Sunday, July 30, 2006

Just Like Riding a Bike

I last rode a bicycle in 1996. A few weeks ago the expanding price of gas combined with my expanding hip size inspired me to haul out the old two-wheeler. This morning I finally got around to giving it a whirl.

I stood in the street for a few minutes assessing the situation. The seat was too high. I lowered it. The seat was too low. I raised it. I got on the bike. I got off the bike. I walked it down to a cross street. Too busy. I walked it further down to a more private spot and when I arrived there, I recognized the feeling. I was stalling. I got on the bike and began to pedal.

As I pushed off from the curb, my head buzzed with excitement while fear clenched my stomach. I could be killed by a passing motorist! If I practiced, I could ride across the country! The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. If I just keep pedaling, anything is possible.

Now I'm at my desk. I'm halfway through Larry's Party by Carol Shields. I'd like to finish it today and begin writing the annotation. I also have a scene to edit and I'd like to get a new draft of that done today. Again my head buzzes with possibilities. I'll never finish this book! I'll write the most eloquent scene ever written! Again, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

If I know anything at all, it's that persistence is my practice. I stew and squirm and walk around the desk. I let the dog out and let him back in. I make a cup of coffee then decide I want tea. But eventually, I will push off and that's how the work gets done. I'll tell you about the ride when I get back.

Here I go! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

To Do List

Ever wonder what a semester's worth of work in a low-residency MFA program looks like? Here's my "To Do" list for the next three months:
  • Read 21 books.
  • Keep a reading log of all the books.
  • Choose 17 of those books and write a 2-3 page annotation on each.
  • Revise several of the annotations at least once.
  • Write two, 5-page papers on topics related to two other books from the list.
  • Revise each of these papers at least once.
  • Draft 100 new pages of creative work.
  • Revise the creative work four times.
  • Write five "process letters" to my advisor discussing what I'm doing all semester.
  • Write an evaluation of myself and my advisor.
  • Figure out how to pay next semester's tuition.[Contributions accepted!]
  • Breathe, eat, sleep.
If I don't answer email or phone, I hope you'll understand.

Monday, July 24, 2006

(almost) Stranded in PT

After I left Fort Worden/Goddard MFAW-west Bootcamp at noon on Saturday, my writer/photographer/dog-lover/coffee drinker/friend Deby who lives a bit south on the Pacific shore drove up to meet me later in the day. We spent Saturday strolling through Port Townsend, eating Thai Food and drinking lattes. On Sunday we ventured out to Port Angeles for the Art show on the City Pier to take in sand sculpture and crafts, eat roasted nuts and drink water. It was 85 in the shade - exceptionally warm for this part of the country.

As we pulled back into the Admiralty View Guest Studio where we were staying, her 1994 Land Rover began to steam. She opened the hood to reveal the overflow tank spewing antifreeze. My 1995 Volvo Wagon repeatedly surprises me with similar problems so I recognized the dazed look on Deby's face as we watched the toxic green liquid gush onto the gravel drive.

This morning a friendly tow-truck driver hauled Rover, Deby, and I to Frank's Automotive where he diagnosed a crack in the plastic overflow thingie. Our amazing co-host, Bob (of Admiralty View), stopped by at Frank's to see how we were doing and chatted with us while Frank tracked down the part by phone. Bob left only after hearing that we could nurse the car back to the guest studio and after offering to patch the tank with some boat epoxy.

Frank looked so sad as he told us he couldn't get the overflow tank until Wednesday. My flight leaves Seattle (a two-hour and thirty minute ferry/drive from Port Townsend) at 10AM tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and Deby was scheduled to take me. Frank refused to charge us anything and advised Deby to keep filling the thing with water in order to get it home.

By this time it was almost 1:00PM and Deby and I headed to the co-op for lunch and to figure out how to get me to my flight in Seattle. I ate my tuna sandwich and Deby sipped her smoothie under one of the co-op gazebos. Neither of us spoke. It was hot. We were tired. I was pretty sure I'd missed any shuttles that could have taken me to Seattle today and I feared tomorrow's shuttle would leave too late to make my flight.

In the three days since I'd left Fort Worden, I hadn't seen a single person who'd been there with me. I so longed to be back on "campus" where I could simply walk over to Building 205 and ask someone what to do.

As I was day dreaming, I looked up to see Erin, the Goddard-West Program Director/Liason, walk past. I thought she was a mirage. But when I called, "Erin?" she turned around. She gave me the confused look I give people when I see someone I'm sure that I know, but I'm not certain from which part of my world.

Her face cleared. "Nita!" she said. "How are you?"

"Intensely glad to see you."

Deby and I bombarded Erin with questions. When are the shuttles? Are there rental cars? When is the ferry? How far is it? Is there a bus? What's the fastest way back to Deby's town? and on and on until we determined that, in order to nurse her car back home, Deby would have to drive very close to one of the ferries anyway. She could drop me at the ferry and I could catch an easy taxi to the airport. No problem-o. We thanked "Angel" Erin and nursed the Rover back to the guest studio.

Now I'm sitting up at the table looking out over Admiralty Inlet watching the ships sail past. Deby, Bob, and Carol are down on the "dock" (a deck he has fashioned to look like a little dock) drinking tea and watching the waves while they wait for the epoxy on Deby's overflow tank to dry.

It's not the excitement we had planned, but it's been a great adventure just the same. Everyone is so helpful, so friendly. Bob. Carol. Erin. Frank. I'm amazed at the small-town feel and the way folks reached out to two strangers.

No one can tell me that human nature is inherently selfish. Loving-kindness is alive and well in Port Townsend and I'm sure its heart is beating elsewhere as well.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Six and 1/2 Days Down. One and 1/2 to Go!

I've almost made it through my first eight-day residency at Goddard's MFA program in Port Townsend, WA. The cool breezes are carrying me through. From the folks back in Ohio I hear daily of 90+ degree days with smothering humidity - the kind that reminds me of stepping face first into a blow dryer and make me threaten to leave Ohio in late summer every year.

Last night I swallowed a huge lump in my throat and stood before twenty of my peers to read the opening chapter of my memoir, Memorial, at the student reading. I did it only because another student told me that the faculty retains the reading lists to track which students participate more than others. I'm still a "good student," at heart. They're also asking for student council nominees. No way am I tossing my name in that hat.

As I stood up to read, I made a futile attempt at self-deprecating humor which the members of the audience met with confused stares. My hands shook as I read, but I made it through all three pages without fainting. Luckily I had practiced reading it before one of my writing groups back home and I read slowly to avoid mumbling.

When I went back to my dorm room (I call it "the monastery" because I'm the sole student in that wing), the monkey mind part of my brain went nuts. You don't belong here. Your writing is flat. No one liked what you read. You'll never be a writer. You don't use metaphor. You didn't take any risks. You're boring, boring, boring. Go back to Ohio and stay there before they run you out of here. And on and on and on. I chanted my mantra, "I'm here, therefore, I belong here. I'm here, therefore I belong here. I'm here, therefore I belong here . . ." until I fell asleep.

Before 9:45AM this morning, four people had come up to me to say how much they liked what I read. One woman said, "I loved the images in your work. Your writing is so visual." Another said, "It moved me so much that I got up this morning and phoned my 80 year old father to see how he was." So much for the validity of monkey mind!

Will that inner critic ever go away? Probably not. At least not as long as I try anything new. Push on. Push forward. Don't be distracted. I came here to learn and that is exactly what I'm doing. The Universe is providing plenty of opportunity.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A New Meaning of Stubborn

I decided to leave Fort Worden (home of Goddard MFA-west's bootcamp) for the morning and go into town because I had a little business thing to take care of and I didn't think I could listen to one more story critique without screaming. I was so proud of myself because I found the bus schedule, read it, found the bus stop, stood by it and the bus actually came and picked me up at the time I thought it would. I easily took a transfer downtown and found the copy/office place I needed to find and took care of my stuff with ease.

You would think I could just as easily find the return schedule, eh? Well, I stood at the stop and stood and stood and stood. The "scheduled" time came and passed. The next "scheduled" time came and passed. No bus. So I started walking. Now mind you, it is over two miles (probably closer to three) back to Fort Worden from where I was standing. Did I call a taxi? No. Did I call the bus office and try to find out my mistake? No. Did I walk and walk and walk all the way back to Fort Worden all the while looking behind me as every car passed in hopes that it was the bus? Um (blush), yes.

In my defense I can say that I will sleep well tonight. It was really good exercise. And I only hope I can tap into this same level of tenacity when it comes to my writing. If so, I'll be unstoppable.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Turning Things on Their Ear

Hello from the Pacific Northwest. Things are rocking here at Goddard West. I love my tiny little room in my quiet wing of the dorm. The weather is colder today, but has mostly been beautiful. There's water on two sides of the point where we're located and a lighthouse to walk down to in the fifteen minute break we get once a day.

I just met with my advisor, Aimee Liu, to plan my semester. She's turning my ideas about writing on their ear which is very exciting. We came up with a list of about twenty books that I have to read and do a 2-3 page report on each. I also have to do two, five-page critical papers on what I learn from the books and 100 pages of new writing. All before mid-December. Needless to say, when I get home, I'll be busy.

I told her about my sadness over having to set the memoir aside after doing so much work on it since I came to graduate school to learn about the techniques of writing fiction. Quite casually she said, "Why not turn it into a novel?" It was as if my mind snapped open. That might just fix all the problems I've been having with it.

She suggests keeping the basic details of the stories but use writing it as an exercise to learn how to write a novel - which is after all the main reason I'm in school. She said, "If you hate it as fiction, two years from now you can turn it back into a memoir!" Sounds easy - eh? I'll give it a shot this first semester and if it just doesn't work, I'll do something different next semester. Thankfully, writing, unlike brain surgery, doesn't need to be an exact science! (I paraphrased that quote but can't recall from whom.)

Tonight I'm excited and happy. It's as if I've found my people! It's the feeling I didn't have that first day in law school when I knew absolutely that I was soooooo in the wrong place. Here we talk about writing, think about writing, live, breathe and worship writing and for the most part I understand everything they're all saying! (Except for this one incredibly intellectual professor who's so bright that even the director of the program doesn't know what she's talking about most of the time). And no one's making excuses about why they aren't writing. They're just actually doing it! But even more amazingly, so am I.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

AHHHH! My brain is full!

Second full day of MFA-school residency/bootcamp down (we are staying at a former military base/fort after all) and now that the procedural stuff is mostly out of the way, we're starting to learn about writing. My small group critiqued my story this morning and I didn't cry! (Didn't sniff the bumglue either!) I think their comments will be really helpful.

We all attended the very first Goddard MFA-West graduation today and I teared up as each of the three graduates gave their commencement speeches. In addition to a diploma, each woman received an engraved silver compass since the purpose of Goddard was to help her find her way. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

I still frequently feel like I'm in way over my head, but I don't feel worried. I'm certain that some small portion of my brain is soaking up some small portion of what I'm hearing and that at some later point it will rise to consciousness where I can pull it up for my use. Until then, I'll just keep taking notes and re-filling my Fort Worden coffee mug at the little cafe. No one will be the wiser.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

If I Were a Real Writer . . .

. . . I'd be able to attend 12 hours of graduate coursework and still keep my blog up-to-date, but that doesn't seem to be possible. It's almost midnight in Ohio. (My body's still convinced it's there.) It's almost 9PM in Port Townsend and I'm on a short break between the faculty reading (7:30PM to 8:45PM) and the evening film (9PM to 11PM) after which I shall pass out on my bed. We've been going at breakneck speed since our 7AM breakfast and tomorrow things will get really busy.

Today I learned primarily procedural, academic and bureaucratic things which I keep telling myself will make sense in the long run, but which are currently forming a tornado in my brain.

I received my first semester advisor assignment - Aimee Liu - an amazing novelist and creative nonfiction writer who I believe will be a good match. Tomorrow morning my small advising group (6 of us) will look over the first three pages of one of my short stories. Wish me luck. Anyone ever huffed bumglue? If things go badly, maybe I'll stoop to that!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Here I Go!

Ed (my hubsand) and I have been in Port Townsend, Washington for three days. I haven't written much except postcards and emails home. That should change soon. This afternoon around 3PM I'll check into the "dorms" at Fort Worden State Park, a former military base turned conference center where I'll begin the first residency of a two-year journey toward a master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing through Goddard College (Yes, I know. Goddard's in Vermont, but I'm not).

Fort Worden is also home to Centrum, an amazing arts establishment that hosts concerts and conferences, recitals and plays and makes the same easily accessible to the community. During the week I'm here, Centrum will host the Port Townsend Writer's Conference with writers like Walter Mosley.

Please cross your fingers. I'm a little nervous. I've got that "you're nothing but a silly little farm girl so who the heck do you think you are" tape running in my head. Perhaps you can relate. But I've also got the secret weapons: writing practice and bum glue. If things get tough, I know what to do. Butt to chair. Pen to paper. GO!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Who Knew?

A friend sent this to me with the following comments:

The resemblance is uncanny. Archetypal heroes? Tribute to mythic story telling? Or just another copyright infringement?

What do you think?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Writer, Heal Thyself!

I have no idea what to write here today. I've been doing my other blogs, but not this one. I've been doing my laundry too and catching up on emails and paying bills and preparing for a class I'm teaching and preparing for classes I'm taking. But I haven't written in a couple of days.

That's probably why I feel like crap. Perhaps I should start reading my own blog.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What Ails Ya?

Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms: grumpiness, absent-mindedness, impatience, intolerance, misplacing things, believing that everything that happens to you or someone you know is a symbol of something else, looking backward on life and believing that many ordinary events were foreshadowing, hearing voices, or seeing visions? If so, you're either a paranoid schizophrenic or a writer.

I hate to self-diagnose, but I think I'm a writer. I could take medication for the first ailment, but the writing disease has only one known cure. Butt to chair. Pen to paper. I've tried other remedies: ignoring it, chanting mantras, becoming a lawyer, distracting myself with shopping and eating. To no avail. After all was said and done, I was still a writer. When I'm not writing, I'm miserable. Just ask the people closest to me. We all agree that I'm best when I'm writing.

How about you?

If so, you know the cure. Write!

Sunday, July 02, 2006


Sometimes when I'm bored, I write a pantoum. According to Poetry Form, "the Pantoum became popular in Europe and later North America in the nineteeth and especially the twentieth century."

"[It]. . . first appeared in France, in the work of Ernest Fouinet in the nineteenth century. Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire made the form fashionable. For more on this history and for examples of the Pantoum, see The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland."

Here's the format:

1 2 3 4 - Lines in first quatrain.
2 5 4 6 - Lines in second quatrain.
5 7 6 8 - Lines in third quatrain.
7 9 8 10 - Lines in fourth quatrain.
9 3 10 1 - Lines in fifth and final quatrain.

Here's today's stab at one:

1 I'll show you my gleaming scars
2 Take notes
3 Later we can compare
4 Ridges and bumps and bruises and puckers

2 Take notes
5 Smooth bodies don't interest me
4 Ridges and bumps and bruises and puckers
6 Thrill me at their sight

5 Smooth bodies don't interest me
7 I want to know you've lived
6 Thrill me at their sight
8 Ask me your hardest question

7 I want to know you've lived
9 And while we're talking truth
8 Ask me your hardest question
10 If you don't believe me

9 And while we're talking truth
3 Later we can compare
10 If you don't believe me
1 I'll show you my gleaming scars

Now you try.