Toto, We’re Not in Michigan Anymore

I have been in a whirlwind of travel lately, so this post is a bit of a Weekend Update (of the non-world news variety).

On the way to Montpelier, Vermont and my next chapter of schooling, my father and I decided to take a few detours in our welcoming northern neighbor, Canada. After fueling up with coffee at the quirky, Poe-inspired Raven Cafe in Port Huron, Michigan, we crossed the border and made our way to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to see alas not Shakespeare, but a musical of equal excellence: Guys and Dolls (the show featuring the song “Luck Be A Lady Tonight.) The actors’ talents were incredible, especially Alexis Gordan who played the part of Sergeant Sarah Brown. If you love irreverent humor, Cuban music and dancing, and can understand thick New York accents, this one’s for you. After seeing this production, I am now excited to go back and watch the 1955 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

A Stratford Swan

The next day, we drove into Montreal. I had visited there in the winter of 2003, which was ages ago and I was too young to really appreciate the city. Plus, cities are completely different beings in the snow than in the summer. As we approached town, we could tell how close we were from the city based on the ratio of French to English radio stations. The closer we were to Montreal, the more French we heard. I usually despise listening to the radio (mostly because of the vexatious commercials ) but hearing a voice speak in a tongue I can’t understand has a strange peacefulness about it. I think this has to do with the amount of energy it takes to process language. When we listen to radios in English, we can’t help but process the advertisement’s information whether we want to or not. If we hear it, it is inside our brain and we are forced to understand its meaning. When we commit ourselves to just hearing other languages as “sound” and not “words,” then we are lulled into the kind of calm we experience when we listen to music. We get a break from thinking, which can sometimes be a welcomed escape from reality.

Located in Old Montreal was the chic Hotel Nelligan (named after the francophone poet Emile Nelligan). We checked in and then made our way over to a delicious vegetarian lunch at Lov. We needed the energy for our three-hour bike tour of the central city. Our guide, Mike, was so knowledgeable and taught us things about the architecture of Montreal apartments and why they have curved staircases on the outside of the buildings, about Montreal’s “Quiet Revolution,” and that all Montreal residents are required to have at least two years of college education. The bicycle is really such an easy way to see A LOT of a city. While I am quite the flâneuse myself and prefer to walk around cities, the bike allowed me to see MORE. Did you know that Montreal has over 500 miles of bike lanes? It’s a very eco-conscious, bike-friendly city, where bikers don’t have to follow car traffic laws. Bikers are respected on the road and given the right of way. Oh Canada, teach our American drivers how to love those on two wheels.

Montreal at Dusk

The next morning was spent back on the road, this time heading south to Vermont. Instead of taking the freeway, we chose to explore the backroads in search of those quaint small towns we might call of a pastoral aesthetic. We passed one town in Canada called Bedford, where we passed a movie crew, filming at an Airstream diner called “Clark’s.” Apparently, we weren’t the only ones to notice the simple and nostalgic beauty of this small dot on the map.

I already knew that Vermont is the only state in the U.S. to have ZERO billboards lining the highway, but I didn’t realize the effect it would have on me. Instead of focusing on the constant advertisement distractions, my dad and I spent most of our driving time commenting on the spooky haunted Victorian houses, the abandoned barns, the funny street names, the covered wooden bridges of yesteryear, the general stores, the serene wilderness, and of course, we tried desperately to scope out moose, but to no avail.

And then, all at once, we turned up a steep hill, in the middle of a mountainside, and there it was: Vermont College of Fine Arts. My heart! The New England red brick buildings and large open green squares of land. The little cottages. The verdant canopy of trees overhead. The feeling that I had been transported to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I immediately felt like I had returned to a home I had never known to inhabit before. This must be the reason why the state’s motto is “Vermont, Naturally,” because there is no other way to feel but that you have naturally always belonged here. That nature has pulled you to this spot of earth.

I have been waiting for this day to arrive ever since I received my acceptance letter back in March. And now I am here, and I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.

More about my first impressions of Montpelier and the VCFA campus to come!

This Post Has Cats

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for…

Pictures of my cat, Saki. She, too, is a bibliophile, but they often make her sleepy.

I’m really going to miss this little beaut of a feline while I’m at school. Luckily, she is one of my mother’s favorite photographing subjects, so I’m sure I will receive many pictures of my dear Sak throughout the year. She is such a lovely, fluffy little thing.

In other news, here’s what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to:

  • Loved loved loved The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but it has already been added to my Books I Love list. As soon as I finished it, I immediately wanted to read it all over again. It is truly a book written for writers and really has had me thinking of how to craft my own stories in the future.
  •  I took two DVDs out of the library the other day: Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. I definitely recommend both, but for very different reasons. Mrs. Danvers was so much more terrifying in the movie version than she was in my own head when I read Du Maurier’s novel. The special features on the Rebecca disc are lovely and informative, especially when they draw parallels to Jane Eyre. As for the other, I do so love a Wes Anderson film. They are always composed with all the weird and laughter and awkward and emotional truth that makes me feel oddly satisfied when the end credits begin to roll.
  • Musically, I’m leaping with glee because Emancipator just released a new song off their forthcoming album. Emancipator is always my go-to music for writing, walking, pretty much any time of day. This new song does not let me down. You can listen to it here.

I am very much ready for it to cool down and be nicely autumnal again. After all, I am an October baby and I always feel most in my element when I’m surrounded by colored leaves and fuzzy sweaters and pumpkin-flavored things and crispy air.

Blueberry Poetics

Have you ever sat and stared at a blueberry before? I’m not talking about just scoping through the box to pick out the plump ones. I mean, really, have you ever held it good and long in your palm, felt the smooth skin, the wrinkled puckers, the fluttering five armed star protecting its eye. Have you put it to the light, turned it round on all sides, juxtaposed the blue with the greenery of its birthplace? Have you taken it into the darkness? Rubbed it between your palms, pinched it with your forefinger and your thumb to allow the smallest drip of juice to squeeze through the blue skin’s pores, the darkness heightening your other senses.

It is a rainy day and the day after a total eclipse, so naturally I’m feeling pensive. As I took a few blueberries out of the fridge to have with my breakfast this morning, I stopped my pawing hand to notice the many colors inside this “blue” berry basket. No longer was I seeing blue, but there was a stone gray and a deepwater navy and a jade green and a flush plum. In fact, I was surprised how I had never noticed that young blueberries look so similar to itty pomegranates in shape. I grew fascinated by the berries’ closed-up belly buttons, where once a stem tethered them to a highbush. I held them in my hand, gently, tenderly, and brought them to a table, where I immediately set them up for a photo shoot. The light from the curtainless window gave the berries a frosty glow and the little orbs became not berries, but something bigger, celestial, almost like planetary objects clustering sporadically.

This morning, I had a lesson in beauty. That something so simple as a blueberry can be beautiful and wondrous and mysterious if you take the time to really look at it, to know it, to open yourselves to its every angle. Perhaps it was out of this kind of understanding and respect to the fruit that I couldn’t bear to eat them after our mindful  meditation, and so I carried the berries back to the fridge and put them back into their plastic habitat.

On Paper Journals and How to Use Them

One thing I always look forward to doing as far as “back-to-school” shopping goes (gosh, I feel old just saying that) is buying new journals.

For academic course journals, I’m a fan of the trusty old Composition Book. I love the contrast of the dark binding with the busy rorschach-esque splatter pattern. Like a nice proper note jotter with a crazy side. Nowadays, these journals can be found in many colors besides black and white. This is mainly a plus because I happen to have a strange, synesthetic color-coded system when it comes to class notebooks. Here’s what it is: when I get my class list for the semester and I read each course title, a color immediately appears in my brain and gets paired with specific said title. So for example, this semester at VCFA, I am taking:

  • Modules (made up of several 3-week intensive cross-genre workshops and seminars, built around common themes, and taught by various faculty members)
  • Forms (exploring various written work and films critically and creatively, as well as participating in in-class writing exercises)
  • Publishing & Fieldwork (Gaining professional experience editing literary mags, interviewing writers, editors, agents, and investigating publishing endeavors and arts-related careers)
  • Professional Development (Airtime for practical literary matters, formatted as Q&A, generative & practice-based exercises, and discussion about professional trajectories)

Naturally in my head, the color-coding ended up like this:

  • Modules: blue and yellow
  • Forms: green
  • Publishing: red
  • PD: traditional black and white

So now, I have five lovely new journals for the semester—my own mini writing rainbow. And with no doubt, they will fill up with ink pretty darn quick.

Now on the other hand, non-academic journals are a different story. I love blank books. At bookstores, I enjoy a good paw-through of the section with diaries and sketchbooks and planners. I love the crispness of blank white pages and the texture of the unwrinkled cover and the bound book spines you have to crack open. In fact, I have a collection of them, buried somewhere under my bed, all acquired over several years. Some I have bought myself and others have been given to me.

Several (as in most) of these books are still blank.

Why is this? I think it’s that there are too many possibilities of what to put on that first page. I not only worry that my handwriting isn’t good enough or that I’ll use the wrong kind of pen, I tend to think about the purpose of the journal. Instead of taking it page by page, I think of the journal as a whole. As a kind of self-contained novel in itself.This might come from a sense of nostalgia for the types of journals Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf would have kept. These books of theirs have become artifacts of their lives. That sort of significance weighing on one’s private diary is enough intimidation on its own.

The thing is, I actually really love writing by hand. I find typing easier, but I love the act of putting ink to paper. I like not having to follow lines, which is why I prefer unlined journals to lined ones. I tend to write in blocks, add arrows and marginal doodles, and practice unique hand-drawn fonts. In a way, my written journals isn’t necessarily about the substance; instead it’s more about the aesthetic of the page.

Blogging seems easier to me, but perhaps it is just a different writing creature of its own. Serving a unique purpose that paper can’t provide for me. Maybe it’s easier because websites are developed without any lines. Maybe because there is an innate ability to work “undercover” from behind the screen. One can erase a word and retry a thousand times and no one would know the better. Hell, you could even delete an entire blog post if you so desired. Any post can be the last post. Each post is separate and yet still connected by a thin digital thread.

And yet, I’m still drawn to the paper journal. Because I love to feel their weight in my hands. Because they are a type of documentation with a lifetime guarantee stamp of permanence. Because it’s hard to color-code a class title by blog posts.


On Tackling the Art of Self-Revising

In the past few days, I’ve been doing lots of revision to two of my newest short stories, and it’s hard for me to gauge how the process is going.

Revisionland is a place I really learned how to navigate while I was a student at University of Michigan. I had the amazing experience to take a one-on-one writing “tutorial” with my professor, Laura Thomas, where each week, we’d meet in her office and I’d alternate between crafting a new piece or editing an older draft. I came to trust Laura’s eye for proper story arcs, improvements to character development, voice inconsistencies, and minor grammatical proofreading. My first-draft writing style tends toward the overwriting than the underwriting. Which is great in some ways because I have more to work with. The catch is that there’s often TOO much that is unnecessary to the central plot and there’s little I hate more than killing my linguistic darlings. Before I met Laura, the revision process looked to me a bit like the precipice of a giant roller coaster, where all you can see is open sky and a suspended track and you pray to whatever’s out there that there is track attached to the other side of the bell curve and that you’ve said “I love you” to all who care for you deeply in case you don’t make it. For the three years I spent with Laura as my own personal editor, I felt like I figured it out. I knew what to look for when I read back through my own drafts. I knew how to expand, how to cut, how to be ruthless, how to rephrase, and how to add details that progressed the story and didn’t distract the reader. I felt like I could release my grip on the roller coaster’s safety bar and raise my hands up high.

Now that I’ve been out of school for a year without my own personal beta reader and editor, I’ve had to fill that role myself and I feel like I’ve had to reteach myself everything. Which is funny because I don’t feel that way at all when I read other people’s work. I’ve been part of workshops in the past year and have received gracious compliments on the feedback I’ve given to others. In fact, I have many writing buddies who seek me out to read their early drafts and cover letters. And yet, I have so much difficulty looking at my own writing with those same critical eyes. It must be something about the distance (or lack of distance) we have to our own writing. We can justify every single word on the page and bicker with ourselves about why we put it there and why we HAVE to keep it. And all too often, we give in to our persuasive word hoarder part of the brain.

Another tricky part about self-editing is knowing when you are done editing. In contrast, when I paint, I can see and feel when something is done. It’s all there, on a neatly contained canvas, so I can see it all at once and acknowledge that yes, this project is finished, it is complete. But it’s so much harder when you have thousands of words, spread upon a number of loose pages, and you have to look at each detail piece by piece. It’s as if you had a book, but printed on each page you have a whole lot of white space and one single puzzle piece to a 1,000 piece puzzle. You must flip to each separate page to discern the piece. How do you know when all pieces are accounted for and the puzzle becomes an intelligible image, not just clusters of colored cardboard shapes? Ahh, the great mysteries of art-making (but isn’t it these mysteries, these challenges, that keep us at this work we love?)

This is what my counter looks like right now:

I know I am not the only one who struggles with editing, which is why I’m determined to tackle it head on. This is what seems to work for me:

  • Printing out all of the pages of the story so I can see them clearly and all at once.
  • Lay them out on a large table or the floor.
  • Use your favorite editing pen (mine is a PaperMate Flair M Felt Tip in Purple)
  • Read through each page out loud. Mark phrases that are too wordy, hard to pronounce, or don’t seem to convey what you intended.
  • Pretend it’s someone else’s piece. If you hate criticizing your own, take on a new identity for this task!
  • Just as if you were marking up the margins of your favorite book, write anything that comes to mind. Stream of consciousness, questions, musings, doodles, etc. The more you mark up and get down on paper, the better your next edits will be. Unclog your mind while editing. That’s where the anxiety lies, I’ve found: when you are trying to store too many things in your brain because you are ashamed to write them down. Remember: these edits are for YOU and your eyes only.

I’m curious as to what other people do to help them triumph over the editing hump and proceed through Revisionland unscathed? Leave a note in the comments!




And So It Begins…

First of all, hello! Welcome to my freshly created website and thanks for reading! First blog posts are always tricky. This one is especially difficult since I’m not entirely sure what I want this blog to be just yet (and just like all writing, it will probably develop its own personality over time and have a life of its own.)

I’ve been blogging in various forms for several years now (e.g. documenting personal travels,  reviewing art happenings around the University of Michigan campus, etc.) but now my creative writing portfolio, my freelance work, and my blog will all be in one digitally compact space.

I usually have a penchant for significant dates, and other than the fact that it’s my parents’ anniversary today, this website has a birthday all of its own. So I guess chocolate and champagne would probably be appropriate?

This week is a hectic one, as I am packing up all of my things and in exactly one week, I will be driving across the country to Vermont to begin the next chapter of my life. I am starting a two-year MFA program in Writing and Publishing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and couldn’t be more excited (or anxious to just be there now!) Of course, the hardest part of packing is deciding which books to bring with me. Is 100 too many?

So hopefully, this blog figures out what it wants to be somewhere along the way. There will undoubtedly be musings on the writing process, pictures of wondrously beautiful Vermont landscape, the latest on what I’m reading, listening to, watching, and perhaps a doodle or two.

Hop aboard, fasten your seatbelt, and enjoy the ride!