I defended my master's thesis last week. I ended up turning in five stories that follow the same characters on the southern coast of Spain, four other stories (linked in theme but not in character/setting), and a working draft of the 100 word story project. It totals about 140 pages and feels like a promising but unwieldy baby, this beautiful yet messy monster that hasn't yet discovered the true source of its power. All of this, and still I feel the need to winnow, to pare it down, to find its roots. It is an exciting feeling. One I hope to fuel as the years go by and the characters grow with me.
My goal now is to produce another four or five stories set in Spain, to improve the narrative voice, diction and cultural cues to the point where I could structure a novel in linked stories. I hope to work on this manuscript for the next year (or more, whatever it needs, honestly) and then to apply to fellowships and work residencies abroad, where I could more fully delve into the voices of expats abroad - the voices I still remember but can't fully imitate.
Beyond that, the future is as endless and bizarre as this wide net of words. My defense was early; I still have four more weeks of grading, homework, planning, filing. I will soon be moving back to the Bay Area, where, for the first time in more than three years, I will be living in the same zip code as my boyfriend. I have been applying for jobs like crazy - teaching jobs, writing jobs, school jobs, anything that involves writing and people and environments where I can really throw myself into creative projects. This week sparked the first of several graduations - the air is ripe with the angst and excitement of programs ending, chapters closing. Sometimes I hate nostalgia, though I give into it with such ease. I have started contributing to Fictionade, a new subscription-based e-magazine, which shows great promise.
This weekend we drove down to Santa Barbara (my alma mater) for a friend's wedding. I still remember the fog of that final spring - how anticlimactic it all was, the moisture in the air until mid-May, when the beach was suddenly overtaken by the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds. It was the hottest I'd ever known Santa Barbara to be; in those final weeks of college I remember going to bed with a wet wash cloth across my forehead, watching the shadows on my yellow co-op wall as the heat trapped us indoors. The climate was telling us something. Move along now, it said. You've done what you came here to do. Go find other things to do, other places to be.
I can only imagine what heat Davis promises me, in these last few weeks. The messages are louder this year, but maybe that's because this time I'm really listening.
Note, too, the word "submit." As if handing it over were akin to bowing in submission, prostrating with your manuscript beneath you, making yourself smaller than it. I made the mistake of celebrating before it was time, running down the hall as soon as I'd slid those crisp bound pages into my three readers' mailboxes, chanting, "I turned it in! I turned it in!" To which our program administrator said, not unkindly, "Ah, yes, but they haven't read it yet, have they?"
There probably isn't a better way to describe what it's like, trying to write. The obsession with new characters, new stories, new projects - the precision of revision, the frenzy of rethinking, rewriting, the careful, plodding way that stories develop over time - and then, once you submit it, letting the documents loose into that vacuous wide open ether, who's to say that what it is you've sweat over, labored over, alternately loved and hated, is anything of substance?
I suppose, I guess, one's thesis committee.
Not that I'm nervous or anything. Or anxious or terrified or secretly suspecting that, in one week's time, they'll gather me and my friends and my family all in one little stuffy room, then ask me to drop the sheets one by one out of a third story window, underscoring, yet again, the fruitlessness of it all, this prodding, obsessive need to play with words.
But then there are nights like last Friday, when I was lucky enough to see one of my pieces (from the dratted thesis) performed by a wonderful actor, Benjamin Ismail, at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. I was especially encouraged to hear the amazing "The Art of Fiction" by Lindsey Crittenden, a successful writer who graduated from this very same program a while back. I was so nervous, thinking and rethinking and obsessing over all the edits I should have made before this thing made the light of day, all the scenes that should have been shorter, all the lines that could have done more, earned more. And then a funny thing happened. He started reading and he found things in the story that I didn't know were there. He found voices where I wasn't sure there were any, and little moments of poignancy or humor that I didn't necessarily plant or plan.
So maybe we get both kinds of moments - those ever-present occasions to kneel, to submit, to let all our work vaporize into the atmosphere, and those rare times when someone reads our work back to us and we get to stop, breathe, and think, hey, maybe there is value in all this.
Maybe there is and maybe there isn't - until then I'll just have to keep submitting.
You’re not officially a grad student until you use the word operationalize, a teacher told me once. You’ve got to operationalize the vibrato of staccato piano, and then juxtapose its imperialistic theory of absolute insanity, and you must do it in twenty pages. Just when you think you’re done, you must stand before a jury of people whose job it is to judge you. Because masochism is a requirement for this degree, along with an innate desire to reinvent the aesthetic we will perpetually quiz you on. Good luck, pawn, he said. And then he patted me on the back.
I'd like to peel through the fog sometimes, to suck the very condensation out of the air as it creeps over Twin Peaks and into the city. I find myself in a writing program where I am reading, critiquing, editing, and editing; that is, doing everything except writing itself. I can't tell if what I'm feeling is more the mismatched alchemy of being back in school again after three years working, or maybe if I've somehow trained myself to instantly miss that which I no longer do. The comfort of routine is something so embedded in my bones that I don't know how else to shake it off. That, coupled with an inbred pressure to get a job, any job, to look ahead, to afford health insurance (that which shackles me and so many others to jobs we don't love), to be practical, pragmatic, responsible, efficient.
I want to learn how becoming a better writer will solve all that. And the thing is, that's a tall order. Expecting some mind-altering short story or career-launching novel to suddenly give birth in my brain is a little like hoping, no, demanding, our current president to solve all the world's problems. Now that he's got a Nobel Peace Prize, he can get down to the nitty-gritty and actually be that change he promised us last year. Right?
Ever since I quit my job to start grad school, I find myself waking up every weekday with a hummingbird's heartbeat. The first thought on my mind is to get shit done. This is motivating, yes, and sometimes crazy-making. My dad always jokes that if I were a dog, I'd be a sheepherder, because I always need a job to do. The irony is that good writing is the one task that is really difficult to instantly produce. Coffee--that I know how to make quickly. I can answer phones. I can improvise a short lesson. But how does one demand creativity of oneself? The demand itself can kill an idea.
One way I've tried to jumpstart my creative brain is to take on multiple side projects. Every Monday I volunteer at KALW 91.7, a radio station based out of Philip Burton High School here in San Francisco. Every week, a team of reporters and volunteers produce Crosscurrents, a half-hour segment devoted to culture, context and connection in the Bay Area. I've done a few short interviews, have learned to use the recorders and hope to learn ProTools in the coming weeks.
I've also started blogging for Eduify, a start-up company whose aim is to use social networking to help high school and college students improve their writing. Writing these posts forces me to focus in on exactly I want to know as a writer myself, and what resources out there will help me and others develop. So far I've written two Halloween-themed piece (one on zombie romantic comedies, the other on Edgar Allan Poe), and interviewed children's book author and poet April Halprin Wayland. I've since done two other interviews, and will be interviewing a few more writers in the coming weeks.
All this to say that sometimes the things we want most desperately are the things we must go out and create on our own. Which is why I've always wanted to be a writer, and why at the same time it is a very hard thing to be. I saw music critic and radio host Greg Kot speak this past Friday at the Booksmith. His new book, Ripped, covers the revolution that has occurred in the music industry in the past ten years. Kot's main message was that the best artists are the ones who love what they do so much that they see their art as something they simply must do. Music as oxygen. Words--the continuation of our fingers. That's the urgency I feel when I get up in the morning: the need to do, to be, to act, to write.
And who knows? One of these days, maybe all these actions will add up. Until then, I'll keep my eyes on the horizon.
This is my dog. And my father. And, somewhere in there, a Frisbee that aforementioned dog was supposed to deliver during Davis' Picnic Day festivities. Bear with me for a moment while I make a wild personal comparison:
I sympathize completely. I mean, Taj was under a lot of pressure. He was capable of achieving the task at hand, and had demonstrated his ability many times before. He had a task to do (i.e. retrieve Frisbee successfully as many times as possible in 60 seconds), he enjoyed doing it, and when it came down to it, the very concept of performing said task in front of such an expectant audience was so overwhelming that his body just took over.
So, grad school. You see the parallel, right? So much energy and effort placed into something so effervescent, so well-intended, with surprisingly high stakes. Such earnest attempts to manage time. And, as always, there is that sixty-second clock. Metaphorically, that is.
I'd like to crack open San Francisco as if it were an egg, watch as its life slips through my fingers. I want a character I could date, adopt, despise (not necessarily in that order). Basically, I'd like to be this:
Well, maybe without that crazy gleam in my eye, sans canines. I'd like to stand up a little taller, take a little more control of what stories my fingers digest and compute. Maybe what I need is a little less manic and a little more awkward-goofy:
Someone with flair, unafraid to look away as others point and giggle.
Although, who knows, that might already be happening:
Note: All dog photos should be credited to the lovely and talented Lyra Halprin.
The sound of fingers hitting key. The excitement to share something: a story, a vignette, a metaphor, an idea. The daily ritual of writing it all down. When I lived in Spain, I got into the habit of writing five observations a day. In college, I kept a narcissistic livejournal that I updated obsessively. It didn't matter what I wrote. What mattered was that it was always a part of my day, and a part of my day that I enjoyed.
That said, here are my five observations from today, August 31, 2009:
1. It's okay to slow down every now and then. Last week I panicked when I realized that, for the first time in three years, when I woke up in the morning, I didn't have an immediate task. That is to say, my only responsibilities were to eat, get dressed, go to school, and generally just let things happen.
Let things happen. That could be the best possible parable for writing a good story, and yet for me it is the most difficult. How does one just stand aside and let an experience develop? It's hard not to meddle, not to email out cover letter after cover letter, insisting that yes, I'm a terrific barista, or a fantastic afternoon tutor, or goshdarnit, I do love answering phones. I find it takes an entirely different kind of courage to just wait. To accept help when it is offered. To understand that it is absolutely legal to study something simply because you can, and because you think it is important.
Here are the things I am letting happen:
my first semester of graduate school
the search for a new housemate
internships and job opportunities
direction, in general
2. Two things that help me relax:
and Zoe Keating's One Cello x 16 album.
Walking around Lake Merced listening to her amazing looped cello is perhaps the most relaxing exercise I've had since returning from my trip.
3. Mitchell's Ice Cream is the best use of well-earned calories in San Francisco.
4. Example of a writing prompt I can get behind: the Six Word Memoir, a project of SMITH Magazine. I discovered this while proctoring level tests back at Kaplan, and was amazed at the community of writers it has created. The stories are economic, artfully depicted and really fun to write. Try it out!
5. The California State University system has had to increase fees 32% this semester. Many of our classes have been cut. There are 24 furlough days on campus this year, which means that on these weekdays, the entire school is closed. No class, no student services, no work hours. A disheartening introduction to the world of graduate school. One lecturer said it best: "If you want to know the way I really feel about this, and what is actually going on, I'll happily send you some information. But in the meantime, we're here now, so let's accomplish something!"
Damn straight. I'm going to accomplish something by letting things happen, and watching my fingers as they hit keys.
I am using this space to indicate a level of excitement that supercedes my need to write properly.
My mom bought me these Shepherd-Ferry-Obama-"Change" earrings back in October. I think finally that message has seeped into my personal life, and that, my friends, is long-awaited.