therestlessnest

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Archive for the tag “Goddard MFA”

The Un-cool Writers’ Club

1003375_10204029713357348_4120200472773550975_n-1 If you aspire to be a cool writer, then whatever you do, don’t hang out with me. I am your worst nightmare. Here’s why: for starters, I am old, so old I may as well tell you how old. 58. Fifty-eight! This would be acceptable if I had published many volumes by now. But no: I just published my very first book. And my book is a memoir. This might be acceptable if I was a recovering addict or had escaped the Taliban. But no: I am the daughter of a beautiful, smart woman who drew an unlucky card called younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and that is what I wrote about. Worse, my current work-in-progress is also a memoir, on an equally unhip topic: faith and doubt.

There’s more. I did not get my Master of Fine Arts degree until I was 53: enough said. And I have another career, which confuses people. IMG_0871It’s a reasonably cool career—documentary filmmaking—but alas, I’ve never had a film at Sundance (which would vault me right into the category of Permanently Cool). And I make films with my husband, which is way less cool than if I were doing it solo. Speaking of my husband: we’ve been married 27 years. Yikes! Just call us Ward and June!

And then there’s my lifetime issue of not wanting to be mean. In fact, right now, writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the whiff of snarkiness I detect; the implication that I don’t like cool writers, because I do. I like many cool writers. But that is not my point. My point is this: over my 58 years, I have learned, sometimes reluctantly but ultimately with relief, how wonderful, how freeing, it is to live life as not only an un-cool writer, but an un-cool person.

My education in un-coolness started early. There were painful drills, there were pop quizzes. But I faced my first big exam at the beginning of 9th grade at Seattle’s Eckstein Junior High School. All the aspiring cool girls, my sad self among them, hoped to be selected for something called “Girls Club,” which involved wearing special scarves and blouses once a week and engaging in lightweight service projects. Really, “Girls Club” was a sanctioned clique. My best friend—the one with whom I’d bought journals and real fountain pens and candles and browsed for old-fashioned children’s books at David Ishii’s bookstore in Pioneer Square—made the Girls Club cut. I did not. She dropped me with stunning speed.

When I came up for air after a good long cry, I realized what a great gift this was. I had been spared all the stress and effort it would have taken to retain my status as a Girls Club girl. I was free! Free to be my un-cool self. To keep on writing in my ink-stained journals; to keep on riding my bike to David Ishii’s or the Arboretum or anywhere else I could curl up with a book, undisturbed by cool people.

My junior high years coincided with my parents’ divorce, which, in that long-ago era, was definitely not a cool thing. But it was my Goddard College MFA advisor, Victoria Nelson, who helped me understand, decades later, how the divorce contributed to my liberation. Arlene and 6 kidsAll those hours I spent babysitting my younger brother and sisters while my mother went back to college gave me freedom to continue on my un-cool, future-writer path: unsupervised by adults, unseen by cool peers, I could write my fervent, un-cool poems and journal entries and read, read, read while my siblings watched cartoons or played. Sometimes we played school, with me as teacher. Or pioneers, or explorers. So not cool. I loved it.

And now that I’m a late-blooming, un-cool author, I’m more grateful than ever for the un-cool path that got me here. Not much I can do about my age. Nor my attraction to the wrong subjects. Nor my love of memoir writing, the actual hours spent writing, for which I credit my first Goddard advisor, Michael Klein, who taught me that memoir writing could be part poetry, part journalism, part essay: a hybrid, a blend, not unlike documentary filmmaking. Not unlike the way my restless brain has always worked.

The path of the un-cool writer is unpredictable. It’s more likely to result in rewards that can be measured in moments—conversations I’ve had after readings, emails from long-lost friends—than in big royalty checks or New York Times reviews. But it is the path I’m on, and I am grateful every day.

Upcoming readings: April 1, 7pm: St. James Cathedral Parish Hall, Seattle.  April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina.

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Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

 

 

                       

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Dignity is an Illusion

IMG_1075            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder.

Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the basis of your actual work. Your teenaged children and their friends? Likewise. You don’t have to embarrass them by trying to act like a teen, but they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable around you if you act like yourself, instead of some sort of unapproachable bastion of dignity.

Where I’ve found the notion of dignity as an illusion especially valuable is in that whole scary arena called taking risks. Trying things I’ve always wanted to try. Like… writing about real stuff from my personal life and then reading it at a literary open mike. Or learning to row in an 8-person shell. I did it, for two whole months! Came close to swamping the whole boat, but never actually did. I also took an acting class. And life drawing, and painting. Every one of these forays made a mockery of my dignity yet paradoxically left me feeling braver and stronger, until I was brave and strong enough to go back to what I knew I really wanted to do, which was write.

Dignity is an illusion, I reminded myself, as I filled out an application for a Masters of Fine Arts writing program, not knowing if I had any chance of getting in. I got in. Dignity is an illusion, I repeated, as I turned in my first critical papers in thirty years and my first drafts of memoir chapters, many of which featured remarkably undignified moments in my life. Dignity is an illusion, as I stood in front of a roomful of eighth graders and taught my first memoir class. Dignity is an illusion, as I tried for three years to find a publisher for my book.

It’s not a new idea. In the eighth century BC, the Hebrew prophet Micah wrote this: “And what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Two thousands years later, the Sufi poet Rumi put it this way: “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available too.kbcs_logo

Polska, 1994

Polska 1994Restless Nest readers, today we are toasting my friend and Goddard MFA classmate Isla McKetta, whose novel, Polska, 1994, has just been published by Editions Checkpointed, the French publisher known for the literature of conflict. Wow. I asked Isla a few questions about how it happened and here’s what she had to say:

1. You balanced writing a novel/earning an MFA with a full-time job. How? And why? What drove you?

When I first decided to apply for MFA programs—when I committed to the idea of myself as a writer—I hadn’t worked in almost two years. I’d left my job to take care of my mom through a couple of surgeries, and that journey home forced me to face some childhood trauma from her initial battle with cancer. The whole thing left me in a state of depression that eventually became a spur to examine what I wanted in life. I realized that what made me feel happiest and most fulfilled is when I am creating art, and words are my go-to medium.

I started applying to graduate programs and jobs at the same time. I’m one Isla_McKettaof those people who’s doing everything all at once or nothing at all, and I think I’d built up a lot of energy during that down time so working while going to school felt like a good way to throw myself back into living. Plus, the more I wrote, the more the act of writing energized me.

You know how intense the MFA program can be, and by the time I reached the third semester requirement of teaching a class while doing all the regular coursework and trying to complete a draft of my thesis (all while working), I started fitting writing into time I didn’t even know I had. I could be found at lunch in the break room typing out a few pages or I’d be scribbling on the bus. I was so engaged in the book and wanted so badly to complete the program on time that the work just happened.

At the end of that semester I remembered a lot about teaching and a lot about work, and even though I barely remembered having written, I had a full draft of my manuscript. That act of fitting writing in wherever possible has served me well in the years since grad school. During the best weeks I write or edit for an hour before work, another after, and then three to four hours each on Saturday and Sunday.

I want to say that you make time for what’s important, but I have sacrificed a lot of time with friends and loved ones to work on my writing. What keeps calling me back is that the writing is the one thing in my life which cannot exist without me. Sometimes I do step away or take a break, but I come back because that act of creation is so essential to my sense of fulfillment.

2. What was it about THIS story (Polska, 1994) that compelled you tell it? It seems highly relevant now, what with Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine. 

As a high school exchange student in Poland in 1994-5, I fell in love with the country and the people. I also became deeply fascinated with the culture and the way the country was and was not changing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. Writing Polska, 1994 was an excuse to explore all kinds of questions about the country and the people. I also had a fascination with oppression that came from spending a year in Chile as a young child under Pinochet’s rule. Writing Polska, 1994 was also a chance to explore the personal aftermath of an authoritarian regime.

I’m watching carefully what happens in the Ukraine now both because of my deep affection for Poland but also because my grandfather’s family came from the Ukraine, specifically Galicia which has at times been Polish, Austro-Hungarian, and Ukrainian. Although my family emigrated before World War I, writing this book became a way to think about what my family’s life would have been like if they had stayed in Eastern Europe.

3. Your novel is elegantly crafted. Every word feels lovingly chosen. Talk about your process, about first draft vs second (or 3rd, 4th, 5th). What phase(s) do you most love?

That’s awfully nice of you to say. Thank you. The first drafts of Polska, 1994 were very much about getting words on the page and exploring where the story was going. I did spend some time perfecting sentences, but I’d be surprised if any of the early ones survived. I learned through writing this book how messy I had to get with the writing—sometimes just blarping information onto the page—before I could engage my perfectionist self.

Once I changed the point of view back and forth a few times and had the basic shape of the story, then it was time to really start editing. I printed out the manuscript and cut it into paragraph-sized chunks so I could physically pair like with like and eliminate the unnecessary. The book was around 20,000 words shorter when I was done with that exercise. The next step was to read the entire book out loud to get a sense of the rhythm and clean up the sentences.

Of course revising a novella is much easier than if I was working on something the size of War and Peace, but it was necessary for what I wanted the book to be and I’d like to think I would have done it even if the book was three times as long. I edited and rewrote this book until I was certain I had taken it as far as I could—I think it was seventeen full drafts in all—and then my editor helped me get through another three drafts before the book was done.

I have two favorite parts of the writing process. The first is in that cutting up part. I love physically breaking the tyranny of the page and finding the form that best communicates the story. It’s funny because I always think that I write much more abstract prose than I do, and this reordering and clarifying part is probably exactly the stage that tips my work toward concrete communication. I’m learning now, as I’m teaching myself to write poetry, that the comprehensibility of Polska, 1994 is a choice I made, and it’s the right choice for that book.

My second favorite stage is any day you come back to the work after not reading it for a while (sometimes you have to let your work breathe before you can edit it well). I will do anything to avoid reopening the work, because in that cooling off period I’ve developed an idea of how terrible it all is. But then I open the manuscript and find phrases that are so good and so unfamiliar I don’t feel like I wrote them. That moment is perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole process.

4. Meanwhile… you wrote and published a book of writing prompts. Tell us how/why that came about. 

After all that writing and rewriting, I was ready to try something lighter. My day job involves writing blogs and other copy for the internet in this easygoing voice that tells you how simple it is to change your life for the better. My coworker, Rebecca Bridge, noticed that Write Bloody Publishing had a contest for a book of writing prompts. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing for years, and we thought it would be fun to take all the advice we’d received over the years and all the lessons we learned through our projects and write a book that could help and inspire other writers.

We wrote the book comparatively quickly and bouncing the text back and Clear Out the Static in Your Attic_coverforth was fun. The result is Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. Writing is really hard work, but it can be immensely enjoyable at the same time. This book, I hope, can help writers of all skill levels balance the two. It might just change your life.

 

 

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