Monday, November 27, 2006

One Down, Three to Go

On Saturday, I sent my last packet of writing to my Advisor concluding my first semester in Goddard's low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. It felt anti-climatic. While the book is much further along than it was when I started the semester, it's not done.

The last few weeks I kept myself focused on the non-book reqirements by telling myself that I'd have plenty of time to focus soley on the book once the semester ended. Now that it's over, all I want to do is sleep. I gave myself the weekend to play. Hubby and I drove to Granville to see the Alligator Indian Mound, eat at the Buxton Inn, and hang out at River Road Coffeehouse (one of my all-time favorites). But Monday morning was bound to roll around.

This mood reminds me of childhood. All summer long I bugged my parents to take me to the zoo. "Can we go today?" I cried day after day. In mid-August when the magic day dawned, we'd pack the car for the hour-long drive to Columbus. By the time we arrived, I was tired and cranky. I knew better than to say it, but I thought to myself, "I'm tired. I want some ice cream and I want to go home."

So this morning I'll give that little girl who still lives so vibrantly inside me a pep-talk. We'll head over to Colin's Coffee (formerly Brewster's) and get a large decaf soy extra-foam one-sweet-n-low latte. Then I'll begin to re-read the letters from my MFA Advisor, taking notes on the changes I need to make. Once we get started all will be well.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Time-Out

I was in New Mexico from November 8 through 15th to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Natalie Goldberg's best-selling book, Writing Down the Bones. Now that I'm back home, I've got to knuckle down again. It's the last week of my first semester in Goddard's MFA program in creative writing and I need to send my fifth packet of material (approximately 40 pages of written work) to my advisor on Friday, November 24th. Perhaps you can tell I'm a little busy. I'll post a full report next week. Until then - let's all just keep writing!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Meditation

So just what the heck does meditation have to do with writing anyway? I get this question a lot. There's many answers, but here's just one for today. Meditation slows down my mind and helps me recreate characters and action.

In the type of meditation I practice and teach, we set up conditions and perform exercises which slow and focus the mind. We sit still or we move slowly. A still body calms the mind. We focus on one thing - the feeling of the breath or the feeling of our feet as we slowly move across the floor - and we gently bring our minds back again and again to that object in order to develop concentration. We practice experiencing the present moment. We see it, smell it, hear it, and feel the touch of it right now.

In Memorial, the book I'm (still) writing, there's a scene on The Palms golf course in Mesquite, Nevada. My first draft failed to capture the power of the landscape and the mixture of tension and joy I experienced with my father. When I began to edit the scene, I had to close my eyes and become still enough to allow a day more than ten years ago to play out across the screen of my mind. Here are some images that came to me: the heat and dust, the color of the mountains, my father's hands on the club as he set up the shot, the sound of the gasoline engine in the golf cart, my hand on the side of the cart and the breeze in my hair as Dad gunned the engine and we sped down an enormous hill, the sound of his laughter and the feeling of my own laughter as it arose from my chest. By developing a calm, concentrated mind (my mind still wanders as all minds do), I improve my chances of remembering the important details.

This works for fiction too. When I'm working on a short story, I step inside the main character and look out at the world through his or her eyes. What did she see, hear, smell, taste, touch? How did she feel?

Could I learn to do this without meditating? Of course! I can't quite see Hemingway sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion. But for me, meditation expedited the process.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Analysis Paralysis

In the continuing saga of my attempts to learn how to write a critical paper of the type required by Goddards' MFA program in creative writing, I went to the main library microfilm room (first time in 20 years) and read twelve reviews of Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy’s Life, hoping to ignite a fire. I found little help. Most of the authors compared Tobias’ tale with his brother Geoffrey’s, The Duke of Deception, which I have not yet read.

I realize now that I missed my chance. I was given the golden opportunity of driving Professor Tobias Wolff to the Columbus airport Saturday. Perhaps I should have asked him exactly what he intended when he was choosing scenes for the sub-plot of his relationship with his mother (the subject of my paper). But it was 6:30AM. He looked as if I had woken him. And I was primarily thinking about the dog hair I had forgotten to sweep from the back of my station wagon where his bags were riding. So I did not ask.

But, if I ever contact Wolff for a book jacket blurb, I'll just say, "I'm the woman from Columbus with the dirty car that got dog-hair all over your luggage when I took you to the airport." I'm sure he'll remember.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Would This Be Cheating?

I used to think of myself as a rather intelligent person. Then I encountered the "critical writing" papers required in graduate school. I feel the same way I did when I first took up golf - frustrated. I repeatedly whacked the ball unskillfully in the wrong direction and, after a bit, gave up. Simply put, I didn't know what I was doing.

Law school trained me to think in a particular way. I studied legal history, learned the language and conventions. When I began to practice, I was able to base my arguments on centuries of case law that I had studied.

Not so with literature. While I have read a great deal, I have not studied it. In studying journalism in undergraduate school, I took one lit course entitled, “The Literature of Men and Women,” in which I learned that male writers (we read mostly Hemingway) are pigs who degrade women. Go figure!

I read many books while studying with Natalie Goldberg, but we were more concerned with sensory detail and the overall way an author structured a book. Natalie liked for us to stay with the author’s own words which she referred to as “the author’s breath.” She didn’t believe in analyzing things. She wanted us to experience them fully. I learned a great deal about how to write, but I didn't learn how to think in the way that graduate school requires.

My MFA Advisor, Aimee Liu, has now bounced both of my attempts at a short critical writing paper back to me. She asks questions I don't understand, suggests comparisons to books I haven't read, and talks in words I've never heard before. I’m not (yet) trained to think that way. I don’t know the canons of literature, haven’t read (not to mention studied) most of the classics, don’t know the lingo, and don’t know how to figure out the literary techniques a writer might use to convey her message.

I'm going to ask if reading either How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster or Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose would help. It feels like cheating, but I don't have time over the December break to go back to undergrad and pick up the literature courses Ohio University didn't require. If all else fails, there’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Critical Reading by Amy Wall.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I'm So Jealous!!!

Today's the day! All you fictioneers get on it. If you haven't signed up for National Novel Writing Month, it's not too late. (Sign up at http://www.NaNoWriMo.org) You too can join the ranks of writers all across the world who will write 50,000 words on a new novel during the month of November.

Back in 2004, I wrote the first 50,000 words of the book I'm still working on (I know - it's a memoir - shhhhh, don't tell). And I didn't even start until November 6th! Last year, 2005, when National Novel Writing Month rolled around and I was still working on the memoir, I patted myself on the head, said, "It's okay. You'll be ready to write a novel next year," and got back to work.

But here it is November of 2006 and I'm filled with envy. I thought I would be done with this book by now! ARRRGGGGGHHHH! I'm watching my friends spring from the starting gate and gallop off into the novelish netherlands without me. Alas! Alack!

Okay. Okay. Acceptance is part of the writer's path and all that crap. I'll be a good sport. Good luck and may the muse be with you!