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.

Kindred Spirits: In Praise of Online Classes

July 25, 2016 § 15 Comments

A guest post by Ann V. Klotz

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Ann V. Klotz

By late afternoon, I get a little itchy to get to a computer.  I’m waiting for the “Recent Canvas Notifications” to appear in my inbox, with comments from my Creative Nonfiction Online Class on “Summary and Scene.” The sense of anticipation reminds me of a cross between Christmas and my birthday, though we are now in the middle of summer and both of those holidays occur in December.  I want to get away from everyone and see what my group has to say about what I posted the day before. Walking up the hill from the lake, I muse about how addictive and satisfying this process is—write, get feedback, revise, post again, get more feedback.  I’m in crush!

This online community exerts a powerful, private hold on me.  I don’t know any of the people personally, but I know whose writing I admire, whose comments I like, whose feedback I crave, who seems kind, maybe irreverent and funny.  I love our teacher, the formidable Joelle Fraser, whom I came to know in my online writing classes the previous summer.

Early last fall, still on a high from my first foray into this type of learning, I took a second online class, “Motherhood and Words,” with Kate Hopper, a teacher magical in her ability to create community in a virtual space.  I was hooked.  This online world, these new undemanding friends I’d never met, were answering a need that no one else in my daily life had time to meet.  The people in my school and family don’t have time to agonize over word choice with me, to read twelve drafts of a story in order to help me decide on the one that works best.  In another terrific class, offered by Mothers Always Write, several of my fellow students and I became Facebook pals after the course ended—they have crossed over into my everyday life, though we have not yet met in person.  Perhaps someday we will…or not.  Either way will be okay.

Online classes aren’t always utopian rainbows and butterflies, of course. Hoping to replicate this past summer’s euphoria during Cleveland’s unending winter, I signed up for a class I came to loathe.  People were not generous in responding to one another’s pieces.  The feedback from the teacher felt mean-spirited.  I bristled when she suggested I needed to learn “to show, not tell.”  Okay, forget bristle…I was furious. I’m an English teacher, for god’s sake. I try not to be that patronizing to my own 9th graders. So, I dropped out. I, professional “good girl,” quit, which—by itself—was liberating. I have a tough time with the concept of ever giving up on obligations, relationships, even on boring novels.  Walking away felt dangerous and forbidden and great.

So, I entered this summer’s course with trepidation. I held my breath until I started reading the comments people offered one another.  “Ahh,” I exhaled.  “I’ve found them.  My writing people—strangers all.  I’m home.”
___

Ann V. Klotz is a teacher/writer/headmistress/mother. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, The Legendary, Motherlode: An Anthology, and Independent School Magazine.

 

AWP 2014: No Shame for Women Writers

March 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

awp seattleA guest post on the panel “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion” from Tabitha Blankenbiller:

It feels like everyone goes to AWP looking for something.

Perhaps it’s a check mark on a list, one of those must-haves that we’re told we must shore up before our careers will take off. An MFA, an agent, a Tweet that nabs you 1,000 followers. Then there’s my demographic, those who are beginning to lose faith at one of the dozens of steep inclines in the process, and wander the convention center imploring each room for a sign.

When I sat for the panel “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion,” I was doubting my memoir manuscript. It’s being shopped, and over the past few weeks there’s been a harmonic chord of the same no: what great work! Too bad there’s not enough platform. I was doubting the validity of my experiences and their relevance. I hadn’t promised my boyfriend that I’d make him 300 sandwiches for an engagement ring, and I wasn’t on “The Office.” A tendril of shame was rooting in my heart; the embarrassment of sharing stories that weren’t good enough. That my life on the page wasn’t worthy.

There was a humming, static verve in Room 607. The energy of a packed house fed up with expectations and niches and double standards, impatient for stories to be elevated by bravery and beauty and merit rather than the shelves of gender, race, and age we’ve been forced to inherit. Each woman on the panel had fearlessly written her own truths, despite the anger, discomfort, and squeamishness they’d caused the patriarchal literary establishment. The collective hunger for a revolution was electric.

When Anna March implored us to give up shame for telling stories, I felt my heart’s hinges squeak open. “Don’t get pushed into an arc,” she said. Women’s memoir is an internal journey that we share, and doesn’t have to be Julie and Julia-style or Lifetime special-ready. “Life is a lot messier than that.” Reading women’s memoir makes women and their lives visible no matter the commonality or grandeur of their experience, which is a powerful act.

Kate Hopper echoed the sentiment when she described her obstacles of writing about motherhood, a subject big publishing does not often consider worthy of literature. It’s shoved into patronizing genres like “mom-oir” and we begin to believe what we’re told about our stories not mattering. She felt fear blossoming as the shame of her experience—a woman’s experience—set in. The same noxious weed I felt inside of myself. “We become shameful, not shameless,” she warned.

Connie Mae Fowler, in the panel’s closing, pointed out that there is no section of the bookstore called “men’s lit” or, to the room’s delight, “dick lit.” No man describes his work as “confessional.” He doesn’t have to. As women memoir writers, it’s essential to keep kicking out of the box, the narrow shelf, to refuse to shut up. “Victims must keep secrets. Rebellion and ascension require storytelling.”

Although I had another 48 hours left in Seattle, I could have left AWP on these warrior writer’s words and had exactly the reawakening to continue the fight. Judging from the panel’s delirious applause, I was hardly alone. I refuse to apologize again for my book, even in my head. I will keep churning out words and reading those of other women writers. I will kick until my legs fall off.

Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program who currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been featured in journals such as HobartBarrelhouse, and Brevity, and her memoir-in-essays Paper Bag: Tales of Love, Beauty, and Baggage is represented by Penumbra Literary.

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.

On Not Giving Up: The Ten-Year Journey of Ready for Air

October 17, 2013 § 28 Comments

RFACoverWeb2Kate Hopper, author of the new memoir Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, examines the pain and perseverance that we meet along the road to publication:

Just over a month ago my doorbell rang, and a FedEx driver handed me a thin package. I turned it over and saw that it was from the University of Minnesota Press, my publisher, so I tore it open. It was my memoir.

I started to cry. And let me be clear: I did not gracefully shed a couple of tears; I sat in my tiny office and sobbed. The dog came in and looked at me, sniffed my legs, wondering, I’m sure, what the hell was wrong with me. And I wondered the same thing: Why am I crying now? What’s going on? Yet, I couldn’t stop.

When I described this later, someone said, “Tears of happiness!” But that wasn’t it exactly. Yes, I was thrilled to finally hold my book—so smooth, so carefully designed—in my hands. I was relieved. But that wasn’t all.

I began writing this book, a memoir about the premature birth of my daughter, almost a decade ago. I spent a few years writing it and revising it. Then I spent a year or so having it rejected. Some agents and editors thought it was too dark, others said there was simply no market for it. One said it needed to be funnier. Another claimed the content was just too challenging. (Just so you know, my daughter is fine—she’s a healthy ten-year-old.)

Each time I received a rejection, I hung my head for a bit. A few times I cried. I often laced up my running shoes and went for a rejection run. And then I came back to my desk and asked myself these questions: Why have I structured the book as I did? Why is it important to have the hard and gritty parts of motherhood woven in with the beautiful parts? Have I written the best book I can write?

The answer to that last question, at first, was no. I knew I could do better, put more pressure on my sentences, cut scenes, expand others. I knew I needed to thread the various narrative lines more carefully through the book. I knew I needed to push myself as a character on the page, to make sure I wasn’t letting myself off the hook.

So I wrote the book again, from scratch. That took another two and a half years, but when I was done, my answer was yes, this is the best book I can write. Yet the rejections continued to come—the book, they said, was still too dark, too challenging, there was no market.

These later rejections didn’t make me hang my head; they made me angry. And there’s nothing like a shot of anger to convince you to persevere, which is what I did. I knew I’d find a home for the book eventually; I wouldn’t give up. But here is the thing: submitting and writing and rewriting are exhausting. Constantly hoping is exhausting. Not giving up is sometimes exhausting.

So last month, when I finally held that book in my hands, it wasn’t just joy I felt. All that other stuff came rushing out, too—all those years of trying not to be discouraged, of not giving up, all the energy it took to keep diving back into that manuscript. It all whooshed right out of me, and that’s why I couldn’t stop sobbing.

I realized I wasn’t going to get anything done in that state—I was a blubbering mess—so I laced up my running shoes and headed toward the river. I let all those rejection runs seep into that one, and then, step after step, I let them all go. It started to rain, and I shivered as I ran over the Mississippi River, picking up my pace. Then I shook out my arms, let out a couple of boisterous whoops, and pumped my fist into the air. Because all of that hard work was worth it.

__

For more information about Kate Hopper’s writing, retreats and classes, visit www.katehopper.com.

 

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Friday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you’ve been following along, you  know that by now we’ve all fainted in the lobby:

Friday Noon to 1:15 pm

Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F148. Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared. (David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, Christopher Joyce) Many nonfiction writers either don’t understand or are afraid of the challenges of writing about science, medicine, technology, or other complicated subjects. But this panel of experienced writers argues that the best science writing can be as ambitious as the best literary writing on any subject. Good science writing, in fact, may be more challenging, because it requires a journalist’s regard for accuracy plus the ability to explain complex subjects with grace, passion, and literary skill.

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F160. Memoir, Spirituality and the Self in the Narcissistic Culture of Our Time. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Rodger Kamenetz, Farideh Goldin, Julia Spicher Kasdorf) If one believes the detractors, memoir bears responsibility second only to reality TV for fomenting this “narcissistic” age, in Christopher Lasch’s term—an era of therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as “authenticity” and “awareness.” Here, we consider quests for self-knowledge as linked, rather, to a spiritual project. How can memoir point to places beyond the self—to transcendence, insight or affiliation with human community?

Friday, 1:30 to 2:45 pm

Ambassador Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F179. Stranger Than Fiction: The Choice Between Fiction and Nonfiction. (Robin Romm, Kerry Cohen, Pam Houston, Cheryl Strayed, Richard McCann) Most every writer has a personal story to tell. But with memoir comes potential harm—for friends, family, and themselves. Writers often wonder if they could simply change their stories to fiction. How do authors choose between fiction and nonfiction when telling their stories? Can the same story be both fiction and memoir? Five authors who have made such choices will discuss the reasons behind their decisions, and the ramifications of having done so.

Friday, 3 to 4:15 pm

Thurgood Marshall North Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F195. Flinging the Ink Pot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir. (Jill Christman, Kate Hopper, Paul Lisicky, Joe Mackall, Sue William Silverman) This panel of memoirists will consider what happens when we write about subjects that are commonly lumped together and dismissed by the publishing industry. It seems we shouldn’t talk about abuse, addiction, or parenting of any stripe. Why are certain subjects seen as played out, clichéd, and sensational? We will consider whether we can avoid categorizing giant facets of human experience as literary no-nos, and find our way back to the serious writing of the stories we need to tell.

Friday, 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Harding Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F210. What the Narrator Doesn’t Know: The Importance of Speculation in Narrative. (Jill McCabe Johnson, David Huddle, Dinah Lenney, Lee Martin, Lia Purpura) Should narrators admit what they don’t know? Does ignorance discredit the nonfiction author? Listen to four writers discuss how they use speculation to openly investigate questions, uncover the narrator’s vulnerabilities, delve more deeply into narrative, and intensify plot. Learn how not knowing can build credibility and open possibilities for the author, while inviting the reader to embark with you on a journey of exploration.

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F223. Interviewing In My Underwear: Adventures as a Female Memoirist. (Wendy Sumner-Winter, Barrie Jean Borich, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Kerry Cohen, Brenda Miller) We’ve all heard that confession is good for the soul, but how about for a woman living in the real world? Six memoirists discuss the familial, professional, social costs and benefits—and everything in between—of being a woman who writes candidly about her body, her physical life, her sex life, her carnal appetites. We will talk about what it is like to navigate our various social and political worlds having told, literally, the naked truth.

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