Friday, December 19, 2014

Restless is Right


I can't believe it's Friday again. What a week it has been. I just got back from Jamaica last night and it was hard to leave the island. Thankfully, I'll be back soon enough! While I was staying at my friend Gaia's gorgeous house (which also doubles as a fantastic retreat center), my friend Nat and I hatched up a plan. You see, she's a yogi/yoga teacher, and I'm a writer/writing teacher. So we thought - why not combine our powers and lead a kickass yoga/writing retreat in Jamaica!? It will be the perfect opportunity to teach all that I have been learning about writing from the body and tapping deeply into our five senses. 



We want this retreat to be a sensory experience, a time to focus on the self and reflect on the page. Nature will be our playground, as we explore the gorgeous natural surroundings complete with waterfalls, beaches, lush forests, and more.


 What I loved most about my time at Wabi Sabi Eco Retreat was the people I connected with while I was there. Gaia Budhai is an extraordinary human and she attracts the most interesting characters! We had a beautiful time together, cooking up tropical dishes in the kitchen, taking walks down to the river, watching hummingbirds dance among the flowers, playing games on the veranda, dancing in the streets of Ocho Rios, and bathing in waterfalls that cascade down mountains of smooth rocks, making for a delicious back massage.


 I am so excited to share this magical place with others. I would really appreciate any feedback you can give me as I begin to plan this retreat. Please take this short survey and pass it on to anyone you know who might be interested. More info to come soon!!


Happy winter solstice to all!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Writing Against All Odds

Hello blog world! Here I am, recooping from my semester in ... Jamaica, mon! Turns out this writer is still restless after all. But still, I have not forgotten about my weekly blog promise. It is Friday, and so, I blog.

This week, I want to tell you about a few writers I admire who have managed to have successful writing careers against all odds. A few days ago, I watched The Theory of Everything, a movie about Stephen Hawking's incredible life. I was moved by the enormous obstacles that he overcame to survive, but I was even more impressed by all that he has accomplished in his life - even with a debilitating disability. This man has shaped the way that we think about time and space, and he continues to work on his physics projects to this day. (Back when he was just 21, they gave him 2 years to live. He's 72 now.)

We all know him as a famous physicist and cosmologist, but perhaps you didn't know that he is the author of over a dozen books, as well as countless scientific articles. His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years and has been translated into 35 languages! He has even written several children stories with his daughter, Lucy Hawking.

Okay, so lots of people have written multiple bestselling books. But have they had to use cheek muscles to do it?? Here is a bit about Hawking's writing process from his website:

My main interface to the computer is through a program called EZ Keys, written by Words Plus Inc. This provides a software keyboard on the screen. A cursor automatically scans across this keyboard by row or by column. I can select a character by moving my cheek to stop the cursor. My cheek movement is detected by an infrared switch that is mounted on my spectacles. This switch is my only interface with the computer. EZ Keys includes a word prediction algorithm, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer.  

That takes dedication!! Sitting there in the dark theater, watching the amazing story of this fantastic human playing out in front of me, I thought to myself - if he can write books, I have no excuse!!

Thinking about writing against all odds made me think of another writer with a life-altering disorder: Josh Hanagarne, also known as World's Strongest Librarian. I saw him speak a few years back at the Miami Book Fair and I was extremely impressed to learn that he keeps a blog and has a bestselling book, even though he can barely sit still - truly. This is not the same "ants in your pants" problem that I have. In an interview with Cathy Lamb, Hanagarne explains his writing process and the challenges of writing with Tourette Syndrome:

With the nature of Tourette’s, I’m rarely capable of sitting still long enough to write for more than fifteen minutes a day. Sometimes that would get me 1000 words, sometimes it would get me 100. My goal was simply to write every day and keep my fingers moving. I learned that I have to make a huge mess before I can clean it up. I don’t ask myself editorial questions on the fly.

Again, if he can write a whole book by sitting down a mere 15 minutes a day, what excuse do I have?? These two individuals, and many more out there, have to surpass severe obstacles to write - but they do it with grace and brilliance. Their dedication and tenaciousness inspire me to glue my butt in the chair and keep my pen moving on the page. Gentleman, thank you for your amazing contributions to literature and culture. Til next week!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Live Birth

My baby was right on time. It came into the world Wednesday around noon. I felt that euphoria that mothers always talk about after they finally get to hold the baby they've been carrying in their belly for nine months. My baby only stayed with me for about four months, but I think I've been holding it inside for much longer.

After my baby came out of the printer for the first time, I held it close to my heart. These after-birth moments are very important in establishing a close connection with your baby. I didn't want to do anything else except look at it, trace the image on the cover, flip through it's pages, and count to see that every toe was in place.

I was so in love, I decided to print out a bunch more of my babies. Why have only one copy when you can have thirty?? Then, my newborn and I had to be separated for a few hours because she needed some extra attention in the binding department. So I dropped off my babies at the copy store, and they promised to take excellent care of them. I kissed them each goodbye and counted the hours until I would get to hold them again.

When I finally had them in my arms a few hours later, they were even better than before! Now they had two spiffy staples in their center that made them look super professional. Now my baby and I were ready to go out into the world. My baby was ready to meet its audience.

+

Check out some photos from the Chapbook Launch Party! 
I am so indebted and in awe of the nine amazing women who shared their 
wisdom and words with me this semester.

CNF Love Fest
Enraptured by someone's brilliant reading
Reading from my latest book :)
The Magic Class
Chapbooks: Printed and Bound!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Not-So-Restless Writer?


It was Sunday morning, nearing noon. The day was bright and blue, and I knew this because I could see it from my window at my desk. It dawned on me then, as I watched a cardinal hop around a tree outside, that I had been sitting at my desk for nearly three days straight - and even weirder - I was okay with this fact. It was a strange feeling, when I realized I had only been between school, home, and the gym for over a week. I looked at my royal blue Rav 4 sitting in the driveway, looking lonely, and I remembered the girl I used to be, not all that long ago.

In Miami, I couldn't go between point A and point B without stopping to take a quick dip in the ocean or meeting a friend for an impromptu walk or yoga session. I was the girl who always had a bathing suit, towel, high heels and a little black dress in my trunk. Oh, and my hula hoop, of course. I lived out of my car, quite seriously. I was on the m-o-v-e, all the time, and my car was my closest confidante.

My bicycle is my main form of transportation now. It takes me all the places I need to go: from my house to my office, from my office to the gym, from the gym back to my office, and from my office, home sweet home. Sometimes, I take my speedy two-wheeler for a spin around Lettuce Lake Park about a mile from my house.

My world has shrunk to a 1.5 mile radius. That is insanity to me.

What's even more insane is the fact that I couldn't be happier about this. To be honest, the nesting habits crept up on me, like a slow fog. It started with the clearing of the desk. And then the growing of the plants. Now I have bird friends outside my window everyday and it's as if, all of a sudden, I woke up in the clouds, and I never knew I was being lifted away.

But I guess this is the reason why I came to grad school, after all. To drop out of my life of chaotic excitement, and drop into a new, quieter one - one that strives for the beauty of authentic expression.

I spoke to my friend in Costa Rica last night. He's used to my spur-of-the-moment trips south.

"When are you coming back down here?" he asked. In the background, I can hear the sounds of the rainforest all around him.
"You know," I said. "I really don't know." Silence. "Things feel... different, now."
"Hmm," he said after a while. "Estas comprometida." Comprometida - to be engaged, committed.
"Yes, I think you're right. Estoy comprometida."
"Eso es bueno!" he said with a laugh. He's an artist too so he knows what it feels like to be on fire about your craft. He knows about this rabbit hole, he knows it well.

That Sunday afternoon, I could have sat at my desk all day. But, it felt sacrilegious to let such a perfect day slide by my window without getting out there and communing with the elements. I had to honor that other part of myself, the wild one. So I called up my friend Sarah and we made a date to watch the sunset on the beach. It felt strange to drive my car across the long bridge to St. Pete, weaving between traffic and listening to sugary pop songs on the radio. But it all made sense when I plunged into the cold waves, tinged pink from the setting sun, releasing my body to this saltwater altar.

A fellow free spirit

Friday, November 21, 2014

Writing: A Service Industry

This week was our last Creative Nonfiction class with Heather. The next time we meet, on Dec 3rd, we will be celebrating the birth of our new chapbooks! Aho!

The secret swamp across the street from my house
We are all sad to see this semester come to an end. I'm still in denial about it. Heather took the chance to repeat some wise things she had told us towards the beginning of the semester and I felt like I was hearing them with new ears. In a way, I am a different person than the one who started this program back in August. In any case, you can definitely say I've been reborn as a writer...

First of all, Heather reminded us that it's not about the writing. We're all good writers; that's why we're in this program. We could sit down and write beautiful prose all day long. That's not enough.

It's about the story. 

As writers, we work in service of story. We bow down to it. Everything we write must serve the greater story. If it does not move the story forward in some way, it's irrelevant and needs to come out. Even if it's the most beautiful sentence in the world. Especially if it's the most beautiful sentence in the world. (As Faulkner said, kill your darlings.)

Of course, it's not that easy. A story is never just what you think it is on the surface. A girl wants a horse. That's just the superficial set-up. But what we as writers need to figure out is - what is the deeper yearning happening underneath this piece? What does this little girl really want? Does she wish she was free from the abuse she experiences at home? It's always about something more. And it's our job to find that thing and bring it to the page.

"Writing is a service industry," Heather likes to say. "Our readers are our customers, and we have to give them what they want."

And what do they want? A good story.

It's just that easy, right?

Right.

Another gold nugget  that Heather passed on to us on our last day of class was this one -

The story will always be smarter than you. 

If you come up against a trouble spot or a snag in the writing, refrain from getting angry. Aggression will not get you through this. Instead, be open. Meditate on it. Listen to the piece. It will guide you to the truth.

The slowest way is the fastest way, my friends.

These flowers will soon be tomatoes!
Garden going strong

Friday, November 14, 2014

Raw Materials

As you can see from this picture, I have been desperately in need of a new laptop for some time. My nifty netbook crashed on me this summer, just after I uploaded all of my videos and pictures from a music festival, of course. So I dug out this old beast, the laptop my grandfather gifted to me when I started college back in 2005. It’s been good to be over the last 9 years. Very good, even, just by the simple fact that it’s still alive and running. Not running well, I’ll give you that, but the heartbeat is still there.


Last weekend, I went to Tiger Direct to look at new laptops. While I was there, I spoke to many (unhelpful) salesmen, who didn’t really seem like they wanted to sell me anything at all. Still, there were some decent computers selling for decent prices. I contemplated purchasing a shiny Dell, or maybe this refurbished HP? But something held me back. I left the store empty-handed, promising to continue my search another day.

But today it dawned on me. I don’t actually need a new laptop. I have this fabulous desktop at school with which I can watch all of the Buzzfeed videos that my heart desires. (Oh yeah, and do a little work, too.)  And I've got my prehistoric IBM still trucking along... Do I really need another machine connecting me to the energy-suck that is the internet? Is this connection to super-fast internet a priority in my life – in the work I’m trying to do as a writer?

I started to think about what freedoms a new laptop would afford me and I realized that they were all superficial. I can’t actually say – I need a laptop so that I can be a real writer. No, a writer only needs two things: a pen, and some paper. This is what I’m learning in graduate school. You want to be a writer? Grab a pen, buy a blank notebook, and have at it.


My writing guru, you all must know who I’m talking about by now, insists that all writing must – MUST – be done by hand. If you want it to be good, that is. She says she can sniff out those writers who use a keyboard and those who still draw words on the page. (And if you read my last post, you know it’s true. She’s magic, what can I tell you.)

Not only must all writing be done by hand, but all RE-writing must also be done by hand. Revision means to see again. Your mind sees differently when it’s making words appear on a blinking screen than it does when you’re coaxing words out of a pen.

Like the way we coaxed vegetables out of the soil using our bare hands back when I spent my days bent over rows of arugula or daikon radish. Everyone knows they taste better that way. It's just a fact. Yes, we did use a tractor, but that was only for the menial (editorial) work – the weeding between rows, the stirring of soil before planting to disturb weed seeds. We did not trust this tractor to place our baby plants into the ground for us, nor did we trust them to thin out the lettuce, or weed around the super-sensitive winter squash. These tasks could only be done by hand.
Joy Harjo watches over me as I write...




So for now, I’m sticking to my notebooks and Bic pens. When the pages fill up and I’ve done my subjects justice on the page, then I will turn to the computer. Having fully explored every caveat of my story, I will transform my messy handwriting into this standardized font so that my story may have a life outside of my head, outside of my notebook. And for that, my old clunker is up for the job.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Play Right // Write Play

I've been thinking a lot about play lately, in all aspects of my life. Naturally, my teacher brought it up during out workshop class this week. She mentioned a few books to check out so I picked up Homo Ludens at the library by a Dutch cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga. Homo ludens means "man at play" or the species that plays (although we aren't the only ones). 

Play is an integral part of our childhood and an important factor in our human development. Huizinga argues, though, that it does not end there. According to him, "play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” (Huizinga 1)

According to him, these are the 5 characteristics of play:
  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.




My writing teacher, Heather, says we must write the unthinkable (write without thinking), and if as Huizinga suggests that "play only becomes possible [...] when an influx of mind breaks down," then perhaps ... 

writing is play? 



She had us do an exercise in class on Wednesday where we were to draw cats - while I sang to the class. The moment she told the class that I would be singing while they drew, blood pressures rose. "Imagine if you were a child again, and your teacher said that a classmate was going to sing while you draw," she said. "Would you be afraid for that person? No. You'd think it was the most natural, normal thing in the world."

We have replaced play with fear - fear of messing up - because we have been tricked into believing that there is a right and a wrong. 

Huizinga writes: "The play-mood is labile [i.e. easily altered] in its very nature. At an moment, 'ordinary life' may reassert its right either by an impact from without, [...] or by an offence against the rules, or else from within, by a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment." (21)

We, as writers, must try our best to cling to that liminal space between our conscious and unconscious mind. We will be granted beautiful gifts if we can learn to stay in that space, and it will be apparent to our readers when we fall off it. For example -

This week, one of my pieces of nonfiction was workshopped in class. I produced that piece over several sessions of furious handwriting at my sun-drenched desk where I like to think I was "in the zone." ("The zone" is that place where you have stopped thinking - that place where play blossoms.) My classmates agreed that the writing read true and real. Heather had only one comment to make and I knew exactly what part she was going to point out before she said the words. "This took me out of the story," she said, referring to a part I had added after the fact, once I was typing up my story later on. She caught it! I had to laugh. You can't trick your reader...

Like with play, writing is neither good or bad. We must resist the urge to write from a feeling state. Rather, we must write from a state of playfulness, that place that is time out of time, no-holds-barred, perfect in its spontaneous creation.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"You, too, can win the Pulitzer Prize."

This Monday, I had the good fortune of hearing Gilbert King speak about his circuitous writing career and his tenacious research process. Author of Pulitzer-prize winning "Devil in the Grove" and "The Execution of Willie Francis," he was once a slacker student here at USF. While working on his English degree here, he rarely went to class, preferring to spend hours reading in the library instead. It was in our very library that he fell in love with stories. Unfortunately, he left two math credits short and never graduated with his intended English degree.

After moving to New York, he worked as a freelance photographer and as the assistant to the president at Scribner publishing. While working on photographs for a coffee-table book about golf antiques, the writer dropped out and the publisher asked King if he'd do the writing. He agreed. After finishing the project, he started getting more writing jobs, including ghostwriting books for "celebrities who wanted to go on talk shows about their books but didn't actually want to write them." He said the main reason that he kept getting jobs was because he didn't make spelling mistakes and he met his deadlines. He was reliable and low-maintenance, two gold stars in the publishing world.

It was while working on a crime encyclopedia that he came cross the story of Willie Francis, a young in Louisiana who was electrocuted in the electric chair but survived; as it turned out, the prison guard was drunk and he did not set up the chair properly. King was curious about the story so he went down to Louisiana to learn more. After doing years of research, he wrote "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South."

The Groveland Boys 
During his research, he kept returning to the work of Thurgood Marshall. He decided to look into other cases that Marshall worked on. While looking through old files, he found letters to Thurgood Marshall from his lawyers working on a case down in Florida. "We're getting death threats everyday," they wrote. This is how King first learned about the Groveland boys and the rape charges against them. Again, he followed his nose and he was rewarded. What he found was an important part of American history that has somehow been forgotten, a true crime story. As he looked deeper into the intricacies of the case, he kept asking himself, "How come people don't know about this? How is this not a part of our American consciousness?"

Thurgood Marshall
He dug through FBI files and filed Freedom of Information Acts. He pleaded for NAACP records and interviewed people. (Several people involved in this case are still alive today! It was not so long ago that racism was rampant here in Florida, just a few hours from where I live...) He did his homework and wrote "Devil in the Grove." The book was rejected by 35 publishers. “I was really shouting into an ocean,” he said. But he kept fighting for his story because he believed it needed to be told.


It was finally picked up by Harper Collins, but as the publishers had predicted, the book sales were not great. "People don't want to remember this kind of stuff," they told him; it doesn't fit in with America's perception of itself. A few days after the publishers decided to "remainder" the book (meaning they were going to stop printing it and destroy the remaining copies or sell them to him at a discount), "Devil in the Grove" was awarded a Pulitzer Prize! Sales have since increased and Lionsgate recently bought the movie rights for the story.

"You have to follow what you love," he told the crowd, "and I love crime." He considers himself a storyteller before writer, and he believes that all that reading back during his undergraduate years at USF drummed the rhythm of stories into his head.

He also said that ghostwriting helped him tremendously as a writer. “I don’t believe writing is natural,” he said. “I think you always get better. Just keep getting better.” Like our teacher Heather tells us all the time, "just the act of sitting and writing is important. Like Malcolm Gladwell says, you have to put in our 10,000 hours."




                                  A story is never what you think it is. You gotta stick to the facts.                                                                                              
                                                                                                        -Gilbert King

Friday, October 24, 2014

Making Space


We're over halfway through with the semester. This is the time when shit gets crazy. Everything is due all at once, papers need to be graded, the reading load is as insane as always, and the weather is that perfect mix of sunshine and sweet breeze.  

But still, somehow, it's important to find time for quiet moments of introspection, moments where we make space for truth to seep in.


I had a breakthrough last weekend. A few, even. My roommate was out of town and the thought of being home alone all weekend was frightening at first. But something about the chill in the air got me to my senses. 

First, I drove over to Home Depot and bought the makings for a garden paradise: wood for a raised bed, a few seedlings, a shovel, and several plants with tags that read "low light." I had already spent way too much money at the USF Plant Sale the weekend prior, where I bought three different kinds of banana trees, a sweet almond bush, a variety of tomato seedlings, and salad seed packets for good measure. 


Now I had my shovel; I was ready to go. I got to work digging holes in the backyard and distributing horse manure from a local farm (my roommate has a horse so I have an compost connection!). When the trees were planted and the seedlings were watered, I got to work arranging my indoor plants. I’ve never really owned houseplants, or at least not since college when I needed something to perk up my dreary dorm room in the dead of winter. Although my life is not as dreary as it was then, my life is certainly not as plant-ful as it has been in the recent past. So I have conceded to the fact that I am just in a place in my life where I need a plant on my desk. And in the bathroom and on the kitchen counter. 


The next morning, a fellow writer and I headed to the beach for some sun and sea healing. While we sank our toes into the sand and soaked in the rays, we talked about – you guessed it – writing. She’s in her second year in the program so I picked her brain. I have basically been asking anyone who will speak to me about his or her writing process, mainly because I feel so at odds with my own. 


She told me that she has several writing spaces set up around her home, places that she has almost turned into sanctuaries, safe havens where she can do the hard work of facing the blank page. I thought about my own home, a safe haven in the making, and I realized my problem: there isn’t a single space where I want to sit down for a long time. I thought about my desk - a blank white closet door sitting on stools. My original intention was to use it as a writing table, but it had quickly turned into a receptacle for abandoned papers and random flotsam. Just thinking about it made me anxious. 


When I got home, I resolved to make my desk into a creative space – a space where I wanted to spend time. I hauled out the big computer that was dominating one side of the desk and moved my stack of magazines into the bathroom. I cleared away the wreckage and restored my desk to its original –blank- state.
 
I placed two potted plants on the windowsill in front of the desk, and sat down with nothing but a notebook, a pen, and a cup of tea. And I wrote. 

And I didn't get up.

Home sweet desk!





My roommate has her kitties... 

and I've got my plants!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Author Spotlight: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

This weekend, I got to go on a BIG KID FIELD TRIP with my awesome Literature of Place class. In light of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins' The Yearling and William Bartram's 18th century Travels, we traveled north on I-75 to a few notable places south of Gainesville.

Our first stop was Cross Creek, the tiny hamlet where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Yearling, along with tons of short stories, several novels, and a memoir named after her town. She even published a cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery!



You might remember watching the movie based on The Yearling starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Whether you liked it or not (I remember loving it as a kid!), you should definitely pick up the book. It's beautifully written and thoroughly researched. Rawlings based it on a real family she knew who lived in that area and had a pet deer. I loved her descriptions of Florida's subtle beauty in its springs and forest, and in the wildlife that make these places their home.

The family that Rawlings wrote about in The Yearling lived further east, closer to Volusia and Lake George. But still, she did most of her writing sitting at the table on her front porch, overlooking an orange grove. Her constant companions were the chicken and geese who roamed the land.


What I would give to have such a gorgeous writing space! And check out those chairs, made from original deer hide! (All of the furniture in her house is original, donated to the state park by her second husband, Norton Baskin.)

I'm happiest when I'm outdoors. Which means, when I've got my writer hat on, I'm happiest when I am writing outdoors - or as close to the out-of-doors as possible. So a sun-drenched space like this one, with a view of the trees and the sky and the forest, is my ideal workspace. Unfortunately, my current home does not have a screened in porch, and my office is in a dungeon. Sooooooooo... I'll have to wait for that sweet writing porch. One day!

Rawlings was known for being independent and strong-willed - she needed to be to live on her own in a wild place like Cross Creek! She loved solitude and spent many weeks on her own, writing and being in nature. She wrote about feeling "vibrations" from the land and, if you read The Yearling, you'll understand the depths of her relationship to the natural world. 



Although she could be reclusive at times, she was a great cook and loved hosting people at her home. Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Hemingway were just a few of her famous friends who spent time at Cross Creek. She even said that she got "as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in my writing." I was fascinated by all the mementos of her homesteading lifestyle, from cast iron pans and ancient coffee cans to an ice cabinet. Writing and living close to the land -- what else can you ask for??

Rawlings' book Cross Creek was a memoir of sorts, in which she wrote about life in the backcountry of central Florida and the neighbors who shared this world with her. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to! As a writer of creative nonfiction, it's important to read different examples of memoir and see how it has evolved over time. Unfortunately, Cross Creek got her in a bit of trouble with a  good friend who did not appreciate the way that Rawlings described her in the book. The friend sued her for invasion of privacy, and although Rawlings was only ordered to pay $1 in damages, the long court proceedings took a lot out of her. After the incident, she didn't spend as much time at Cross Creek anymore, favoring her New York home instead, and she never wrote about Cross Creek again.

Either way, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a great example of a strong woman, and a talented and dedicated writer. I admire her fierce spirit, and I hope I get to live and write in such a beautiful place myself one day.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Readers are the Reason

This week was my first workshop in my Creative Nonfiction class. I turned in a draft of a piece that I am writing about my childhood home in Miami. I knew there were issues with it, and I was nervous handing it in, but I was so ready to have readers.

Having readers has been the missing link for me as a writer. It's why I started this blog, actually. It's also a big reason why I decided to join an MFA program (people - professors and peers - are forced to read your stuff!!). I've been writing for many years, but my words have mostly stayed on the pages of my notebooks or in Word documents. I've had a few things published around the internet (here and here and here) but nothing substantial. More on that later.

Anyway, back to my readers. In our workshops, after we turn in our 12 pages, our classmates have a week to sit with our story, read and re-read, and finally, compose a letter to us. The letter has three parts: first, they tell us what the story is about (very helpful to hear what others perceive your story to be about), then they tell us what we did really well (close observation, pacing, scene, etc), and lastly, they tell us where they were confused and what parts of the story weren't exactly working for them.

Getting "mail" this week from my eight lovely classmates felt like Christmas morning. But before getting the letters, the class spent about half an hour giving me feedback on my twelve pages. The writer getting the feedback isn't allowed to speak; we're only allowed to take notes furiously as people give suggestions, and blush profusely when we're given compliments. It's a magical half hour, and you leave with a burning desire to run to your writing desk immediately and get to work.

Our teacher has recently given us the analogy of the clothesline. A story is like a clothesline; it's a cord holding lots of different articles of clothing. Your clothesline has to be taut, because otherwise, your clothes will touch the ground and get dirty. And to make things even more interesting, your reader should never see the clothesline. It needs to be there, but it's invisible.

I have no problem writing scenes and reflections and moments - the clothes in this scenario. It's the stringing them up on the line that I have trouble with. My classmates recognized this, and helped me think about ways to tighten the clothesline. I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me before this piece is shiny and ready to go out into the world, but  it was very gratifying to have others see the potential in my writing.

Reading the letters after class, I was overjoyed to learn that several of my classmates had connected to my story.  Some of them even cried while reading, which is, weirdly enough, maybe the best compliment I've ever gotten as a writer.  

This is what it's all about!, I thought. This is why I write!

It's about sharing and it's about connecting. It's about finding that essence that lies within all of us and speaking to it. It's not easy, but I hope I get to try for a long, long time.

Last weekend, I went to Miami to get my family/friend fix. Here's a picture of me attempting to do homework at the beach.


Happy weekend!

Friday, October 3, 2014

From Farm to Desktop

October is here - my favorite month of the year! And although I'm missing out on decorative gourd season and leaf peepin' back in New England, Florida does have some positive fall attributes. For one thing, carambolas are back in season (then again, when are they not in season??).

Starfruit to Heaven
And unlike New England, where farmers are putting their fields to bed for the winter, we're only just getting started down here in Zone 9

Farmers hard at work at Sweetwater Organic Farm where I volunteer once a week... 

You may not know this about me, dear readers, but I used to be an organic vegetable farmer. Yes, once upon a time, in the great state of Massachusetts, I hoed innumerable acres of squash and harvested too many tons of green beans. 

But let me back up just a bit. How did I come to be a grower (and lover!) of vegetables, you might ask? As an environmental studies major, I learned all about the atrocities that are happening to our planet, and I asked myself - what can I do? Eating food is the main way that we interact with our environment on a daily basis, and so I thought that food might be a good place to start. So I began to learn more about organic farming practices, closed-loop permaculture systems, and school gardening. I spent the last few years of undergrad chasing chickens and experimenting with vegetables I had never heard of before like kohlrabi (which literally look like aliens). I worked as a counselor at farm camp and ran after-school garden clubs for urban youth. I was hooked. After graduation, I spent a season on an educational farm in Martha's Vineyard, a season on small vegetable farm in western Mass, and another season on a permaculture farm in Homestead, FL. Many of my good friends dedicate their lives to growing food in a good way. And yet, here I am, sitting at a desk rather than working the fields.

So why am I here, at an MFA program for creative writing?

Well, when I wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, I went to workshops, talked to farmers, and worked on farms. When I decided to get serious about writing, I knew I needed an apprenticeship, mentors, an immersion. 

It hasn't been an easy transition, from farmer to writer. For one thing, I don't get to eat the fruits of my labor. I've gone from working on something tangible and real to working with abstractions like words, sentences, stories. Sometimes, when I'm hunched over my laptop for hours writing the same paragraph over and over again, I wonder - how is this important? I'm not feeding anyone! 

But, in order to be on this path, I have to believe that stories can change the world - that they do provide sustenance in some way. We need bread to live, but we need roses, too.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Embrace the Remix, Cultivate Creativity

I love being in a place of learning! Yesterday, we had the good fortune of meeting with Dr. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar from the University of Southern California. He sat in on our Teaching First Year Composition Practicum and spoke with us about the ever-changing role of media and technology in our lives. He writes about participatory culture and digital media.

As educators, it is our task to keep up with the times while maintaining academic standards. We need to make our information relevant in order for it to matter to our students.

Dr. Jenkins explained to us that a lot of educators and academics he meets find it difficult to incorporate new technologies into the classroom, and they are baffled by his willingness to embrace them.

“Yes, it's true,” he told us. “I learned how to think in graduate school. But I have also kept on thinking since then.” I thought that was a profound statement that speaks to many people’s reluctance to flow with the changing times. Rather than hold back the tide, Dr. Jenkins leans into digital culture. After all, it's here to stay.

Dr. Jenkins reminded us that everything is a remix.  Even Melville was a master re-mixer of his time, shifting genres from chapter to chapter in Moby Dick. We may not see it this way now, but it was revolutionary for the time. So what did Dr. Jenkins do to get people reading this classic book? He asked them to re-write it. 

He calls this participatory learning: getting students engaged in a text by asking them to apply it to their world. What would the whale trade look like today? Who would Captain Ahab be? But what Dr. Jenkins is really promoting with this project is giving students the chance to pursue their own interests and passions. This is where we find the key to learning.

Unfortunately, our education system does not make writing accessible to the youth. As Dr. Jenkins remarked, “If we taught sex education like we do writing, we’d die out in a generation!”

But actually, according to Dr. Jenkins, this generation writes a lot. They just don’t think of it as such because it’s not writing in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s a blog post about the Jonas Brothers or a response on a World of Warcraft forum; the internet houses hundreds of different ways for people to connect and communicate with one another. Because this writing is not happening with pen and paper or in a classroom, does that make it any less valuable? And how can we bring the kinds of communications that happen naturally over the internet into the classroom?

I was intrigued by Dr. Jenkins' stance towards social networks and digital media as a learning tool, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom behind it (speaking of social networks, you can now follow The Restless Writer on Facebook!). Why not use a blog post or a Youtube video to explore the rhetorical situation? Instead of banning Wikipedia, how about analyzing how it works by tracing the history of a Wikipedia page? Digital culture can be a friendly point of entry for students to embrace learning and writing.  

According to Dr. Jenkins, and I agree with him, we should be moving towards a creative society, and anything that we can do to get people thinking and acting creatively is valuable.

As someone who has apprehensions about the internet and social media on the whole, I found his point of view fascinating. But what will happen to reading books? I asked him. The novel isn’t going anywhere, he reassured me. We need to keep in mind that communication is the key, without getting caught up on the particular mode of communication. There are multiple literacies, and each mode of communication serves a different purpose. How-to books, for example, are probably not as effective as how-to videos. On the other hand, novels as a self-reflexive form are valuable for conveying the "inter-states" of being. Novels ask a reader to imagine what a world looks like, while film asks their audience to figure out what the characters are thinking. They both require imagination, the key to creativity.


And so, fellow writers and friends, I’ll leave you with this last question: 
What does writing do that other technologies don’t?


Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll check out this short video with Dr. Jenkins!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Notes on Ira Glass

Every week feels like a big week! A lot has been happening and I am getting big information about writing and creativity all the time! Inspiration abounds...

Last weekend, I was able to see Ira Glass speak/perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete as part of WUSF's 50th birthday celebration.  As an avid This American Life listener, I was psyched about seeing the man behind the voice. But I had no idea how relevant his performance was going to be!

As it turns out, all he wanted to talk about was STORY! And how lucky for me since I am currently getting a masters degree in exactly that!!



He started off by telling us that everyone knows that the world is going to shit. We are living in a crazy and despairing world.

Does that mean it that our work as storytellers is less important?
NO! In fact, he claims that there has never been a better time to do creative work! That was pretty heartening news for a girl who just started her first semester of a 3 year graduate program in the arts!

He also let us in on some secrets about what makes a story good and how to keep your listeners/readers engaged:

Your story needs to be a combination of PLOT (action) and IDEA (vs summary and synthesis). They each create an appetite for the other. You also need to hang QUESTIONS within the ACTION. This creates narrative suspense. Also, readers want to know what it FEELS like to live inside your world. SHOW them what it's like to live there.

Questions writers should ask of their writing;
How should the reader relate to this story?
What is the underlying universal emotional that anyone can connect to?

He told us that it took him a long time to sound on the radio the way he does in real life. I think that's what makes him so appealing. Sounding natural is a hard thing to do on the page, but I'm working on it.

Takeaway messages:

  • Not using humor is like giving up a weapon.
  • You need to shoot 60 hours of footage in order to get 5 minutes of gold. If you want lightning to strike, you need to walk around in the rain for a looong time.
  • Spend TIME and MONEY on your story, learning about the characters and finding 1) what's amusing and 2) where are the emotional hits.
  • A writer has to KNOW when they are surprised/curious/amused so they can tell their reader. This mimics real conversation.
  • It's a good thing when things go bad.
  • Run towards something at full speed, even if it's just a hunch. You never know what you'll find there.
  • Action, action, action, question! If it's a great story, all of the questions get answered in one single moment.


After the show, we all went to get drinks at a place called Ceviche in downtown St. Pete. We closed down the place, and then a few of us may or may not have ended up swimming in the ocean......... My extroverted self was thrilled!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Let's All Be a Little More Like Jane Goodall

It helps, when starting a big endeavor like an MFA, to be clear about the goals you wish to achieve by the end. I'm taking a class called "Graduate Studies in the 21st Century" which has been very helpful in helping us map our way.

In the name of accountability, these are the goals I have come up with:

  1. Improve my writing skills. This is why I'm here. I think I'm a pretty good writer. I want to be better.
  2. Engage in a community of writers by developing relationships with professors, peers, and off-campus events and groups. Before coming to the MFA program, I was part of a few writing groups but again, I wanted more. Now I have 10 pairs of eyes looking over my work and giving me feedback! And one of those people is the talented and impressive Heather Sellers! Yes, I am a lucky girl. Also, I have already attended a writing workshop by the Spoken Word poets of Tampa and I hope to get more involved in this beautiful and vibrant community.
  3. Further my development as a teacher, by actually teaching classes but also by learning from my fabulous teachers, many of whom practice contemplative pedagogy which I love! Learning lots from brilliant people...
  4. Explore my career opportunities as a writer. Whether that means transcription work, marketing, editing... I'm excited to learn about all of it! And hopefully I can even do an awesome internship in the field.
  5. Develop a STRONG WRITING ROUTINE. No, I don't need an MFA to do this, but I'm hoping it will help.

It's a hard life being a hyperactive person and a writer at the same time. But then again, when I see people like the incredibly inspiring Jane Goodall (who came to campus this week!), I realize that you can lead a highly productive and active life, and also.. write books! She's done amazing things with her life: she's changed the way we view primates and ourselves, released countless chimps back into the wild, and written 15 books along the way! 


That's one badass lady.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Set your life on fire

I've survived my second week as a graduate student! It's been intense, but in a good way. This week, somewhere in the midst of mountains of reading, not to mention lesson planning and responding to student emails, I had an epiphany.

This is how I roll.

Although I was eating lunch at my desk and I hadn't seen the sun in many days, I felt focused and clear. Every minute of every day was essential and could not be wasted. I was ON. I managed to get all of my schoolwork done and my classes planned, and I even had time to tinker around with a new creative piece. All of a sudden, everything else seemed less important. And I realized that I've been worried for nothing. This is what I'm here for.

In my previous life, I put all my energy into my social life. I made that my priority, and I aced it. I was good at being busy, flitting around from work to dance class to a dinner date. Oftentimes I double-booked myself and made it happen. 

What I'm beginning to realize is that, even if I don't have that crazy schedule anymore, I still have energy. It's up to me to decide how to use it. 

These days, I wake up around 8 and make something delicious for breakfast. This is a good time to banter with my roommate about something cute that the cats did or what we thought of the reading for class later. I pack a lunch, load my book bag into my bike basket, and head over to campus. This is where I'll stay for the rest of the day, usually oscillating between my office and the library. This might sound lame, but classes are like mini study breaks, a place to see friends and catch up. Of course, there's also learning to be done. Obviously. In the late afternoon, I catch a dance class at the gym or take a walk in the woods near campus. Then it's home for dinner and back to the library for a few more hours. Bedtime is usually around 1 in the morning and it starts all over again.

Exciting life, right?

But it is! My creative writing teacher asked us a simple question on the first day: What are you on fire about? And I'm happy to report that this - this! - is what I'm on fire about. I'm forced to spend most of my time in the service of words! And that makes me happy.

We'll see how I'm feeling once the semester really kicks into gear, when I have 50 papers to grade and my own 50 pages to write. But for now, all I can do is lay the foundation for a solid work/life situation which will hopefully help me weather the storms when they pass through... 

Let's just hope I don't turn into this guy. I can see the headline now: From social butterfly to reclusive hermit. That could be a great name for my memoir!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Restless

The restless writer: a girl with ants in her pants who wants to learn how to sit her butt down and write. 

Let me explain.

I was born a bundle of nerves. My mother said I came out of the womb with eyes wide open, ready to take on the world around me. From that moment, I haven't stopped careening through life like a whirling dervish. A die-hard social butterfly, I'm quite hard to pin down. Over the past few years, I have worked for myself as a language tutor. Even though I only worked a few hours each afternoon, my schedule was packed with volunteer hours, dinner engagements, wilderness escapades, and a plethora of dance classes. I don't know how to turn down offers for brunch, ballet, or an afternoon paddle. I am also to blame, as I meticulously keep track of events happening around the city – festivals,  art shows, free promotional events – and invite everyone I know. I simply cannot bear to miss a single moment.
And it doesn't stop there. Having spent the first few years of my life living on a sailboat, I caught the wanderlust bug very early in life. Since then, I have spent most of my money and free time on travelling. When I was 20, I embarked on a journey that took me to five continents in 12 months. Much of my traveling has been by sea and foot, as well as the usual suspects - trains, planes, random strangers giving me rides. There's something about traveling that makes me feel alive, when I'm so out of my comfort zone that all I can do is drop the reins and let serendipity do her job. She always comes through.
But I realize that this hyper-extroverted lifestyle, while much fun, is not necessarily sustainable for a writer. I have friends of mine who are artists, fully capable of shutting themselves off from the world and turning themselves on to their work. I can't help but feel jealous of them. Recently, I read an interview with Barbara Kingsolver in the Sun in which she admits that she finds it hard to do readings, meet fans, and engage in the social side of being a writer. She prefers to be home, holed up in her study for much of the day, churning out book after book of gorgeous prose. Again, I am green with envy at her easy introversion. My body fights it with every ounce of my being.
But I have hope! This summer, I read a few books and did some background research on becoming an introvert. I learned that I do harbor some introverted tendencies, but they are deep, deep, deep inside of myself. But hear this, quiet Carmella, this is your time! Come forth and …. sit in a chair for many long hours... Reading. Writing. What’s so scary about that?
Oh, just everything. Only facing the fear of rejection of your very being as an artist. No big deal.

Don't get me wrong! I will never stop exploring the world and all of her wonders. But I think that in order to get good at my craft, it’s time to hide away from the rest of the world – at least for a little while! Perhaps one day I will be capable of balancing a life of crazy extroversion with the hard work of creating art on the page, but I haven't gotten there yet. That is the goal! 
Thank you so much for being with me on this journey. In the future, expect to see more posts about the writing process, my experience in graduate school, and the challenges of teaching Freshman composition.

Yours truly, this hopeless vagabond

Friday, August 22, 2014

Coming Out

            I guess you could say I've always been a writer. As a kid, I tried my hand at penning songs, melodramatic love stories, and middle school mysteries. As an adult, there hasn't been a time when I haven't kept a journal. These spiral bound notebooks record every quotidian detail, from conversations I'd like to remember to the dreams I had last night. The margins are decorated with notes about stories I want to tell, books I want to read. But even so, I never identified myself as such. I was an environmentalist, a student, a farmer, a traveler, a sailor, a dancer... but never a writer.
            I remember the first time I said the words, “I'm a writer,”  my voice thick with false bravado. My declaration hung in the air, taunting me. “Oh yeah? Says who?” I don't have a business card with the word “writer” written under my name and most of my bylines come from my middle school journalism days. Being a writer was something I liked to think about while scrubbing the deck of my dad's sailboat, or washing the dishes late at night. Sure, I had a stack of notebooks filled with my swirly handwriting. But writing wasn't a part of my life in any real world way.
            Still, as scary and uncomfortable as it felt to say the words, it also felt liberating, as if I were coming out of the closet after years of hiding. Being a writer wasn't a secret pipe dream anymore. In alcoholics anonymous, they say that identifying the disease in yourself is the first step to recovery. In the same way, announcing myself as a writer was the first step I took in becoming one. But also, saying the words immediately gave weight to the claim. I had put it out into the world, and now the world had expectations.
            That was about two years ago. Since then, I have been more proactive about my writing life than ever before. I started a small writing group, and when that wasn't enough, I signed up for classes and workshops around town. Over the summer, the idea of attending an MFA program for creative writing hit me like a lighting strike. I set out to make it happen.
            After months of filling out applications, tweaking my personal statement, workshopping my submission piece, and chasing recommendations, I accepted an offer from the University of South Florida in Tampa. The program seems like a great fit for me, and I am so excited to work with their stellar faculty. While sitting in on a workshop class during a school visit, it hit me: I am going to spend the next three years writing, reading, and discussing the craft of storytelling with my peers. Glory Halleluiah!
            But the hard part is far from over. I feel as though I am at the base of a monstrous mountain, staring up at towards a summit hidden in thick fog. I've been out of school for five years and the thought of sunny Sundays spent in the library terrify me. My life post college, and even during college, has been light on the scholarly side and heavy on the experiential side. Now comes the challenge of a lifetime – getting Carmella to sit her ass down in a chair and write.
            For a long time, my excuse with writing has been that I simply cannot work on something so abstract – words on a page?? – for hours on end. I'm a girl who spent several backbreaking seasons as an apprentice on organic farms – and loved every minute of it. I'm also a girl who has traveled solo all over the world, never afraid to throw myself into the fray. I've been lost in the mountains and sailed through electric storms, but nothing brings me more fear that sitting down in front of the blank page.
              As the first day of classes nears, I see doors closing around me and I can feel myself start to panic. Didn't I always want to be a yoga teacher in southeast Asia? What of my dream of living on a commune in Brazil? I know how to live a loud existence, one that is fiercely physical and constantly in flux.
            But the life of the writer is quieter than what I'm used to, and much more stationary. Frankly, I'm not sure I have it in me. But in the fog of fear and uncertainty, I must remind myself that I've been called to this path for a reason, and I must make my way, one scary step at a time.

             And as my hero Barbara Kingsolver says, “You can do hard things!”