers. Writing is exciting and beautiful and magical–the creation of something out of nothing and I just try to pass on that joy, first and foremost. To borrow from the excellent Dear Sugar on The Rumpus, I want them to “write like motherfuckers”.

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

Lidia Yuknavitch‘s The Chronology of Water is absolutely stunning. A beautiful memoir. I also re-read Christian Bobin’s A Little Party Dress recently and it was even lovelier the second time through. Sarah Goldstein’s Fables is gorgeous.

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

I assembled an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers called ‘Tuscaloosa Runs This’ to help generate donations for tornado recovery efforts. Furthermore, my book of Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connections, ‘So You Know It’s Me’, was released in June on Tiny Hardcore Press. Other than that, been putting some finishing touches on a manuscript based off of 8-bit Nintendo games, and I’ve started a book collaboration with a book that my grandfather wrote in Catalan on long-distance running.

Thanks for playing, Brian! I like seeing how the MFA for you is about exposing students to “the things that go along with being a writer.’ And how you seem to teach writing and approach writing itself as opportunity and drive–more about inclusivity and community, less about hypercritical judging and evaluation along the way. I’m grateful for you taking the time to write here. Maybe we’ll get to meet, with Colin and Elizabeth, at AWP; it’s coming to Seattle in 2014.

5(ish) Questions: Christine Lee Zilka’s Own MFA

Up next in the “(private)” MFA series is Christine Lee Zilka. We met recently on Twitter, partly through a mutual friend, partly because I knew (from research a while back) that she was editor-at-large of Kartika Review before I submitted my essay. Hooray for the wonders of social media. Somehow, on Twitter, the automatic Bay Area radar kicked in, and we discovered that we’d attended this school at the same time, lived in adjacent dorms, both majored in English, but never met each other. (And really, being an Asian English major meant that we probably would have seen each other in classes at one time or another.)  Christine blogs here about her novel-in-process, and she’s got a few pieces of writing coming out soon. I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

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

I went to Mills College for my MFA; the coursework was a balance of craft+literature classes and workshops. I don’t think Mills is necessarily any different from other MFA programs–but I did appreciate the practice of including reading along with writing as discipline.

The breakdown of requirements was/is as follows:
4 writing workshops
3 literature courses (including up to 2 classes on craft)
3 elective credits
1 thesis class

As a two year (four semester) program, this list works out to one workshop per semester, two of which had to be in the genre of specialty (creative non-fiction, fiction, or poetry) and a courseload of 2-3 classes per semester. We assembled our thesis team (an advisor and a reader) at the beginning of our second year–and we met with our advisor regularly throughout the second year to touch base on the progress of our manuscripts.

Mills does NOT read prose thesis manuscripts longer than 90 pages (or was it 120 pages)–either way, it is nowhere near book length, for better and for worse).

I decided to stretch my MFA out to three years–and because I unexpectedly got sick and had to withdraw for a semester, I ended up taking 3.5 years.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your own MFA program—what would it look like, and why? What would be your goals? How would you challenge yourself, solicit feedback, create a writing community?

As you can see with the MFA requirements above, it’s possible to replicate the MFA educational structure: you can take workshops on a regular basis, establish a writing group, read books and get a reading group together to critique the works (and if you so desire, go so far as to discuss them as a writer–from a craft perspective). There are books like Janet Burroway‘s “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” and John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and then there is Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” as reference.

But you see–I didn’t go to an MFA program purely for the workshops and classes–I went to establish a writing life, find mentors, and find a community of writers. I had denied myself a life as a writer for so long that I needed a very clear change in my environment, and that is something the MFA program provided me. If you can’t/won’t attend an MFA program, you can still achieve this by applying to writing workshops and conferences whereby you travel to a different geography or climate and immerse yourself as a writer for a week or two or three.

Summer writing workshops/conferences aren’t cheap, but they are still cheaper than the cost of most MFA programs without scholarship. And summer conferences are certainly more transient (1-2 weeks long) and can accommodate a fulltime working schedule. (Even filling out the applications for such summer programs is an enlightening process–you will be asked questions on “what you hope to gain from the experience” and possible questions asking you to detail what it is you write about. All good things to know about yourself as a writer).

I went to Squaw, and it helped me shift direction. It was the place I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA. And of course there are other writing conferences–like Napa Valley Writers Workshop, which is so wonderful and craft-focused with amazing writing workshop leaders each summer. And VONA. I have made writer friends for life at each of these summer workshops, and they are still an invaluable part of my community.

One of the pitfalls of an MFA program is that you are exposed to the same feedback for the entirety of your education–the same peers, the same professors, even if you try hard to make sure you take classes with different people and instructors. I have told people in MFA programs to expand their community, and go to workshops and conferences.

And I’d advise the same for people not within an MFA program–go to different workshops and conferences, find your people. Apply and go to Squaw, to Napa Valley, to VONA. Go to your neighborhood UC Extension or if you’re in NYC, Gotham Writers Workshop. Get your feedback there, make friends, gain mentorship.

There is a lot of pushback on Twitter and FB in the writing community–seeing these things as “distractions,” but for me they are another inlet of community. I have made friends and have a support system on these networks. In fact, that’s how you and I met–! Facebook and twitter are helpful ways to gain community and support and insight–just so long as of course you keep your writing routine up.

Blogging is also helpful–a way to keep in touch with others, exercise your craft. Get your feedback. Make connections. Throw out your questions and doubts to the universe on your blog, and most likely than not, you’ll get a response.

As for goals–I think that’s a personal matter. I’m an extremely slow writer, and I don’t think the two years of an MFA program is enough time for me to finish a book-length manuscript. And quite honestly, I’d rather spend two years writing 75 pages that I am proud to have written. But yes, you should have goals–whether that is a collection
of stories, or 3 stories…or if the goal is to just to have sent your writing out to a number of litmags.

But don’t make your goals ones that are dependent on others. Like, don’t make it your goal “to get published.” So much of being published is not contingent on you, but on others–on others’ subjective reaction to your writing and their own timelines. Send your writing out, and make it a goal to submit to 30 literary magazines, but don’t make it a goal to get published in 5 literary magazines.

Enjoy the process. Write. Read. It doesn’t have to take two years. It can take three and a half years. Or five.

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

Mat Johnson‘s Pym: Read it for the voice! And you’ll laugh, even as the story investigates the idea of race that will stimulate both cortex and funny bone function. Oh, and if you’re a Poe fan, then this is a must-read for sure. Vida by Patricia Engel. Best short story collection of 2010! Sabina is the recurring protagonist throughout the entire collection–and her voice and character: pitch-perfect and whipsmart.

I recently read an amazing story on “The Lazarus File” by Matthew McGough in The Atlantic. Amazing read about a cold case brought to life by DNA evidence–and so the article is as much about the case as how DNA evidence has revolutionized homicide investigation. The article is excellent journalism–but in particular, I admired the way in which McGough structured his article.

I’m a big Haruki Murakami, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Díaz and John Irving fan. I also love Nicole Krauss, whose book Great House came out last year. I loved her book The History of Love, and Great House addresses many of the same themes. The structure of the book is atypical and precarious (can you tell I’m obsessed with novel structure?) but the characters hold the novel together–they were characters I knew I could hang with for hundreds of pages.

Alexander Chee has an essay called “Fanboy” online at The Morning News. Comic books are amazing–if you walk into a comic bookstore, the place is full of disenfranchised men, and men who yearn for power vicariously through comic book heroes. But Alexander Chee, in this essay, examines comic books from a multitude of perspectives, from his biracial isolation, to U.S. imperialism.

And my mom just gave me a copy of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. It’s just been released in English translation. My mom said the novel blew her away when she read it in the original Korean years ago. I just started reading it–but already, I’m so impressed. The entire novel is written in the always risky second-person point of view.

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

I’m working on a novel. An excerpt of my novel will appear in an anthology entitled “Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience“, available in October 2011. The anthology is comprised of pieces by women writers writing sex scenes from the male perspective–a response to our literary canon comprised of men like Flaubert to D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth writing sex scenes from the female perspective. The anthology’s call for submissions spurred me to write a long overdue sex scene in my novel. I can’t wait to read all the pieces within the anthology! It’ll be out via Other Voices/DZANC books this Fall.

I’ve also got a short story forthcoming in Kweli Journal. The piece is called “Ume,” and it was a piece that used to be twice as long and told from the point of view of both a father and a son–but I edited it down for length, to just the father’s POV. It worked, I think, much better as a short piece in that way. The piece is particularly meaningful for me because it was the first piece I wrote after I had my stroke, from which I took about 2 years to recover. There was nothing wrong with me on a musculature level, but I lost my short term memory capabilities, and I had a lot of cognitive issues that prevented me from reading a story, let alone writing one. By the time I heard from Kweli, I’d sent “Ume” out to about 50 litmags, and I’d almost lost hope that I would find this story a home. I’m so glad Kweli took it in, and I’m really glad that the home is Kweli Journal, which is a fantastic literary journal focusing on writers of color.

Thanks for participating, Christine! I’ve learned a lot from your post, and I love the idea of the MFA’s purpose “to establish a writing life.” I also like the idea that the goal of being a writer is not necessarily “to get published”–behind this ideal is, I think, the drive to appreciate the writing life for what it is. I’m a huge fangirl of Murakami and Diaz (and Chee) as well. I hope we’ll get to meet someday.

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.

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?)