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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Another AWP Appearance

Thanks to my brother and his family who drove from Columbus, Ohio to stay with Ambrose for a few days, and my third-grade best friend who opened her Boston home to me, I was able to make it to another AWP conference.

I am an only parent who prizes sleep, and I still haven’t published a book (though I continue to accrue my yearly trickle of journal publications and writing friends that keep me hopeful), and so, I am well aware that my AWP experience is not the stuff of sensational legend. When I think of AWP abstractly, I imagine two groups of people: the MFA students who are ten or more years younger than me, mostly unfamiliar with serious life circumstances, who sit at the bookfair tables with hangovers and more party invitations. And, the people about ten years older than me who have tenure track jobs and several, award-winning  books and know all the publishing editors, in fact are going to drink with them all (yes, all of them) later that night—a get together that will alter the next ten years of the literary world and will be alluded to in multiple future poems.

Because I belong to neither of these groups and because I have very little available time or money and wasn’t presenting this year, attending AWP doesn’t seem very practical. What purpose does my going to AWP serve? What is my connection to the writing world?

Sometimes it is difficult to take such questions seriously. Sometimes it is easier to misidentify them as brief rhetorical occasions for self-loathing. But they are serious questions, and deserve serious consideration.

I am writing this blog entry on the plane ride back because when I return home, all my responsibilities will meet me at the door and whatever writing inspirations the AWP experience has generated for me will have to wait, for the most part, until the end of the semester (7 more weeks!).

I went to several panels and met up with many lovely friends. The panel that affected me the most, though, was “The Poet Magician: Writing Out of Single Motherhood.” I went to the panel because while I was at AWP I was realizing that I was there as a gift to myself. That I spend so much time working in isolation that I wanted to be surrounded by other writers, and not just all writers in general, but writers who have creatively approached challenges I share and are making multi-faceted and genuine things from them. In short, I realized my AWP attendance was not a search for blanket professional or craft inspiration, but rather a search to see how others were integrating shared personal challenges into their craft, challenges that are rarely spoken of and, though all the personal stories have slightly different variations, are all informed by culture, economics, race, and education. I also went because the title was fun. Fun is a necessary companion to survive struggle.

The panel was a lively mix of struggles and accomplishments, vulnerability and power. Much of the talk centered around both acknowledging the intense solitude surrounding single motherhood (or, “independent parenting,” which we all agreed was a much better, active phrase) and the ways that challenge is also an important writing opportunity, that our unique position to solitude intensifies/heightens what drives most writing in general. Panelist Mairead Byrne, (yet another reason I attended the session–we studied at Purdue together some time ago and I greatly admire her as both a writer and a person) wrote, “When I speak as a single mother, the audience steps away.”

The panel was, perhaps, the most forthright one I’ve ever attended, and also opened up some amazing models for hybrid approaches to writing and new possibilities for the ways our selves and our writing can connect. I was talking to Mairead after the session and she noted that it would be pretty easy for us to just all go have a drink and swap stories, but that it was another thing to provide a suitable critical framework that helps us understand and build. This panel was an important starting point for that.

After my husband died, I continued to wear my wedding ring for over a year. This was partly to continue and honor my connection to him, partly to thwart any dating discussions, but mostly, really, so that I would not be mistaken for a single mother. I didn’t want people to think I was a single mother because I didn’t feel strong enough to carry both my grief and outsider judgment.

Shortly after I stopped wearing my wedding ring, I took Ambrose to a doctor’s appointment. I sat down in the waiting room, and Ambrose started playing with another boy his age. They ran trains around the room and then picked up a play tea set and started pouring cups for me and the other mother. Both of us began drinking from our imaginary cups and as we did this, we also began to talk. The other mother was younger than me and black. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The ring thing was something I never used to notice before, but now find myself checking all the time.

A nurse called Ambrose’s name and we stood up to go. “Say goodbye to your friend,” I said, and Ambrose and the boy waved to one another. I nodded goodbye to the other mother who smiled and touched my hand. “So you’re a single mother too,” she said. I tensed for a second and almost corrected her, but instead I nodded yes. As I did that I was flooded with a rush of relief. We weren’t ignoring what we both knew. “Yes,” I said out loud. “It’s hard isn’t it?” she said, and again I nodded yes. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she finished.

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’?”