When it Comes to Revising, Which Way Should I Go?

Lately, I’ve been channeling Dorothy Gale in the unfortunate area of general confusion about how to proceed with my writing. (If only I’d started channeling Judy Garland in the area of singing. If only.)

I’m at the point where I have first, even second, drafts of more than one novel manuscript. They all need work. Like a lot of work. And revising is never a hardship for me—I’m an editor, after all. I like editing. and trying to find solutions to story problems. So what’s the hang up?

For a long spell this fall, there was a sizable hang up indeed—that of deciding upon what to spend my sadly few writing hours. Do I keep pushing forward with the historical fantasy story that was my thesis in Lesley’s MFA program? Do I dive whole-hog into one of two contemporary YA stories instead? It’s nice, of course, to be in the position where I have multiple drafts of multiple stories.

But which way do I go?

The siren song of first one, then another, would call me. And I’d answer each call. Briefly. Always very briefly. It look a while to figure out that there’s a way I could use this to my advantage. Which is what I hope I’m now doing. So I have two stories that I’m revising—one much more complex than the other. I give time to both and then take breaks from both—it’s turned into a giant switch-up.

There’s clearly going to have to come a time when, like Odysseus, I lash myself to the mast and force myself to listen to the siren song of one of these stories—and do my best to sail right past it and stay on course with the other.

But for now, I’m doing what makes most sense—and keeps me sane and writing. Even if, alas, not singing like Judy Garland.

 

Well, Hello There

A lot feels like it’s happened since I last posted here—perhaps because it has. Yet another inane national conversation about the general merits of reading YA has come and (thankfully mostly) gone. The school year ended for the rest of my small family. The Supreme Court has made some questionable decisions (don’t get me started). Three fingers on my left hand decided to up and stop doing useful things like feeling what I touch and bending. And with the help of medication and physical therapy, they’re very slowly starting to work again.

Then there was my last ever residency, at the end of which I graduated—at long last—from Lesley’s MFA program.

Really, that’s a lot in a few short weeks. Immediately after graduation, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I won’t be at the next residency in January, and neither will the many friends who graduated alongside me and who’ve returned to their homes in other, far-flung places. But once that time of grieving for what’s past was over, I mostly feel—with the exception of my fingers, which are still kind of numb—kind of…exhausted.

Not in a bad way, though. More in a taking stock way. I’m reading through the story that made up my thesis (as well as most of my time at Lesley) and slowly rebuilding the opening chapters. Because I know things now that I didn’t before about the story, and the beginning just doesn’t work anymore. And it’s good to be in place where I can realize that—and begin to see the forest for the trees (and maybe vice versa, too).

So, onward. To new revisions, new stories, new books to read, and new experiences. Maybe even a blog post or two every now and again. I’m crazy like that.

On MFA Residency and “Juan-uary”

Juan Pablo Galavix
ABC/Craig Sjodin

Do you watch The Bachelor? No? Whether you do or don’t, if you’re tuned into any kind of pop culture or own any kind of electronic device, you must have keyed into the fact that ABC has dubbed this month “Juan-uary” in honor of the current (hunky, deliciously clueless) Bachelor, Juan Pablo Galavis.

My husband and I love this show. So much so that I won’t even deign to call it a guilty pleasure—it’s just a plain, old pleasure. Last week’s season premiere did not disappoint. There was the usual round of craziness: The lady who shows up pretending to be pregnant. The other lady who brings her massage table with her, just because. The folks who give new meaning to the phrase “odd jobs” (I’m looking at you, “Free Spirit,” “Dog Lover,” and “Former NBA Dancer”). But it also was crazy on a whole different level: as in he gave the coveted First Impression Rose to someone who could barely tolerate his presence, and then during the rose ceremony, someone actually mistook Kat for Kylie—you know, the kind of mistake anyone could make—and two ladies came for a single rose.

Did I mention that I love this show?

Are you beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to get to the part where The Bachelor is like my recent MFA residency?

Well, wait no longer, because here it is: Like the beginning of Juan Pablo’s “journey,” my nine days at residency at Lesley were a little bumpy. The first day was cancelled because we got over a foot of snow. On the second day, I apparently dropped my wallet in the parking lot of a shopping center near campus. No one turned it in. This resulted in hour upon tedious hour of organizing bank, credit card, license renewal—you name it—all in the midst of seminars, workshops, readings, and time with friends I only get to see twice a year.

Then on Friday, it snowed again and I slipped on a patch of ice and hurt my knee. Nothing’s broken—only woefully swollen and sore. And so I missed the last day of residency.

The thing is, this was my last full residency, the one that kicks off my thesis semester in a program that has meant a lot to me. But, just like the proverbial path to true love (you had to know I’d bring it back to The Bachelor somehow), the course of this residency just didn’t run as smoothly as I’d hoped.

Even so, it was—as always—wonderful to see friends and faculty, to talk about writing with people who are also on this crazy journey, to think about craft and dive a little deeper into a story that’s come so far—and still has so very far to go.

So, Juan-uary didn’t begin quite as I thought it would. Big deal, right? I’m still on this wild MFA program ride for The Right Reasons. And as any true fan of The Bachelor will tell you, that’s all that really matters.

The Bend in the Road

020_021

“Anne had a long meditation at her window that night. Joy and regret struggled together in her heart. She had come at last . . . suddenly and unexpectedly . . . to the bend in the road. . . . but Anne realized as well that when she rounded that curve she must leave many sweet things behind . . . all the little simple duties and interests which had grown so dear to her in the last two years and which she had glorified into beauty and delight by the enthusiasm she had put into them.” —L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

It is not unusual for Anne Shirley to come to my mind unbidden, but today, this particular passage is first and foremost in my mind. Because I’ve come to a bend in the road—one that I hoped for and need, but one that also is bittersweet as all such things must be.

After nearly seven years—long enough so that my daughter has no recollection of me working anywhere but there—yesterday was my last day in the office at a publishing company that I love dearly. I’m not leaving completely, of course. I’m extremely pleased to say that I’ll still be acquiring and editing books with them. But now it will be as a freelance editor working from a quiet corner in my own home.

There are many wonderful things about this, cutting the endless commute out of my world not  the least of them. But it also gives me time to deal with schoolwork, time with family, and time to write in a more meaningful way—all while still working with authors and illustrators and on books that mean an awful lot to me.

On the flip side, I will miss the colleagues and friends in the office who have played such a huge role in my world week after week, year after year. And that’s a pretty gigantic flip side.

In the end, though, I welcome this bend in the road, and if I face the uncertainty of what lies beyond with a little bit of wistfulness, I also face it with great hope. Because there’s beauty and delight in what’s already been—and perhaps still more in what’s to come.

 

Stress Writing

The last few weeks have been among the most exhausting and stressful that I’ve encountered in many, many years for reasons far too mundane (and personal) to get into. Suffice to say, I’ve been feeling flat out.

When stress hits, some people turn to food. Some take to alcohol. Others turn to caffeine, exercise, bad TV—you name it. But I’ve got dietary restrictions that limit what I can eat and drink, and caffeine and my stomach are not the best of friends. So what’s a gal to do when stress hits hard?

Certainly, I’ve watched my share of good (and bad) television of late in an effort to take it down a notch or two. But I’ve also taken to writing to blow off some steam. Not writing of the useful MFA program variety, or even of the lucrative freelancing variety. Instead, I’m writing fluff. And it turns out that it’s a wonderfully fun to write fluff—where there’s no pressure, no deadlines, no expectations. Nothing at all but me sitting by the fire with my laptop and churning out whatever I feel like writing. And what I feel like writing is pure fluff.

This would have distressed me to no end mere months ago. I would have further stressed myself out by worrying that I wasn’t expending creative energy in more serious ways. Now…well…who honestly cares? It’s fun, it’s harmless, and it’s gotten me through the rather tedious month of November and beyond. I wrote 51 pages of a new story last week, just because I was on edge.

So, while I cannot actually eat the marshmallow-y goodness known as Fluff, it turns out I can churn out fluff on the page at breakneck speed when my psyche needs it.

Now if only I could have some caffeine….

 

 

After Residency

SAM_0619After the seminars are done, the manuscripts have been workshopped, and the lights turned off after so many nights of wonderful readings, the dust begins to settle.  A low residency MFA program can be both an incredible blessing and an incredible challenge. And the most challenging part of all is saying goodbye to the very talented and kind friends—old and new at this point—whom you know you will not see again until January, and whom I’ll miss despite Facebook, Twitter, and emails.

Now, after more than a week of long days and nights, of hours sitting in classrooms and around campus, and of dining hall food that leaves quite a lot to be desired, I’m home and decompressing.

For me, this means an early morning run and spending time with family before digging back into my job and the regular routine of life. It also means diving into this semester’s glorious pile of reading, getting organized, and doing the hard work of getting back into a story that’s been on a short (and needed) hiatus. Even as exhausted as I am at this moment—and I am so very tired indeed—the prospect of this work is so exciting that I’m thinking about it in the middle of the night, as I run, and throughout the day.

This means that the residency did everything it’s supposed to, in the end. And while I already miss being on campus and being with friends there, I’m more eager than I imagined I could be to start writing again. Let the work begin!

Defending the MFA Program

In the last week, I’ve read two articles in two very different publications about MFA programs. As a student in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program, I clearly carry a bias in favor of creative writing degree or else I wouldn’t be enrolled in one. But in reading both of these pieces—Liesl Schwabe’s, “BEA 2013: Factory Town: New York City’s MFA Industry” in Publishers Weekly and Jon Reiner’s “The Modern Writing-School Paradox: More Students, Fewer Jobs, More Glory” from The Atlantic—it seemed clear to me that both were ultimately missing the point of the MFA program.

Liesl Schwabe likened the proliferation of creative writing programs in New York City to factories churning out a product. And while she concedes that the verdict is out “whether or not creative writing can or should be taught—or if the explosion of M.F.A. programs is contributing to or depleting the originality of contemporary American literature” she goes on to assert that, “it’s safe to say that in New York City’s world of letters, business is booming.”

In a city like New York—arguably the home to the U.S. publishing industry and a city with a rich cultural and art scene—it seems unremarkable that there would be a plethora of writing programs. As an editor and a writer, I bristle here and always when people refer to the making of books as a business. Sure, you have to make money or you won’t be able to continue to make books. But I challenge you to find anyone in the “business” who’s in it for the filthy lucre. We all know that we’re there for the books—for the creation of literature—not to get rich. And that’s the honest truth of the situation.

In The Atlantic, Jon Reiner seems to take issue even with the idea of literature, asking, “Why are there so many student writers at a time when the death of literature has become accepted wisdom?” There has been, of course, a lot of doom and gloom over ebooks and digital reading and how the publishing industry is dying. But as someone who works in the publishing industry and is also excited about the possibilities that digital storytelling can hold, I am here to assert that while the publishing industry is certainly evolving, it’s just as certainly not dead. Storytelling—indeed literature of all stamps—is not dying, even if in certain tony circles that’s the sophisticated opinion to hold.

Jon Reiner bemoans the way the publishing industry—perhaps in a sign that we don’t publish real “literature” anymore?—is “privileging ‘story’ over the craft of writing” as part of his critique of MFA programs. He also claims that, “The sprouting of writing programs indicates that the lure of having people read and applaud your work still outweighs the fears student writers may have about the pain and aggravation of being called “witless” in a public forum.”

My personal experience as part of a creative writing program tells me that both of these statements are blatantly false. The very essence of the program I’m lucky enough to be a part of is the craft of writing. If the students in this program were only interested in the basest levels of storytelling, I’d argue that they wouldn’t be there at all. The entire program is about honing your craft—and not just on the sentence-by-sentence level (although as an editor, I know how important that is, too).

The idea that one would enter a creative writing program—and spend a whole lot of hard-earned cash on it—simply to get praise for one’s writing is not only misguided but just plain wrong. If you want to get your work blindly praised, share it with your friends and family. If you want to hear some hard truths about your writing and how to improve it, you can check your vanity at the door and enroll in an MFA program.

What both of these articles also miss is that a creative writing program is not an industry or a way to avoid ever being critiqued—it’s a rich community of fellow writers who are also honing their craft and who’s work and opinions help you grow as a writer with each passing day. And that’s a gift, not a factory.

Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.

 

Meeting Your Deadlines: The Death Star Trash Compactor of Writing

Sometimes as a writer, you’re going along perfectly happily rescuing the metaphorical princess Leia of your story—and then a deadline that seemed quite far away starts to close in on you like the walls of the trash compactor on the Death Star.

You try to brace for it, but there’s nothing that can hold the huge steel walls of the compactor at bay. You feel something brush against your leg and know that nothing good is lurking underneath the filthy water. There are no droids fiddling with the computer system to save you.

And quite frankly the smell is getting to you.

My latest deadline in my MFA program is today, and even though there’s not a heck of a lot I can do to my work at this late stage, I’m still feeling the crunch. I know everything will get sent off in proper fashion, but it’s hard not to feel that if I just had more time to revise, I could make this submission just a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

In other words, it’s a self-inflicted trash compactor of doom, and the walls closing in on me are ultimately comprised of my own compulsion to try to make everything perfect. Which means that droids aren’t, in fact, going to be able to save me—only I can.

Choosing to try to write means choosing to accept your (and your writing’s) imperfections, even while trying to work through them. That said, there are definitely times when I wish there was a Force to reach out and guide me to right path, the right turn of phrase, the perfect revision. That I could send a garbled message telling Obi Wan that he’s my only hope—and that somehow Alec Guinness will put together a rag-tag group of kids to come and save me.

Barring that, though, I guess I just need to let go and get my submission in!

Steering Out to Mid-sea

page from original manuscript of George Eliot's Middlemarch
A page from George Eliot’s original manuscript for Middlemarch.

Anyone who knows me also knows that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is my touchtone, my Good Book. Some people turn to religious texts in times of trouble or even great joy. I turn to Middlemarch. This is not for inspiration as writer or even in an attempt to emulate her craft or techniques—it is a singular work, not to be imitated.

A friend and colleague who knows me far too well gave me an amazing gift for Christmas this year: a silver bracelet with this epigram from Middlemarch inscribed on it: I would not creep along the coast but steer out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars.

I wear this bracelet everyday. It’s small, simple, completely unobtrusive, and goes with whatever I happen to wearing (and since most of my wardrobe is also simple and completely unobtrusive, it works out nicely). Yet it allows me to carry a piece of this book with me everywhere I go, and there’s something deeply comforting about that.

I would not creep along the coast but steer out to mid-sea by guidance of the stars

This year, as I’ve thrown myself headlong into a world in which I’m a part-time editor, a full-time MFA student, and an all-the-time mother, somehow having these words about me all the time has meant more than just comfort.

I’ve never wanted to creep along the coast, to take the road that’s been appointed to me and stay safely on it. I guess that’s why I’m putting myself and my husband into debt right now on a degree—and a dream—that might not ever come to the fruition I hope it will. But to not try, to not keep pushing myself, is unthinkable.

Though unlike Tennyson’s Ulysses (or Homer’s, for that matter) in almost every way, I want to “drink Life to the lees.” I want to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.” For some, this would mean a life of exploration and adventure. For me personally, at home with a family I adore, the adventure is the writing.

So, I’m trying to steer out to mid-sea, and if the stars can guide me in any way, let the heavens bring it on.