Dear Reader,

I’ve been a writer since I was a tiny weird kid naming crayons and prancing them around my grandmother’s kitchen counter because I hadn’t brought any Barbie dolls.

After my mother’s yelling fits, I would sit alone on my bedroom carpet, curtains drawn, with an empty Happy Meal bucket. I was a girl who lived alone in the woods, and I was cooking up fish stew in my pot for sustenance. I was a survivor.

I was a writer.

My imagination was unbridled.

In the fifth grade, my class was given an assignment to write a story that had to include a set of specific words. I don’t remember what the words were. I think one of them was “key.” A week or so later, the teacher told us she wanted to read one of the stories aloud because it was so good, or something like that. It was mine. I was shocked, and fucking terrified, because I was painfully shy. The only thing I remember about the story and about why the teacher had chosen it was the first line, “It all happened when…”

Ok. Somehow through all my voracious, yet haphazard reading I learned how to drop a reader into a story, but when I tried to write stories later that year, and for years later, they were awkward, embarrassing things. I haven’t kept any of it. I was bold minded, young, self-conscious, precocious, lacking self-esteem, and I was trying too hard to sound like a “real writer.” It was horrible.

I gave up for awhile, started crocheting giant granny squares.

Then one day, late middle school or early high school, I was failing at writing a letter, and my father gave me the most important writing advice of my life, “just write it like you’d say it.”

So I did, in that letter, and in the stories I tried my hand at after. It was easier to write in my voice, than to force my story’s language into some strange amalgamation of all the authors I had read. Of course I wouldn’t have explained it like that then. And I had no idea how important that advice would be, nor how much it would come to shape and define me as a writer.

My dad’s simple advice made me a writer who gravitates toward narratives and narrators with strong voices, a writer who writes in first person most of the time. And when I get stuck what do I do? I read my story out loud or I start talking to myself about it.

I was developing and growing my voice years before I knew that’s what I was doing. All I knew was that writing was easier that way. Writing became as fun as using my Barbies to come up with new episodes of Three’s Company.

I will be forever grateful to my dad for helping to shape me as a writer, even if does write terrible letters.

I guess there has been a little post-MFA depression. 

I swear it’s a real thing. 

You finish, finally finish this almost-accomplishment that’s been looming over your head for years, sneering at you. You finish it. You get your diploma, your hood, your hug from the head of the program. You tell that almost-accomplishment creep looming over your head, “I have defeated you! You are hereby banished!” You make plans, a strategy. This is how I’m going to cobble together a writing career. 

And then you go back to your job at Starbucks, realizing that you don’t have any real-world, paid experience doing anything else. You are the single mom of an awesome kid, who happens to be on the autism spectrum. You can’t take the chances you used to be able to. You need to work. Even if you’re not making enough money. You need even that little bit. You need the health insurance. You can’t work two or three jobs to get ahead, because your kid needs you around, and he needs your extra help if he has a chance to grow up being able to take care of himself, and leading a life that makes him happy. 

So you work this job that was only ever meant to keep you from starving your fist time round at grad school. You work this job that doesn’t really make ends meet. You work this job that is most days, mindless, and un-fulfilling, this job where complete strangers are constantly making judgements about you. You work it, and you feel like crap about yourself because you aren’t living anywhere close to your potential. You’re not being challenged, and your skills and passions are not being utilized. What if they atrophy? But you don’t know what else to do. You just don’t know, because you don’t have any experience and it’s so competitive out there for MFA Creative Writing grads. You haven’t found anyone out there who will hire you. 

But you try to do your work. You try to perfect your craft still, and you keep looking for jobs, residencies, opportunities. You sometimes come close, but not close enough and your life still trudges on, the same. How can you not lose hope? 

And if you lose hope, how do you keep the dream?

I found out yesterday that in January my dad will be retiring. He’s in his early mid-sixties. I always forgot how old he is exactly. It does make me sad. Getting older myself is one thing, but I don’t want him to get older. He’s retiring because he’s tired. I don’t want him to be tired. Of course it makes me think about the eventual death of my parents, but also I wonder…I think back over all these years he’s worked pounding away at keyboards and I wonder if any of it made him actually happy. I wonder if he had the life experiences he wanted to have. I wonder if it was fulfilling. I wonder what he thinks about when he thinks back over all those years in all those various offices. It’s such a large chunk of life. 

My dad, he hasn’t saved. He’s not going to spend any part of retirement traveling or taking classes or re-building old cars. Most likely he’ll do what he does on the weekends: sit on the couch watching sci-fi and action movies and fighting with my mom. I want so much more for him than that, but it really does seem like he reached the end of the road of dreams and adventure a long time ago. There used to be possibility. Now there’s the sofa, the dog, and take-out.

I have not reached the end of possibility. Not because of my 37 years. Not because of my desire. It’s a harsh-ass world. I have to keep fighting uphill against the wind, and most of the time I feel so weak, so malnourished, so on the brink of collapse. I have to fight even if I can’t see around the corner, even if there is nothing around the corner, because in the end, at least I will know that I fought, that I did everything I could. 

So the question is, am I? Am I doing everything I can? How on earth do I balance having to kick myself to try harder, to write more, to get a better job, to be a better mom, to get less sleep with giving myself a break and letting myself cry in the bathroom or sleep in sometimes on Sundays so I don’t jump off a bridge from all the pressure?

While at my last residency at Queen’s I had this master plan for my post-graduation, trying to build a writing career life. 

First I was going to write fifty pages of a novel. 

Secondly I was going to go through all the stories in my collection, one by one, however long it took, make them awesome, and submit them around until I got a few in recognized/recognizable magazines.

The third part of the plan, was of course to query agents and work on getting my collection published. And while I was waiting to hear back from them, I would dig out the fifty pages of my novel and complete a first draft. 

Ah…goals!

So the funny thing is, I did not have that much trouble with the first part of my plan. I have a kid, and a job, and a busy, exhausting life, so I set a tiny goal for myself. At first it was only 250 words a day. Practically nothing. It usually took me less than ten minutes to do that. It seemed like such an insignificant amount until I realized that 250 words a day adds up, 0 words a day does not. After awhile I increased the amount to 500 words a day. Then I got to about twenty pages and realized I was bored, and wasn’t connecting with the path I had chosen in the narrative. So I got rid of at least ten pages, and started again. And it was working. Some days I even wrote 750-1000 words. Some days were easy, some days were hard, but I managed to write nearly every day, even through a Disney World vacation, and in the end it took like a month and a half to get to my fifty pages. 

Yay!

Celebration! I bought Neil Gaiman’s new book, read it in two days. Ecstatic. High on words!

Then part two of the plan. Ugh.

It sometimes takes years for me to complete a story, because the whole editing/re-vising thing is hard for me, tedious. I kind of hate it, and have a hard time showing up to get the work done, except in tiny spurts of inspiration. I have not had much luck with part two of my plan. 

My thesis reader at Queens, helped diagnose me with writer’s ADD. I get so excited by new ideas, I drop what I working on, leaving it unfinished, and follow the shiny new idea, until I get bored with it, and chase a new one. 

I am trying to conentrate on one story at a time. It’s hard to keep my focus. But when I was working on generating writing, it was simple to create a word goal however small. This doesn’t work with re-vising. I don’t know how to create little bite-sized daily goals that will keep me going. I suppose I could do time goals, or goal goals, where I come up with what I specifically want to work on or accomplish that day. I wish those type of goals were as satisfying as creating chunks of whole new text that opens up a world that is starting to bloom in my mind.

Perhaps I just need to find the right way to think about editing and re-vision. I may not be creating, but I am re-shaping, defining. I’m not birthing a baby. Maybe it isn’t as exciting as that, but I am parenting, learning how to raise the story perhaps, how to turn it into the best, most true-to-itself story it can be. 

Ugh. Like I said. Tedious. Miserable. Hard. But I always knew this was going to be the most grueling part of my plan. At least the most difficult part I have any control over. But I also have the feeling that once I figure it out, once I really stick to one story and see it through, that it will break something open for me, and the next one will be easier. 

It was a long road.

After I finally graduated with my BA, I applied right away to one grad school. I wanted to go somewhere great, somewhere that would take me away from San Francisco to a bigger city, somewhere that didn’t require the GRE as part of the application, so I sent my package to The New School, and I got in.

I wish I would have understood then, really how miraculous that was.

The New School was great. Even though I’ll probably never be able to pay my loans off, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. I got to work with some amazing writer/instructors, and I met some amazing students/writers. Life in New York City was big, and scary, limitless. I was starving, but I got to starve across the street from The Federal Reserve. I couldn’t always afford books, but I got to see some of my favorite writers. I got to meet Jonathan Carroll, and I got to stalk my favorite musician of the time, catching something like seven of his shows in six months. Who cares about nutrition when you have that kind of access.

The only thing was after four semesters, I wasn’t quite ready to turn in my thesis, which in the end didn’t really matter, because I had an outstanding bill and I wouldn’t have been allowed to graduate.

I went home to California after my four semesters, and it took me something like two or three years to pay off my balance to the school.

Depression. Boredom. Restlessness. Disappointment. I stuck with my Starbucks job, and I had a kid, I moved to North Carolina, I didn’t think I would ever get my MFA.

I had dreams about it. Dreams about being back in New York. Dreams about going back to school. But my son was never with me in those dreams. And when I woke up, I felt unfinished, but I knew those dreams were impossible to complete.

A couple of years ago I decided to apply to UNCG. That was my solution. I sent my best stuff. Sat through the GRE. Secured some amazing letters of recommendation from some recognizable and impressive writers (who are also really great people) and I thought I was set. How could they say no. But they did. They said no and I was crushed.

Then a few months later, I shot an email to the wonderfuls at the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte, just to see if they’d take some of the credits I earned at the New School. Somehow they would, and they had an unexpected opening for the residency a month from then. I sent an application, a bunch of stories, and in a day, got in.

It was awkward that residency. I was a first semester student, but also a third semester student. I had to explain.

“I transferred.”

“Cool, where from?”

Sometimes people didn’t know what The New School was, and sometimes their eyes got big. One person even said, “Oh you mean a real school.”

I met quite a few people at Queens who seemed to think that maybe it wasn’t as good as other schools. That is complete bullshit.

Of course a low-residency had become the best choice for me if I couldn’t get into a program right next to my house. I couldn’t pack up my son, and go to just-any-city. New York was out of the question. A lot of places were. So that’s why I was thinking about going low-res, but anyone who thinks that equals a lesser education or a lesser experience has no idea what they’re talking about.

I wrote more stories in one year at Queens, than I did in two years at The New School. The workshops are smaller so you get more and deeper attention from the instructors. And the instructors? They are just as talented, awarded, recognizable and awesome as the ones in any New York program.

Don’t even get me started about the administrators. Queens cares, and they will help you as much as they can. I never felt like a number. I never felt there like I was purchasing a degree, or that I was just another hopeful, with a dollar sign for a head, being cranked out of the MFA machine.

I wanted to get my degree as fast as I could, and I had earned all those credits, but if there’s one thing I regret about Queens, it’s that it went so fast.

I graduated this year, end of May. I have a completed thesis, that I’m working on turning into a collection. I have friends. I have all this anxiety. I’ve read books I didn’t know existed. I grew in ways I didn’t know were possible. I know myself as a writer better, and I have my MFA.

I am a big girl now.

Maybe not complete.

I don’t know how I ever could be.

But I do feel, that even though I’m a long way to where I want to go as a writer, I finally feel as if my feet are on the right road, and that it’s a good season for walking.

This past March I went to my first ever AWP.

My goodness.

So I show up to Boston, totally unprepared for the blizzard-y weather. I had a coat, but no hat, no gloves, no scarf. It had been a long time since I had to walk around with snow pelting me in the eyeballs.

So there I am, with snow pelting me in the eyeballs, snow wetting and freezing my hair, while I’m trying to follow the wobbly dot on google maps on my phone to find my way to the convention center.

Writer’s nirvana? Writer’s hell? Writer’s party land? Writer’s my brain is going to blow up with all the possibilities mixed with my own special special brand of insecurity?

AWP was everything.

Really with the volume and variety of panels and events, it is easy to go crazy. There is just no way to do everything you want to do. There is no way to see everyone you want to see. And if you have friends you want to meet too, forget about it.

I didn’t go to very many of the panels. Huddled outside of one about fairy tales. Sat in on one about literary writers plunging into the world of popular fiction. The best one, I went to was about sustaining a writing life while having to pay the bills. The panelists were all doing it in different ways, writing while working an unrelated job, or teaching, or cobbling together a variety of things. Stephen Elliot and Steve Almond were part of the panel. They cobble a lot. I don’t know why it’s freeing to hear that it’s basically impossible to live off of writing amazing things alone, but it is helpful to know enough to live in the real world, and to see that there are ways to live and write, you just have to figure out your thing, what you want to do, what you can do, stick to it, and fight for it.

The Book Fair at AWP is a whole other crazy land. Intimidating. It’s hard to know where to start, the place is so full of people representing different writing programs, magazines, publishers. I don’t know what I would have done without my friend Scott, who walked with me through the whole thing like it was our job for the day, talking to people, helping me to talk with them, and just gathering information. The thing is most of the editors at these things get tired and bored, and they usually like to talk about their magazines, and they want to discover great writers. I learned about all kinds of possible venues for my work that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. And I got to meet Roxane Gay from Pank (I’ve gotten now, four, personal, really encouraging rejections from them) and she even suggested a magazine I might send a story of mine that Pank didn’t take. Plus you can get some really great deals on books, magazines, and magazine subscriptions.

Some of my AWP 2013 Boston highlights:

Hanging out with some of my amazing Tin House peeps I haven’t seen in a long time.

Hearing Jeannette Winterson read, meeting her, and having her sign a book for me.

Benjamin’s Percy’s voice and meat metaphors.

Seeing Steve Almond and Amber Tamblyn at Club Passim.

Elissa Schappell reading.

Being one of the winners of the AWP Heat Flash Contest.

Those three days were the longest and fastest three days of my life. It really was nuts, and I think that for all the amazing things that you do see and take part it, there will be disappointment over the things you missed.

Next stop Seattle.

Hopefully next year, someone doesn’t knock on my hotel door at 12:30 in the morning, before I have to leave at like 3 a.m. for a flight.

Oh lord.

Or maybe I should start with one of the exercise prompts Dorothy gave us this week.

“Goddamn.”

“Goddamn.”

“Goddamn.”

Right now I feel like I fell out of the back of a truck rambling recklessly along the highway. I feel like I struck the asphalt. I feel like I got hit by every single car. I feel like my limbs are about to drop off my body. Watch out for my rolling head!

Being in Dorothy Allison’s workshop wasn’t church exactly but it was religious. She called us “bitches,” she called us “baby.” She pushed us off cliffs. She picked up our broken bodies and cradled them. We looked for ways to put ourselves back together, better, stronger.

“Godamn.”

I took risks in workshop and in the execises I wrote, exercises I made myself  read out loud. Honest, true, and even factual things. If I can’t learn to harness the power and emotion of painful things that have actually happened to me, how on earth will I be able to manufacture that emotion, that power in a fictional character. There were fluttering hearts, tears.

“Goddamn.”

There is usually one big take away for me every year I go to Tin House. The thing is I haven’t paid much attention to the rules of writing for years. I’ve been confident in my instinct and in my ability to re-write, to re-vision. So the big revelation this year wasn’t about a technique or trick of the craft, but rather something so simple. The key to being a better writer, and a published writer is…writing.

A lot of writers whip out, or labor over a draft, and then maybe show it to people and maybe not, but they worry about it. They worry about making it better without making it worse. They worry about how it should really end. They worry about the POV. They worry if they’ve made the right choices. They worry like mad. They worry, but they don’t write. They don’t play around with possibilities. They don’t write the kind of material, that will inform the piece, but that may never appear in it. Writing is a process. Pieces change in the writing of them. So many writers seem to believe linearity in the physical writing and re-writing process to be some binding law of physics. I’ve discovered that the only way to figure out how to write, and what you are writing, and how to make it better, is simply by doing it a lot, and accepting the fact that it is going to be grueling, and depressing, and that what you write will not always be good. In fact a lot of it will be bad. But you do have the freedom to try whatever you want, mine strange places, write a story backwards, and upside down until you figure what works for you and what works for the piece. You just have to stop worrying. You just have to stop thinking about it. You just have to get up to your elbows in it, up to your ears in it.

I’m not done.

The other thing is talent. It’s the thing that I used to believe separated me from the faculty, and from the published writers/ guests of the conference.

Someone who went to The New School the same time I did was a guest of Tin House this year. Actually he was a year behind me there, but now here he was at Tin House with two books under his belt, while I’m still struggling on building a story collection. Was it because he is a better writer than me. He’s a different writer than me, but what seemed clear is that he had worked his ass off.

I hadn’t.

Simple.

Easy?

“Goddamn.”

I love Tin House. I kept telling people it was my last year. I’ve gone five times in a row. I have to stop sometime. I need to take a breath. To try to fly off the nest.

Denis Johnson was there my very first year. He had a guitar player with him, and even though I’ve always been awkward and shy, I just had to gather around near him and sing,  along with him and all the others who had gathered.

I had heard rumors, and then the last night I saw, a guy with a banjo, Wells Tower on guitar. Aimee Bender with a guitar. I mentioned to someone, that I had a ukulele in my room. Wells said to bring it out. I said I wasn’t very awesome. That didn’t matter, and I ran anI grabbed it. Wells said I was going to shred it on that thing, and for some reason it seemed the mere presence of the uke made Aimee happy. AC/DC. And I was trying to read the chords off of Wells’s too-bright phone, and I asked after them and I fumbled along. Then sprinklers, screams, and running to dry land. We lost the banjo player in the move. But we whipped out Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t always know the chords, but pushed on, happily there, happily strumming, happily being a part of making the music, that people gathered around and added their voices to.

Happily, bitches.

“Goddamn.”

I am at Tin House again. I was about to write about being at Tin House again, when I realized, somehow I forgot to write about my first residency at Queens.

Maybe it’s because I was so busy, doing work there and trying to come up with a story to turn in for the workshop here, and it’s late to write a whole lot about it now, too much time has passed, my memories have lost their sharp edges.

My son’s fish died while I was there and I don’t know if my sister will ever forgive me for that.

I do want to say it was exciting, and that I really did meet a lot of wonderful, generous people. I do want to say it feels confusing to start, and for it to already be my last year. I do want to say I participated in my first uke jam and itwas awesome. I really can’t wait to get into the semester, but it’s funny, the whole time I was there I was trying to come up with a story for Tin House, and now that I’m at Tin House, I’m trying to come up with a story for Queens, for when the distance learning starts up in August.

I really can’t wait to get up to my elbows in it. I’ve already got a thesis advisor, Pinckey Benedict.

The weirdest thing about Queens was that it was not Tin House, but I still saw Elissa Schappell walking around.

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