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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My first book of poetry– What Changes and What Stays the Same

Happy End of 2014! We’re all getting notices from WordPress, facebook, and twitter about what we’ve done this year, and the notices have provided me with a good reminder to make my own meaning that’s not curated by an algorithm.

10687252_10153350688483502_1711150883098955763_oIn November, MG Press published Autoplay, my first book of poetry. It was amazing to see this book in print, especially to see the kickass cover that Jeff Pfaller designed and to have some beers with the inestimable editor Robert James Russell, and to celebrate my book launch at Ann Arbor’s fabulous independent bookstore Literati. Other amazing things: poets I highly admire devoted their time and thought to writing awesome blurbs. Thanks to  Marianne Boruch, Keith Taylor, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Alex Lemon, Matthew Olzmann, Nate Pritts, and Mary Biddinger for their generous and smart words. Some reviews are coming out, and I’m looking forward to reading them as well. It is a surreal experience to hold your own book, to read from it, and feel it so clearly separated from you.

I’ve been long out of an MFA, and had long-ago outgrown the strange notion I had when I was 22 that publishing a book would radically change my life. Part of the joy of this book coming out was the confirmation that most things keep going like the already are. I started working on Autoplay several years ago, and since then, I have another poetry collection and a short story collection pretty much finished, wrote and abandoned a novel, and am in the midst of writing another novel now. During all this writing I’ve had lots of life changes, the biggest being I bought a house, had a child, and became a widow at the age of 36. Writing has been a constant companion to me through these changes. It has never asked me to prove myself or work harder (things I tell myself too many times every day). Instead, writing has assured me, that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I can pick up a pen or open my laptop and choose words. Choosing words to write for yourself is always an act of agency and freedom. It is a celebration of connecting the external world with an internal one. It is a hope that it will make a bridge to a place we need to go.

I know that writing doesn’t always feel like that. But I think the best companions in life are often ones who, even when we take them for granted, remain steadfast until we are able to quiet our own bullshit and pay attention more mindfully.

Love, Peace, and Writing in the New Year,

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.

 

 

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.

Writing Rules for Next May (after writing incidents this May)

I looked forward to May all year. Teaching, taking care of Ambrose, and trying to keep myself stable left me with almost no time to write. In May, Ambrose was in school M-F from 9-3:30, and I did not have any teaching-related responsibilities. I started doing the math in February: That was 22 weekdays Ambrose was in school. Subtract 30 minutes of each day for eating something and an hour right before kindergarten pick-up to come out of my writing haze by exercising or doing yard work so that I was present again as Mama, and that gave me 110 writing hours. My goal was to look through my short fiction, throw away a lot, considerably revise other pieces, and generate enough new material to come out with a strong story collection.

In the interests of my future self and anyone else who finds themselves with a jaunt of free writing time they haven’t had in a while, I’ll tell you what happened and what I learned:

Accomplishments
New stories (or old ones with at least 75% different words): 2

Major revisions (40-75% different words): 4

Minor revisions: 3

Stories discarded from collection: 5

Failures
Stories still in need of major revision: 2

Stories I didn’t cut from the collection but probably still should: 2

New stories I should write after more cutting: 2

Looking at this and cross-referencing it with the general feeling I have going into June gives me the assessment that I did pretty well, but really needed another month or a smarter, more inspired brain to get this collection into the final shape I wanted it to be. I generally set goals for myself that are too high and this, generally, pushes me harder. It helps me accomplish, perhaps, not what I wanted to accomplish, but at least what I needed to accomplish in order to take my life as a writer seriously.

I am genuinely excited about the work I have done, and, though the stories are not literally linked, there’s a cohesion in sensibility that wasn’t there before. I renamed the collection Better and Happier People. I like that title. It speaks to a core desire the characters in my fictional worlds keep trying to achieve (without, of course, much success). I also, as I tend to do when writing anything, slipped into uncontrollable poetry mode several times over the past month and generated some new poems worth saving. That said, I’m thinking about what I needed and what I could have done without this May . . .

Rule # 1

Coffee should be made very strong, in a French press, and poured into a small cup. This pleasure keeps my mind a little strange, and also gives me two reasons to get up from the computer: restroom breaks and coffee refills. I write upstairs and keep the coffee downstairs, so I’m getting some kind of movement. Studies from organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research urge people who sit a lot to make sure that every hour they get up for 1-2 minutes for some kind of exercise. Ah, so many benefits of coffee.

Rule # 2

Decide what to work on the night before. There are enough decisions to make in the morning; where to start shouldn’t be one of them. Making this decision before bed also informs my dreams so I wake up both more focused and more flexible. Dreams are strange for reasons.

Rule #3
Don’t clean the house, but feel free to do yard work. It was May for a whole month! Go outside already. This is what it looks like out there:

Rule # 4

Using facebook, etc, in the evening or when I’m just waking up and too tired to really be productive is a good thing. It reminds me that there are real people out there who are living their lives. Some of these people are in more of a mess than I am. Some of them are more beautiful or patient or more interesting. Some of these people ooze talent from their pores and are riding crazy word publishing waves. In small doses, this knowledge keeps me both humble and hungry.

But flipping between facebook and Word in the middle of my writing day creates the illusion that I’m both working harder than I really am, and having a much better time than I really am. I think Facebook is kind of like smoking. In fact, I think facebook releases instantaneous dopamine almost as well as nicotine. But, if you do it too much, you feel like crap. Some scientist should check into that.

I am sure there’s more rules. If you have any to add, I’d be happy to hear them. Next May, I might want to try and write a novel . . .

Time to Write

I used to write every day. That’s the advice most successful writers give to struggling writers. In This Year You Write Your Novel Walter Mosley asserts, “It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you.”

Compelling and true, how much slips away in the span of a day or even an hour. Yet, no matter how hard any of us try, Walter Mosley included, there is no way to stop this certitude of loss. We cannot write as fast as we live. Thus, the struggle for a writer is not to stop all loss, but rather to discover what is most important to preserve and to retain that discovery long enough to explore it through writing.

Two days ago, Ambrose loosened his first tooth on a half-eaten chocolate rabbit just minutes after I brought him home from kindergarten. I had 15 minutes between the time I got done teaching and his kindergarten pick-up. It is nearing the end of the semester, and I had a full bag of papers to grade. But I left those alone. Instead I used those 15 minutes to call an opthamologist to set up an eye exam because he had failed his vision test at school. I also checked the calendar to see where he was going to play his first soccer game. I don’t know anything about soccer, and we had spent the past few days going back and forth to a sporting goods store to make sure he had the right shoes and shin guards and socks so that he would look like the rest of the kids and so he would be adequately protected. He howled when his tooth came loose, “something horrible’s happened,” he kept repeating as I tried to decipher what was wrong. He had been eating that chocolate rabbit for three days; the creature in his hand was missing its ears and its eyes and part of its foot. When I realized that Ambrose’s tooth was loose I thought I had been pushed past my limit of acceptable change. But there he was, afraid, and so I sat him on my lap for an hour and told him stories about the tooth fairy and about growing up. When he calmed, I got out paper and we drew what we imagined the tooth fairy to look like. This is Ambrose’s picture. She doesn’t have wings because she has a massive butterfly wand instead that acts as a helicopter and takes her wherever she needs to go:

The orange rectangles at the bottom are Ambrose’s baby teeth. He explained, “I drew them there so that we will always remember.”

As I write this, more than 48 hours after this happening, I know I have already forgotten a great deal about this episode. Now that I’ve written down some of what I can remember, some details have become more permanent. Without writing this today, I might have thought about this day a year from now without remembering the confluence of events—how the soccer preparation and the opthamologist appointment heightened my anxiety about his loose tooth. Yet I can say with all certainty that with or without this blog post I would remember those orange rectangles at the bottom of his drawing and Ambrose’s assertion that he drew them so that “we will always remember.”

Such a relatively small thing, and perhaps something that sounds like Ambrose parroting a cliché. But, since the death of his father last year, the notion of remembering is very acute and clear in our minds. To remember in an active, tangible way is to strip away almost everything so that what remains is illuminated. Was Ambrose thinking of his Papa when he drew those teeth? When he said that phrase?

Of course I didn’t ask. It is enough for a five-year-old to loosen a tooth after a full day of kindergarten. Of course, I was thinking of Matthew, and of course this is why Ambrose’s statement made me ache past the normal ache of seeing a loved one grow so quickly. No matter how many days pass, I will remember this moment in this way because it was sharp enough to stick.

I hadn’t planned on writing anything about Ambrose’s tooth in this blog post. It’s late and I’m tired, and I lay down on the floor with my laptop to write a brief assertion about my writing plans for the month of May. I’ve told almost everyone who has seen me that I’m going to get a year’s worth of writing done in May. Before Matthew passed away I wrote every day, but that is not possible anymore. That is not me being lazy or undisciplined. It is actually not possible. Yet, during the whole month of May, Ambrose will be in school from 9-3:30 and I will not be teaching or prepping to teach. I have a mess of a short story collection that I’m set on pulling together all in this one month. I keep hearing myself ask myself, “Is that a crazy plan?” And I keep hearing myself say, “Yes, that is a crazy plan.” And then I tell my plan outloud to someone else. I am amassing witnesses so that I feel responsible for the plan. I am, if nothing else, a very responsible person.

The thing that worries me the most about my plan is that I haven’t had those other 334 days to write. I have written a few poems here and there, and revised a few more, but that’s the extent of it. So many writers make the comparison between writing and exercise; if you don’t do it every day then the muscles atrophy. Yet, when I wrote every day, I never had the intense desire to write like I do now. I think of May and I think of writing as an immense privilege rather than a job. I am grateful for writing in a way I have never been before. Some of me worries that too much is lost, but some of me also feels an extreme clarity for what I am taking with me.