May Novel Writing Plan Prt. 2

It’s almost May! Time for things to grow. Time for me to start another writing plan!

This past semester’s been a heck of a ride. Some good things: I did several poetry readings at LIterati, at University of Illinois Chicago, at AWP, and the Hannan House in Detroit. I also put together a panel at AWP entitled “Who Are We in the Creative Writing Classroom?: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight,” and was really inspired by the discussion. I hope to have the panel grow into a longer project soon. My first poetry book, Autoplay, got some good reviews. Here at American Microreviews, at Best American Poetry (yay!), and coming out in the next print issue of Zone 3.

I went to NIA once a week at the fabulous Ann Arbor Yoga Studio. I’m trying to get at least 30 minutes of yoga or meditation/day (I often screw this up, but life is a daily practice, right?) thanks to this amazing yoga streaming website I found.

My son continually amazes me. He’s now a brown belt in taekwondo, has mad math skills that he certainly didn’t inherit from me,  wants to be a video game designer, and just performed in an aftercare musical play as Jack in the Beanstalk. He’s been taking electric guitar lessons through the Ann Arbor Music Center, which is a pretty brilliant place to learn music. Rather than starting kids off with drills and scales, they taught him how to play a simple version of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring the first night! Something I love about life and teaching writing is how much we already understand and can do if we are given the right opportunities and guidance.

The bad news, mostly, is that though many students enjoy my courses and often tell me they’re transformational, that despite the fact that I have many students now who have begun to graduate and do great things and come back and want to visit with me, talk, and share their significant work, the administration doesn’t agree with my teaching practice. It’s disappointing, really, given that I am teaching my students the same skills they want me to teach, but in a much more holistic way that privileges the real writing moment and genre over transferrable skill sets. Critical analysis–yes. Academic argumentation–yes. But I embed these skills into a larger writing practice based on scientific method. My teaching is a recursive practice where students have opportunities to carefully observe, to ask questions, and to do genuine research and analysis to answer those questions. I have seen this practice help students in their other courses and in their life. It profoundly disappoints me when boxes, grids, and boundaries unnecessarily limit what a student may learn at a given time. I’m thinking back to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about how profound the teaching of writing would be if we approached it like yoga teachers. Rather than stopping the student from doing, for instance, a vinyasa flow, the teacher outlines the practice, allows the student to move through it, and makes a few carefully selected corrections that best help the student move to a new level. At that new level, the student still moves through vinyasa, and the teacher makes more carefully selected corrections to deepen the process.

I guess the purpose of this blog entry is to take stock, to hold things in acknowledgement so I can also figure out how to put them down. Sometimes I fantasize what it would be like if I didn’t have to carry sole responsibility for parenting, teaching, writing, and fulfillment. Then I remind myself that my son, my students, my writing ideas, and my magnolia tree have lives of their own.

To May. To holding. To putting down. To 25,000 words over the twenty days Ambrose is in school. That works out to 1,250/working day. This is my first time going back to the novel since August. I’m at  35,800 words, so roughly the halfway point. For the past few days I have been drawing on the scientific method to try and figure out what it is I want to observe as I come back to this novel, what larger question it poses, and what needs to happen for me to explore that question. I don’t have it quite yet, but just a few days ago, one of my writing partners, Jennifer Solheim, sent me this as madcap inspiration:

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Badass Cover for My Forthcoming Poetry Book, 31 More Days of Summer, and Going Back to School

It’s almost time for school to begin again. The anxiety knot in my stomach is even bigger than usual. What if I’m not prepared as I want to be? (likely). What if my students don’t want to learn? What if I have to stop writing completely until next May because I can’t fit in the time?

What if I stop eating healthy, stop exercising, get a million colds, and sometimes forget to see my son, I mean really SEE him, every day in the beautiful moment?

What if the pipes in my house completely stop working and the 3 bats that have already found their way into my house this summer are really part of a giant bat cave in my upstairs office?

What if I can’t let go of fears and distractions and be present for whatever is?

It helps to write these things out. I have a lot of unacknowledged conversations in my head–it comes with the territory of being a writer and an only parent.

BUT, before I move into whatever this semester brings, I want to take a moment to celebrate too.

  1. My poetry book, Autoplay, is forthcoming this November! You can even preorder it now! The editors Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller talked with me about themes/ideas for the cover and then came up with something stunning. I can’t wait! Here’s a link to the cover art and more info:  Autoplay
  2. My panel was accepted for AWP ’15, which means the Dept. will fund my lodging and transportation there, which means I can go and talk with my friends and amazing writers. Minneapolis. Home to Prince. Let’s go crazy.
  3. I didn’t get a draft of my novel done (that’s not the celebratory thing). I am really excited about what I have, though (yay! Balloons and silly string). It’s working. It will be there for me when I have the time to come back to it.

There’s still 31 more days of summer. What if amazing, unanticipated wonders unfold?

Peace,

Julie

How to Achieve a Writing Goal (kind of)

It’s summer! If you’re in the midst of making writing plans, I hope this entry helps you meet your goals.

During the month of May I wanted to write 25,000 words of a novel I started last summer. I began very mathematically, noting that with the 14,346 words I already had, my goal was a total of 39,346. I counted up all the days I could feasibly devote to writing, and concluded that if I wrote 1,055 words every one of those days, I would reach my goal.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, though I have to say that I was pretty dogged about my word requirement in the first two weeks. Then I got a little sidetracked with some work for my forthcoming poetry collection, a conference where I was presenting, having my parents stay for a short visit, getting a twitter account, and having my  computer break down for almost a week.

I reassessed on June 19th, and realized that I needed to up my word count/day to 1,355. That’s a crazy amount for me, but I tried. The result? By the end of May, I either surpassed my goal a little to bring me to a total of 40,071 words, or I underachieved with 36,059. I’m a little pissed at myself that I can’t really make the call. The discrepancy is that I cut and pasted some pages from a former failed novel into this one. While I think they’re going to be amazingly useful to pushing me forward in the plot, it’s kind of cheating and they’re not completely integrated into my current draft yet. The larger number includes them, and the smaller number does not.

This month of writing has instilled the importance of detail into my writing. And by detail, I mean word count, not imagery or metaphor. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know all the things you need to know to write a novel–like who your characters are, where they come from, what they desire, and what’s their conflict. I’m saying that writing a novel is hard, dedicated work that you have to make time for in your impossibly full day, and that keeping a clear-sighted sense of the word count helps you move towards your goal in a purposeful way.

At the beginning of each morning, I wrote my current word count and the word count I was supposed to achieve by the end of the day on a piece of purple post-it paper. Then I stuck it on the edge of my laptop. When my mind would start to wander, I’d look at it and realize one of two things:

1) I had already written way more than I thought and that I should keep going because I had almost made my daily goal

or

2) I hadn’t written shit, needed to stop screwing around, and get going.

The important thing was that whether I had under or over-achieved, seeing the word count pushed me to keep going. I never looked at the paper and thought, ah screw it. I’ll just quit early for the day.

I didn’t get any exercise this month, didn’t eat healthy, and drank too much beer, so this month of June, as I give myself a little space from my novel, I’m going to work on health. I just went to my first ever public exercise class at an amazing yoga studio this morning. I’ve been doing yoga privately at home for the past two years but kept putting off going to a studio because I said I didn’t have the money or the time. What I was really saying to myself was that I was afraid of the changes I would have to make to have it happen. What I keep trying to tell myself is that everything’s changing all the time, and that reaching out for what you want is always worth it.

 

 

Anne Carson’s Antigonick–Removing Crusts of Ornament and Slashing Curtains

Anne Carson staged a reading in Ann Arbor from her new book Antigonick this past Wednesday. It’s a loose translation of the Sophokles play complete with Carson’s own handlettered pages interspersed with illustrations on translucent vellum by Bianca Stone (a fabulous poet and artist I am just learning about. If you’d like a quick taste go here to her Poetry Comics). Both the book and the staged reading are arresting and beautiful in their surprises. During the question and answer session after the performance, Carson said one of her translating missions was to “remove the crusts of ornament” in order to present the play more directly, in the way it reads in original Greek. Getting at this directness involved cutting several long scenes down, reimaging the genre of the play to the point that Antigonick is sometimes described as “a new kind of comic book” and adding references to Beckett, Hegel, and Virginia Woolf. During the reading I saw, Carson cast poet Raymond McDaniel as Antigone and Yopie Prins as Kreon, gender-switching the roles in a way that heightened my desire to listen. In this translation, Carson manages to put me on enough unfamiliar ground to rouse my curiosity and to experience this story as a struggle that has and always will keep going.

Her mission to “remove the crusts of ornament” has also been resonating with me this past week. It seems like a relevant goal to strive for in the making of all art, that artists should examine and remove their ornaments whenever possible, and that this removal will illuminate what is (or is not) actually there.

What are ornaments for writers? Pretty similes. Forced cadences. Unnecessary repetition.  Unbelievable resolution. Affectation of all kinds. It is harrowing to think about my own writing against this measuring stick. When am I pretending at something I don’t have? When am I trying to cover this up with sparkles in the hopes that no one (not even myself) will notice?

In The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe writes about our initial tendencies to use words to cover up deeper truths.

Revision is suspicious of first words and assumes they exist only to signal something else, something deeper. I revise what I have written in order to strip away fraud and get to the uncontaminated first intention. By slashing the curtains of words, I might finally glimpse the words behind the words and the silence behind those.

This is such a visceral and elegant statement on revision. “Slashing the curtains of words,” is exactly what Carson has done in this translation of Antigone, and the whole writing world would be much improved if writers devoted more time to this.

An AWP Intermission

48 hours at the AWP conference isn’t enough. But I was lucky enough to pick good places to be and good people to be with. Both mornings I went downstairs to the Palmer House lobby and wrote. That felt luxurious and crazy because I’m usually running back and forth from the living room to the kitchen getting Ambrose more apple juice, and cereal, and packing his lunch, checking my school bag, and trying not to step on our fat black cat who insists on walking between my legs. Instead, for 48 hours, I was surrounded by this:

There is a massive Louis Pierre Rigal fresco on the ceiling which is dotted with giant medallions of Renaissance-inspired naked/sometimes half-clothed women. It was painted in the late 1800’s, which gives it an odd out-of-time feeling. When the mural was first unveiled, a journalist called it “a wonderful protest of romance against the everydayness of life.” It’s definitely over the top in the massive splendor category. I found myself staring for quite some time.

I saw some old friends, met some fine people, and drank enough to know I was at AWP but not so much that I was confused. I came home with a bagful of books and somehow I will find time to read them. Being an only parent isn’t very conducive to a writing life, but I’m fighting to figure it out.

I went to some readings and some panels. The panel I enjoyed the most was titled “Political Poetry: America and Abroad” with Matthea Harvey, Tom Sleigh, Nick Lantz, and Jeff Yang. The thing I enjoyed most about it was how differently the panelists interacted and changed political material without a narrow agenda, or even a clear sense of what was going to happen when they embarked on their projects. I have always had difficulty trusting the place of politics in my own work, particularly as a mid-western writer who hasn’t travelled much internationally and who didn’t grow up near anyone who had. There’s some lens that I always felt I was missing but was unsure of how to produce. Yet, politics comes in whether I invite it to or not, and, in the past few years, with greater frequency. This panel was a moment of invitation for me to keep confronting my own insecurities about this– I don’t need to totally understand and I don’t need to totally control these political moments, but rather I need to let them filter through. After the panelists spoke, they briefly read from their work, and Nick Lantz’ reading of “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” was riveting, almost unbearably so. I’ll end with a link to the poem and, if I could, a moment of silence. The link includes a brief explanation of the material Lantz was working with, a 1983 declassified CIA document for interrogators. The poem appears in his 2010 book We Don’t Know We Don’t Know:

“Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”

 

 

 

 

3:12 02/07/2011

It’s been a year since my husband, Matthew, passed away very unexpectedly from an undiagnosed heart condition. The last time I saw him, he was getting onto the city bus at the stop across the street from our house to go teach at University of Michigan. I was getting our son Ambrose ready for preschool, and the two of us waved from the window as Matthew stepped aboard. He was giving a talk about research writing in a big auditorium that day, and so he was more dressed up than usual. I remember telling him he looked handsome; I remember thinking it as he got on the bus. Very professor-looking in his long, black dress coat. Later that day, after I got done teaching as well, I drove over to Washington Street to pick Matthew up and he wasn’t there. That wasn’t like him at all. Yet at that moment, I felt more annoyed and confused than uneasy. I sat for a half hour staring at the ambulance in front of Rackham feeling bad for whomever it was for, and then went back home. A half hour after that, two policemen came to my door and told me that Matthew was dead.

How to handle such information? When the police came, I was making enchiladas. My hands were covered in red sauce. The kitchen was a mess. One of the officers walked to the stove and turned the oven off. They said, can we call someone? I said No. They said, do you want us to stay? I said, Please leave. They did and I locked the door, washed my hands, and then sat on the floor and wailed. Such a difference between crying and wailing. This was the first time I understood the difference. In my mostly lucky life, this was the first time I had experienced loss deep enough to cause such sounds. Wailing transforms your whole body into one, intensely focused yet uncontrollable channel. The sound that comes out is clear, clearer than any other sound I’ve ever heard, definitely clearer than any other sound that has ever come from me. When this wailing stopped, I stood and went to pick up Ambrose from preschool.

That was 365 days ago. In the interim I have wailed many more times. I have stood looking at clocks, at the second hand ticking. I have left public places because there were too many couples. Or even just one couple, drinking coffee, watching their children happily spin happily through playground equipment. I have wanted to throw myself in front of Ambrose like a shield every time he watches a child happily call for Papa and their Papa is there. Every time I hear or see an ambulance my heart briefly stops with Matthew’s. For almost this whole year, I have kept the blinds on my son’s window closed. I couldn’t stand to see that bus stop. Though I can’t block out the sound of the break and the accelerator. That stop every twenty minutes.

I have also found myself amazed that so much life continues around me, that I am part of that life, that Ambrose is still so full of strength and goofy joy. I have no idea how I have been able to continue working and to continue being as good a parent to Ambrose as I can. Sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t quit everything and self-destruct.  But then I look at Ambrose and know there was never any choice. I would do anything for him, and in this way, Ambrose and I are saving each other.

So many people have shown us kindness and friendship in this past year, opened their homes to us, helped us with finances, given us meals, shared their stories, asked about ours, entertained Ambrose, and kept me much more social than I have been in a decade. If you are reading this, you are probably one of those people.  Thank you. I won’t ever be able to give back as much as you’ve given us, but I am trying.

This past week I reread one of Matthew’s favorite books, The Dharma Bums. It’s Jack Kerouac’s very thinly fictionalized account of his travels out west climbing mountains with the poet Gary Snyder and trying to experience, not Buddhism exactly, but something akin to it. It is a book of trying to let go of the noise of the world, to listen to and experience the things that keep us alive. In Matthew’s favorite part,  Gary starts running down a mountain and then Jack follows:

“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy [Gary] running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running , then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool.”

I can still picture Matthew reading that part out loud to me, laughing at the dangerous implausibility of such logic and yet, still, the reality it creates.

Matthew was cremated, but I will be burying his ashes in the Forest Hill Cemetery this spring when it’s warm enough to lay the headstone. I picked out the headstone over Christmas break. On the back of the stone there is a quote from one of Kerouac’s journal:

“A man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.”

The beginning of the sentence actually begins “I hope it is true that,” but there was no need to start there, because I know it is true. Ambrose’s handprints and signature rest above the quote. Ambrose was still making his “s” backwards then, and I hope his handprints and signature will be a reminder to him of the journey he’s making and the foundations that Matthew, who was/is the most wonderful Papa, has given him.

Until recently, I was unable to look at many photographs of Matthew. Each time I did I got dizzy and sick, but, gratefully, that is finally changing. I can look at the photos now and see his presence rather than his absence. Sometimes Ambrose and I go out and look at the moon because Ambrose is sure Papa likes to sit on it. Sometimes he’s sitting there, sometimes in heaven, and sometimes on the Milky Way, which, according to Ambrose, is the highest you can get.