School in Book Form

I’m already two months into the second year of my MFA! My program at VCFA definitely is an unconventional model and people often ask me to explain my course schedule over and over again. (Crash course: 5 craft modules per semester, each module lasting 3 weeks and taught by a rotation of core and visiting faculty; 2 semester-long classes involving writing workshops). I’ve been thinking about how to craft a post about the classes I’m taking this semester, and realized that the books we’ve been reading for each class should do the talking for me!

Shall we begin the magical book tour?

Craft Module 1 – The Craft of Vulnerability in Creative Nonfiction (works read not pictured): In this course taught by Erin Stalcup, we read excerpts of The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Art of Daring, and The Argonauts, and explored how (and when) to be vulnerable on the page. How I see it—we are always in a state of vulnerability, just by being alive, just by attempting to write at all.

Craft Module 2 – Poetry and What’s at Stake: Through the incredible collections of poems by Carolyn Forché, Kaveh Akbar, and Chen Chen, along with excerpts of books by Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, our class (led by Rita Banerjee) discussed urgency, conflict, and stake-raising turns in both formal and experimental poems.

Craft Module 3 – Making Fiction True: Adding Texture and Meaning: This course seems to be the school’s response to the kinds of stories my class wants to tell. The majority of us fiction writers have magical/paranormal/speculative elements creeping into our stories in large and small ways. Lesley Arimah uses the lens of speculative fiction to teach us how to sell improbable situations by crafting “the narrative ecosystem” with authenticity and layers of complexity. We’re studying Man v. Nature, The Golem & the Jinni, and Exit West to explore three types of speculative fiction: “our world, but different,” “our world, much changed,” and “the brand new world.”

Novel Writing Thesis Seminar: In this semester-long class, we crazies who are attempting to write a novel for our thesis (or at least 100 pages of it) submit chunks regularly to be workshopped. Along with reading each other’s works, we are also studying the unique structures of award-winning novels. So far, we have read The Underground Railroad (a very tightly structured novel) and A Visit from the Goon Squad (a novel structured in “interconnected stories”). There’s nothing like reading two brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning books in a row to make you rethink everything you’re doing….

Critical Essay (not pictured): This class does not require any reading, as its purpose is for us thesis-writing crazies to craft a book proposal draft that could potentially become what we submit to agents/editors with our manuscript and query letter. Until then, this class helps us envision our thesis and think through our motivations, our scope, our market, our audience, and the trajectory of the stories we want to tell.

That’s all for now, but there’s more to come, more blog posts to write, more classes to attend, more books to read. Which is great, because you know I can’t resist a good “books spread across the floor” picture.

 

The Child Finder

The day has finally come—one I’ve been anticipating for quite a while now. I read The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld last fall and loved it so much, I reached out to Denfeld for an interview. Little did I know that an excerpt of that interview would become the exclusive back matter for the paperback copy of the book!

The Child Finder is a suspenseful, empathic, and heartfelt exploration into the terrifying depths of the human soul. And the book cover alone is a masterpiece with its fairy-lit, sea green snow. I can’t recommend this book—all of Rene Denfeld’s work—enough.

You can read the full interview here (first published by Michigan Quarterly Review).

You Know You’re Back in Vermont When…(A Mostly Photo Essay)

Gah…in my move back to Vermont, I’ve really fallen down on the blog job. So here I am, attempting to redeem myself with a mostly photo essay (with some words, too).

You know you’re back in Montpeculiar when the trees warn you they are for panda purposes only: 

Last Wednesday, I went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which was a delightfully magical film about the life of Fred Rogers. It encapsulated an era so dearly. When the credits started, we as a collective theater not-so-furtively wiped our soggy eyes and stepped back out into the mundane Main Street dusk. It was so bizarre to leave that theater and go on with our lives, partly in that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood has never had a reboot, has never been overtly commercialized, has never transformed into a pop culture consumerist ploy. It is so wholesomely what it was for the time that it had: a dedicated space and time for the sole purpose of engaging, encouraging, educating, and loving children. Please do go out and see this film, if you have a chance! (Of course, writing this post did jog my memory to the time I found this mug for sale at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.) 

What I’ve been reading : In my latest trip to the downtown library, my eyes were apparently larger than my reading stomach can handle in a two-week checkout period. Nevertheless. she persists! Stack includes The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, and yes, studying up on the Grammar Bible itself: The Chicago Manual of Style. 

Through pure spontaneity, I hitched a ride with two friends last weekend to attend the 10th Annual Bookstock Literary Festival,where I stocked up on books by Gabriel García Márquez and Maira Kalman (I’m having a bit of a Maira Kalman moment lately; totally enamored), sampled Red Kite Candy’s salted caramels, sat like a fangirl student in the first row of Robin MacArthur‘s reading of Heart Spring Mountain, and heard the legendary Eileen Myles read (and share a story about their false tooth.) What an absolutely incredible poet performer! 

On the writing front: I’ve been on a bit of a flash fiction writing stint, thanks to the photo prompts provided by Midwestern Gothic. (I was a finalist for their 2015 Flash Fiction Prize here with this photo below!)

I find that flash fiction and photos pair so naturally together, because a photo in its essence is a bound moment in time. Yes, in that moment, the future and past seep in, stored in the collective memory and experience of that place and its people. But there’s a border cropping the photo to its size, just as flash fiction word limits (e.g. 500 words) imparts a border on the told story. Which details are seen and which details are just outside of the border are decisions that have to be made by the keen eye of the writer—almost as if we are writing our story with the disciplined filter of a camera lens.

This weekend, a few of us from the cohort are heading down to a rural New Hampshire camp for a two-day homemade writing retreat. At least writing is the goal…but the mountains, the lakes, the trails are always calling.

On Juggling Figs

I first read The Bell Jar back in high school (let’s face it, because Rory Gilmore read it), but I don’t think I was really ready to read it at that time. I recently picked up the book again, this time buying my own beloved blue and pink copy from Bear Pond Books.

This book swallowed me like a whale and down there in the deep, dark belly, I did not want to come out. I spent most of the last three days hula-hooping on the porch or riding the stationary bike reading Miss Sylvia, oblivious to the clock running its minute hand endlessly. I won’t even tell you the number of coffee cups I let grow cold.

Unsurprisingly, I love this book! And I think this was the most perfectly timed reading of this book I could possibly have managed.

It’s true I’m a Libra who frequently has difficulty making decisions. It’s true I also have so many interests, I often want to do all the jobs at once. This is exemplified in Plath’s analogy of the fig tree, where each fig represents a different choice or path in Esther Greenwood’s life, such as a husband and children, a career as a poet, an Olympic crew champion, a prestigious professorship, a renowned magazine editor, etc. With such an array of decisions, she is afraid she will end up choosing nothing, and what a waste of good fruit that would be. She says:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and grow black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (77).

After next year’s graduation, I’ll find myself standing at the crux of my own forked paths, just like Esther. I, too, have many visions—many figs—of myself and my future. I, too, can see myself pursuing similar paths as Esther, although substituting tap dance for Olympic crew. However, one thing marks a stark difference. I am not a woman growing up in the 50s. I have been taught and mentored by women of the 21st century who manage to juggle all their figs in the air without dropping them, without blotting the ground with seedy pulp. Sure, these women have also mastered the art of stopping time: freezing certain figs mid-air to allow other figs to be caught first. But nevertheless, the figs remain intact. I have some great models in my life who have proved that in today’s world, a woman can sit in the tree and gorge herself not on one fig alone, but on all the figs she can reach. But first, she must make the initial climb into the tree. That’s the first step.

In her introduction to the paperback novel, Frances McCullough reveres Plath’s ability to write about mental illness in such vivid and rational prose, especially during a time where such issues were not entirely socially acceptable to talk about. While Plath led me by the hand into the world of the asylum—a world which seemed like a very sterile alien world to me—Esther’s behaviors under the gaze of doctors and psychiatrists were not completely foreign. I know well the pleasure of telling people “what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture [people have] of me by hiding this and revealing that.” I know the anxiety that comes with attempting to walk across The Bridge of Perfection. At any moment, you could fall up or down – floating stagnant in a gravity-less air or plunging into a teal and coral earth pool. Without wings, without fins, without goggles to help eyes see, falling and failing really can be terrifying. Esther Greenwood understands that terrifically, which is the real beauty of art –how we can connect so intimately with people we’ve only met through words.

Even though the book grapples with grave topics, Plath’s voice can be hilarious. Her dry humor sweeps in just when you are feeling low and creates tender moments of levity. The word “Ha!” even makes a few appearances in my green-inked marginalia. These are just a few of the reasons why The Bell Jar earned a permanent spot on my list of most favorite books.

***

On the topic of falling and failing and releasing perfection’s hold, I’ve found this video from Granta very inspiring. I will surely return to Mohsin Hamid’s words again and again to remind me that writing (or attempting to write) can happen in a myriad of ways, and who’s really to say that your writing process is wrong, as long as you are attempting to make progress on something.

This advice also came to me at a brilliant time, as tomorrow, I’m off to Kenyon College for a weeklong fiction workshop, led by Ghassan Abou-Zeinnedine. Photos and stories and creative tidbits will be shared here on the blog when I get back!

What I’m Reading and Where to Find Them

The mysterious thesis (which I will not divulge too much about yet as it is still in its infancy) is taking over my mind! I can tell you that it is a historical/psychological novel which takes place in post-war Japan. More to come!

To keep on schedule between now until next May when the thesis is due, I’ve drafted up a timeline for myself because visuals help me keep myself accountable for my work. For the last few months of this semester, my goal is to just read everything. Everything I can get my hands on! Novels on similar topics, historical and nonfiction first-hand narratives from survivors of the atom bomb, non-subject related books whose structure I want to study, etc. For our thesis, we technically only need to turn in the first 100 pages of a “novel in progress.” But if you know me well, I always have to finish what I start. I have to see the project through and I always LOVE to make things more difficult for myself! Ha! So I’m planning on having a first draft of a full-length novel by the time I leave VCFA. It’s all very exciting and … well mostly exciting.

Speaking of process, I’m very music-oriented when I write. So I’ve crafted a sort of “novel soundtrack” for this book. Every time I sit down to write a part of it or think through the book, I get into the mind of the book by playing the same songs from the playlist on a continuous loop. Songs include: “For Rose” by Parov Stelar, “Exurgency” by Zoe Keating, “Rubric” by Philip Glass, “Meditation on Mount Fuji” from the Deep Sleep Relaxation cd, “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Recomposed: Winter 1” by Max Richter, and of course, The Beatles.

I’m interested to hear what other writers’ processes are when they are at the beginning of a project.

Even though I am in full reading mode, I’m lucky in that reading often puts me in a writing mode. So there is much writing occurring, too!

This is my current reading pile. All are in various stages of partial progress or haven’t even started yet. Mostly Japanese authors and tales because of my thesis, with Melissa Febos tucked in there for fun and because she is visiting our class next week! This is just the tip of the iceberg of the books that I am reading for my thesis research. Stay tuned for more!

  • Number9Dream by David Mitchell. I am such a fan of Mitchell’s stories, having previously read Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and Slade House. This particular novel, based in Japan, is action-filled with a cat-and-mouse chase, all the while balancing the surreal dreamworld with the historical pang of the war; a mixture I hope to successfully create in my own book. I haven’t started Mitchell’s novel yet, but am very much looking forward to it.
  • Children of Hiroshima compiled by Dr. Arata Osada. Is that Cammie weeping in her room again? If so, it’s because she is reading this book, which consists of 105 first-hand accounts about the events of August 6, 1945, written by children who experienced and survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It is horrific, brain-staining, and should be a mandatory read for people of all ages.
  • Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos. I’m about halfway through Febos’ collection of personal essays and can go, oh maybe one page, before I’m scribbling down another quote in my notebook. Her writing is bold and passionate, her words ripping straight through the paper, right through my skin. The themes she explores in this book are surprisingly helpful to understanding one of my thesis’ characters particularly. She put into words—beautiful and frightening truths—that “the nature of want…is to crush.” She goes on to describe her desire for her beloved’s body as “wanting to unzip my body and pull her into it, or crawl into hers.” Along similar lines, Febos describes how she “could hurt the person [she] least wanted to.” If you haven’t picked this book up yet, do so immediately. It is something to savor, like dark chocolate dipped into hot coffee.
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiEveryone is recommending me read this, and honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet at this point in my life! One thing I know is that I will probably blast The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” on high while reading.
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read this one before and am already a quarter into my second read. I’m definitely picking up on things I hadn’t noticed before. The dialogue is the most interesting element in that the characters seem to be saying nothing of significance at all to each other, and in that, they are really saying so much. Other times, two people are in a conversation but are not responding to each other. Instead, they carry on with their own monologues, which is still a type of communication—usually one displaying dysfunction or anger. I’m also excited to read An Artist of the Floating World, too.

The ampersand is technically a bookend, but I like to place its infinite curves on top of my book pile every once in a while to remind myself that there is always more. More to read, more to write. The book pile is endless. There will always be an AND, never an END.

I am spending my days drinking tea and writing a few vignettes because the novel seems to want to follow that very short chapter format. I’m editing two short stories from workshop, and am gearing up for April Poetry Month. For the past 3 years, I have written 30 poems in 30 days each time April rolls around. Each collection of 30 poems becomes a time capsule of that month of my life. I can remember exactly what occurred on each day to influence my daily poems. This year will be no different.

(If you are interested in participating in April’s National Poetry Month, but don’t want to write poems, consider signing up for Poem-a-Day, which is a daily digital poetry series which distributes a poem each day into your inbox!)

AWP Anticipation … & Waiting for the Snow to Melt

Snow 2.0. Yes, there is still snow, and my feet are slightly bored of the constant snugness of boots. The trees are laced in snow doilies, which is beautiful, but I would very much like some greenery and sun. At least some dogwoods and tulips and fluttering fauna would be nurturing for the soul.

The good news is that we are off on spring break for a whole week, which is a much-earned and much-welcomed break. On Wednesday, I leave for AWP (Association of Writers and Publishers) – the biggest writerly conference in America – where I will be representing Hunger Mountain and working the booth at the book fair. This event has been a bucket list item of mine for many years, and now it’s actually happening! This year, the conference is in sunny Tampa, and I’m not sure I even remember how to dress for warm weather. There are about 200 panels which will be coinciding with the book fair, and I am a little daunted by the schedule! So far, I’ve only looked at Thursday’s schedule and already have added 20 panels to my “Favorites” list! Eek!

Until Wednesday, I am editing a draft of a new short story, applying for a few summer residencies and conferences, and want to start a new art project with my little doodle buddy, but I’m not sure what form the project will take. Tarot cards? A series of graphic quotes? A flip book? Suggestions are welcome.

If you are not familiar with my little buddy, allow me to introduce him!

A few years ago, I found myself doodling in a notebook one day and the result of the doodling was this guy: a dapper sort, always dressed in a cardigan and neatly knotted scarf, with a spinning top for a head.  He’s followed me throughout the years, trotting through notebook page margins, decorating my walls, organizing his scarf drawer within his bedroom of my brain. My buddy exists in variations: sometimes the wind is especially strong and whips his head around and around, tugging on his scarf. Sometimes, he taps into his natural roots and sprouts antler-like branches from his head. Sometimes, he hangs upside down, preferring to see the world from a new perspective. He is a comfort to me, I guess you could say. That he doesn’t have a face doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it is soothing that he doesn’t have to worry about expressions and vanity and judgments and outward-appearing emotions.

He is strange and wonderful and slightly evasive, and a creature I really want to bring more fully into this world. So again, suggestions for a new art project are welcomed!

Also in new developments, I will be posting frequently on Twitter a new photo series, which will document the books I am reading outside of class. Here is the first of the Reading Bench Series:

Because everyone should have a familiar reading bench (when they are not hula hooping and reading, of course!) Stay tuned for more in the series soon!

So, lots of art and editing in a bomb cyclone wonderland, and impatiently anticipating AWP and spring!

The Sound of Water

I am home again—well, home in Vermont (I have many places I feel at home)—and I am starting to get the swing of 2018.

As I write this, it is a brisk, frosty, nose-hair-crystalizing temperature outside and there are snow-plowed mountains peaking high among the streets. As I write this, my feet are toasty in fuzzy oven-warm slippers and I am serenaded by the trickling sound of water as it twists through the metallic veins of ancient radiators.

I am realizing what a blessing it is to have a month-long break between school semesters. With two more weeks left, I am properly hibernating with tea and a mound of books. I am doing a bit of writing (revising short stories and beginning a new novel), but mostly reading. I want to voraciously learn everything I can from my predecessors and my contemporaries.

I just finished Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers (at Porochista Khakpour’s recommendation) and am halfway through this beautiful Penguin Horror edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing. I have Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters and Tana French’s In the Woods to pick up when I’m finished. Plus I just ordered a box of more bookish goodies for later in the semester!

One of my favorite ways to read through my ever-growing book pile is by reading while walking on the treadmill, which is almost as satisfying as reading whilst hula hooping. It’s amazing how fast the time goes by and how after reading 50-60 pages, I’ve already walked 3-4 miles. I believe that when the body is active, the mind is also stimulated and therefore, it is easier to absorb and comprehend complex plots and details. Plus, the gym in the dorm is located in the basement, meaning that it is quiet enough for me to read out loud. (It has always been a dream of mine to one day become an audiobook reader, so I practice as much as I can.)

And now, we return to the symphony of the humming radiator and the back-breaking shovel digging out a snowbound car.

Books for Winter Hibernation

We have only three more weeks until the end of the fall semester. After that, we have a month-long break, in which I plan to hunker in (sans homework) and create my own little hibernation retreat of writing, reading, and hula-hooping (natuurlijk). (Fun fact: When I was in third grade, my best friend, Connor, and I used to play this game on the playground called Hibernation, where we would burrow our winter-suited bodies down into the snow-covered hill and “hibernate” because we were bears. All of the other children playing on the hill were unknowingly part of the game. They were the villains: the poachers. Our goal was to “kill” (with our minds) the poachers before they “killed” (with their minds) us, but of course, they didn’t know they were playing in our game, and we were too shy and probably frozen to move out of our hibernating locations. Now that I think about it, this game was actually quite the complicated mental inception. Also, this is not the kind of hibernation I plan to have this winter. My fingers and toes were not made to withstand hours of cold.)

To fully prepare myself for the *real* winter hibernation, I have laid in a supply of reading material: a mix of genres, nothing terribly recent. I have a lot of books from the past few years to catch up on. Here are links and info since the internet makes it so easy to love even more books. The list is in no particular order.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I frequently spotted this book on the Staff Recommendation table at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, but had never carved out a time to read it. When my boyfriend mentioned he had just listened to the audiobook (narrated by Wil Wheaton) and enjoyed it, I went straight to the Montpelier local library and checked it out. It’s labeled as YA, and while it does have a YA-coming-of-age-never-kissed-before feel, it definitely was written for adults who love all 80s pop culture, especially cult movies, rock music, classic video games, and fantasy novels. I meant to wait until winter break to read it, but the story sucked me in immediately and now I am done and can tell you all to read it!

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Okay, so this is cheating because this book was assigned to me for class, but nevertheless, I wanted to include it in this pile. Also, bonus points: Chee is visiting VCFA next week and giving a reading! I am super excited to meet him. His 500-something paged book looks daunting, but once you’re enthralled in Act 1, the plot moves and twists and you keep turning pages because oh my god, what’s going to happen to the soprano Lilliet Berne? I’m still reading, but I’d describe it as a cross between Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Makes me wonder what a Queen of the Night musical would look and sound like!

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I found this book on a whim of the internet, and also checked it out of the library’s YA section. I have to say, I usually don’t go for Young Adult books, or at least am very cautious about which ones I pick up. This one, though, has me excited to start. Lanagan based her novel on Grimm fairytales and explores dark matters of sexual violence through fantastical settings, parallel worlds, and transforming bears. If anything, this review on The Guardian will convince you, too, to pick this book up!

The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar KeretVery excited about this one. If the cover image doesn’t pull you in first with its pathetic cartoon man in a pink bunny suit, holding a rifle in a field surrounded by dead birds, I’m not sure you even have eyes. Haven’t started yet, but I imagine Keret’s short-short stories will be as brutally honest and weirdly fantastical as Ben Loory and Amelia Gray.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. Once in a while, I like to mix up my brain matter with a nonfiction book, usually about history or science. And to a writer, learning about the brain is like finding gold nuggets. After all, the psychology of people and how their minds work is our business. The back cover of this book presents a paragraph of questions: “Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Is there a true Mel Gibson? How is your brain like a conflicted democracy engaged in civil war? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret?” I’m a question-asker myself, and so Eagleman, you had me at “Why can your foot…”

Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.  I remember hearing about this book as a young girl and imagining it to be a biblical meditation on fish. And perhaps in some way, it is! Flanagan’s “novel in twelve fish” is an epic of 19th-century Australia and features a main character who happens to be a convict painter setting out to construct an Audubon-like book celebrating the wonder of fish. I’m looking now at the words on the praise page describing Flanagan’s novel: “phantasmagorical” “brilliant or crazed or both” “mesmerizing” “slippery and outrageous” “a baggy monster of a book that does literary cartwheels on a tightrope.” SOLD!

In the meantime, I am working hard on revisions for my final portfolio and delightfully devouring the terribly addictive and sensuously witty Netflix series, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries!” Excuse me while I don a flapper dress and Charleston my way through a small-town caper.