Shut Up and Listen: A Recent MFA Grad’s Thesis Journey

August 15, 2018 § 5 Comments

AIRushBy Amanda Irene Rush

In my journals from twenty years ago I have found entries of what I can only see now as early drafts of my thesis. Bitter passages about my alcoholic father and his inappropriate confessions, laments about my mentally ill mother and how I felt her a ghost, an early account of a cherished family relic and what it symbolized. My thesis had been in the making for a very long time.

Yet, when I entered the Ashland University MFA in Creative Writing program in 2016, it was not a family memoir I had in mind. What I had was a revision of a manuscript I had begun in 2009 about my first four years as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The first 125 pages covered the span of 12 weeks. I recently did the math: at that plodding pace I was on my way to over 2,000 pages.

The problems with the manuscript became clear during my first residency. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and realized I had a situation but no story. I had never considered the difference. Steve Harvey drove the point home with his gentle but relentless focus on theme — what, he asked, is my narrator’s comment on life?

Steve also taught me about kronos and kairos — those two ways of experiencing time on the page — and what a crucial thing pacing is. My pages were steeped in scenes. Everything got equal time, so even if I had a theme, it was diluted with my overpour of words.

From Bonnie Rough, I learned the difference between the character self and the narrator self. I had been relying on my fiction training: I was showing a lot through my character self, but telling little. Until I read Phillip Lopate, I didn’t know you could — and should — do both in creative nonfiction.

I left that first residency with a plan: go back to the manuscript; focus on one chapter; eliminate any unnecessary scenes; add exposition; shrink or expand time as needed; locate my narrator self and get her on the page; identify my themes. Easy peasy, I thought. It would be like those paint-by-numbers I used to do as a kid. I didn’t have to know what to draw; just follow instructions.

It didn’t work. The revised version — though I had followed all instructions carefully — was even worse. The words seemed dead on the page. I felt that the harder I tried to cram the manuscript into my box of a plan, the less control I had over it. I knew I had to find a better way.

zz PhiloNotesI have been a doodler since college. I call them “doodles” because they are born from my subconscious, not my imagination. I don’t render them into existence, so much as they seem to choose to be expressed. Whenever I try to draw something on purpose the image is crude and uninspired. But, when I let the pen or pencil or crayon do its thing, what comes out is usually the beginning of something surprising and engaging which I can then enhance.

I wondered: could I do this with writing? I started with a prompt (a picture, a doodle, a memory, a journal entry, an object) and I free-typed with as little preconceived notion as I could muster. I could feel the difference immediately. The words started to take on a shape and texture like never before. I started a new folder in Google Docs called “Raw Doodles,” each file a piece that may or may not fit later into a larger whole. I shelved my expectations and just kept doodling. When each packet came due, I scrapped chronology and arranged the “doodles” into associative patterns, trusting that eventually my themes and my story would emerge — this time not by my pulling and prodding, but by me listening to what the material was trying to tell me and letting it guide me to where it wanted to go.

It worked. It was my “in.” And what I learned was that the story of becoming a nurse practitioner — the story of finding myself in a position that I felt I simultaneously did not belong and was made for — was not the actual story; it was merely the situation. The real story was deeper and more complex. A story about how we break and search for wholeness, how we struggle to make sense of our experience, how we ask questions that are mostly unanswerable, how we go on anyway — asking more. Ultimately, it’s a story of me looking at where I came from to understand who I have become.

This was all well and good.

But how to structure it all in a way that was both cohesive and aesthetically pleasing? Over winter break, before my final, thesis, semester, I tried many ways to intuit the structure the manuscript wanted to take. I spread the pages out, cut sections and taped them elsewhere, shuffled and sorted and sweated over the sheets and sheets before me. I was hoping for a pattern to arise; none did.

For my first draft submission to Kate Hopper I patched it together best I could, actively avoiding any kind of chronology for fear I’d fall into the same rut as before. I had worked with Kate in the past; I trusted her instincts. But when she came back and suggested a chronological arrangement — to eliminate confusion for the reader, to avoid unnecessary repetition, to enhance the sense of urgency — well, let’s just say I was not in agreement. But, as I said, I trusted Kate, so, after a few weeks of kicking-and-screaming contemplation, I started to arrange things chronologically.

And it worked. The structure emerged of parallel narratives. The “now” of the story beginning with a scene in my therapist’s office in 2008 when I am on the cusp of becoming a nurse practitioner, wondering how I got there and why I hurt. The “then” of the story, reaching back before I was born, and moving forward in time with brief intervals between sections wherein I return to my therapist’s office. Within each section, the material is still largely associative, but the underlying chronology gives the manuscript much needed solid footing.

The manuscript is far from finished. I know that. What I also know — perhaps the most important thing I will take from this program — is that each writer must find her own way, must do the work herself. There is no prescriptive way of doing things. No paint-by-number shortcuts. At least, not for me. Through this thesis process, I felt more a channeler than a writer. My story was there all along; I just had to shut up and listen.

Amanda Irene Rush is a writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner living in central Ohio. Her work has appeared in Vanderbilt Press’ 2008 anthology The Way We Work and the Bellevue Literary Review. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University.

AWP 2014 What Was Is: The Use of Present Tense in Creative Nonfiction

March 1, 2014 § 6 Comments

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoA guest blog from Erica Trabold :

Panelists: Kate Hopper, Hope Edelman, Bonnie Rough, Marybeth Holleman, Ryan Van Meter

Kate Hopper, panel moderator and author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, says of her book: “I wanted a reader to walk with me through that experience.” Hopper’s simple statement—expressed in the past tense (the writing, of course, complete)—reveals her impulse to compose her memoir in the present tense. Hopper’s story sets the stage for a question and answer discussion with her fellow panelists about the creative nonfiction writer’s tense dilemma.

What are the benefits of writing memoir in the present tense?

1.     The writer can invite readers into lived experience.

2.     Writing in the present tense “allows the writer to be nimble,” says Ryan Van Meter. The writer can slow short periods of time, emphasizing certain events, situations, or feelings.

3.     As an exercise in prewriting, the present tense can become a vehicle for the writer to fall back into the moment being explored. Marybeth Holleman says this technique is often more reliable and specific than her actual notes, and she encourages students to begin the writing process through present tense exercises.

4.     Tension in a story builds naturally in the present tense.

What are the drawbacks of writing memoir in the present tense?

1.     “Point of view and tense are inevitable bedfellows,” says Hope Edelman. In the time it takes for a writer to sit down and write about an experience, that person has changed a great deal. The writer is then challenged to create an accurate character on the page.

2.     The present tense character has limited knowledge of the experience. Van Meter says sometimes the writer must make his or her insights “not feel so wise” by coming to preliminary, smaller conclusions that build.

3.     Readers have a harder time suspending disbelief in present tense narratives.

4.     Sometimes, reliving a sensitive experience through the present tense can be too much for the writer, particularly if the experience was traumatic.

How does present tense affect the way readers perceive experiences?

1.     Some readers come looking for answers, wanting to understand how the writer, a person who lived through a similar experience, dealt with it. Past tense works well for writers and readers with this particular goal.

2.     Other readers and writers want to relive the tension and uncertainty of an experience in real time, preferring present tense narratives.

With all of these insights in mind, Edelman reminds us that “remembering happens in the present tense.” However, using both present and past tense in a piece of writing is a considerable skill, and ultimately, there is no prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to writing memoir. Authors, as well as their stories, are complex. Both past and present tense explorations of experience can serve a story well—the important thing is for an author to understand why.

Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) is an essayist based in Omaha. This spring, she will finish an MA in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and in the fall, she hopes to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Her essays have been published Seneca Review, Penumbra, and NEBRASKAland Magazine.

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