10.14.2014

Breaking through the silence

Recently, I was at a good-bye party for an MFA friend who is off to join a Ph.D. program (I'm somehow both envious and relieved that it's not me). This meant, of course, other MFA friends were in attendance. During the course of the evening, one of them who graduated a year after me (in 2014) asked me how much writing I was doing.

Now, this particular friend is a stay-at-home dad with a toddler. He has every excuse not to be writing. He's also active in the live storytelling scene and has an active blog so, to be honest, I wasn't sure what he was so worried about.

But I understood the anxiety behind his question because I felt it too. And really, I didn't feel like I had something very encouraging to say because I haven't been writing much (except here when I can and those poems that are somehow coming out... and also I'm trying to get into travel writing... and also, the Maryland Romance Writers kicked my butt on that 'I don't have time to write' thing).

So really, all I could tell him was "don't beat yourself up."

From what I've heard, it's not uncommon to finish an MFA degree and take a hiatus. I don't think it's intentional, per se, but rather a reaction to two very important factors: 1) the exhaustion of the MFA degree is over and 2) there are no more deadlines. Suddenly, you have to go back to writing for you, and not because a professor or your classmates are expecting something at the end of the week. And also, you've been writing a lot. You've just finished your thesis. These are not trivial pursuits.

That poetry I've been writing? I asked a (different) friend of mine if he'd look at it, give me some feedback. He was a poet, after all, and I'm not really. I just wanted a second pair of eyes. And not long afterwards, I read the interview with Louise Gluck in the September/October 2014 issue of Poets & Writers. And when I read her answers and read her sample poem, I almost wrote back to my friend and told him, "Don't bother -- my poetry's all crap -- really, don't waste your time." But I didn't, and I kept reading the article. And Louise herself said that sometimes she goes through periods of silence, and she beats herself up through them, scolding herself with reminders of all the great things she'd done in the past and how she's not doing anything now.

I'd never wish those feelings on anyone, but reading that did make me feel better because suddenly, I was not alone. If Louise Gluck -- who's won the Pulitzer for her poetry -- suffers through periods of silence, then this must be normal. Sometimes, the words don't come. Call it writer's block or whatever you want. Sometimes, the Muse simply isn't there. I'm not sure what else to do during those periods other than to read and read and read and live and live and live with the hope that, someday, somehow, the Muse will return and the words will start flowing again. I think is is important to try to help the Muse along (again, I got a good kick in the butt from the Maryland Romance Writers), but if you're not under a publishing deadline (and oh, how much I wish I was!), then let the periods of silence be what they are. Think of them as times of learning, of growing, as processing. The words will come. Listen to the silence. Appreciate it. And don't beat yourself up.

10.07.2014

The magic formula for balancing work, writing, and family

I did not expect to feel so at home in the Maryland Romance Writers tent at the Baltimore Book Festival, but they seemed to be the best place to go for nuts-and-bolts craft/writing life talk. Probably the panel that I found the most practically useful was on Sunday: Balancing Writing, Jobs & Families.

This has been my biggest struggle post-MFA (and my family only consists of two people and two cats!). I attended this panel hoping to get the magic formula for balancing everything. I had pen and paper all ready to capture whatever wisdom came from the Published Authors. Here's what I got:

  1. Find a time.
  2. Find a place.
  3. Find a ritual.
  4. Turn off the Internet.
  5. Don't let the guilt get to you.
At the end of the panel (ignoring #5 for a second), I hadn't really written down anything I didn't already know.

Obviously, getting rid of the Internet -- and all other distractions -- is a huge step in the right direction. We all know how much of a time-suck social media can be. And I know that if I sit down on the couch and turn on the TV, I'm not getting any writing done that day. Thankfully, there are ways you can temporarily turn off the Internet on your laptop. And don't say, "But what if I need to research something?" Mark it in the draft somehow, keep writing, and research later. That's what revisions are for (yes Megan, I'm talking to you).

The first three reasons are also ones that I know very well, and they are my favorite excuses. But they're getting more and more flimsy by the day. You do have the time. It means you have to take time away from something else, but you will make the time to do the things that are important to you. if writing is truly important, you'll figure out a way to fit it in.

No, I don't have a beautiful writing studio. But I do have a relatively quiet dining room with a table. I do have a room that's technically my "office." There's no reason why I can't get it set up to be a place that's actually conducive to writing. Get rid of the empty boxes, put away the filled boxes, paint the walls if you want to, get a desk chair (seriously, it's amazing how little writing I've done because I have a desk but no chair... especially because that's a ridiculously easy problem to solve). Setting up my home office is definitely going to be on my New Years To-Do List... not because I want an excuse to put it off but because the holiday season is upon us (and I'm slowly learning that almost nothing gets done during the holiday season) and I like the idea of starting fresh in January. I even have some leftover blue paint.

I'm not really sure what my ritual would be -- if I even have a ritual -- short of physically going into my designated room and shutting the door. I think I just need my brain to learn "It's now time to write." Maybe make a pot of tea to bring with me, maybe have a favorite shawl to wear. But to return to the concept of time, one of my favorite excuses is that I'd either have to take time away from sleeping and write in the morning or take time away from my husband and write in the evening. Well, I know the answer. I'm a night owl. What I should do is come home from work, make dinner, spend some time with the husband, and then -- at a designated time -- kiss him goodnight and go upstairs to write. When I first fell in love with writing, I loved staying up late at the computer, typing away creating my imagined world while the real world was sleeping. I just need to recreate that.

But the real kicker for me is #5: Don't feel guilty. Something else always feels more important than writing; writing feels like something that I can only indulge in when everything else is done. I like to pretend it's because the muse has been away -- if I'm really a writer, I'm going to sit down and try to write through the dry spells anyway. I just need to remind myself of why I got an MFA in the first place. One of the reasons why earning that degree was important to me was because I wanted to tell myself that writing was important too. That I was going to take the time to make writing a priority. So when I set up my home office in January with my desk chair and my organizational strategy and maybe even my blue walls, I'm also going to hang up my MFA degree. That's what people do in their offices, right? They hang up their degrees. Usually it's probably to show off their credentials to anyone else who walks in, but it's enough to hang it up because I need to be reminded of my own credentials. I took this seriously enough to devote lots of time, energy, and money towards writing. I can't let all that be in vain.

In order to successfully balance writing and everything else, I need to make the mental switch to thinking of writing like a job. Not in the sense that I have to do it, that I'm obliged to, but in the sense that I need to show dedication to it, to take it seriously. I need to tell myself that I have two jobs, one full-time, one part-time. And then I need to give myself deadlines, set goals, organize to-do lists. I'm learning how to have a real job -- I can apply those skills to writing.

And, if I'm smart, I'll set up these habits before I have kids because that's only going to make it more challenging. If I feel guilty about not spending time with the husband, it's going to be even harder to spend time away from kids (of course, then I'll simply have to write while they're asleep). I imagine that things might go a bit out the window with a newborn, but after that, there's no reason why I couldn't continue to write and work and be a wife and mother. Lots of other people do it. It doesn't take a magic formula -- it's not that much of a secret. Find the time, place, and ritual to signal "it's time to write." Get rid of the distractions. Don't feel guilty. If you love it, let yourself do it.

10.02.2014

Body drama

I'm like most women in that I have body issues. I didn't for a long time. But I got older, so my metabolism slowed down, and then I did two honors theses my senior year of college, so I started sitting all day, and then I went to grad school, so I was poor and ate what I could.

This isn't an unusual story. I'm not an unusual woman. My husband and I have a gym membership, and we try to go regularly. I bring a variety of healthy snacks to work (fruit, veggies), so I don't end up eating (a ton of) candy. I try to make healthy meals that cover most food groups. I avoid soda, choosing water and tea or coffee instead. I still have a sweet tooth, so I don't forgo all sugar, and I get snacky late at night. I'm struggling with what I look like, but I'm learning to try to work with my genetics and my body, make sure I'm being healthy, try to lose any extra weight, and find clothing that flatters my body type.

This was hard to accept until last year when I tried to buy boots for fall.

Of all my body parts, I like my legs the most. I did dance a lot as a kid that really shaped those calves, and they've stayed that way for the most part. Knee-length skirts are my best friend (I do need to look professional and I'm no longer 19), but those legs aren't too bad on the eyes.

And then I went shopping for boots and found out that the only kinds that fit are "wide-calf."

My first thought, when I realized this, was to call foul. I like my legs. I like my calves. And suddenly I had to buy something that didn't fit the standard? If nothing else, this brought to home the fact that clothes are primarily made for a certain body type, and anything other than that needs special treatment. It didn't matter how much I liked them -- those sexy legs of mine deviated from the norm.

We're in this strange time in the United States because 1) we really do have a problem with obesity (and have y'all ever tracked just how much sugar is in the food we eat? No wonder we're struggling with weight!) and 2) we're trying to celebrate all bodies. I like to rock out to "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor just as much as the next non-skinny girl, but we have to admit that many of us have lifestyles that don't promote health, whether it's from a lack of exercise or all the additives in our diets (or both!). And we also have people who are going to look like the ideal woman and that's okay. I'm never going to look like a model. I'm 5'3". I have a big chest. I don't have the schedule to devote enough time at the gym to look like a stick. I enjoy dark chocolate and red wine sometimes. And someday, I'm gonna have kids and I'm not going to "drop the baby weight" faster than a Hollywood starlet. I'm hoping I don't start whining about "getting my body back" because I'll just have had a baby.

Project Runway is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me (it reminds me of college), and I love looking at the outfits, but there was one episode when the contestants had to design an outfit for a regular woman, and a lot of them struggled with it. "The proportions are all off," one of them whined, and I felt like slapping them. Women come in different sizes! We aren't going to all look like models. I love that show, but that particular episode was infuriating.

Love your body. Treat it well and make it the best body it can be. Give in sometimes (I mean, chocolate is delicious -- I can't imagine denying myself all the time!). And recognize that your body isn't going to look like the body next to yours and that's okay.

And maybe help me find a pair of awesome boots, please.

9.16.2014

Reading "The Opposite of Loneliness" by Marina Keegan



Back in June, I bought Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. I bought it mostly because I’m jealous of this girl who will always be younger and more successful than me, but jealousy isn’t a good reason to deny her writing a fair chance. So I bought her book and, a couple weeks ago, I read it.

Like I said in a previous blog post, at first, I was looking for a reason beyond talent that explains her posthumous success. It was difficult to put those feelings aside and not let them color my impression of her writing, although it was a bit difficult because the book is introduced as “An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented young Yale graduate whose title essay captured the world's attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation.” A lot of the stories and essays do revolve around finding a deeper meaning in life, growing up, or dealing with death, and I wonder how much of that is truly reflective of her body of work or if those pieces were chosen because of

9.09.2014

For the love of poetry

For once, the reason why I've been absent from this blog is because I've actually been putting pen (or, sometimes, pencil) to paper and writing. There are words flowing, sometimes a slow stream, but it is nonetheless steady. So I've been putting this blog off to the side and letting the poems come.

It is, however, a bit amazing to me that poetry is my current medium of choice. Fiction will always be my first love -- the act of creating imaginary characters, settings, and situations is what drew me to writing in the first place. Or perhaps, it's more that storytelling is what drew me to writing, and those stories were often made up, the direct result of childhood playtime. At the moment, however, my imagination seems to be a bit dormant, the muse resting silently. Instead, a small poetic voice has perked up and whispered, "I still have things to say, but I don't have very much to say about them."

Poetry has turned into a way of processing the world, my experiences, my thoughts about things. I don't always have enough