DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

This Extraordinary Life

The poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth is clipped to the bulletin board in my office. I keep it there because the language is elegant, and it makes me happy. It’s about a moment of joyful appreciation for a field of daffodils, and the memory of those flowers that repeatedly delights and inspires the poet.

This is, on one level, a poem about the creative process, about how a writer’s daily experiences make up the material for his or her work. Seeing a field of flowers is something that one might not register as extraordinary. It could be easily missed. And, yet, by happenstance, Wordsworth does see the field and, because it is the poet’s job, he lingers. And, later, in his revery, he makes something of it: a source of personal delight, and the inspiration for a poem.

Moments of quiet revelation are elusive as lightning bugs, and just as hard to capture. Perhaps they have always been so, but they seem particularly so now, in our age of social media, smart phones, highways, and overnight shipping. Everything is on demand. That’s why this poem speaks to me, because it’s a reminder that the job of the artist is, primarily, to notice. And to notice, one must be engaged and present for the stuff of life. The walks, the travels, the conversations, the chores, and the frustrations are all opportunities to pay attention. The daily, ordinary, even mundane moments of life are full of beauty and mystery. It is the artist’s job to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary, and to hold it up for all to see.

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Me, Refocusing

When the writing is hard, and nothing is flowing, and I’m tired down to my fingernails, so tired that I can barely make a sensible thought much less translate a thought into a beautiful sentence, it seems so much easier and much more fun to check and see what kind of pictures my friends have posted of their vacations and their babies. Maybe I’ll see if my favorite store is having a sale. Then I will check a few other stores just for good measure. These are also the times that I wonder what that actress from that one show has been in before, or it might drift across my mind that I always meant to buy that album by that band that was hip back when I was pregnant.

It seems kind to give myself those distractions. I encourage myself – “You’ve worked hard, you’re tired,” I say – and forgive any guilt as I turn off my mind and indulge in mindless browsing of materials and information.

But it’s not kind. There are so many challenges to my writing, so many obligations and projects vying for the moments of my day. What business do I have squandering the precious few moments that I have set aside for my work?

I recently heard an interview with Walter Dean Myers, replayed this summer in commemoration of his life, and every syllable he spoke in his rich, deep voice was full of love for his work. Hearing him speak was inspiring, and reminded me of why I want to write.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes on her blog, “If you don’t write, you will one day die. If you write, you’re still going to die, but you will have disturbed the universe in the best possible way. You will have explored your heart more fully. You will leave behind your stories. The ripples of your creativity will touch countless lives and butterflies will sing your praises.” I’ve had that quote on my desktop for a long, long time.

I say it to myself something like this: Do you want them to say of you that you could find a really great bargain? Do you want your legacy to be that you always knew the latest gossip, could recognize celebrities with accuracy?

Because, I continue, I think you want it to be about the work. I think you want it to be about the words on the page and the magic of making the fiction so true that it becomes real. And, if you want that, which I think you do, there is only one answer when the work is hard, and turning away would be the easier option. You must breathe and go on.

I mean, duh.

Also, anyone seeking inspiration for a creative life, have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about creativity? Watch. Be inspired.

Book Notes: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell“If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.” Eleanor, from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

If Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s joke about the fickle nature of love, Eleanor and Park is Rainbow Rowell’s testament to its power. From start to finish, the book is a heartbreaking, passionate song about and for love.

Eleanor and Park is an unabashed romance, and falling in love is the central plot. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus, though they, unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, do not fall in love at first sight. Park thinks Eleanor is weird, chubby, and pathetic, and knows with certainty that associating with her would crush his carefully constructed, under-the-radar existence. Eleanor lumps Park in with the other mean kids on the bus, though she has bigger problems to deal with in her troubled family life. These two fall in love the way real teenagers often do – bit by bit, then all in a rush. They also talk and act the way real teenagers do. They tease each other, piss each other off, get jealous, and feel insecure. In the safety of their love, they explore this unfamiliar emotional territory, and, as they do, they grow into their real selves. They become stronger where they were weak, and vulnerable where they were closed off.

This novel is a great read for teens because it respects and celebrates authentic experiences and voices, not characters with airbrushed personalities. In Rowell’s book, even the minor characters are dealt with honestly. The parents, teachers, and fellow students live on these pages in all their imperfect humanity, sometimes acting so horribly that I cringed, and other times showing compassion and understanding. The story is entertaining and funny in moments, deeply romantic in moments, and also deals with real hardships. Many adult readers will also enjoy Eleanor and Park, especially since this story is set in the 1980s (though not aggressively so). Any readers for whom cellophane-wrapped Maxwell tapes, bangs arranged in high fans, or Walkmans prompt a sense of nostalgia will likely recognize some aspect of their high school experience in Rowell’s descriptions.

Rainbow Rowell writes about falling in love from deep inside our brains and bodies. The natural, flowing cadence of her descriptions and dialogue ring with the truth of the way first love awakens and changes us, right down to our nerve endings. At one point in the book, Park looks at Eleanor and tries to remember how he felt about her at first. It seems impossible to him that there was ever a time she was a stranger to him, and that he didn’t love her. What a simple statement, and so very true. It’s one of the miracles of being alive, that someone we once didn’t even know becomes the person at the very center of our universe, at the heart of our heart.

Once there was a day when I hadn’t read this book. In the span of a day, the story and its characters went from being strangers to me to being in my heart, nestled deep among my very favorite literary loves. Eleanor and Park broke my heart again and again, and I loved every minute of it. A miracle.

Possible Magic

Each project teaches me something.

When I wrote Weaving the Sea, I learned to go to my writing every day. That one lesson took me a long time to learn. About four years. Over the course of that time, I lost momentum, I lost my bearings, I lost hope that I would ever finish the story. But, then I found myself a writing group, and they inspired me to pick up the thread. I re-read what I’d written, I got myself excited again. And I began to write. I pushed myself to write every day, even for a little while. After some time, I didn’t need as much pushing. It was just habit, and the practice of daily writing kept me profoundly connected to the world of the story in ways that paid off in the quality of my writing.

Now, I’ve just finished Nana’s Bikini. It’s a draft, and to call it rough would be like calling a roller coaster curvy.  It’s ROUGH. Flimsy and thin, too, in parts. But that doesn’t bother me, because the story is out of my head and onto the page. A story in my head, that’s hypothetical, that’s what-ifs and half-remembered dreams. But a story on the page is something I can work with.

I finished the draft of Nana’s Bikini in nine weeks, over the course of a writing workshop at Literary Arts, taught by Emily Chenoweth. The workshop was key. Knowing I had to share work with a bunch of writers kept me accountable. I divided my story outline by the number of weeks in the workshop, and came up with my weekly goals. Before the workshop, that would have sounded like an overly analytical approach. Shouldn’t I write because I’m inspired? Yes, and no. I am inspired, but writing is hard. So I decided that I would write like it was my job. It worked for me. I kept going back to the story, kept plugging away. Enough of that, and eventually there are thousands of words in a document. About 50,000.

I’m exhilarated and proud. And, I’m eager to begin on the work at hand. Because now I know that I can do this one kind of magic, I can create a story where there was none before,  and I have to learn the next spells. I have to take these rough, flimsy words, and tease and polish them into a story that matters, that has the power to move my readers. It sounds like magic, but I know now that it’s a possible kind of magic. Here goes.

 

Acceptable Forms of Cheating

A novel is a big project, is what I’m learning. Overwhelming. Unwieldy. And, sometimes, wickedly elusive.

I suppose this is why, until I finished the draft of my first YA book, my notebooks and hard drives were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, fragments of scenes, and chapters that never saw the light. I didn’t have the stamina to see a novel through to the end.

In finishing the draft of Weaving the Sea, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned to write, even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I was 100% certain that everything coming out of my pen or keyboard was pure, unusable garbage. This was harder than I thought it would be, but my critique partners helped. They were my cheerleaders, and believed in my project even when I did not.

Another thing I learned is that sometimes, when my novel gets particularly cantankerous, I have to put it away and do something else. I admit it: I cheat on my novel.

There are unacceptable forms of cheating, distractions that become almost irresistible when my mind is grappling with a story problem. The Internet calls – loudly – to me in those moments, and that is a dark form of cheating that takes all the wind from my writing sails, and robs me of precious work hours.

Other forms of cheating do the opposite. Doodling, painting figures, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a blog post, and playing with an idea for another project all give me new energy, new oxygen so that I may submerge myself back in the world of my novel.

I cheat with a deadline. After a few juicy hours (or days) of cheating, I feel warm and fuzzy toward my novel. I can be kind toward it (and myself) again.