Friday, October 14, 2016

In Poetry I Trust

It might not come as a surprise, but I have yet another literary love: poetry. I’m obsessed. It’s all I want to write.
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This semester, I hesitantly enrolled in Jay Hopler’s poetry workshop. I was nervous about signing up because 1) I know nothing about poetry and 2) Jay is a renowned and accomplished poet. In fact, his poetry collection, The Abridged History of Rainfall, was recently nominated for a National Book Award.

Workshop classes are different from a craft class where we learn HOW to do the thing, whether it be nonfiction essay, short stories, or comics. The purpose of workshop is to learn by producing work, sharing it with your peers, and giving feedback. Before we even had our first class meeting, I was expected to write a (decent) poem and send it to my classmates and professor. Yikes!

But I must say that we’re 2 months into the semester and my intimidation has been replaced with elation. I find that all I want to do is write poetry. Forget my novel, my memoir, etc. Poetry is where it's at.

Paul Mundoon on poetry: I’m interested in revelation, in what will be revealed through the poem, through me — not what I have to reveal, but what it has to reveal, if that makes any sense. So I have no revelations at all. I know nothing. I’m not to be trusted on anything. But the poem may know something, and may be trusted, actually, on what it has to express in the world, in my practice. 

My friend, the poet Sarah Duffy, was surprised by my enthusiasm when I gushed to her about my newfound love of poetry. She graduated from my MFA program last year and she’s barely touched poetry since. Hopefully, it won’t be a permanent hiatus-just a necessary recovery period after three tough years of writing boot camp.

I can relate to Sarah’s burnt out feelings towards poetry, except mine are directed towards prose. I’m in my 3rd graduate creative nonfiction seminar and my brain is saturated with so much how-to information, so many experts giving their two cents, so many voices saying what’s right and what’s wrong.

On the other hand, when it comes to poetry, I’m totally green. My relationship to the craft is uncomplicated—but also naïve. I have no idea what’s right or wrong, so I’m just having fun on the page. Also, I’ve never identified as a poet so the stakes are lower. Poetry is not my niche, it’s just a class I’m taking to make my writing stronger overall. In a way, this takes the pressure off and allows me to create freely.

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I’m not sure how long my romance with poetry will last, nor do I know if this kind of naïve love is sustainable. But my new crush has me thinking about my relationship with poetry over time—and it turns out that I’m not really a stranger to it. Sure, when it comes to writing it, I’m a newbie. But in terms of appreciating the form, poetry has been in my life for many years. My Cuban grandfather recited José Martí poems at the dinner table, and my French teachers forced us to memorize poems by Jacques Prévert and recite them to the class on a weekly basis.

These memories make me wonder—why isn’t poetry more of a staple in American culture? In Cuba, my mother spent every Saturday morning in la clase de declamacion where the students learned to recite poems by heart. Poetry recitation is fundamental to European curriculums. But in the States, I don’t remember ever being introduced to poetry until high school.

I was listening to an On Being interview with New Yorker poetry editor Paul Mundoon and he made the point that, in this country, we give children “children” poetry, rather than the big kid stuff.

Image result for paul muldoon“What passes for poetry tends to end up as merely Dr. Seuss. Now, I love Dr. Seuss. I think he’s fabulous. I think he’s fabulous. But if you ask an eight-year-old to write a poem, she’ll come up with the tadpoles. You ask a 15-year-old to write a poem, and it’s sort of sub-sub-sub-Seuss.  But my own view is that children should be — insofar as we have any control over them at all, and of course, as parents, we know we have less and less, as it should be — but in some sense, I think we should be introducing them to Robert Frost, and Lord Byron, and Tennyson, and Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, and John Donne. We should be giving them not, quote-unquote, children’s poetry, but poetry.”

So why not give kids the big kid stuff right off the bat? I didn’t understand what all those poems my grandfather recited where all about, but I understood that language was beautiful, and that poetry is a living, breathing thing.

Poetry should be taken out of the dusty books and into our dining rooms and classrooms. It’s meant to be listened to—like music—not read. It’s meant to be shared, like the way our ancestors used to share stories around a fire.

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I was expressing this to my farmer friend and the chair of the Religious Studies department, Dell deChant, and he broke out into beautiful recitations of Yeats and other fantastic poets. He says that poetry was a big part of life in his childhood home, but he also acknowledges that he was on the cusp of the generation that still learned poetry in America.

I’ve gone ahead and printed a few of the poems that my grandfather used to recite with such robust energy, and I’m going to do my best to learn them. My heart already knows them, but I’d like to memorize them so that I can share them with my own grandchildren one day (and with Dell!).

Do you have poetry in your life?

One way you can introduce poetry into your life is by listening to poetry podcasts. Some of my favorites are The New Yorker Poetry podcast, The Poetry Society, Poems Out Loud, much poetry here, and Poetry Spoken Here. I’m sure there are tons more out there.

Feel free to leave me a message telling me what poetry means to you, and how you keep it alive in your life.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More Structure = More Spontaneity

Hi friends! The semester is well underway and I've been buried beneath my novel and my memoir (I'm writing a memoir?!) and all the other things that take over a graduate student's life.

In the meantime, my nonfiction class has been reading and learning about John McPhee, the grandfather of nonfiction--and let me tell you, he knows his stuff!

McPhee breaks down his writing process in this New Yorker article and in this Paris Review interview and the main thing that comes across is his love for STRUCTURE. According to him, "Structure is not a template. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it."

In the article, he writes about the computer software (that was essentially designed FOR him) that he uses to organize his notes into sections. Then, once he has those separate sections, he can sit down at his desk and focus on JUST THAT SECTION rather than getting bogged down with an onslaught of information and data.

"Structure liberates you to write," he says in the interview. "You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside."

Meanwhile, I was swimming in the second draft of my novel, and I could barely see what way was up or down. It was while lamenting about this to my fellow writers at an SCBWI meeting that one of them mentioned Scrivener.

"It's a lifesaver," she said. "It'll totally help you get organized."

I had heard about this writing software from another friend, and I'd even tried my hand once, but it had been a while since I'd used it. I decided to give it another try.

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As you can see from these pictures, Scrivener has all kinds of great tools that help writers visualize their story (many of which I haven't even figured out yet!) This helps writers understand the structure of the whole thing, and also allows us to hone in on one particular section/chapter/scene--very helpful when you're 30k words in!

Thanks to Scrivener, I just finished the second draft of my novel and sent it to my advisor today! 152 pages and 42,600 words! Whoo!

I've even found Scrivener to be helpful in writing smaller pieces, like a lyric essay or a short story.

The moral of the story is that STRUCTURE=FOCUS=FREEDOM. Writing and stories come from a place of deep inspiration, but eventually we've got to sit down and wrangle the beast. Tools like Scrivener help us do that dirty work!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Horseback Writing: A Writer and Her Muse

Normally, college students move into a dorm with their laptop and a few bags of clothes. But not Karissa Womack. She moved to college with her horse, an Appaloosa named Willow. Karissa got Willow when she was just 13 years old, and the pair grew up together, riding out into the woods on adventures and even competing in hunter jumper shows. When Willow suffered a hoof injury, Karissa had to give up on competing. But she did not give up on Willow.

Now Willow is 18 years old and Karissa is a graduate student studying creative writing at the University of South Florida. Karissa continues to fight for Willow every day. While most graduate students spend their weekends relaxing by the pool or throwing back beers at the bar, Karissa spends any extra time she has at the barn with Willow, mucking her stall and taking care of her sensitive hooves. They still enjoy walks together in the nearby nature preserves.

Karissa and I lived together during our first year of graduate school. When I first went to the barn with her, I peered into Willow’s stall and saw all of her equipment—saddles, medicine, etc. That's when I realized how much time and money keeping Willow costs Karissa. I realized all of the sacrifices that my friend has to make in order to upkeep a pet as energy intensive as a horse. I can leave for the weekend anytime I want and leave extra food for the cat, but Karissa can’t leave town without making sure that someone’s going to take good care of Willow. She doesn't just worry about paying her own rent and groceries. She’s also got to pay Willow’s board, her feed, and her medications, not to mention general horse maintenance such as farrier bills and supplements. This is a lot more financial responsibility than most 25 year olds have to handle! But Karissa does it without complaint. She loves nothing more than driving out to the barn early Saturday morning and spending the day with her best friend, giving her the best treatment possible and going for long rides through the woods.

Recently, Willow suffered a life-threating colic--a major gastrointestinal condition--that nearly killed her. Luckily, she was able to get to the Equine Medical Center of Ocala right away where vets tended to her immediately and essentially saved her life. 

While Karissa is beyond grateful that the surgery was successful, she is now saddled with over $10,000 in debt. Her credit cards are maxed out and she’s taken out a care credit card to help with the costs, but she is still looking for donations through her GoFundMe page. Any amount helps!

Meanwhile, both Karissa and Willow look forward to the day when Willow will be back home in her barn, happy and healthy enough to go on long rides through the grassy paddocks, like the two of them used to do. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Go Team Go: Writing as a Team Sport

This time last year, I was happily banging away on the first draft of my novel. Every evening, I delighted in sitting at my desk and writing my story. I was captivated by my characters, and frankly, enamored withfiction.

Fast forward to the present moment, and it’s way harder to arrive at my writing desk with the same amount of zeal as I did last fall. The honeymoon period is definitely over.

Image result for writing is hardAs you all know, I had a summer full of all kinds of adventures, very few of them having anything to do with sitting at a desk and writing a novel. Towards the end of the summer, I was complaining to a writer friend about how little progress I made on my novel. 

“My gears are creaky,” I told her. “I can’t get into it.”

It seemed liked everything I wrote was dry and forced, and I couldn’t seem to get into a groove. (I wanted my strange writing groove from last fall to magically reappear!) She was in the same position with her novel—re-working a full draft—and we decided to schedule a writing date to move forward on our respective projects. She would come to my house and we would hold each other accountable to write for several hours. And write we did, dammit.

Since that initial writing date, all of the progress that I have made on my novel has been with her in the room. Once or twice a week, she comes over with some snacks and we chat for a while before setting the timer for one hour. And every time that alarm goes off, we’re surprised by how fast the time flew by. And every time she leaves my house several hours later, neither of us can wipe the silly grins off our faces. We’re doing it. Slowly but surely, these novels are getting written. It’s taking a lot of time and elbow grease, but it’s happening.
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When I told her how different my writing process was for this draft than the first one, she laughed and made a really good point.

“We’re at places in the revision process that are not the most fun,” she said.

We’re not just dreaming up characters and fun situations to put them in. We’re sweating and toiling to turn those whimsies into masterpieces. (Or at least into some kind of finished product. Whether it’s any good or not remains to be seen.)

I still love my characters, but I see how complicated crafting a compelling story actually is. You cannot simply string together a few curious incidents and call it a novel. Readers need so much more than that to connect to a story in a meaningful way.

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The storyline I mapped out over the summer is in constant flux. Every time I sit down to write, my perfect plot is in danger of taking an unexpected turn. Characters act out in unpredictable ways. What I thought was the climax has shifted. Characters that I thought were minor have become major, and vice versa. Things come up that I didn’t prepare for, like hurricanes and broken arms. And then what?

The truth is, I’m dealing with a living, breathing animal with a mind of its own. For the first time, I am beginning to understand the fiction writer’s dilemma of striking the delicate balance between controlling the narrative and letting the story take the reins. It’s an amazing and beautiful and scary process.

All the confidence that I had in my novel when I first started has leaked out of my brain, which makes it hard to return to the manuscript with the same gusto I once had. But luckily, I don’t have to feel like I’m in it all by myself. Although I’ve shared work with many writers over the years, I’ve never had an active writing partnership like this one. I’ve heard of other writers who always write together, but I had never seen the value in it until now. I’m grateful for my writing partner who knows when to talk shop and when to get down to business.   

So much of writing has to be done all by our lonesome. So why not try to make it into a team activity?  It's not as if I can't write on my own, but it's just more fun this way! 
Remember! Always use the buddy system!!
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Speaking of which, check out my BUST interview with my friend and client, Thelsuice Gonzalez, as we discuss the process of working on her memoir as a team. 

Friday, August 26, 2016


Lately, I’ve been joking around that my best friend is in Bali and my boyfriend’s on a sailboat in Sardinia—and here I am, stuck in school.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I said it that I realized how ridiculous I was being. I may not be gallivanting around Bali or the Mediterranean, but I am just as privileged as they are!

This week marks the beginning of the end—the first week of my last year in the MFA program. And it’s gotten me thinking about my dumb, beautiful luck at being “stuck” in school.

First of all, being a student, where our main purpose is to LEARN, is one of the most privileged existences available to a human. Thankfully, my mother has always made me understand the value of my education; she taught me to never take it for granted because I was one of the lucky girls on this planet who had access to something so precious. But after being in so many (great) schools all my life, I often forget my privilege, as we – the privileged – so often do.

So not only am I a STUDENT, which we’ve established is a position of great privilege, but I’m a GRADUATE STUDENT! This means I’m essentially being PAID to explore my own intellectual and creative curiosities! Unlike undergrad, which sometimes feels perfunctory because it has somehow become a prerequisite for life in America, graduate school is icing on the cake. We come here because we want to, not because we have to.

And to top it off, not only am I a GRADUATE STUDENT, but I’m an MFA STUDENT in CREATIVE WRITING. This means that I have the glorious luck of spending three unfettered years working on my own writing pursuits—and having awesome writers around who are paid to give a damn about it! (My professors.) Not to mention, I have the privilege of being surrounded by many inspiring and hard-working writers who create beautiful, artful, heart-opening stories.
So yes, woe is me, the poor MFA student…

Privilege is power, and as the saying goes, with power comes great responsibility. I am constantly asking myself - Am I’m doing enough? Could I be doing more? Could I use my time more wisely? How else could I get even more out of this experience?

It certainly wouldn’t hurt the world if we all started our day by acknowledging our privilege. Imagine all that we could accomplish if we moved forward with gratitude and appreciation for our place, our power, and our possibilities. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fifty Shades of Rejection

Yesterday, I received a form rejection, an acceptance (yay!) and a good rejection. Only in this business is there such a thing as a good rejection and a bad rejection.

Now, what is a good rejection, you might ask?

A good rejection is the kind where the editors tell you they were close to publishing your piece (so close) but chose not to in the end. Although this may seem like a cruel thing to say, a good rejection usually comes with some suggestions on how to improve your piece, as well as an invitation to re-submit this piece (or another one).

Oftentimes, a bad rejection can also be an open invite to try again, although I have gotten my share of flat "no" responses. [One of my favorites: "Unfortunately this piece is missing the new or surprising element that would qualify it as an “untold” story." I guess honesty is the best policy?]

Also, a nice rejection doesn't necessarily mean anything, either. Usually, it's unlikely that the editor who sent you the nice rejection will be the one to read your piece the next time around. I've gotten sweet rejections full of praise from a magazine, and then re-submitted two or three more times -- only to get a form rejection each time! 

The trick is to stay resilient--and organized. Sometimes, I get a good rejection with tips on how to improve an essay, but the message might get buried in my inbox, soon to be forgotten and therefore forfeiting my second chance at a publication with this journal. 

Either way, any rejection--good or bad--is an opportunity to improve. Whether the editors give you feedback or not, rejection is a chance to re-see your piece and polish it up even more. A professor once told me that some of the short stories that appeared in his collection took years--YEARS--to be accepted. And every time he got a rejection, he went back to the drawing board, finding ways to make his story even stronger. 

Publication allows for a dialogue between writers and our audience, and rejection is simply a part of that conversation. Rather than letting rejections steam roll us, let's use them to our advantage!

Happy writing!

PS I've got a new publication in Kudzu House's Summer Solstice Issue! Check it out--it's my first published piece of fiction!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer Writing Update (Spoiler Alert: It's not pretty)

Tonight, I was driving in the car with my mom and I was telling her about the grant I spent all day working on when she stopped me and said—Shouldn’t you be working on your novel?

Don’t you just hate it when moms are right?

The truth is, I’ve given my novel very little love this summer. It pains me to admit it. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing all kinds of things—poetry, humor pieces, how-to articles, personal essays, flash fiction—but not my novel.

I have a few theories.

One: Plain old procrastination
Two: Appetizer effect (Fill up on appetizers, have little appetite for the main course)
Three: Up a creek (or spring run) without a routine

My summer has been all over the place. I’ve barely been in one place longer than a week. There has been tragedy (personal and national), drama, beauty, wanderings. Also, summer in Florida turns my energy level into that of a slug. (That's another theory I have. It's too hot to think or do anything at all besides submerge my body in a cold spring.)

I met a fellow writer today and when I told him about my struggles, he said – for poetry, we need inspiration. For fiction, we need discipline. And I have faltered, my friends.

I keep going back to last fall when I was able to produce a first draft in a few months. Granted, that seems like the easy part—throwing all of my ideas for scenes and conflict onto the page. Now I’ve got to do the dirty work of taking it all apart and reassembling it so that it makes a compelling story.

There is another lesson here and that is to be more discerning about what writing commitments I choose to uphold. There will always be contest deadlines, grant proposals, and submission periods to uphold, but I don't have to turn work into every single contest, or apply for every single grant, or submit to every single magazine. Especially not if it's taking precedent over a bigger (scarier) project, such as the novel in question.

Anyway, the truth of the matter is that writing will never be easy. It will never be convenient. So I’ll stop my complaining and get to work!

color coding chapters
novel planning

Stay Cool!