Monthly Archives: October 2014

On Being a Writer

My first ever writing workshop was easily one of the worst experiences I have had as a writer. I didn’t know how to respond to my classmates’ commentary, nor was I allowed to respond. That’s how it works it writing workshops. You sit and you take it, just like I sat and I took garbage for years from people in my life—I was never allowed an opinion or a voice. Not being able to respond is not something that inspires confidence within. I went into that workshop actually liking something I had written, for the first time ever. But no one else did. It brought me right back to that place, that place of not being good enough.

The piece all started with a dog. I interviewed an animal shelter worker who told me an incredibly interesting tale about a dog she had fallen in love with that was about to be euthanized unfairly. I decided that the best way to tell the story was to use both first and second person, alternating between the two in different crots to help create a profile of the doomed dog. I emailed the professor before the workshop:

“I’m really nervous about workshopping it because it’s SO totally different from any piece I’ve ever written.  It’s essentially done at this point, so I might as well go ahead and put it up.  But I find that I keep tinkering and moving things around.  I’m not sure why I like the second person, but I do.  It allows me to put myself in a situation I wasn’t actually in while still remaining removed.  Switching tenses allows me to show where I’m actually IN the scene.  If that makes sense.  I’m excited to see what you think.  I hope it doesn’t suck.”

She wrote back:

“I’m excited to see what it looks like!”

Then I got to class.

The class did not like the different points of view. They called them terrible and disastrous. The nail that hurt the most was the comment, “This literally killed the piece for me.” I thought that the piece was beautiful, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that. To keep my mouth shut, I wrote in my notebook while people were talking.  What is truly amazing to me, looking back at that notebook now, is how the quality of my writing slowly degraded over the course of the twenty minute session.  I started out putting a positive spin on comments that were said to try and make myself feel better.  Then I moved into just plain writing was said, and after that I started adding in my own little phrases to what people were saying.

“Your lack of transitions is horrible.  Grr.  You’re an idiot.”

“The tense shifting doesn’t work; you need to come up with a better mode of transition because you’re weird and nobody gets where you were going with it.”

“You (using it) is obnoxious.  Get rid of it.”

“*sad face*  Why did you think this was a good idea?”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  I have three pages of commentary that I wrote down, and they stopped being useful comments after page one.  Where people really were saying the transitions were horrible, I started adding in the little voice in the back of my brain that turned it into a direct insult of me personally.  I take criticism much too seriously; I hear everything as a direct insult.  I thought that I was getting better at it, and I signed up for the first workshop because I thought that I could take it.  But I couldn’t.  And by the time I was allowed to talk, I was broken.  That wasn’t all the fault of the class; it was partially mine as well.  I left in tears.

The professor emailed me within the hour:

“Your profile was awesome. I should have defended what I knew to be amazing about it more to the rest of the class. I tried to lead them into understanding. It failed.

The thing is, I’m asking all of you to take risks, and as writers, you may be better at taking risks than at interpreting the risks of others as readers. I think that was the case today–I think that for both you and for [the other student] no one seemed to give the benefit of the doubt.

This is the first one though. I’ll be better next time, now that I know a bit more about what I’m dealing with.

What’s ironic is that because your piece was such a strong piece, I wanted to make sure (if I could) that you went second–because I felt that if you went first, and we were nothing but praise, [the other student] might feel embarrassed or sad in comparison when we didn’t give him as much as we gave you.

I’ve made several people read this piece because I’ve thought it worth sharing. It makes me want to go get that dog! And if you could make [someone] feel bad for the dog, you are doing something right. You do not need to change the point of view.”

I replied later and asked the professor how to take things less personally, to which she responded: “I don’t know how…You shouldn’t feel judged by people who weren’t able to meet the piece where it is. It’s like when you send stuff away; some people like it, some people don’t. I think “rejection” letters never get easier to handle.”

Over the course of that class, the only real workshop I had before graduate school, I got better at being workshopped. At handling the criticism. At separating myself from both the negative and the positive. I started understanding that while the work is mine, and because it’s memoir, it’s me in a way, it also isn’t me. It’s my work.

I got to graduate school and I promptly forgot this lesson. I prepared a gender profile piece, outside of my chosen and comfortable memoir genre, for my first workshop. I finished it, and certain it sucked, I instead submitted a memoir piece that I had prepared for the second workshop. The memoir piece was good, and I knew it. The reviews I got were strong. Though it was definitely a scary topic to approach with a group of near strangers, and took quite a bit of bravery to admit the topic on my part, I knew that it was my writing at its best. I played it safe with my submission, and saved the gender profile for the second workshop.

That workshop was this week. As I had already recognized, the gender piece had problems. My struggle to protect a source who wanted to remain anonymous left the piece with generalizations and vagueness throughout. My usual scene work just simply wasn’t there, because I wasn’t sure how to deploy those scenes in a piece meant to be more factual. Worst of all, I tried so hard to put all of the interviews and research together that I forgot about my old friend, passive voice. The difference between this workshop and my first ever was that the piece really wasn’t me at my best, and the criticism I got (minus one not so nice comment) was constructive. But I still left in tears. I had never submitted a piece for people to read before that I didn’t know on some internal level was good. While the gender piece is good, it has definite flaws. However, I have learned a good lesson from it.

I’m too emotionally attached to my writing. That is why a lot of my writing does not get shared. I hear the critique and I put it on myself. I wrote the piece, so I own the blame? Right? Right, in a way. Writing is about fixing, about revising. I’m the writer, so I own the blame, but I also own the power to fix what is wrong, what is broken. A critique isn’t a personal attack on me. (At least, it shouldn’t be). It’s a suggestion for improvement, it’s a way to make my writing better. And it’s a thing that I need to suck it up and deal with if I’m going to be a writer.

And I’m going to be a writer.

I could be good. Hell, I could be great if I could just let myself BE. It is incredibly difficult for me to step outside of my writer box, let alone my person box. Critiques make me doubt myself, and I can’t let that happen. I want to be able to trust my work, and myself. Trust that I can take a work I have begun and make it better. I want to be a writer, and to be one, I need to pick myself up, dust myself off, and be ready to fall back down on my ass. Because I will. A lot.

Bring on the stunt bag.

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The Great Food Caper (Or, The Ghost That Haunts My Apartment)

The following is an actual conversation that occurred today via text:

Roommate-So I ran a little experiment today.

Me-Oh really?

Roommate-I left something out (food) it looks like a piece was cut from it. Weird shit.

Me-[Other roommate]?

Roommate-He’s in Cali!

Me-Ah.

Roommate-You’re not freaked out?

Me-I don’t think someone came in and cut a piece of food. That seems crazy. What was it?

Roommate-Bread. It was in my room though.

Me-Mouse?

Roommate-Maybe.

Me-Maybe tomorrow put tape on the door somewhere not obvious. Then you’ll know.

Roommate-True! I think someone is playing a prank since Halloween is around the corner.

Me-How would someone get in?

Roommate-Idk…*thinking cloud emoticon*

Me-Exactly. 🙂

This text exchange followed a conversation during a spontaneous party my roommate threw last night with several of her friends, during which every single time I came into the common area, they began to talk about the ghost that is haunting our house and eating our food. It reeked of conspiracy to me; she didn’t know that, while I had been Skyping with a friend from home in my room, I could hear their conversation through the wall. They were totally baiting me, though it didn’t come as a surprise.

This all began over a simple carton of ice cream.

A week ago this past Saturday, I got my grocery order. I always have ice cream delivered, because I would never make it home with it on the bus. I had one scoop of it. I went back to it on Thursday night, and there was literally ONE SCOOP left in the carton. ONE. I held it in front of my roommate’s face while she was straightening her hair, with the lid off. “Did you eat this?” I asked, as if she was a naughty child, or my cat. “No,” she replied. “I’d be sick if I did. I can’t eat dairy or chocolate.” (Never mind that she has milk all the time. I’ve seen her). But then she paid me for the carton. “Just in case” she was sleepwalking and pilfered my food “on accident.”

I was determined to just let it go, even though I had had a bad day. Even though I really wanted a bloody dish of ice cream. Even though I knew she had to be lying. Even though she followed it up with yet another tirade on the haunting, complete with a mysteriously appearing carton of spaghetti (that has been in the cardboard since I moved in) and doors that open without anyone opening them (our apartment is windy and the cabinets don’t latch well). I blew her off. I wanted to just move on, take her money, and buy myself more ice cream. 

But now this. It seems to be an incredibly extravagant attempt to convince me that the apartment is haunted, which can mean one of two things. A-My roommate is crazy. B-My roommate wants me to move out.

What my roommate does NOT know is that I have been looking, have put in applications, and have been approved for other living situations. I would happily move out. I might as well be living independently in my tiny room for all the time I spend in the common area. Everyone in the neighborhood speaks Spanish, the other tenants are odd, and I hear strange noises in the backyard at night that sound like chainsaws. (I really wonder sometimes what they’re doing back there.) I’m an adult who has had multiple leases, and is well aware that what we have right now is not legally binding. This means that I could leave any time I want. The issue lies in my security deposit, which resides with my roommate. I cannot afford to move without it.

Heck, maybe the “ghost” can get it back for me.

In the interim, I’ve ordered a food locker for the fridge off of Amazon. Another day in the life of a grad student.

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Here’s to Being Me

Today I was told that I am too loud. Abrasive. That women need to be quiet and respectful when talking to men if they want that respect to be reciprocated. That men don’t like me because I don’t fit this profile, that this profile is what makes a good female manager. I felt at first like the little girl who never got picked for either of the teams in kickball; I told myself not to cry because the speaker was just being a butthead. The attack was completely unwarranted. I struggled to figure out where it had come from, because it was so out of left field. And then I realized that I don’t want to be that person who makes excuses for someone who would say these things. Because that is like saying that it’s okay to say them—and it’s not.

I swore that once I got a degree, I wouldn’t put myself back in retail. But I’m here now, and that’s all right. I work in a cash office all day, and sometimes I cashier. It pays for bills and food while I further my degree. So because I enjoy eating, I put up with a lot. Many people assume that cashiers are servants made to do their bidding. They forget that we spend all day on our feet, scanning their shit and counting their money, until we are ready to fall over—and we come back for more each and every day. They forget that we are ordinary people just like they are, trying to get by. They treat us like dirt, like inferior beings, when we are, if anything, superior for putting up with the lot of them. They yell at us, they call us names, they threaten us. And we are still expected to smile and wait on them as if it’s okay. We make excuses for their behavior in order to get through the day, because we don’t know what they’re going through or where they’re coming from.

But I’m mad now, and I won’t make excuses for today. I won’t make excuses for what was said, because there simply aren’t any.

I view the discussion I had tonight as is a warning that women cannot be successful in management. A friend of mine wrote upon hearing this that it isn’t the 50s anymore. Truth. Women are just as awesome at management as men. Some are better. Management skill is not something that is based on gender. But I don’t want to be in management. I came here to write. I came here to be a bigger person that they will ever be. That’s not me being braggy—that’s me simply stating a fact. From the start with this company, I have been talked down to by people above me. I have been insulted. I have been continuously badgered to be someone that I’m not, because I, as I am, am just not good enough to work there.

I’m not a loud person, by nature. I can be exuberant when I’m happy or when I really know someone, but trust me—that does not happen at work. I do my job. I do it well. I care, so I get things done. The fact that I care so much and work hard apparently makes me female-managerial. But my so-called personality and way of speech make me male-managerial, which apparently means I will never be a good manager.

My resume begs to differ. I am good. I am good as ME. The more that I stay in this city, the more that I go to school, the more that I write, the better I am going to be. So here’s to me. Here’s to me being me, and to knowing that the words of someone who doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things will never have the power to change who I am unless I give them that power. *imaginary toast of alcohol*

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On Learning Well (Or, The Art of Being Ready)

I am sitting on the bench in the hallway outside of the Writing Program office, working on a new piece, when the first student to have an appointment comes out to get me. Leaning out the door of the writing program offices, she says, “B’s ready for you.”

B is sitting in someone else’s office, her legs crossed and a bottle of Smart Water in her hand. I sit down, and she says, “You said you had some specific questions?”

I pull my workshop piece out of the portfolio and hand it to her. “Well, for starters…I honestly have trouble deciphering your handwriting.”

B takes the piece from me and turns it to the back page. She reads the words she has written out loud, pointing to each line as she reads so I can learn to understand her choppy lettering. She hands it back when she is finished. “The main issue I have with this piece,” she begins as she leans back in her chair, “is that I have no idea how the narrator gets to the hospital.  Did she drive herself? It seems to me that the narrator is more in control than she believes herself to be.”

I lean back in my own chair. “Okay.” I’m not sure what else to say. “What about the ethics of it?” I am still worried about this. “In terms of the book as a whole? Does this work as an opening? Do I need to give it a more happy ending?”

“The juxtaposition that you use shows the reader what you truly think now, as the writer. But it keeps them in the moment with the narrator. This is a powerful technique. You can’t worry now about the ending; you need to just let it come and the ending will shape itself.”

I make a swirling motion with my hands to try and simulate shaping, and B laughs.

“Tell me,” she prompts. “How did you get there?”

“Well…I drove there.”

“And do you remember that?”

“No.”

“Okay then.”

I put my hand out, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. “Can I put it in there if I don’t totally remember it?”

“You can’t include a detail if you don’t remember it, if you don’t know it for sure. You have to, and you may not want to, I certainly wouldn’t want to, put yourself back there. Remember small details. You just need to thread it in somewhere, something that gives the narrator that credit that they aren’t quite getting. That solidifies her level of control even if she doesn’t know she has it.”

“I had the keys,” I say after a moment. “To the car. In my hand. It could be as simple as that, as a line.”

“Exactly,” B replies. “How did they feel? Focus on these small details. Play it up to draw the reader into the situation. You need to be careful not to overload it; this piece reads like fiction in that you immerse your reader in the story and we don’t want to leave it.”

“I used to write fiction,” I offer tentatively.

“Used to? What changed?” She takes a sip of her water.

“Well, I still do. But now I’m more nonfiction.”

“How did you end up here? What was your background?”

“More English literature than writing. We didn’t really have a writing program, through we had a writing track. I took what I could. There was one class, a nonfiction class, that really changed my thought process and my writing as a whole.”

B smiles. “That must have been some class.”

I nod. “It was. And then I went on to TA for the professor, N, for the next year, and I really learned a lot from her. I knew that this was what I wanted to do because she helped me figure out what sort of writer I was. What sort of story I wanted to tell.”

“This piece is excellent. Historical, in that it strongly captures your memory of the event. Whatever you learned from her, she taught you very well.”

I think back to a conversation N and I had when I was talking myself into going to the grad school program I really wanted, the one I am in now: “If my class was the only one that would have put you in debt, would you still take it?”

I would, ten times over. Because I am here now and wouldn’t be without that class.

I part telling her to read both Wild and Lucky, because I am planning out my next book; she gives me some suggestions, and closes with, “But you have the skills to do this on your own.”

And so I do.

N taught me well, yes. But I also came to her with a modicum of skill that she helped to cultivate. Now I am in this new place with new people who will take that skill and make it even better.

My old life tied to my new life tonight—my first truly fantastic graduate school experience.

I’m here. And I’m ready.

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On the Ethics of Being a Writer

“…memory could save, that it had power, that it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized.”

I read a book last year—Alice Sebold’s Lucky. This book is the story of Sebold’s rape and subsequent recovery during her undergraduate college years. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do, write a book in this way. I set to work over the next several months putting together a manuscript, and while it was a good one that is currently on its way to shelves near you (though probably the small ones :D), it was not precisely the story I wanted to tell. It is overarching, a panoramic view that includes my marriage and my son, instead of a focused shot. The prose is good, but it is vague in places; it dances around the topic of rape without really zeroing in. It leaves out specifics that shouldn’t be left out because I wasn’t brave enough when I wrote it to fill in certain blanks. I want to write a book like Sebold’s, a book that follows the experience from beginning to end without holding punches to show the reader that while it does suck, there IS an end.

I believe I’m different now than I was when I wrote my first book, as evidenced by the piece that I presented to my graduate student workshop. I wanted a real critique on my writing, but it terrified me for weeks beforehand. I was worried that it wouldn’t be a good piece in their eyes, but I was more worried that I’d be judged. Neither of those things came to pass. Not only did the piece go over well, (can’t say “was well liked” with a piece of this nature), but it also caused a lot of people to think. A small ethical argument was inspired by my words. If another survivor reads my work, do I insinuate with the setup of that work that rape is the fault of the victim?

As writers, what responsibility do we have to the reader as to the message that we convey to them? After class, I asked this question of several people and got a few responses:

“I do think writers must consider their readers–but that’s not the same as censoring your truth to protect your readers, which seems presumptuous to me, anyway.”

“It seems to me that you intentionally juxtaposed the idea of it being your fault with the act itself to show the reader that, while you thought it at the time, it was in fact NOT your fault.”

“There’s a certain responsibility to women, to motivating them and teaching them that they aren’t objects and that they aren’t responsible when traumatic things happen.”

“If the book you want to write is the whole arch, from start to finish, could it eventually get to the point where the narrator acknowledges where the fault lies? Because as a stand alone piece, there is a chance that the fault could be confused.”

I still don’t know what to think. All I really considered was how I want my words to someday help people. And while this piece doesn’t cross an ethical line, it is a line that I need to remain aware of. In helping, one can also hurt. As Alice Sebold writes, “memory is often the only recourse of the powerless.” I want to use mine. But I also want to be very, very careful that message I am sending with my story is the right one.

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Give and Take, Good and Bad

Customers in New York seem even more rude than customers in Wisconsin did, if that’s even possible. In just a few weeks, I have had two people call me fat, two people throw things at me, one I’m fairly certain was about to stab me with a pen before he was hauled away, and countless ones losing their tempers for absolutely no logical reason.
I swore to myself that once I had a college degree, I would never again work in retail; I worked really hard for that degree. And yet, here I am. While I understand that this is a means to an end while in grad school, I still hate it. I love the cashiers I supervise, but I hate going to work every day.
New York and retail have me quite blah.

There was a police officer in dress uniform in front of me today at Starbucks. While I was looking down at the floor, playing with my name badge for work, I caught a glimpse of something on the underside of the cap he held in the hand closest to me. I wasn’t trying to snoop, per say, but I was definitely curious. I leaned a little closer and saw it was a photograph. He smiled at me when he saw me glancing down at it, which seemed like an invitation to ask, “Do you mind if I ask whose photo you have taped there?”
“Not at all.” He flipped the cap over more and held it up so I could get a closer look. “Most police officers, fire fighters, and the like carry a photo of one of the fallen from 9/11 under their hats. If you ask, we are happy to show it you. It helps us—and others—to remember.”
There’s good in New York too. I need to remember this.

There is a man who sits on Fifth Avenue in the vicinity of Barnes and Noble almost every day. He puts his back against the brick wall and rests a cardboard sign against his knees: “Please help; my mother died of breast cancer two days ago and I just need 56 dollars for a ticket home. Help me and her get a miracle.”
By my clock, his mother has died two days ago almost forty times now, or every day that I have gone to work in the last seven weeks. It is people like this man who are the reason why I won’t give any money or any second glances to any homeless people, and that makes me a little sad. I worry I am losing my faith in humanity, that New York is burning it out of me.

I left my grad school workshop in tears last week. For a myriad of reasons. Mostly, because I don’t really fit in. I haven’t had a critique yet—though I will tonight. I don’t know how to fit into the conversation. How to make my voice heard. When I reached the bus that would drive me through the Lincoln Tunnel and deposit me safely at my nice, quiet house, it was quite late and only one spot remained. For two of us.
I must have looked pretty damn sad and forlorn, because the man who was in line with me gave me his spot. I have never seen that happen around here. We fight over those tunnel bus seats with a ferociousness that is akin to my cat attacking her food dish at night. He said to me, “You look like you need to go home more than I do.”
A mild spot of faith in humanity was restored that night.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while New York may drive me absolutely bloody mental at times, there is also good in it too. The city, like everything else in the world, is not black and white. It’s give and take, good and bad.
I would do well to remember this, always.

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On Finding the Right Program

“I’m just worried about you, going to New York for a person,” D said. “Because I know you. And if she isn’t who you think, or if it doesn’t work out, and you just go for that, then what’s left after?”
I remember that conversation now, as I sit in the hallway waiting for my literature class to start. For a while there, I was scared she was right. But I just came from, finally, a meeting with my advisor, and now I’m sitting on the tile floor by the elevators drinking a Monster and pondering my life decisions.
The conversation H and I just had is nothing like I thought it would be. I walked into the program’s main office and she was standing there, reshelving a book. Her hair was pinned up with a pencil, a few wisps trickling around her face, and she was standing underneath a free standing lamp. I shook her hand and said “I think we have an appointment.”
“Are you Sara?”
I nodded. She didn’t remember me from our brief meeting at orientation, where we exchanged pleasantries at finally meeting in person over wine and cheese and cookies.
“Come in,” she gestured into her office before entering and sitting down in her rolling chair. She propped her feet up on her desk and turned to face me. “So, how are you?”
My standard response: “Oh, I, um, I’m great. Things are great.” She didn’t know me well enough to get the subtlety hidden in my tone.
“How’s your workshop? Who do you have again?”
I told her the professor and then added, “It’s fine. I mean, I haven’t been workshopped yet. I just now submitted my first piece, and I will hear back on Monday. But it’s not like I thought it would be.”
“Tell me what you mean.” Her face was open and invited me to continue.
“Well, I…I’m just feeling a little lost without feedback. I’m not sure that I’m doing things right, or that I totally know what’s going on. It’s not totally what I thought it would be, but I think that’ll be better now that I’ve had my first workshop. I was cursed by the first letter of my last name to be the last one to go. It’s unnerving.”
“I’m sure you’re doing just fine. What literature class are you in?”
I told her, following up with, “We spend most classes talking about the benefits of regular books versus ebooks. So…What I really wanted was your class.”
“Well,” she smiled, “now that you’ve come to see me and I know you in person, when 25 people sign up for one class, you’ll have a better shot. Because I’ll have a sense of who you are now.”
“Cool,” I said, unsure of what to say.
“So, what else?” She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees.
“I just…I still feel lost. About the program. About what I need to do. How will I know what to do next? Will things get sent to me? How does that happen?”
She proceeded to rattle off a whole list of thing, concluding with: “You’re not invisible. We see you, and we know you’re in the program.”
I sank back into my own chair. Without my even saying anything, she had me completely and totally pegged.
“You’re in the right place, regardless of whatever it is you’re thinking right now to the contrary. And what you need to do now is write. Just write. Everything. On your computer, in a notebook, in the palm of your hand. Speak up in class. Make yourself visible.”
I am still surprised now, as I sit in the hallway, how she knew precisely what I was really afraid of without my having to say. And though my program may confuse me, and my classes may not be what I thought, and the city occasionally scares the hell out of me, I’m not invisible. I’m in the right place.
I picked the right program, and the right person.