Jul 24, 2015

10th Blogiversary

It's hard to believe that, 10 years ago, The Writing Life Blog began. I wasn't yet a writer. I was a 26-year-old coffee-loving, mountain-loving, Oregonian living in rural Appalachia who had worked herself so hard as a middle school teacher, she'd worked herself sick. I mean that quite literally. I loved teaching teens--and the school I worked for even paid for my Montessori Certification. It was an incredible community to be a part of. But three years and $4,000 worth of medical testing (the school paid for that, too, thankfully) later, the verdict was in: you're stressed

That was putting it mildly. I'll spare readers the physiological details of what that level of stress looks and feels like on the body. Suffice it to say that, at a relatively young age, I crossed a bridge. There would be no going back to teaching full time. Ever. Again. I swore to it and I meant every syllable. I had no regret about "losing" this career. No guilt. I knew with every cell in my body that I could never, ever work in an environment again where there was always more to be done. Teens and boarding schools in particular are a tough setup for that, and the combination proved more than my younger self could handle. I also learned that I needed to get a grip on my own limits. What would "balance" look like? Time to try and find out.

I told the school I wasn't coming back at the end of that academic year. I moved across the river into an off the grid cabin and bartered for my rent. I put in a kitchen sink and water line. I peed into a bucket on the porch. I pooped and showered at the neighbor's house. For rent, my barter was raking, splitting and hauling wood, housesitting, weeding, and various other tasks on the 5 acres owned by the owners of the off the grid cabin. I lived right up against the Black Mountains, the highest range in the east. I decided I'd spend some time writing to prepare a portfolio of my best nonfiction and apply to graduate school. I had free rent and my parents had recently moved from Oregon to North Carolina, so I didn't feel like moving. I loved the South Toe Valley. I opted for low-res MFA programs only, and researched them online with dial-up Internet access, there in the middle of the woods, in a tiny little cabin.

I had enough saved to get by for a while, but I did need work. I did the only thing a Portlander looking for work ever does: I applied for work as a barista. Thing was, at the time, there were only 2 coffee shops in all of Mitchell and Yancey Counties. One was in downtown Spruce Pine and used only "to go" styrofoam and didn't wash the wand between foaming cow's milk and soy milk. The Oregonian in me couldn't get near that place, and still won't. The other was at a place called Penland School of Crafts. They had an opening for two shifts a week, 9-11pm at night. It was 30 minutes away. I lost most of my wages in gas but I didn't care. It was work, it was community, and it was free coffee.

Fast forward three years and I'd earned my MFA from Pacific University, worked up to Assistant Manager at the Coffeehouse (25 hours a week, plus 10 meals per week, plus health insurance, plus paid winter lay-off). Things were looking good.

Winter of 2009, my graduate loans kicked in, the Great Recession roared, and I was laid off. After a mild freak out, I hit the road. For three years. There were too many people like me out there in the world--recently graduated MFAer, qualified to teach, glowing references, the whole bit. I had to do something to make myself different. I had to do something that would end with a book, a fellowship, or some sort of self-employment that enabled me to live simply and write forever and ever. My dream was that simple. It still is.

Don't get me wrong--I had many doubts. There were a lot of tears on the road. I threw fits. I was not always graceful. I asked for too much. I had bad timing. But I also smiled widely. Helped others. Volunteered. Had great timing. Made friends. Taught children. And wrote something about a very tender subject in the American psyche. Other people liked it enough to publish it. That, plus the memories, made it all worthwhile.

I guess I'm saying all of this, because in retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing on dial-up Internet access in the backroom of the Penland Coffeehouse that first night after my first shift in my "new job." There were these things called blogs, and in 2005 they sounded nifty and new. I thought I'd start one. The manager had me come in early that day to work with her and train, before the evening shift. I decided to write about it. Here's a screenshot of that first post, in full, way back when LiveJournal was all the rage:

That's it. A scene. It marks a beginning, though, a leap of faith. Now, The Writing Life attracts almost 10,000 monthly viewers. I feel connected, in ways both big and small. This connection, however anonymous, has provided a space and invitation for 1,953 blog entries over 10 years. While I prefer to use this space to celebrate new ideas, raise questions, or capture a moment, today I want to use it to say THANK YOU for reading. Without you, without this, thousands of words would never have been written, and surely as many road miles would never have felt possible. Last but not least, I never would have found my way home.

Jul 21, 2015

Smart Surprise in Flash Fiction

This week I've thrown myself full bore into developing course content using Haiku Learning, an online platform that hosts courses for instructors and learning institutions across the world. This course, which will launch February 2016 as Interlochen College of Creative Arts' first ever online class, will devote 4 weeks to flash fiction. As much as I prefer teaching in person or engaging through long-term one-on-one mentorships, I have to confess that I've been surprised at how much fun putting together an interactive class feels.

I have tools at my fingertips that typically don't come into play when I'm mentoring: videos, audio clips, screen casts, excerpts, quotes from conductors, digital distribution rights, slideshows, images of sculptures, and more...not to mention widgets. Weather? Twitter feed? World map? Slideshow? Polls? What once seemed like a potential time-suck now seems like a well-meaning tool. These things do have an appropriate place in the online classroom and I can envision how they'll connect my students and incite conversations across the wire. A widget alone can't do that, but a widget with a teacher who puts something in context using a platform that encourages creative thought and considerate communication can. What can I say? I'm stoked!

Meantime, I've also been writing lectures for the course, and was happy to find a moment this week to sit down and ponder that age-old craft question: What is smart surprise? When it comes to flash, I have a thing or two to say about this. Here's an excerpt:

Smart surprise refers to an insight or revelation previously unknown to the character and/or the reader, as it pertains to the story. We might be able to tell that Mel isn't living up to his potential just by reading about the way he sloppily collates documents. We might even get a little annoyed that he isn't applying himself--he's earning well above minimum wage, after all, and didn't his parents just pick up his car insurance bill? Smart surprise comes into play when readers get to see Mel realize he isn't living up to his own potential, though, and in this way the internal struggle Mel's been bottling up (and hasn't even been able to articulate for himself) finally meets the external world when he experiences epiphany. That's smart. That's surprise. It may not blow the roof off your head, but it certainly speaks to the human predicament and makes an impression.
Exactly how a writer decides to show Mel's realization is up to the writer, but whatever happens, the very action that incites change in Mel needs to be carefully selected. For instance, let's say the mail clerk brings Mel a pink envelope sprayed with perfume and, as he slowly lifts the paper to his nostrils, he realizes he's not living up to his potential. He asks the mail clerk on a date and he sees that his life is small and unrealized and he resolves to change. That's too easy--we all know as much. Why is it too easy? Because readers aren't likely to believe the pink envelope was enough to incite change in Mel, since the pink envelope has nothing to do with his actual desire. His desire is not to share his life with someone (at least, not yet). His desire is to live up to his potential. To, perhaps, be the kind of person who doesn't let the Grand Canyon slip by on a road trip [as previously discussed]. So as tempting as the mail clerk's pink envelope might be, it's probably not the "smartest" route toward encouraging convincing revelation for Mel. A better fit might be something that more directly and clearly relates to the source of Mel's longing.
Instead of a pink envelope, perhaps Mel witnesses an epic thunderstorm during his lunch break, high up on the 38th floor at corporate headquarters. What about this thunderstorm might cause Mel to start to see his own life as lackluster? How can the storm and his reaction to the storm be described in such a way that Mel takes pause as his internal struggle meets the world? Like the Grand Canyon, the storm is a natural phenomenon that inspires awe. Like the spring break when Mel watched, nose pressed to the car window while his bully-of-a-friend drove on by...he's watching the storm from a window at work--at once so close, but so far. The inciting incident of the storm, then, "echoes" the moment of longing from his past. This echo subconsciously provides a more convincing (read: "smart") point of revelation for Mel. Do we believe that whatever he saw in that storm lead him to apply for the opening on the Development Team and nail the interview, surprising everyone on the 38th floor on down? Yes, yes we do. At least, we believe it more than we'd believe the pink envelope, and in the world of flash, that belief is worth its weight in gold.

Jul 17, 2015

Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts: Writer-in-Residence

Friends following The Writing Life on Facebook will know that I spent last week in Gatlinburg, TN as the first Writer-in-Residence in the 100+ year history of Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts. This opportunity came about as a result of years of conversations between administration leadership and board members, as well as more recent informal conversations between myself and Program Director Nick DeFord (who is also an artist).

In short, the school had reached a point where it was ready to discuss dates and numbers, getting real with this very knew and unknown programming element incorporating writers. Arrowmont is and has been a place where people go to have conversations. Yes, they go to make art, to learn, to connect, and to be challenged. But they also go for connection through that age-old medium of language. Writers, it seemed, ought to be a natural part of that selling point.

For my part, I had nearly given up on the idea of finding a place that provided an equal home for literary fiction and arts writing. Indeed, those two parts of my writing life have been kept so separate, most readers of this blog aren't even aware that I've written over 70 essays featuring contemporary American craft artists and their creative processes. It's a "side job" as a freelancer for various publications, but it's also a deeply gratifying fascination I've maintained ever since I enrolled in my first aesthetics course as a Philosophy major in undergrad. I love thinking critically, deeply, and precisely about the parallels between an artist's conceptual and technical processes and the final form and function of any given piece of finished artwork. Sound heady? Maybe so. But it's become my job to avoid headiness, and in that regard, to also avoid "art speak" (saying nothing while attempting to sound like you're saying everything). As often as possible, my art essays are written in 1st person and include dialogue, scene, descriptive detail, and of course--information about the work itself.
After an afternoon of one-on-one tutorials assisting artists with their artist statements, web content, and marketing strategies, I was invited into the Figurative Clay studio for a general talk about approaching magazines and freelance writers, and advocating for yourself and your work in the print media world. A great conversation was had by all!

But let's get back to that buzz word in my opening sentence: Gatlinburg. That's right, folks, the "Vegas of the South." If you're into the arts, chances are pretty good you're not into Vegas. Or at least, when you think of "making art," the last place you want to go is Vegas. So, too, here in the South. If you're into "making art," you think in terms of peace, quiet, Appalachian history, tradition, solitude, or a carefully selected and intentionally secluded community. You don't think of arcades, BOGO Big Gulps, casinos, and neon lights bursting over the Smoky Mountains.

Yet despite the fact that this school is located just a few dozen meters off the Parkway drag of Gatlinburg, it is a world unto itself. Trust me. I'm a picky writer who is obsessive about sights and sounds, grumpy about interruption, and obsessively attuned to the natural world. I live in a quiet, private, beautiful place. Why would I leave all that just to be near "the strip"? Because Arrowmont is a place where the conversation starts. Who knows what talking to the painter, whose work has been "translated" into tapestries woven in Mexico might lead to the next time I sit down at the desk? Who knows what material my enter a ceramicists mind after we shared lunch, talking about the meditative parallels between the spinning potter's wheel and the click of buttons across a keyboard?

I wrote several thousand words a day while at Arrowmont, and that was just putting in half-days at the desk (I spend afternoons wandering the studios or meeting one-on-one with artists). Even walking outside, along the sloping lawns or curved gravel pathways, the sights and sounds of the very nearby strip were nearly invisible and inaudible. What did I hear instead? Cicadas. Laughter. An impromptu picnic. A pot of dye hissing on the burner outside the Textiles studio. What did I smell? Smoke from the wood-fired Anagama kiln. Cedar shavings from the wood-turning class. A pleasant must from wool being woven into tapestries. Freshly baked muffins. Coffee, coffee, and thankyouverymuch more coffee. What did I see, taste, touch? I could go on for pages...

In five short days, I came away with a very clear feeling that writers are needed on craft campuses. Not only because many writers can more readily "put words to" other artists mediums than those artists themselves. (Ask a glassblower to write an artist statement, and he might simply turn up his iPod and pretend you're not even there--for many artists, the written word is simply not fun.) But because the conversation works both ways. I certainly couldn't write my novel in blown glass, but I might feel the wall of heat walking into the hot shop and incorporate details from that sensory experience into the scene I'm writing in my novel right now, which takes place in a desert. Art inspires life inspires art, just as the wood-turned bowl shown in this photograph inspired a textiles artist to make a unique dye that highlighted the grain, which in turn inspired me to take a photo and share it, which then lead to an interesting conversation on Facebook in which a fellow writer told me about a childhood memory she had of her father's wood shop. Will that memory turn into an essay? Quite possibly.

But more than anything, what this week instilled in me is that there's genuine joy in connecting with other artists. No matter what your medium or what you're making--or even if what you make falls apart in the end, gets deleted, or breaks during firing--it's beneficial to put ourselves in situations where conversations can happen. Across mediums, across cultures, across campus. Arrowmont made that possible, and by including me as Writer-in-Residence, it was also financially and professionally viable. I learned, I helped, I wrote, I worked. And I certainly hope to go back.

Jul 14, 2015

Revising the Novel: Crisis of Faith

Even when people tell you a particular challenge is perfectly normal, it can still feel like one heck of a rock-your-boat experience. I can certainly say as much for my fifth revision of the novel. While I'd received clear and helpful feedback from an editor I hired for a "one pass" reader's response and I'd received positive encouragement from my writing friend across the river, little did I know that the hardest challenge still remained:

the crisis of faith.

I'm not talking about giving up on the novel. I'm not talking about not believing in it as a whole. I'm not even talking about writer's block (which, as it happens, I don't believe in). What I'm talking about is reaching that critical mass of realizations that knock on your subconscious so loudly that, despite determination and deadlines, you simply cannot continue on you current path of revision.

This is a difficult experience to gauge. Did I feel I had to stop the 5th revision in its tracks because I was just being lazy? Because I would rather be writing about bourbon? Because I booked my schedule too full for the next six months? Because we've had a series of financial setbacks? Because I'm newly married and thinking about "the big future" in really different ways? Because I don't have the skills to write what needs to be written?

These are all questions that crept into my mind last week during my crises of faith. In the end, what I decided is that the real reason I had to stop the 5th revision in its tracks is because of a craft issue. This card, "the craft issue card," is the ultimate trump--meaning that, above all else, when you play this card, you really know you're heading into game-changing territory.

The game-changer for me has to do largely with the Afghan narrative thread of my novel. Even though I'd written my most recent draft as deftly and tightly as I felt I could by May 1st (to hand it over to the editor), just five or six short weeks later and I'm already seeing where major chunks of the story and character arcs come up short. That's a good thing and also slightly terrifying. But try as I might, the longer I ignored the realizations that were stacking up, the harder and harder it became to make any revisions with true heart. Another way to say that is that my heart wasn't in it, and when I asked myself "why," I could only accept the truth: The changes needed in the Afghan narrative are so pervasive, revising on the "old path" of insights I'd been working with seemed moot. I might have added 10,000 new words to my manuscript in the last four weeks, but if I kept going, I feared I'd make a bigger mess in the end.

To be clear, I do not take this decision lightly. After all, I'm a big fan of pushing through the tough stuff and writing your way through the mess (and even making things messier). This is because, as all writers know, it's often those messy moments that crack something open for us, revealing what we've been trying to say all along. If we never allow ourselves to write those messes, we'll never discover the gems.

This crisis was something different, though--something fundamental. I'm reading Lisa Cron's craft book Wired for Story and, like Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook before this, it's proving persuasive. I feel empowered by Cron's book, if not also a bit overwhelmed. But at least she's helping me map a way forward. In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to share specific character arc and plot issues her book has helped me identify, as well as how I intend to address those issues. I'm still articulating it all for myself, but rest assured that once I can put my finger on the precise issues, I'll name them here and share whatever learning I can. Meantime, back to "revising"--which right now means reading Wired for Story, freewriting in my journal every morning, and trying to be patient with my imagination.