A Midsummer’s Miscellany Post

It’s my final week before heading back to Vermont to ride out the rest of the summer until the new semester begins in September. Can’t believe it’s already Year 2 of my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts!

This past weekend was Trey’s birthday, so the wild rumpus included watching the World Cup, Cammie’s introduction to the world of Fortnite, Indian food, riverside bike rides, and culminated in the game that Sherlock and Watson play in The Sign of Three where you write a celebrity’s name on a slip of paper, attach it to the other player’s head, and then ask questions to help you figure out the name attached to your own forehead. We literally spent hours playing this game, which goes to show either how dedicated or completely loony we are.

I’ve been enjoying writing some flash fiction pieces (thanks to Midwestern Gothic!) to break up the slow-going thesis. I did recently watch Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes, which gave me great insight into the phenomenon of Japanese johatsu (the 100,000 citizens a year who “disappear”) and the people who are left behind. I find that delving into other mediums greatly jumpstarts my inspiration to continue longform projects.

“I can still see but for how long…”

Here are all the delicious books I’ve been reading lately: Blindness by José Saramago, The Space Between by Kali VanBaale, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World) by Ingrid Schaffner, and The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.

I have this strange desire to rearrange all of my books by color. Maybe because I’ve always wanted to tuck a rainbow into my bedroom corner and give it a welcome home. (Note to myself: turn my books into a rainbow one day.)

Yesterday, I volunteered at a Creative Writing workshop put on by my undergraduate program. I was a student of the Residential College at University of Michigan, which is a small, liberal arts learning community heavily focusing on the arts, foreign languages, and activism. I knew that the workshop, intended for 15 incoming freshmen, was going to be informal and simply a way for them to explore the major and opportunities at the Residential College. Still, as I walked through the campus, my heart beat the same pitter-patter of three slammed cuppas. (I was later humbled to find out that the other facilitators, some who were long-time professors, were also battling a few nerves of their own). After introducing myself as an alum of the Creative Writing program, I read the first few pages of my currently unpublished novella called All the Facts You Need To Know About My Mother’s Oil Spill (Side note: I’ve been sending my manuscript to a few novella contests, but I’d love some advice on potential publishers who’d be interested in a story that is part mystery, part fabulist tale, part coming-of-age exploration, part queer love story, part environmental credo, and illuminated in the style of House of Leaves, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and Bats of the Republic, meaning it combines integrated text and images, innovative typography,  lists and asides and sticky notes and flyers, and “found scraps of writing.”) I love reading aloud, but find that I am often nervous about sharing my own work verbally with the world. However, I feel such a kinship to this particular character I’ve created, that it wasn’t me up there on stage reading. I was her, the great Miss Sylvia Mariner. The response from the students was definitely encouraging — one young lady even gave me her email and asked how she could read the rest of the story because she needed to know what happens next, which is pretty much the greatest thing a reader could tell an author. For the next part of the workshop, we had the students read Sandra Cisneros’ evocative vignette called “My Name,” which is really an excerpt from her novel, The House on Mango Street. The students then tried their hand at writing a piece about their own name, its meaning, how they think people see them, what they are reminded of by their name, etc. After sharing in small groups, the students had to work together to weave all of their names/written pieces into a short skit to perform on stage. The other facilitators and I stood by in case the students got stuck, but our services were not needed. The students were proactive, imaginative, and quick on their feet. Quite frankly, they were amazing!!! I almost wish I could work at the Residential College just to see how these students I met yesterday progress throughout the year. Perhaps one day…

In other miscellany news:

  • I’ve sent in my absentee ballot for Michigan’s primary election and have written to my state legislature demanding they take action following *recent events in Helsinki.* It is not the time to stay silent. Use your voice to fight the fights.
  • I dusted off and retuned my violin a few nights ago and taught myself how to play this song.
  • My current always-on-repeat playlist includes Mystery of Love and Visions of Gideon by Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Germany by Wilco, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness by The National, Barnacles by Emancipator, and all the songs by Vaults.

And here’s a Sak pic for you, because how can you resist this face:

The Thole Life

The first thing you should know is that I am now the proud owner of a t-shirt with the following quote printed on the back:  “You must thole” ~ Colm Tóibín

What is “thole” you ask? (Don’t worry, I had to ask the same question!)

First appearing in Beowulf, migrating to Scottish, then Gaelic, and most surprisingly, leaping to the American South, “thole” roughly translates to “You must suffer and endure to make meaning out of life.” However great a word “thole” is, I don’t think that “tholing” is an activity that we must seek out. It comes naturally to all of us. When we are born, an invisible “thole” stamp is embedded into our foreheads. It is in our destiny to thole. Everyone’s tholing experience will be unique, but thole we shall do. This is a great reminder for writers. If we are to craft stories of the “real” human experience (even if our stories are populated with fictional characters), then we must let our characters thole.

This is just one of the great lessons I learned during my week at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, which was indeed a challenging week, but oh so rewarding. I produced four (rough) first drafts of short stories, and one piece of journalism, in which I interviewed a sweet local Gambier, OH resident name Deb, who works part-time in the local clothing boutique. I met the poet Carl Phillips, who coincidentally was the high school Latin teacher of one of my current VCFA professors. Most of all, my workshop group was the best class I could have asked for. Our group of ten writers, all ages and experience levels, was immediately comforted and encouraged by our instructor, Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine. Whenever I attend a class/workshop/conference, I make note of the structures, discussion questions, etc—anything that could inform my own teaching styles in the future. I was very impressed with Ghassan’s workshop structure:

  1. The writer whose piece is to be workshopped stands up and reads the piece out loud to the class. After this, the writer will remain quiet during the discussion (unless asked directly to speak).
  2. Ghassan asks, “What is this piece about?” While this question may sound trivial, it is one of the most important questions for the writer to hear answered. If there are disagreements in the interpretations of major plot points by the reader and writer, then the writer needs to work on clarification of those points before anything else. In addition to plot points and narrative events, the workshop group can also point out themes or deeper issues the story is pointing toward.
  3. “Let’s check in with the writer. How are you feeling about what the workshop group said this piece is about.” It’s important for the group to know if they were close or way off in regards to the writer’s intentions.
  4. “What is working in this piece?” This is where the writer’s morale is boosted. The workshop members can freely speak about what they admire in the story and in the writer’s unique way of crafting the narrative.
  5. “Any suggestions for this writer?” At this point, workshop members may point to places in the text where they were confused, may offer suggestions for places where the writer could linger and expand on certain details, or ask questions to spark further ideas.
  6. “Does the writer have any questions for the group?” The writer gets the last word of the discussion and can either comment on the suggestions given to them, or ask questions to the group that may have come up during the workshop.
  7. Workshop members with any written notes may choose to give them to the writer.

I feel very grateful for the experience I had, spending a week geeking out over words and books with so many wonderful writers. And now it’s back to the everyday summer grind.

I am working on the thesis—slowly. I’m finding I am in a deep research mode, wanting to read anything that could be relevant. Yesterday, I read the entirety of John Hersey’s Hiroshima and am now in the deep throes of learning about the mysterious johatsu. Each time that I read something, I understand my characters that much more clearly. Of course, with the World Cup on all day, I am currently at my most distracted state.

Can you believe it is already July?! Here are some flowers that have tholed through the elements and are all the more beautiful because of their strength: