This week, I had the horrific experience of writing my first post for the MFA blog, The MFA Years. I am a contributor, and this is one of those amazing experiences that just sort of fell into my lap because I happened to be on MFA Draft '14 at the right place at the right time.
So obviously I didn't want to screw it up.
We were supposed to introduce ourselves, give the audience a taste as to who we were and what we were about. It was an open-ended question that could lead us into talking about applications, writing history, or our pet cats. Seeing as I don't have cats and the application process is an awful nightmarish blur, I opted for the story I thought was most important to my growth as a writer.
How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy science fiction writing.
This piece can be found here. I added pictures from my own personal life, I talked about a personal conversation I had with my professor, I opened up about my grandmother and my weird quirks as a child. I even touched on my elitism in college. While none of this stuff was that hardcore and shouldn't have given me a panic attack, I stayed up until about 3 a.m. reading it and re-reading it, picking over every photograph to make sure my real name wasn't in there, that I didn't say anything bad about anyone, and trying not to anger the entire literary fiction world.
The piece was not controversial. I'm just a sissy.
I guess this is why I cannot write autobiographical things. I tried, for a class entitled Autobiography. I wrote all about my time in the big city and the different people I'd met, but I never published it. I never showed it to anyone who wasn't my professor, and I tried to distance myself from it.
I know other people have this anxiety. We live in an age that anything written on the internet or in a magazine can easily be found by anyone for the next however many hundreds of years that internet exists. This means that some stupid Facebook rant I wrote in 2006 is still very much visible to me and anyone who is interested enough in my Facebook to spelunk through eight years of selfies to find that on December 2, I was very angry at "You Know Who You Are" for disagreeing with "Whatever Stupid Politics I was Into At the Time!"
So a lot of us have become a little skittish about sharing with the class.
I've read so much memoir lately, and they're all about women who overcame these gigantic odds through different difficult situations, and I just think, "I know everything about you, and I've never met you." What great courage that they stand up and are sometimes the first to say, "This thing that we aren't talking about? It's happening. It's happening to a lot of us."
I don't think I'll ever be that brave.
I watched John Leguizamo the other night, and he discusses his father's lawsuit against him for his autobiographical one-man show. I just thought about my own dad, tearing up because of me sharing something that was between me and him, and I just can't do that. I think about my mom, my ex-best friend, my ex-boyfriends, my old teachers, my college roommates, my professors, that one guy on the bus ... they're all with me and peering over my shoulder when I write about them. I even worry about my grandma, who is now dead and gone. I put her picture up on my blog a few months ago and told her story. I really battled about doing that. Who was I to talk about her? Who was I to tell her story when I hadn't been there or when I just had one perspective?
Like I said, memoir takes a lot of courage. Any one of us can sit down and make up stories and share them with each other. There's a blanket of comfort that we are not those people, we did not make those decisions, we did not lose real friends or betray them or make other people hurt. We made no mistakes. Because those people are fiction, and we just made them up.
I salute the memoirists. You stand up and shout out into the void your secrets and your truths, and other people shout back. You share your most valuable stories and most loved family and friends so we may learn something or so we don't feel so alone. While we all huddle in our own little caves, protected from scrutiny and judgment, you stand out in the storm and take it, just so we know there's someone out there for us.
So thank you. Please keep writing. And maybe someday I'll learn from you how to stand out in the rain.
So my good friend Mardra Sikora (check her out here) is asking us all to do a blog hop. I've never participated in a blog hop, but why not? I'll just make it writer-related.
The question that she poses is "What are you grateful for?" So here are ten things that I am grateful for.
Also. Here is a picture of Estes Park. Because it's pretty, and I am also grateful for Estes Park. Always be grateful for Estes Park.
10. Characters taking over.
I am grateful for this one time, when I had a character who just took over the story. I still remember sitting there, screaming at my computer going, "Why did you do that?! Why oh why did you do that?! Bad things can only come of this!" It was the opposite of what I thought the character was going to do. But I am so glad he went off track and did what he did, because it taught me that characters (when written correctly) will do what they do, and you lose control over what they do. I've met authors who scoff at this, but think about it: you're creating another living, breathing human. Of course that human is going to spiral out of your control and make his own decisions. Welcome to parenting.
9. Victor Frankenstein, Sirius Black, and Boxer the Horse
I am grateful for the characters who grabbed my attention in other books and got me interested in writing my own characters. We all have them. For me, it was a workhorse in third grade, a mad scientist in fifth grade, and Harry's godfather in sixth grade (and if I spoiled Harry Potter for you, I'm not sorry, because it's been out for twenty years now). There were others, but these are the guys who leaped out of the pages and throttled me by the neck and said, "Look at us! We're awesome! You can write awesome people, too!" And so I tried to.
8. Radical Face and my best friend's mix CD's.
I write to music. Who doesn't? But sometimes music means more than just pretty background noise. Sometimes music can teach you how to tell a story and use metaphors and emotions to manipulate the audience to your whim. Cry, audience, cry! Yes, the tears ...
Oh, don't pretend like you aren't excited when people cry at your stuff.
For those of you who don't know Radical Face, you need to. Here's a link. This music taught me how to write short stories just as much as my undergraduate workshops did. See, this guy is a genius and he says so much with so little. Another good one is Josh Ritter. And there's a chock-a-block of amazing storytellers in the weird, warped music my writing partner and best friend in college handed off to me throughout the years. Now when I hear the Decemberists or Avett Brothers or Mountain Goats, I get the itch to write. Honestly, I think the mixes my friend made for me and their inspiration had less to do with the music on the mixes themselves, but more to do with the fact that someone cared enough about me to push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
7. The people who push me to write and force me to expand my horizons.
And there are a lot of them. First, there was Gramma and Mom, who taught me to read and write when I was two and then taught me how a story is written when I was three. I still remember Gramma and me reading through a Berenstain Bears book, and I asked, "How does the author know when to change paragraphs?"
"Well, he feels it," Gramma said. "I suppose when an author writes so much, he just knows."
"Do you think I could do that?" I asked, and of course my Gramma, who thought I could do anything, said, "Of course. You can do anything."
Mom held me to a high standard, even when I was a kid. At eleven, I was way deep into writing long speculative fiction. Every night, I would hand her a chapter and ask her, "Tell me if you got bored." In the morning, it was like opening up the New York Times to find a review. Actually, it was worse than the Times. My mom was brutal.
"It didn't really pique my attention," she'd say. "And didn't you steal that idea from something else?"
As I grew up, there were teachers that joined the mix. Tracy, who shut the lights off in the room and put the music on and made us open up our imaginations. Brian, who is the main reason why I went into playwriting and shoved myself into DePaul (and got into Stonecoast). David, who gave me an internship and my first published piece. Steinbruck and Jorgenson, who put on my little plays and made me try out for contests that I never won. Christine, who actually believed I could play with the big boys and was worth something. Martinez, John, Don, and now Nancy.
But there were also friends.
Upon arriving in Chicago, I met another playwriting major. She was working on a YA steampunk novel before anyone really knew what steampunk was. Actually, four years later when I first heard the term, I called her and said, "Oh! That's what you were doing!"
She has long moved away and began her next adventure, but those four years we spent in Chicago together were the most formative years of my writing existence. I showed up in the city as a little girl who thought I was weird because I wrote weird stuff, and I left the city with an armful of movies, books, and music to prove to me that I was not alone. She took my writing seriously; sometimes more seriously than me. We actually dropped out of a class together and sat at a coffee shop across the street and discussed different characters and archs and plots and symbols. We believed it all mattered. She believed it all mattered. And because of her, it did matter.
6. Nature and Wordsworth.
I am not a poet. I will never claim to be a poet. I have friends who are poets, and they are very good. I am not a poet.
That said, you can imagine how painful poetry classes could be for me. I did not get it, I did not want to get it, and I actually spent most of my time in poetry classes learning to be ambidextrous in my notebook as I sat in the back of the class (sorry, Professor, I never said it was a smart move).
But then came 19th Century British Literature. And thus followed Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."
I think "Tintern Abbey" completely revolutionized the content of my writing. It was like someone a hundred and fifty years ago totally got what I felt about the city and how much I missed my home. There's always been a definitive struggle inside of me as a person: to live in the hustle and bustle that will give me opportunity and make me successful, or try to be happy in the countryside that I was born into. Wordsworth didn't give me any closure on that conflict, but he did vocalize it beautifully. Shortly after, I started playing with this juxtaposition of nature versus industrial city, and most of my work since then has had some sort of semblance of that poem.
We all should read more poetry.
5. Laptops, pop, library stalls, writing desks, and Hershey bars.
I am grateful for all the little things that help me write. I started off with paper stapled together, and my hand could never keep up with my brain. The fact that laptops exist, they're portable, and they don't weigh as much as a brick now ... all good things for me. Also, chocolate. Because chocolate. And always chocolate.
4. Having a job that allows me to create stories all day long.
I'm lucky. I don't work behind a desk. I won't say much about my day job, but I get to create and I get to help others create and that makes me happy.
3. Getting into Stonecoast.
I always wanted an MFA in Creative Writing, and now I get to have one. But turns out that Stonecoast was the best option and I really lucked out. I know that I'd be miserable writing lit fic and having to quit my job and move across the country to an undisclosed location. It's just not for me right now. But Stonecoast fits in with my life and the people there are writing what I write. Someone's writing steampunk and another is writing adult spec and another is writing solarpunk and another is working on a space opera. How amazing is that?!
I think it's amazing.
Not only is Stonecoast awesome, but I got in. And I had the courage to try for an MFA and I had those recommenders who helped me through the process (Brian, John, Christine, and Jen ... notice they're the teachers who were mentioned earlier). I had support from them and my wonderful Alex, and I did it. I really did it.
2. The complication in my current book series.
I won't talk about it, because I don't want to spoil it. But my current project had this moment where it was being written, and something brilliant happened, and I had that moment where a writer thinks, "Oh. This is actually going to work. This is actually special."
I love that moment. And I am so grateful when it comes. Not all projects get that moment. A lot don't. But if you ever do feel that relief that you have that "spark" in your manuscript, you thank your lucky stars. You didn't just waste the last year of your life typing random words in random order on a random word doc.
So when it happened, I just sat back and smiled. And then I kept writing.
1. All of the many pages I've cut and never used.
For just the last book I wrote, I know that I have discarded over 1,000 pages of writing.
Since the age of nine, I've worked on about twenty full-length manuscripts and playscripts.
Out of those twenty, about five of them have been published or produced. And honestly, about three of them are stories I would consider awesome and worth anything.
I am always really sad when I write something in vain. I am always really sad when I work on something for a year and then I find out it's trash and I scrap it. But there's always this comfort in knowing that every word I write --- no matter how awful that word was --- propels me forward into growing and maturing as a writer.
I am grateful for all of the words that no one will read. I am grateful for all of the awful, teeth-grating scenes I wrote and slaved over, just to delete them or stick them in a "maybe" folder, just to have that "maybe" folder turn into a "never" folder or a "oh yeah, I forgot this was here" folder. I am grateful for all of the characters who lived so others could live more vibrantly. And I am grateful for all of the misspelled words and weak dialogue and funky chapter breaks that are lost to the times.
Because they made me who I am. They were just one more step in the right direction.
So what are you grateful for?
This woman to your left is one of the most important people in my life. Her name was Dorothy. When she was a girl growing up in the Depression, her uncle brought her and her four sisters the funny pages as Christmas presents, because it's all he could afford. Her grandmother sponsored her so she could go to high school and not get sold out to maid and farmhand work by her father. Her grandmother had her own brilliant story; she'd been seventeen and only German-speaking when she landed on Ellis Island during the Draft Riots.
But one day, Dorothy returned to her grandma's house after school, and her dad was waiting.
"Get in the car. Your grandma's dead. And you're coming home."
Coming home for Dorothy wasn't a good thing. Immediately, her father hired her out as a farmhand. She was fifteen.
At some point, she said it was enough, and she went to work as a gas station attendant. It's where she met Leonard. At age nineteen (1938), she married him.
They worked as farmhands until they could get enough of a savings going to buy their own land. They did, and there were ducks and horses and a bunch of soybeans, according to my mom.
They raised two kids on that farm; three if you include my dad (whom she took in when he was sixteen). But the kids moved away and everyone got older. Leonard got sick. And then Leonard got sicker. And then the farm was sold, and the two found themselves in an apartment down the road from the big city hospital, an hour away from any sort of countryside.
Nine months after Leonard died, I was born.
We lived in that apartment, half of my toys and half of my memories in that place. My parents were still young, and they still tried to make ends meet by working a lot. So Grandma and I got close. She was a mother in every sense of the word. And she was a mentor in an even grander scheme.
She got me to start writing books.
This past September, she died after a ten-year battle with dementia. To see her stories fall away one by one, to see her barely remember the farm and her family, it was difficult. It was like none of it had happened and none of it mattered.
And then when the text came in from my aunt (Your grandma's gone, sweetie. I'm so sorry), it felt like there was a void of existence in the world.
It got me thinking, how many stories weren't told ever again. Grandma talked about sitting on the porch, watching her mom work. She talked about a carnival she went to with her sisters and they all took awful photos in the picture booth. She talked about her uncle's kindness, her father's cruelty, her mom's frailty, her older sister's persnickety-ness, and her youngest sister's babyish habits.
Grandma was the last of them to pass. All of those people, all of those stories, are gone.
The question has arisen in my own life and in the lives of those she left behind as to whether or not she continued on after death. A few signs have been shown, a few odd and weird coincidences have surfaced, and not to mention of course the age-old fable of what happened when she actually died. And personally, yes, I do think she's still with us in a new way. I've seen too much to think she isn't. But that point aside, she still lives, because I just shared her story with you and now we're all thinking about her and her life.
That was her worry in life, being forgotten. And now she never will be. Somewhere in the void of the internet, she will sit here on this webpage with a very simplified version of her story told.
That's all books really are; photos taken in a picture booth from the 30's. A thought that passed someone's mind as they sat on the porch watching their mother wash linens. A moment shared between a child and her grandmother in a quiet apartment that will too someday be open to deletion with my death. But it never does get deleted, does it? Because we keep telling the stories. We keep passing them on. I pass her story on, just like she told me the story of her own grandma.
And in that way, no one will ever really die.
Tell your stories. Don't forget them. And maybe we'll all live forever.
What is this?
Dawson is an editor and writer and MFA student at Stonecoast. She writes stuff.