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.

 

Words of Encouraging Advice

Yesterday, I Skyped with Fuente Collective, a Houston-based writing center for both young and adult writers, to talk about Hunger Mountain and debunk the mysterious world of submitting creative work, but mostly my aim was to emphasize the importance of literary citizenship and how young writers can start being active in their own literary communities now. The talk went really well! The 14-to 18-year-olds are in such a great space, what with the support and generosity of their instructors Layla Al-Bedawi and Tayyba Kanwal, and the opportunities for writing and growth that FuenteCo provides. I’m very excited to work with Fuente again in the future!

In preparation for the talk, I put together a tear sheet for the group, including a brief overview of Hunger Mountain, and information about our current submission call. 

Also included on that tear sheet were a few “words of encouraging advice” that I collected from my fellow students and a few of the professionals I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The blurbs I received back ranged in topic from encouragement to follow one’s passion, tips for the act of writing itself, engaging in the literary community, and advice on how to send out work and get published. I think these words of wisdom are great reminders to keep us on our heart’s path, no matter your age or years of experience. I know I will print these words out  and paste them on my wall above my writing desk.

Enjoy these heartfelt blurbs below. Let them inspire you, speak to you, and stir up your creative juices:

Encouraging Advice from VCFA Students and Faculty: 

Everything I’ve ever learned about writing came from my mother and my father. My father taught me that nothing beats working hard. And that is exactly true with creative writing. The only way to be a successful writer is to make writing something that you do often and ferociously. But you cannot just work hard and become a great writer, and this is where my mother’s advice comes in. My mother taught me to be passionate about what I do. And for a writer to be great, they need to not only work hard but also love to work hard. They need to love the act of writing, the act of thinking about writing, the act of revising, the act of sending work out into the world. So write hard and love writing hard. ~ Sean Prentiss, author of Finding Abbey

 

Someone told this to me when I was young: Keep writing and always believe in the wilds of your imagination. ~ Kayleigh Marinelli, VCFA student

 

Don’t procrastinate. If you want to be a better writer, read carefully and pay attention to what others do and how they do it. Ask questions. Go to classes. Write as often as possible. Play with words. Enjoy telling stories. Find out as much as you can, read widely. And yes, don’t put it off for another day or year, but claim it now.  ~ Sarah Leamy, VCFA student

 

Don’t wait for inspiration to write. Simply write regularly and often. Sometimes, the work will fall apart. Sometimes it will come together and surprise you. It’s not so simple as “journey over destination” or “practice over product…” nor is the point of writing in the finished product alone. The point is that you weave writing into your life and let it become your inspiration. And do this with your reading to. Read. Read. Read. And keep reading. ~ Lizzy Fox, Associate Director of the MFA in Writing and Publishing program

 

There are two things that every writer needs: willingness and a community. Willingness is the ability to just make yourself start writing: even if you’re not feeling it, even if you think you’ve somehow lost any talent you might have once had, even if you’ve convinced yourself that your current work-in-progress is a worthless dog’s breakfast. You may need to fill a page with nonsense before you start to flow, but flow you will. The other thing you need is a community. We can get lost inside the hard bone casques of our skulls, and having trusted friends around keeps us grounded. When one of us is doing well, it gives the rest of us encouragement to push on. When one is having a hard time, there’s probably at least one other of us who just finished a story, or solved a vexing plot puzzle, or at least just learned a great new macadamia-nut cookie recipe. Find a crew. For writers, who are often temperamentally a solitary lot, this can be the biggest challenge. But it always, ALWAYS pays off. ~ Paul Daniel Ash, VCFA student

 

You are not alone. There are billions of people in the world and some of them need to hear your story, and this will only happen if you tell it. ~ Valentyn Smith, VCFA student

 

 

 

Admit One

Let’s talk about movies.

Having just finished our 3-week screenwriting module with Julianna Baggott, my brain has properly become molded (or should I say ruined) to never watch a movie again without noting its structure, praising its “break into Act 2” scene, calculating its midpoint, and brooding over the slow and torturous ALL IS LOST/DARK SOUL OF THE NIGHT scenes in Act 3.

There are many celebrated and acclaimed ways to structure a film. A particular method, called the Three Act Structure, was the one we used in class to plot out familiar films, such as Hot Fuzz and On Golden Pond, as well as TV shows (Cheers, Friends From College, Ozark). Basically, there are formulas for successful storytelling and this is one of them. We as story consumers have been primed to expect certain kinds of actions to take place at certain points in the story’s arc. You can learn more about the beat-to-beat moments here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/plotting-with-save-cat-beat-sheet.html.

While we learned this structure in a “screenwriting” class, a story is a story, no matter the medium. Structure isn’t a topic usually hit on in fiction/novel writing courses, and yet, it is so important to ensuring that 1) your readers are following the plot and 2) you are engaging their emotions and moving them to the edge of their seat – or in book talk, your readers are still turning the pages.

In another one of my classes, we’ve been talking about our “touchstone” books to reach for whenever we’re in need of creative nourishment. In honor of the screenwriting class, I’ve thought about my “touchstone” films.

Here is a list of movies I go back to again and again whenever I need inspiration or when I need to deeply appreciate the art of storytelling:

Cloud Atlas: I first read the book and fell in love with the sheer brilliance of Mitchell’s mind. The movie is definitely a different creature than the book. But I’m rather fond of instances where the book and the film are two distinct pieces of art. After all, a book is not a film and a film is not a book. I worship the cinematographer of the film, or whoever was in charge of chopping up the scenes. The scenes were cut and woven together with such deftness that I believe the film can express the theme of the story (interconnectedness, past lives, history repeating itself, textual posterity) better than the limited technologies the book’s chaptered structure could offer. While David Mitchell is the masterful architect behind the story (see my post about David Mitchell’s visit to Ann Arbor here), I am 100% Team Movie. The china shop dream sequence especially makes my heart stop. Even though I have seen the film close to 10 times, I know there will be many more viewings in my future. I’m especially interested in hearing the director and co. talk about the film via commentary.

Amelie: Amelie is the queen of quirk. The film is an incredibly rare blend of both joy and melancholy. There’s fun and whimsy to be had, but there’s also real, honest emotion which is explored throughout the film. Amelie is a girl who celebrates life’s small pleasures (which my love for the movie makes total sense if you know my undying obsession with the British magazine The Simple Things). She loves the sound of a spoon breaking a creme brûlée crust; she plunges her hand in a sack of grain at the vegetable stand; she loves skipping stones on the canal. These moments make her seem real. These moments make me say, “I wish I could meet her and take her to a park so we can watch the clouds and turn them into animated objects.” The other reason I love the movie is that the landscape is familiar, yet fictive. It is a place of saturated colors, of eccentric characters, of talking paintings, of nostalgic accordion music. The film does not try to represent the “real Paris”—it grabs you by the hand and takes you into a dreamworld of its own kind.

Tarsem’s The Fall: See my love for this movie in my December 2017 post for the Michigan Quarterly Review. Otherwise, I could gush on and on.

Moonrise Kingdom: I absolutely adore the whimsy, the awkwardness, the simultaneous rigidity to order and the freedom of narrative structure, and the OCD mindset that is so prevalent in Wes Anderson’s films. This film happens to be the one I return to again and again. Anderson’s camera work also reminds me to use my zoom button when I write. How do I zoom way out? How do I zoom way in on this situation? What is the detail I want to draw my readers eye to in this scene?

Tell me: which movies inspire you? 

 

Dispatch from the Unknown

At this point in 2018, without the structure of having class to attend every day, I’m wandering around my head as if I were in a Narnian wardrobe, which is to say in a bamboozled state of wonder and not particularly sure what to do with myself. I’ve been steadily creating writing projects, reading so many books, and watching and rewatching all the seasons of the British Bake Off. And yet, my studentia soul aches to get back into a familiar rhythm. It doesn’t help that the world outside my windows is a snow-icing landscape of white with creeping mists, hazy mountain silhouettes, and gnarly-fingered trees. So there’s that Vermont in Winter otherworldliness factor, too.

Luckily, the wait is short, because this coming Monday, I will dive right back in to my studies— this time with some new and old faces at the front of the classroom. My schedule for this semester is:

  • Modules with Julianna Baggott (Screenplay), Matthew Dickman (Poetry), Jericho Parms (Creative Nonfiction), Trinie Dalton (Fiction), and Sean Prentiss.(Thesis Development)
  • Workshop with Robin MacArthur
  • Publishing with Miciah Gault
  • Professional Development (with various Module instructors)
  • Internship (TBD)

Here’s a pic of the latest book haul (all school books):

More information on classes are sure to follow soon!

Today was a mix of the mundane and the historically significant. In between cleaning my studio and a bit of list-making/email housekeeping, I walked in the local Montpelier Women’s March anniversary event. Donning a hot pink scarf and a “I have more than enough courage” button, I joined the hundreds of others who gathered at the base of the Vermont State House. Even a T-Rex traveled through time and overcame extinction to make an appearance. What I find thrilling about this particular Vermont event is that it was a youth-led, youth-organized march and speak-out for youth of all ages and their allies. I think it is an incredible thing to give young people the stage and respect to be heard by their townspeople, many who are decades older than themselves. When we show up to events like these, we’re not just saying “Impeach Trump” and “We want change,” it’s showing (and therefore speaking volumes) that we believe that what children have to say and feel about this country’s future matters. They are our future. We are all in this together, literally, sharing this world and all of Earth’s resources. I know from my experiences as a preschool teacher that children produce some of the most intelligent and rawest ideas and feelings. Because they don’t always have the speech capacity to vocalize these thoughts efficiently, children are written off as dumb or naive. But I think this is far from the truth. Children hold some of the most fundamental qualities of life to be self-evident. For example, in the photo below, a child in the right bottom corner holds a sign that says: “Be nice and share.” How many adults do you know who struggle with this advice every day? Just some food for thought.

Portrait of Montpelier’s Women’s March with T-Rex

 

And now to something completely different…

I’ve been listening to a TON of Moby lately (my favorite tracks are the gospelly ones: “Honey“, “Natural Blues“, and “In This World“). Mostly, because I realized that I need very specific music to settle my brain down and tell itself that it’s time to write. Certain music, like Emancipator or Moby, creates a sort of cave for my brain to curl up inside and produce these sprigs of ideas which sprout outward from me like degravitized roots. Caves are the perfect environment because it’s dark in there and echoey and my brain can practice sounds, while also not feeling super calm. There’s always a slight dripping sense of unease in caves, which is what I like in a good story. Also, good writing music: the soundtrack to American Beauty. The last time I saw that movie, I think I almost bit through the pillow I was clutching during the last scene. The soundtrack though is worldly, disturbing and comforting all at once — again, quintessentially cavernous.

So right now, I’m standing in this snowy cave of Vermont looking at 2018 spread out in front of me, all full of possibility and exploration and nail-biting political nervousness, and I’m not sure where the year is going to take me, what it’s going to teach me, and who I’m going to become. But I have my boots, and I trust them to take me one step further and then another.  I’ll make sure to send dispatches back from the unknown.

 

Portrait of an Artist as a Grateful Grad Student

First of all, it is incredible (and slightly mystifying) that I have completed my first semester of graduate school.

I have so much to be thankful for, but here are a few highlights of the semester:

  • Working with Julianna Baggott, Mary Ruefle, Trinie Dalton, Ruben Quesada, Jessica Hendry Nelson, Sean Prentiss, Porochista Khakpour, and Miciah Gault. It still sometimes floors me to read off that list of people who have taken such care of my future as a successful writer. Each professor possesses unique passions in different genres and fields, of course, but they all are some of the most enthusiastic academic teachers I have ever met. They want to see me and all of us in the program succeed. They believe in my work! They believe in me! They have so much love for language and storytelling, and I feel superbly lucky that they want to pass as much knowledge as they can to me. It makes me realize how teaching and learning is such a wonderful gift. Almost as wonderful as sharing a story with one another.
  • The friends I have made in such a short while have been an invaluable part to my success here at school. People always think that writers are isolated, unsocial beings, but if anything, we need people more. People are our readers, our characters, our customers, our audience, our gods. We bow down to serve people, to entertain them, and to provide opportunities for thoughtfulness. I can always count on my friends to make my belly hurt from laughing. I trust them with my undeveloped stories, my fears, my doubts, my longings. Most of all, they remind me to keep a childlike wonder about the world.
  • Workshop…workshop…workshop. Without these hours of serious dedication and attention from my professors and cohort, my stories would be stuck in mud, bathing in illogical stews, or would still be a locked trapdoor whose key floats within the belly of a dragon and I have to kill the dragon to find the key. (This analogy may still apply, because all stories have a trapdoor and its the author’s job to find that key and unlock it, because behind that door is another door, and so on.)
  • I have loved working on the Hunger Mountain literary journal as the managing editor, and am so glad that there is still half a year left in my position. P.S. Must find a way to make this a full-time career! I’m realizing that one of my passions in the literary world is championing other writers’ work and working with them to find success.
  • My internship at the letterpress May Day Studio has come to an end, but I hope to put my newfound skills to good use some day in the future. Here is an interview I did with Kelly McMahon, the owner of the studio. For now, I have a limited supply of cards I made for my final project. Would anyone be interested in purchasing these one-of-a-kind goodies? If so, write to me at cameroncfinch@gmail.com and we can chat about placing an order!

The poem is “Invitation”: my favorite piece in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The greeting cards are original “untranslatable word” prints and are influenced by Ella Frances Sanders’ book, Lost in Translation.

***

Now is the time to come up with a plan for the month-long break. I don’t really consider it a break – as I am a person who feels most fulfilled when constantly hustling. The question isn’t how to “relax”—for me, this break is all about finding ways to refill thy brain with creative input so I can produce fresh and quintessentially weird content in the next semester.

It was Julia Cameron who talks about “filling your creative well” on a regular basis; that you need to replenish your creativity by absorbing other creative things or going out in nature. She calls these moments of artistic absorption:  “Artist Dates.”

While I am an avid reader and often make more time to read than I do to write (is this something I should feel guilty about?), I do sometimes forget that I need to recharge my brain batteries and consume art rather than constantly work on my own. I’ve been so busy with getting together my final portfolio (which included an extended second draft of my novella—extended, because I think it wants to be a novel…maybe) over the last week or so, but perhaps haven’t been properly recharging.

This list here, inspired by Cameron’s Artist Dates, is one I shall bookmark whenever I need some guidance on where to fill my well.

I did recently watch Tarsem’s The Fall, which is my all-time favorite movie, for the sixth or seventh time. But this time, I watched it with the director’s commentary. I had always been a bit daunted to watch a movie with two hours of straight commentary as I thought it would draw away from the film itself. But when you’ve seen a film as much as I have seen The Fall—where you know all the scene changes and the exact timing of lines and you can anticipate where the camera will lead you next—it was so easy to release myself from the world of the film and float slightly above it, godlike, with the director. I think even on my hundredth viewing, I will still find something new. I will still be in utter awe of its splendor and brilliance. Oh my, has this film changed me, my brain chemistry, my heart, in a way that I wish I could put into words and send in a letter to the director. Maybe someday I will.

Note: Give all the love and tell people when you see them have that thing that grabs you and keeps you and excites you and leaves you awestruck and slightly breathless. It makes all the difference in this world to let them know. Don’t wait. Tell them how they’ve moved you. 

As much as my nerd heart wants to stay in school through this month, I’m excited to have time to revise stories, to binge on good books and movies and tea, to see my cat and the people back home that I love, and to continue to fill this cavernous, bottomless well of mine. I want to consume all the art.

 

Make Time For Your Writing and Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

Last week my Forms professor, Julianna Baggott, told our class the exact information that my little ears needed to hear. The message of her self-described “fiery speech” was this:

  • You (the writing student) have essentially put your life on hold. You’ve halted whatever path you had before VCFA and have come to learn, to write, to make, to dig in fully. We’re here, so by all means, be here fully.
  • No one cares if you publish anything. No one cares if you write another word. Harsh, right? But it’s true. No one is breathing over you saying : Keep writing. Keep creating stories in your head and share them with the world. It’s all on you. You have to care about your own work because no one else will if you don’t put the time and energy and love into it.

I really took this to heart (I’ve taken pretty much everything Julianna has told me to heart. I can’t write down what she says in class fast enough sometimes.)

Because I haven’t been afraid to say no to trivia nights or going out for dinner with friends, I’ve been able to finish the first draft of a magical realism novelette. In total, it’s about 13,000 words.

I’m learning a lot about my writing style through the writing of this piece. I really found the narrator’s voice early on, which guided the piece’s experimental and fragmented form. The idea for the piece began with a strong image: “an oil spill contained within a mint tin.” To obtain this item quickly became the motivation and guiding desire for my main character. (Yes, I’ve always wanted to write a MacGuffin story). From there, I found ways to explore how I could use that item to get at different angles of characters, as well as explore the history of oil spills in Michigan.

The first half of the story just went through a workshop with the whole class. Oh my, is there work to be done. There are some holes that will need to be patched up in this next draft. One character especially, the mother, is severely underdeveloped. So she and I will have to spend a lot of time together this weekend, unpacking her backstory and how she came to be the person she is today.

Even though I am nervous going into next week’s workshop of my story’s second half, I feel somewhat comforted that the overall feedback from my classmates was that it was enjoyable to read. Other comments included that it was fast paced despite its length, and the unique and witty main character is someone readers want to root for.

I have to just keep in mind that part of the fun in writing first drafts is that so much of it is exploration. Writers are really just archaeologists scraping up the layers of story deep inside blank paper. Sometimes, we dig up pieces that don’t go with the story we’re presently telling. Sometimes, we find a lead, but we don’t dig deep enough. Or we simply pause for a break and in later drafts, pick up the relevant pieces we hadn’t found earlier.

So I go onward with my shovel and my dishrag. I am looking forward to uncovering more of my story from under the earth’s crust and polishing all of the pieces. Because I do care, Julianna, I do. Because I want to know what happens next in my characters’ lives. Because I want to work hard so other people can care, too.

books! tacos! gala!

When the director of my MFA program announced that any student who wanted to attend the Third Annual Vermont Book Award Gala could go for free if we volunteered to set up chairs and hang up coats, I jumped at the chance. Who am I to resist a reason to dress up and dance?

First, a little background on the history of the event. The Vermont Book Award is a $5,000 literary prize created by VCFA to celebrate the literature of Vermont. To qualify, a book must be a work of outstanding literary merit by a Vermont writer. Authors and poets are nominated by Vermont independent booksellers, as well as publishers. From a selection of over 400 nominees, a panel of judges narrows the list down to eight finalists. The winner is then selected from those finalists and announced at a fancy schmancy gala in the fall.

Which brings me to Saturday night! I’m not sure if the gala can be properly described to you, but I will do my best, and trust me when I say it was amazing.

The event was hosted in the VCFA Alumni Hall. Now this is New England, so even the alumni hall has a “stable/barn” feel to it, especially with the wooden beams and rafters. But, once the party started, this was absolutely no barn. Picture caramel wooden floors perfect for dancing; colossal brick loft walls; pane glass windows letting in vitamin D and light, and then later, blanketed by luxurious velvet indigo curtains. Surrounded by a 20-foot spread of charcuterie and finger food was a centerpiece of potted trees, with fairy-lit trees tangled around boughs, and stacks on stacks of gloriously dusty, collectible books.

We emerging writers took in the same precious air in that hall with literary notables, such as Katherine Paterson (of Bridge to Terabithia fame) and last year’s Book Award winner, Major Jackson. A most humbling feeling indeed. We drank cocktails called Anne of Vert Gables and snacked on scrumptious delectables from Montpelier’s own Mad Taco. Later, we danced until our feet were bleeding to Burlington singer Kat Wright and her band, The Indomitable Souls. Love her raw, jazzy and soulful style, much in the vein of Adele and Amy Winehouse. You can spend hours watching her band’s videos on YouTube—they are so good!

The moment we all were waiting for was truly titillating. Standing in a room filled with over 200 people, all witnessing eight terrific readings by the finalists. We gave a toast with our free prosecco (*yum!*) like it was New Year’s Eve. In the end, it was Jensen Beach who won the award for his newest story collection, Swallowed by the Cold. I give my heartiest congratulations to him, as well as to all of the other finalists. They are all worthy of winning in my eyes.

What an entrance into the public world of being a writer! I am most grateful to everyone who spent so much time and effort in planning and coordinating this beautiful literary evening, and to Kat Wright and the local vendors and all the deliciously lovely writerly folk who attended. I was so honored to be a part of it and am very much looking forward to the Fourth Annual Gala!

 

 

Updates from the Classroom and Elsewhere

I’ve been reading and writing-o-rama this week and it’s going very smoothly. I have figured out how to manage my time here—by spreading out the workload throughout the week. Instead of doing everything on the weekend or the day before an assignment is due, I sprinkle little pieces of assignments on every day of the calendar. This not only keeps stress levels low; it keeps my fingers and my mind limber as I practice my skills every day and not on just one day of total brain blast.

It occurred to me that some of you blog readers out there may be curious what I’ve been doing in my classes lately! So this is the blog post in which I tell you:

  • What do you see when you stare at a fountain? This is the assignment Mary Ruefle gave to us for the last week of our three week module with her. There is a fountain out front of College Hall and throughout the week, her students sat on a bench and pondered the fountain. Our write-up could be any genre. The fountain could appear or not appear in the piece. The only true limitation was that the piece couldn’t be more than one page in length. It was fascinating how the fountain had influenced every single person in such different ways. In some cases, the fountain was a subject to be analyzed and described architecturally. In others, the fountain was absent in the piece and was a means of remembering a childhood memory. And for me, as I sat by the fountain, a scene unfolded before me and I saw so powerfully a tender moment between two characters that could not pass unwritten. The purpose of this assignment is an important one for all writers: when writer block hits, find something in real life to sit and really stare at. The world is our prompt. The thoughts will come when you use your senses and just be.
  • What does a sestina have in common with the first five minutes of The Social Network screenplay? Well, for starters, repetition of concrete words and subject matter layered in a circular way so the words revolve like a dry cleaning assembly line, always appearing just as you think the subject was dropped. See for yourself! Watch the opening scene of The Social Network and then read this poem by John Ashbery.

  • Speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, I learned tricks of the HTML trade and brought code to life on www.practiceboard.com. Now that I can use code to change font face, color, size, style, as well as indent, hyperlink, and create numbered lists, I feel so marketable all of a sudden. And to be honest, a bit amazed. Through HTML, we witness two languages instructing and cooperating with each other. I know that HTML is just the beginning of code, but it really is like breaking into another way of seeing, of thinking, of organizing those thoughts.
  • My program requires us to work at least 15 hours per semester as an Intern for an Arts/Literary Organization. As soon as I heard about May Day Studio (a quirky maker of letterpressed goods), I knew I wanted to be an intern there. This is my first time working in a letterpress studio, and I love it. From the moment I put on my apron, I become an apprentice. So far, my main task is to “distribute” typefaces my boss uses for projects back to their proper galleys (or trays). Every once in a while, she calls me over to observe what she is doing. Last Thursday, she taught me how to mix inks to create color blends using the Pantone Formula Guide. Then, she used a printing press to embed a design into a blank drink coaster and voila! In a few weeks, I will begin my own letterpress project—I’m thinking bookmarks or pocket poetry cards?

  • I’m embarking on a new novel project, which I can’t even say how exciting it is. I’ve been in short story mode for so long, so I feel like I’m diving off the high dive sort of fumbling with my own feathers and my swim cap is half over my eyes, but I know that when I reach the water’s surface, I will have found a way to enter the pool in my own streamlined way. I won’t spill too much information about this project yet, since it is still in its early stages. For now, free-writing to discover voice is my number one priority. But I can tell you that the idea for this novel came from a visualization exercise I came up with in class:

On a dresser drawer sits a metal tin. It may or may not be filled with anything. A person opens the door to the bedroom. They aren’t supposed to be there. This person looks nervous and frequently checks over their shoulder. This person places their hand on the tin and opens it. They look inside and see—

That’s all for now! Tonight is the Vermont Book Award gala, so look forward to an upcoming post about the event! Happy Autumn!

On the Cusp of Autumn

First weeks are hard. There are countless adjustments to be made: new time schedules, meeting new people, figuring out where you need to be at what time, and of course, there are tons of assignments to be done. It is imperative to keep track of what is being asked of you, because your body and mind are surely being asked to stretch into a zillion directions. (Carl Sagan, I’m sorry, we are not made of star stuff, we are made of Silly Putty.) But, as a master of the sticky-note, my desk is plotted like a military graveyard with periwinkle and teal Post-Its, describing each and every task I need to accomplish (with only minor coffee stains coloring the text).

I’ll quickly share a few of my greatest experiences this week during class:

Julianna Baggott, my Forms professor, is a prolific writing superstar. She has perfected something called “Efficient Creativity”: the art of writing without being at your desk. By this, she means that she is always creating scenes in her head while taking care of children or driving in the car or walking through the grocery store, so when she sits down to her computer, she already knows what she is going to write. Because of this method, she has written 20+ books while taking care of four children, holding two professorial gigs, and managing to do other human things, like sleep, eat, relax, exercise, go out. One of her goals for our class is to help us become more efficient writers and through that, she believes in running writing drills, which I actually love! For me, drills aren’t only for me to practice my skill and actually WRITE, but they are an opportunity to play and experiment in a pressure-free space. For example, one of the drills included using our own memories inspired by random words (think: snake, teeth, scar, bad job, fire) and then threading those memories together to create an outline for a short story. In addition to these drills, we also read and critically respond to fabulous short stories: “The Rememberer” by Aimee Bender, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” by Tim O’Brien, “My Man Bovanne,” by Toni Cade Bambara, and “The Owls,” by Lewis (Buddy) Nordan.

-My latest room decorating project was also inspired by Baggott. She suggested that instead of constantly worrying about how we compare to the others in the MFA program, we should be looking up at the horizon, at those writers and artists who we admire and strive to emulate. She said we should print out their pictures and hang them above our writing space so we can always have their spirit near us. For me, it was very important to have my wall enriched with the faces of inspiring and innovative female artists—the women who weren’t afraid to create something new and push back on any boundaries set on art. This is only the first half that I’ve been able to put up so far, but there are more coming! I may need more wall. 

-This week also saw my first day on the job as Managing Editor of VCFA’s Hunger Mountain annual literary and art journal. I gratefully received this position by winning the Editorial Fellowship and I already know that this is a place I was meant to be. I love the energy and camaraderie that is felt in that office, as I work alongside Editor-in-Chief, Miciah Gault and Program Assistant, Lizzy Fox. I love that I have a direct connection with all of the writers who contribute to the magazine. My first correspondence with many of the writers was to congratulate the winners of our 2017 writing contests. I am so happy to be able to contribute my energy and ideas into creating a tighter-knit writing community. Writers need to support each other and this position will allow me to help make other writers shine in the unique glow that VCFA has to offer. I work 10-15 hours a week on top of classes, and do a little bit of everything on the journal, so again, sticky notes are a savior.

In other news, what with all of the homework to do, during nights and weekends, I am in a sort of cocoon of coffee and green tea and writing and reading, accompanied by the sonic comforts of Philip Glass, Zoe Keating, Tycho, and Emancipator.

It feels like it could trip over autumn at any moment. It’s summer sunny and yet the air is getting crisper, like someone above poured extra bits of oxygen into our airy fishbowl. I am loving wearing layers of sweaters and jackets and scarves. My nose is on full alert for pumpkin spices. It is my favorite time of year, all cinnamon and leaves and the sound of breeze rustling the earth. Any day now.

But for now, there are still sunflowers and beautiful birch trees and that’s okay, too.