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!

Gone About as Fer as I Can Go

This has been a very, very long week. Between work, family, and getting ready for my upcoming MFA residency, there hasn’t been much time to blog. Or to do much of anything else.

But now it’s Thursday night. Residency starts tomorrow. And tonight my brain takes a break from everything. I might watch a movie. I might sit on our porch and listen to the birds sing themselves to sleep. I might read, but only for fun. I’ve turned off for the night.

Because sometimes you can push yourself, and push yourself…and push yourself. Then, like Kansas City, you’ve simply “gone about as fer as you can go.”

Tomorrow, I dig back into residency preparations, and then get to see my friends and fellow students on campus and beyond. And I’m looking forward to that more than I can. But now, I’m on the couch, surrounded by pillows and my loves, taking it real easy!

Slam Dunk! An Interview (and Giveaway) with Jamie Michalak

Frank Remkiewicz, Joe and Sparky Go to School, Candlewick PressToday, I have a real treat in store for you: an interview with the brilliant and hilarious Jamie Michalak, and a GIVEAWAY of a signed copy of her latest book, Joe and Sparky Go to School, which goes on sale today! Jamie’s the author of two other books about these offbeat giraffe and turtle buddies, Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels and Joe and Sparky Superstars, as well as numerous other books for young readers.

So, how did you come up with these two characters—a delicious odd couple if ever there was one— in the first place?

Oh, thanks! I wrote a rough draft of the first book in the series, JOE AND SPARKY GET NEW WHEELS, with my younger sister, so I think we unconsciously based the two characters on our personalities. She was the fun-loving unpredictable Joe Giraffe, and I, being the older sister, was more like the cautious Sparky Turtle telling her to slow down. Like Joe and Sparky, we had many adventures together–dancing, telling jokes, and driving in cars to malls and drive-throughs.

What new adventures might Joe and Sparky have up their sleeves?

Well, the students I’ve meet at school visits have given me many ideas, such as JOE AND SPARKY GET ATTACKED BY A SHARK, JOE AND SPARKY MEET LUKE SKYWALKER, and JOE AND SPARKY ON THE TITANIC. So those are solid. But I’m cooking up one right now that gives Wiggy, Joe’s pet worm, a bigger role. Is he real? Is he imaginary? Questions will be answered.

Do your own kids provide any inspiration when it comes to Joe and Sparky?

YES! I have two boys–ages 9 and 7–and they’re constantly giving me ideas for stories. In fact, they’d been asking me for years to write a scene about Joe and Sparky in a bathroom. So in JOE AND SPARKY GO TO SCHOOL, Joe and Sparky now spend an entire chapter having a ball in the boys’ bathroom–making toilet paper scarves, taking a bath in the sink, and discovering that schools have a magic pond.

How did you come up with all of the wonderful elementary school jargon for Joe and Sparky’s visit to school?

Don’t you just love the sayings teachers use? I asked a group of my teacher friends for their suggestions. They provided all of the sayings that appear in the book. “Clap your hands, stomp your feet, put your bottom in your seat!” is my favorite. One sassy saying that didn’t make it in is “A little dab will do ya, a lot of it will glue ya.” Lots of possible scenarios there!

Your stories and Frank Remkiewicz’s pictures seem like a slam-dunk marriage of words and art. What’s it like to work with him? Have you ever had a chance to meet him?

I love Frank! He’s a super talented illustrator with a brilliant sense of humor, so it’s been a dream to work with him. I always love seeing how he will extend the text with visual jokes. Plus, it’s kind of amazing that he was able to squeeze a giraffe behind the wheel of a convertible. That can’t be easy. Sadly, Frank and I have never met, but we’re pen pals.

You do a lot of school visits. Do you ever have kids tell you that they identify with Joe or Sparky?

Oh, yes. The class is usually split 50/50. The students I’ve met during my school visits actually inspired JOE AND SPARKY GO TO SCHOOL. While speaking, I looked out at the audience and wondered what it would be like if Joe and Sparky were sitting there. What would they do if they spent the day with the kids? What sort of trouble would they get into? As it turns out, LOTS.

I took the Joe and Sparky personality test recently (I’m a Joe!). Have you ever taken it yourself? Are you a Joe or a Sparky yourself?

Of course, you are a Joe! You were Carmen Miranda for Halloween. Joe loves his fruit hats.

According to the personality test, I’m a little like Joe and a little like Sparky. That makes sense. I’m a horrible driver and enjoy road trips and sport socks like Joe; but like Sparky, I have been known to hide in my shell and avoid the Hokey Pokey. I’d rather not shake my leg all about, if I can help it.

How do you stay focused and motivated when you’re seeking new adventures for these characters?

Gah. I don’t. For me, the best way to come up with an idea for a story is to not try. I write other stories, eat Doritos, go for a run, take a shower–that’s when I’ll get an idea.

Finally, any pearls of wisdom for writers who are trying to write early chapter books? Are there any resources you found to be particularly useful?

Read, read, read every chapter book you can get your hands on. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Make sure you don’t overdo it with the dialogue–an illustrator will need some action to draw. Write for yourself first. In other words, tune out your inner critic and write for fun–like you did when you were little. If you can make yourself laugh, chances are that you’ll make your reader laugh.

So, you might be asking, how do I enter to win a signed copy of Joe and Sparky Go to School? Well, just leave a comment with the name of your favorite teacher in it, or tweet it with #joeandsparkycontest by Saturday, June 15th at noon (EST). If you want to learn more about Jamie and her superstar books, mosey on over to her website. And be sure to check out the book trailer for this awesome new book!

Running My Way to Clarity

When I was pregnant and going to childbirth classes, I was told (repeatedly) to imagine myself someplace soothing—the beach, a peaceful forest, a grassy glade—in order to work through the pain.

This did not work for me.

I had a hard time keeping my focus on something restful and quiet, even before the labor pains kicked in. What worked was to imagine myself hiking up a steep mountainside.

While this probably only serves to confirm my fears about having a Type A personality, it does help explain why I’ve not been able to stick with yoga, but instead have turned to running.

Running has slowly turned into my savior when stress starts to get to me, when I feel like my mind is in overdrive, and when taking a break by lying around is nothing but a bad idea. So, I bought myself an iPod Nano, some kick-butt running shoes, and got to work putting together an awesome running mix.

I run along the beach, with Madonna’s “Ray of Light” blaring in my ears, with Kanye West and Taylor Swift peacefully coexisting, and with Macklemore imploring me to throw my hands up like the ceiling can’t hold me. And I’ve discovered that pounding my feet on the pavement gets my mind in the right place to write—and magically erases stress.

Running gods and my left knee willing, I’ll keep going further and further every week, pushing myself to stay healthy and stay sane all at the same time.

And now I’ll stop blabbering on about running and get some of that stressful-type work done. Happy Friday!

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.