Why I Write (Today’s Version)

Why I write has been a difficult question for me to parse out properly. Maybe it never changes. Maybe it always is and will be “because I must.” But I don’t think that’s true, and that description doesn’t satisfy me anyway. If I’ve learned anything over the past months at VCFA, it’s that self-reflection is an important part of realizing one’s goals, and for me, writing those reflections down makes me accountable for my goals and intentions. Writing these thoughts down means that I can’t hide from my emotional truths. The page is safe, like the air. Non-judgmental. A clean slate. A silently listening ear.  And yet, these writings also serve as documents of past versions of myself, this ever-changing self, so I can look back tomorrow, in a month, a year, a decade, and understand the time and space I was operating in. Who I wanted to be, what I was concerned about, why I did what I did, why I continue to do what I am impassioned to do, all of it is there on the page. We are changing always, shifting and rearranging the furniture of our bodies to accommodate to the personal and global situations around us. And so, I don’t think it is silly to ask why I write. On any given day, the intricacies and the molecules that make up that question will inevitably be unique.

So, on this day of March 15, 2018, this is why I write.

At this point in my life, I write because if I didn’t, my head would explode. It is how I empty out my thoughts, like the garbage disposal in a sink. It is how I connect wholly with someone outside of myself, as well as with other parts within me. In the real world, we never truly can understand another human. Never fully know what they are feeling or hiding or thinking on the inside. But when a character is inside me, sleeping in my little brain cave each night, I am always practicing empathy. I think writing makes me a better person in the world. It keeps my brain healthy, even when I’m producing and processing dark topics, because it is healthy to acknowledge the dark and light, and writing is the only way I know how to filter through all that grayness. I also write to play with language. I write to form words on paper and in the air, the ear, the tongue. I want to stretch words like taffy, turn them technicolor, blast sunlight through their thinnest middles, hear them crackle, and stick to tacky teeth.

Someone asked me recently how I write characters who seemingly are so different than myself. The writer whom I am today has to first find the emotional core of the story I want to write. I have to locate that emotion within myself, within my heart, and only then can I pluck out my heart and hold it in the palm of my hand, and begin the search. The search for a vessel to stick my heart inside. It doesn’t matter if the heartless character is male or female; a mother or child; a shade darker or lighter than me; a botanist or a locksmith or a sonic statue sculptor; blind or deaf. All I need to know is that when I stick my heart inside their chest, I will be able to navigate their lives through my own intuition, through my own personal experience with that emotion.

A few months ago, I might have thought that the lucky people were the ones whose answer to “why they write” never changed, whose answers always stayed the same. They knew themselves. They knew their path. They knew why they got up in the morning and what they were going to accomplish. But now, I’m not sure that is true. Perhaps the truly lucky ones are the ones who continue to be curious, to reflect but not dwell. The ones who are willing to adapt their passions to fit new lifestyles. The ones who aren’t satisfied with one answer. The ones who thrive to know more, to understand more, to ask…what else could be true?

Perhaps my answer won’t change tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But this is definitely a question I will return to again and again. One thing I do know…I will always write my answers down.

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.

New Poem and Interview up at Orange Quarterly

This post is proof that just because you enter a writing contest and the results are not in your favor does not mean you have zero chance at getting published! Back in April, a fellow writer shared a contest opportunity with me. It was put on by a small press in Northern Michigan called Green House Press. I entered a batch of poems, put up my slippers, and waited the whole summer, eagerly checking my email for the contest results.

Finally, in September, I received notice that I had not won the prize. However, the press was very enthusiastic about one of my poems and asked if it was still available to be published in Orange Quarterly, the journal associated with Green House Press.

This is one reason why I love the writing world. Rejection and acceptance can so often waltz together in the same breath. We live for these tender interactions, I think. It’s all part of the balancing act.

It is such a sweet treat to have my poem, #28, included in the revival issue of Orange Quarterly, along so many prestigious authors, like Keith Taylor. My very first literary interview can be read online there, too. For so long, I have always been the interviewer (which don’t get me wrong, interviewing authors is one of my favorites things to do) but how exciting it is to be on the other end this time!

Thank you so much to Allison Peters and staff at Orange Quarterly/Green House Press. I hope you enjoy the read!

 

Two New Fiction Pieces “Limerence” and “High Yellow” in Dream Pop Press

I am overjoyed that two of my short fiction pieces, “Limerence” and “High Yellow,” are in the second issue of Dream Pop Press, which you can read online here. Both take you into very surreal situations, but in very different locations. “Limerence” gives you access inside a fantastic shadow emporium, where a deeply conflicted employee finds herself sacrificing everything to save a stranger’s soul, while “High Yellow” is a nod to Icarus in an art museum setting.

An excerpt from “High Yellow”:

The sign warns Do Not Touch. Anyone who has ever been to an art museum before understands this. There is even a limp string, roping off the space one foot from the wall. And still, the man reaches his hand forward. Slowly, as if he has never observed his arm move this way through air. The gallery assistant nearest to the impending incident speaks at the man, but he doesn’t flinch in shock/cringe in fear/flex in rebellion/not even a nod of juvenile embarrassment. Other assistants gather now—other patrons too—around him, forming a semi-circle. Around the man with the goldfinch on his shoulder.

I especially want to thank VCFA alum and founding editor, Isobel O’Hare, and her co-editor, Carleen Tibbetts, for their encouragement and excitement about these pieces. I’m so delighted to be featured in this issue!

 

 

Erasures and Other Fun Things to Do With Words

Even when writing is the thing that my body craves to do, I still have to remind myself now and then to have fun with it. There are endless amounts of activities to cultivate spontaneity and freedom within the form. That playfulness begins by seeking out other’s art first.

All art is made from art. We constantly recycle other people’s words and thoughts all the time, and upcycle these ideas into our own creations. Art can be anything, as it is everywhere and in everything we see. A body, a leaf, a turn of phrase, the way that a teabag drapes over a mug’s lip, an old book or painting, etc—all of this is art. Which is why we must keep our eyes wide open. Observe as much as you can. The world is your prompt, the world is your material. From the world, we make art. Art is the thing that draws a person’s attention to something they may have naturally ignored or passed by unknowingly.

Here are a few of my favorite artists who make something new out of something old:

Will Ashford‘s work combines text with art in a really lovely way. This piece with the umbrella especially makes me happy.

 

Mary Ruefle has made over forty-five books of erasure art. Erasure is “the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it.” The words she uncovers blink at us as if appearing from behind a ghostly fog. Ruefle says of her work: “The books have been called “found poems” but I don’t consider them as such. A found poem is a text found in the world, taken out of its worldly context, and labeled a poem. I certainly didn’t “find” any of these pages, I made them in my head, just as I do my other work. In the erasures I can only choose words out of all the words on a given page, while writing regularly I can choose from all the words in existence. In that sense, the erasures are like a “form” –I am restricted by certain rules. I have resisted formal poetry my whole life, but at last found a form I can’t resist. It is like writing with my eyes instead of my hands.”  Read more about this unique art form in Ruefle’s essay, “On Erasure.”

 

My good friend from University of Michigan, the talented artist Esha Biswas, has kept a book of found poetry since I first met her freshman year. She continues to astound me—the way that she can spot the sparkling of diamonds within text-heavy pages, and then effortlessly threads them into her own story. You can see many of her pages on her website. .

 

In addition to using existing books for material, I have recently been introduced to two exercises to try when you want to stir up the pot a bit and let loose on your control for perfection . The page is our playground, why not have fun with it?

Spandrel: The word spandrel refers to, in architecture, the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure. We can use this idea of “extra space” or “leftovers” in terms of writing, too. Sometimes, in the editing process, we are forced to cut a great line, perhaps because it was unnecessary, irrelevant, or redundant. But no writing ever has to be swiped from the face of the earth! Writers are some of the best hoarders on the planet. Many writers I’ve met keep a “graveyard” file on their computer for all of the little bits of text that didn’t make it into a final piece, but still may have value later on. For class, we were encouraged to rummage back through our old journals and “graveyard” files to pick out little scraps of writing and create something new using an amalgam of just those scraps. In a way, we were finding poetry from our own word landfills.

Homophonic translations:  Print out a poem or song lyrics in a foreign language that you can pronounce but not necessarily understand. Translate the sound of the poem into English (e.g. French “blanc” to blank or “toute” to toot. While much of the “translation” will be pretty nonsensical, many lines on their own will be unique and original images that could be tucked away for later use. For example: my homophonic translation of the Spanish song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was as follows:

The dice of the night have been thrown
We have no mass, let’s sleep
We are pure, you and me

The dice that never comes
We have no mass, let’s sleep
Tomorrow will be purer.

We’re heroes of the same sky
How we suffer, poorly
Hasting towards death
Let’s call the fire what it is.

The Lesson: Sometimes the best discoveries are those chosen by random, those products of accidents and misunderstandings.  Let your eye be drawn to what excites you. Wherever you land, art will be found there.

Amelie and Apples

Last week was my 23rd birthday. Birthdays are my favorite holidays. Not mine solely, but all birthdays in general. How special it is to celebrate the very day in history when a person you love didn’t exist for one moment and then suddenly did. I was nervous for this birthday. Mostly because it was my first time celebrating it really away from home and family. And yet, my nerves were for naught. The night’s festivities brought eight terrifically thoughtful and talented ladies from my MFA program together. It’s incredible to me that just after a month of knowing each other, we can connect on such a familial level. We went out for sushi at the local Asiana House and then came back home to watch Amelie, one of two movies in the world I could watch forever. It was wonderful.

Speaking of adventures and familial love, yesterday my closest friends here and I went to Peck Farm Orchard in East Montpelier to go apple picking and walk through the corn maze. I took a lot of pictures, because the Vermont landscape in autumn just begs to be photographed. The honeycrisps were magical – they are the closest thing to experiencing solid apple cider. Two of my friends had never been to an apple orchard before. To see their faces brighten at the simple pleasure of crunching into a hand-picked apple was so worth it!

Today, I’m working most of the day on writing a story for class, which hopefully turns into a novel. I love the main character and am really excited with playing with the interplay between language and format. We are to turn in a maximum of 25 pages for a workshop, which is difficult because my original idea for this story was in terms of a novel structure. I think it’s harder to condense a novel idea into a story, rather than finding the pleats in a short story to expand it into a novel. But, I am focused and determined to give this short story my all. Perhaps, I’ll make a big push in the novel for NaNoWriMo. Note to self: I need to create a story playlist on Spotify. This is a tool I discovered a few years ago. Organizing songs that get me into the mood of the story and the mind of the characters really helps me write and visualize scenes. (If you don’t already read the LitHub playlists inspired by classic novels, I suggest you check it out now! Here’s the link for Lolita, To the Lighthouse, Beloved, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

Other updates: I should probably clean my studio (how it’s so easy to put this off) and I have three various freelance projects to work on. I finished Tales of Falling and Flying and loved its simplicity and absurdist-spun fables. Now, I’m double-fisting The Catcher in the Rye and The Areas of My Expertise. They are definitely for different moods. Catcher is useful for the particular voice I’m trying to capture in my own story, and the intellectual, but superbly preposterous made-up facts of The Areas of My Expertise is the exact silliness I need to read to help me go to sleep at night. Perhaps next on my to-do list is to also re-read Einstein’s Dreams, which is one of my all-time favorites.

And eat lots of apples, of course!

[time of death (plus orb)]

As a dreamer, a night-wonderer, a star watcher, and one who definitely has stayed up late many a night to dance with the moon,  I am supermoon overjoyed that my piece, “[time of death (plus orb)]”—about growing old, imaginary friends and how our bodies never really lose those friendships, even when our minds let go of concrete memories—is in the debut issue of Moonchild Magazine, which you can read online:

…Why can’t it rain sand outside? she asks the skull. She’s named him Roy because that just seemed like a good skull name. Her words wend through one of his sockets. He keeps her words captive-caught in his strong boned smile. But she likes to play hide and seek. She sees Roy’s reflection next to hers in a brass orb she calls the Sun. I wish I could stay with you always Roy. When the hourglass runs out, she turns it back over so the rain shower shall never end…

A huge thanks to Nadia Gerassimenko at Moonchild Magazine for publishing it and being wonderful to work with!

My inspiration came from this film by David Michalek.

 

 

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!