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.
Image result for team

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.

Image result for octopus
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!!
Image result for buddy

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

YEAR THREE WOE IS ME!

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!




Friday, July 1, 2016

What is Education Without Creativity?

This past week, I had the good fortune of teaching creative writing to a group of high school students at our Write Now summer camp. They are a wonderful group of teenagers, and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and comics together.


As I watched them share their writing at the final reading today, I was impressed by their progress and also the sheer courage they demonstrated by sharing their writing with the world.

This week has also made me think about the good fortune that these teenagers have to take part in a program like this one at such a young age. When I was a high school student, I was definitely not encouraged to connect with my writer self, besides writing lab reports, historical arguments and literature analyses.

From second grade to senior year, I was enrolled in a rigorous academic program called International Studies (it becomes IB in junior year). The program is a bilingual curriculum that is partially funded by the French/German/Spanish governments.  It is intended for the children of European diplomats so that their children can follow their country’s curriculum while living abroad.

As a French citizen, I was able to enroll in the French program. For ten years, I took every subject in both French and English. My French teachers were brought over straight from the motherland, and they were not messing around. As an elementary schooler, I can remember crying over the sheer amount homework I had and its level of difficulty. The workload only got more and more intense as we got older. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I was challenged in school. I know that’s not always the case for students in America.

On the other hand, I wish my education had been a bit more balanced. I feel like I missed out on an important aspect of my development throughout my entire academic career (until now) and that is the development of my creative side. Even as a child, there was little encouragement from teachers to explore our creativity, and I believe that’s because our system is focused on the end results. In high school, when everything you do is for the sole purpose of getting into a good college, students’ creative impulses often get pushed to the wayside. These days, funding for the arts is getting slashed more and more each year in favor of more standardized testing, which will only drag us deeper into this mentality of product over process, left brain over right.

Creativity is about meandering, exploring, and making mistakes. It’s about taking a journey, even if you don’t know what the destination will be. Unfortunately, our academic institutions don’t value process as much as they value the final product, and I think that’s doing a serious disservice to our students. How can we become effective problem solvers if we do not know how to be creative? And with the way things are going environmentally, socially and politically, we need as many creative problem solvers as possible.


This experience has made me wonder where I’d be today if I had been encouraged to explore my creative writing sooner… Of course, I’m glad I finally did make it to the party! Always a latecomer, but better late than never!
Happy campers at WRITE NOW reading!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Going into the Storm: Writing as Healing

As many of you may have heard if you follow me on Facebook, my beloved cat passed away this weekend. He went missing on Friday evening, and then was found nearly lifeless on the side of the road several blocks from our neighborhood. This leads me to believe that someone took him (to sell? to keep?) and then lost him. Who knows where they took him and how long he was out, struggling to find his way home. The thought makes my heart hurt.

Shady circumstances aside, my heart is completely broken from the loss of my friend. Regular readers of this blog will remember when I got him back in September, and how head-over-heels in love I was with this little monster. He grew from a scrappy fur ball into a beautiful, full-grown gentleman, and he brought joy to every single person he met.

In the days since his death, I have struggled with waves of sadness and despair, anger and fear. Thankfully, the support and love that I have received from friends and strangers has been enormous. So many people have shared their stories of loving and losing an animal friend, and it has truly touched my heart to know that pets have brought light into the lives of so many.

It has been a ceremony from the moment I heard the news—a constant prayer that I am holding in my heart. A prayer of gratitude, of peace, of love. I have kept a candle lit since the night I came home from the emergency vet clinic, unsure if my friend was going to make it through the night. (He passed on peacefully early the next morning.) I planted a pineapple on his grave and have decorated the fresh dirt with flowers. I sit with him every morning and every evening, like I did when he was still physically with me. I feel his presence.

Curling up in my bed to cry, talking to friends about Rumi, looking at pictures of him being adorably amazing, sitting beside his grave—all of these things have brought me peace in different ways.

Writing about Rumi and our beautiful life together has also helped on this journey of mourning and healing.

When we write, we connect to the deepest part of ourselves. I often turn to pen and paper to help me through hard times. Break-ups, deaths, frustrations, fears—writing about them often helps me get past the superficial stuff and down into the depths where the kernel of truth is hidden. And the truth is never as terrible as we imagine.

Take a house with a tin roof, for example. During a rainstorm, the racket inside the house is insufferably loud. You would think you were experiencing a hurricane, or a monsoon. But if you go outside into the rain, you realize that it’s not as horrendous of a storm as you thought. The rain feels soft on your skin; it cools you down. Getting soaked in the rain, being exposed to the elements you were afraid of, might bring you comfort, or even a revelation.

So, in writing about Rumi, I have been going out into the rain of grief, of sadness, of loneliness. And I am finding so much beauty in the memories of our time together.

Displaying IMG_5190.JPG
Displaying IMG_5190.JPG
Displaying IMG_5190.JPG
Who knows if what I have written will ever leave my notebook, but that is not the point. Right now, I am not writing for the final product. I am writing for the sake of writing, because I am at a loss of what else to do with my sadness.

One of my favorite writers, Natalie Goldberg, says:

"As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it."

I am grateful that writing is giving me the chance to re-live the beauty and joy that Rumi brought into my life. The love we shared was special, and I have been forever changed by my feline friend.



I will leave you with this poem written by Rumi’s namesake.