Writing

Building Endurance

running-573762_1280Sometimes it feels as though my M.F.A. is just this title that I have earned. I earned it, but then haven’t done what is necessary to keep it. The M.F.A. taught me to be a writer and an academic. Since I’ve been teaching high school full time, I feel like I’ve lost my writer identity.  In fact, I feel as though I’ve lost much of my identity. At one point in my life, I was a runner too.

After I had mini-One Mean, I got a little lost. I lost track of a lot of things. Really though, I can’t even blame mini-One Mean. After I got married, I stopped running to the extent that I was running before getting married, and even my clothes got frumpier and my appearance began to wane. After the child was born, I struggled to get back into shape and even now, I am almost as heavy as I was when I was in the full throes of pregnancy. It’s disgraceful.

Since summer has begun, it’s been really awesome to have the time to reestablish who I am. I have begun to wake up early–I’m such an early bird–to run and then I’ve been bringing mini-One Mean to daycare so I can write. While the writing is rusty and the running is a sludge, it feels so good to rediscover me.

I’ve always worried about not being enough. Not being enough in my classroom for my students. Not being enough for my husband. Not being enough for my kid. Not being enough for my sisters, my parents, my extended family. Not being enough for the world of academia, a place I so desperately want to be a part of. And maybe that’s the issue, maybe I’m too desperate. Too pathetic.

I remember being in middle school and my sister–who is younger than me–being way more popular. She is, by far, the more beautiful of the three of us, and has always had this exotic appeal to both girls and boys. I remember she was invited to some birthday party by a girl in my grade–my sister was a year younger. I was so upset. I asked this girl, who I thought was my friend, why I wasn’t invited. I may not have been cool, but I sure as hell was brave. I would never do that today. Now, I’d just fester as pictures of an event would be posted to social media. She told me I tried to hard to be friends with her and that it was annoying. You’ve got to love middle schoolers and their candid abilities.

That moment always stuck with me (and stung). I didn’t want to come off as pathetic, as too interested. I even played games like this with my now husband. At the beginning of our dating, I would pretend to be unavailable to seem more desirable. The fear of not being enough is one that drives me and as the years have passed since getting engaged, that fear has returned.

Am I enough for my husband? Does he still see the ambitious (and fit) woman? Of course not. She’s been long gone. Though, she may be resurfacing.

This morning I was running along our street. We live away from it all, and I have a perfect 3 mile loop in my area with a mile long street composed of brutal hills. The road with the challenging hills has not been incorporated into my running path, but it will be soon. As I ran, I had to stop to catch my breath and could feel every ounce of extra weight. I could feel the weight on my hips, thighs, and back. All the excess had buried me. My heart was beating hard and trying desperately to keep me alive, getting blood to my organs. It would have been easy to just stop, give up, and walk, but I’m building my endurance. In a week, I’ll begin to incorporate the scary hilly road, and forcing myself to stop less. I also (and I’ve always done this) sprint at the end of my run, so when I entered my house I was panting.

“Are you going to alright?” Hubs asked. He is in great shape. He is very devoted to his fitness because of the line of work he is in, so I’m always a little embarrassed when he seems me after yoga or running.

“Yes, it’s going to be while, but I think I’ll be fine.”

I realized, I really am going to be fine. Maybe my ability to focus and write for hours on end will take awhile to return, but it will as will my ability to feel like the first 3 miles were the warm up.

Before I got married, I trained for a half marathon. I never ended up doing it (cc: my ability to follow through), but I did train in beast mode. I had a buddy who did long runs with me and at my peak of fitness, I could run 8 miles without needing to stop and without feeling like the grim reaper was chasing me. For many, 8 miles is a breeze, growing up as a chubby and unfit child, 8 miles has always felt like a major accomplishment. At one point, I had the endurance. I would get stronger the longer I would run.

I had a similar experience with writing. At one point in my writing life, I wrote a novel. Again, for some writing a novel is easy. I don’t know who these writers are, but they must exist. For me, it was difficult. I too would get stronger the longer I would sit and write.

In the first draft of this post, I was going to ask for tips, and I guess I still am asking (I’m always open to ideas and suggestions about building discipline. I’m not a disciplined person–hence the insane weight gain.) Though it seems maybe when I lost myself underneath the pounds of fat, and lazy evenings with my husband, and the stressful days at work, and the endless hours of being a mother, all I needed to do was keep up my endurance. Keep on digging. Keep on working.

It seems so simple. Doesn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting My Embouchure Back

trumpet-362178_1280

It’s been ages. I know. I don’t know where I’ve been, probably buried under paper grading, dealing with teenagers and even worse adults that act like teenagers, trying to figure out the balance between discipline and patience (in regards to the toddler that now shares a roof with me and Mr. One Mean), doing hot yoga a couple times a week, attempting to do something with my lawn, and the like. That rut I was telling you about ages ago still plagues me. I can’t quite seem to find myself. I have been writing and publishing and working towards that elusive academic job, but, of course, to absolutely no avail. This past year was my best writing year in a long time, probably since grad school, but as Mr. One Mean likes to remind me, who is calling to grant you that interview? Dude is tough, but he keeps it real. I appreciate that. I need that.

I keep trying to visualize myself on a college campus, making a living wage, in my office with students who want to discuss craft. It’s a real dream. In terms of the craft of teaching, I’m definitely improving. In my classrooms (high school and college), I’m doing good work. I can feel it. My students seem to be receptive, hell, some of them might even be learning. In regards to the rest of my life, that is not the case. So much of it is messy and chaotic and I definitely am in the midst of an existential crisis, though what writer isn’t?

So, as summer approaches, I’m eagerly beginning to form my writing plan. Look, I know a lot of you are already on summer vacation (lucky academics!),  but where I live we still have 2 more instructional days and 4 days of exams. It’s really quite horrible. As much as I enjoy teaching (and strangely enough I’m kind of passionate about it), I’m ready to not see the stinky faces of the teenagers I’ve attempted to impart some knowledge on. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I just want summer to be here because summer (even the oppressive heat that comes with it) is the greatest time of year. You pumpkin and fall lovers need to can it. The leaves are pretty, but raking, while an excellent workout, is not my idea of pleasure. I mean come on, multicolored leaves versus lush green and hazy, hot days? There is nothing better. Okay, the crisp air is nice in October. Hush. I’m coming around to the other seasons.

Summer has often meant laziness for me. It’s been a time to decompress the daily interactions with young people that I so love but often find myself getting irritated by. It’s writing that helps me quell the crazy. This summer I’m definitely going to need to get some of that crazy out. I need the nourishment.

Recently, I started writing a short story. I hadn’t written fiction in years and while I teach the craft of fiction and am specialized in fiction, I find the personal essay a more natural form, so when this character popped into my head, I thought, “One Mean, you need to get this chick out of your head and onto a Google Doc.” So I did. And it’s been fun, but I’ve totally hit a wall, and frankly, I don’t think it’s the character or what I presume will be the plot of the story that is stalling me. I fucking rusty, folks. My fiction chops need warming up.

Years ago–like high school years ago–like when volcanic rock was beginning to form land masses in the ocean–I played the trumpet. I was (am) a terrible trumpet player. I was good enough to get through the music and not good enough to warrant pursuing a career as a jazz artist. I was self taught and was transiting to the trumpet in order for the marching band to have balance. The band didn’t need another flute player. I was a good flute player and decent enough musician that I taught myself the notes on the trumpet (mostly by banging the keys of the piano at home and matching the pitches on my trumpet) and called it a day. Honestly, I have to think my poor parents regretted the day they brought home that piano and then later the flute and that trumpet. Anyway, I digress. The hardest part of learning the trumpet was getting my embouchure right. The flute was vastly different from the trumpet, both required the same muscles but not in the same way, sort of like nonfiction and fiction. My mouth was sore for months. My lips would feel numb, though I have been told–not that I would know because I’m such a prude–brass players make the best kissers. In high school a dated two boys, one in band (a baritone) and one not, and I can attest to the fact the baritone was hands down the better kisser so maybe there is some truth to this. My band director was a trumpet player, so he took great care making sure the brass sections were warmed up. We would buzz on our mouthpieces, take great care with our breath, buzz without mouth pieces to enhance the strength in our mouths, and we’d finally put our mouthpieces in our horns and play. When concert season would start, I’d happily put my trumpet away and resume (Confession: I never stopped practicing the flute, which is why I was first chair) my flute practice. My flute embouchure was always working (just like my nonfiction chops are stronger), but in the spring when we’d reveal our fall season opener, I’d have to dust off my trumpet and once again the soreness to my lips would return.

When lips are sore from playing a brass instrument, the whole mouth is involved. The sides of your mouth–the muscles you forget are there unless you play an instrument–ache. Your lips feel mushy (I know I’m so articulate) and numb. It feels as if your lips are full of push pins or maybe what tenderized meat would feel like if it had feelings if it was, you know, alive. When you cool down your lips (like the way you cool down after a jog), your lips don’t fully regain feeling until you’ve had a cold drink. In fact, drinking cold water during a performance is frowned upon–nay, forbidden–because all that warming up gets washed away with the ice.

It is in this way that I feel about my fiction writing. I’ve been practicing my trumpet for a few hours, and my chops are busted. My brain mushy and numb. I’m dusting off my instrument after several seasons of it being enclosed in a case and stored on the top shelf of my closet. The case nearly falls onto your head as you stand on your tip-toes to reach it. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but when you open the case, you’re glad you did because you know good times are about about to roll.

The AWP 2015 Learning Curve

I’m wondering, how many of you were out there in Minneapolis this year? Anyone? What did you think?

I bumped into a peer (it’s not accurate to call this person a friend) from grad school who is now an editor at a pretty solid magazine, who was at the book fair managing the table for his or her press. It was this super-fake encounter. A discussion of art for the sake of art and not making money off a writing (those words were uttered–not by yours truly–but uttered nevertheless) ensued. I can’t say I’m proud of the fact this conversation happened. Though my peer (Good grief that sounds so snobby) seemed sincere about helping a sista out, so if our conversation leads to some baller publication, I’ll let you all know and then write a baller post about the importance of networking.

This year at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis I learned a few things…

1. I am not a fan of the midwest. I’m not saying the people from the midwest aren’t awesome; they are. My favorite comedians are all from the midwest and some of my closest friends are from the midwest. What I’m saying is I couldn’t live in Minneapolis (or Chicago, or Iowa, and definitely not anywhere in Ohio).

2. I HATE the Skyview thingy in Minneapolis. I have a pretty good sense of direction and got lost several times. At one point, on Saturday, I got lost in what I referred to as the SkyWorld and because it was a weekend it was empty and dystopian and because my mother embedded the fear of getting raped in me so very deeply, I practically ran out into the street at one point to avoid some dude in the SkyWorld. Needless to say, I’m not into it.

3. TC is warming up to me. This time TC was friendly and dare I say warm. This thrills me.

4. Chapbooks are totally having a moment. It seemed like no matter where I was: the airport in my hometown, airport in Minneapolis, the bathroom at the conference every one and their damn mother is getting a chapbook published. I’m not sure if this is a thing that mostly poets are doing (and I’m obviously not a poet), but I’m seriously wondering if I need to get on the chapbook train. Thoughts?

5. I am out of the loop. When people say names of important writers or editors, I’m like “who?” I am not sure if it’s because I’m working full-time in a job that doesn’t allow me time to read, or if it’s because I’m not working at the college level, or if I just never got into a rhythm of working to be informed. If anyone has any tips on getting with the program, it would be greatly appreciated. I do think some of that knowledge comes from submitting and learning the magazines where one submits. That is something I am definitely working on. I really want to work not only on getting more publications, but I also want to work my way into this community of writers so that next year in L.A. I know what panels to sit on to meet the “celebrities.”

What did you guys learn at AWP? Did you leave totally inspired? This was the first year I didn’t leave inspired. Instead I left with my competitive streak in tact. It’s on, people. It’s on like f**king Donkey Kong.

Jon Stewart, Thank You

So last Thursday I had a complete mental breakdown. I was severely depressed and my anxiety was back in full swing.

I’ve been having anxiety attacks for about two months now, and the only thing that gets my heart rate down and my breathing caught up is yoga. I needed to relax and it was really good timing that I was going to D.C. for the Rally to Restore Sanity this past weekend. I needed to get the hell out of town and forget my adjuncting woes. Funny how a Rally to Restore Sanity was actually able to help me restore mine. Thanks Jon Stewart.

The Boyfriend was worried about me and admitted to me that I was driving him crazy with all my complaining. I still feel really bad about this. He told me I had been complaining for a while–like two months–and he couldn’t take it any more. I don’t ever want to drive anyone crazy, especially not someone who loves and cares about me. He’s a great listener and completely understands that I need to vent my frustrations.

We were sitting in his car and he asked me about what was bothering me and I told him about how I felt like my students were depleting my nutrients. I wasn’t getting anything back from them–no stimulating conversations, no laughing, no good quality writing. I was getting apathetic, glossy looks and mediocre work. I felt like they were taking everything I had and giving me nothing in return.

While teaching is one of those jobs, I found myself thinking I might need to find another career choice. I actually thought, “maybe teaching isn’t for me.” My whole life I’ve been so sure that I was born to teach. Yes, I thought it was going to music at first but teach nevertheless. This is my fourth year as a teacher, and I can’t believe I may actually be burning out. I’m not happy about this. Because the Boyfriend is very action oriented he helped talk me through what I needed to do change my situation. This last sentence makes it sounds like he was dictating to me what I needed to do, but it was more of a “what steps do you need to take to get where you want to be?” and “how are you going to take them?” and “what do you think your next move should be?” It wasn’t like, “Hey One Mean MFA, you should be doing this and this.” Neither of us do well with orders.

Anyway, after many tears and used up tissues, I decided that I needed to stop with the super teacher bull. Being a super teacher is NOT going to get me a tenure track position. Instead,  it will suck my time away from what is most important–my writing. So, I’m done getting papers back to them immediately. I’m done with all the caring, and going out of my way for them. Done. Done. Done.

I know this may sound incredibly selfish, and when I left for D.C. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to pull it off when I came back. I have a tendency to say I’m going to do something (i.e. exercise) and then not. Although lately I’ve been good about actually doing what I’m saying. It’s the yoga, I think. It has seriously changed my life ( a yoga post to follow?).

It might be my first week back, but you want to know what people? For the first time in months–can you hear me out there?–months I actually sat down and did some writing. It felt great. Yes, I’m rusty. I’m hoping that maybe tomorrow I’ll even be sore. When I got back from work I got caught up in non-writing stuff and when I left for yoga I thought to myself, “you haven’t written one sentence.” Then I came back and took a pen to paper, which I later typed out since I do everything by hand–or at least start off by hand.

Also, the Boyfriend and I decided that I’m not going to talk about work, because the adjuncting thing is a side job. The writing is the real job. I haven’t really been talking about work. Usually I’m all–today my students did this or we were discussing that. Nope. No more. Maybe next week I’ll write even more. Regardless, it feels really good to have my f@$!ing priorities straight.

All of you out there? Have you done some writing today? If not, it’s cool, but what is holding you back?

Why Adjuncts Struggle to Break Free

I’ve been part-time teaching at two schools this semester and have been trying to figure out why my grad school professors warned us not be adjuncts. Well, today as I started grading a stack of papers that has recently dwindled from 110 to 90 papers, I now understand my professors’ advice.

In order to live comfortably as an adjunct you must teach at least four to five sections. These sections usually include at least 20 students which means come paper time you’ve got at least 100 papers to grade and comment on. While you’re grading papers and teaching 5 sections, full-time professors are teaching 3 sections, not worrying about money, and working on publications. That’s right, they are writing and focused on their careers, while the only writing you’re doing is the writing on student papers.

Recently a girlfriend of mine, who also has her MFA and was an adjunct for a while and is now a full-time instructor, called me. We spoke at length about focusing on our writing versus our students. She and I are tired of being super teacher. Being super teachers is not going to get us a tenure track jobs. This has always been my goal, and has recently become hers as well.

So, what have we decided to do to brighten our futures? The fifth of every month we will be emailing each other our writing. I’m working on perfecting my novel by adding some sections and lengthening the sections I have, and she wants to pump out some short stories. We attempted to establish some kind of consequence for not doing the writing, but decided that we weren’t afraid of each other so we established a reward instead. When we send each other our work, we will also send each other a $10 gift card to Barnes and Noble.

Our first exchange will occur on the 5th of November, and I’m eager to have a deadline and someone I trust to give me feedback. I’m hoping that this exchange will enable us both to see our work published and lead us towards being tenured professors.

In the end, what it all boils down to is worrying about yourself. In this competitive society, it is necessary to focus on you. It sounds narcissistic and selfish but I don’t really care, I’m in it to win it and if you’re an adjunct who is a super teacher, you should consider focusing on yourself even if it is brief. We must stop feeling guilty if we don’t our students their papers back immediately. Those things can wait–your career can’t.

Are there any super-teachers out there that agree with me? What about those of you who don’t? Why not focus on my own writing versus the writing of my students? Am I horrible person for thinking this way?

Hysterical Appreciation

A month ago I turned my thesis rough draft in. I busted my ass to get it done in time and the last few days I spent working on it I was convinced completing the rough draft of this novel would never happen.

It did.

I was surprised that I did it, having under estimated myself, something I do too often and is a result of my destructively low self-esteem. Seeing the manuscript printed and ready to be mailed to my professor was pretty cool. A stack of papers, half a ream of paper…whoa. The work I had done, had me on track to graduate in Spring.

I neglected to think that my thesis chair would ask me to push back my graduation, so after a failed job interview (yes, I’m still unemployed–this economy is so terrible–Great Recession, try Depression) I received an email from my chair telling me my thesis wasn’t ready for a spring graduation. My chair was kind enough to acknowledge that informing over email was harsh, but I was scheduled for a visit the following week. I’m relieved my professor told me over email because I read the email and in my already emotional state, I was hysterical. I cried and cried and cried.

I was failure. A big fat failure.

Well, after my breakdown I drove to my boyfriend’s (this seems like a luxury since for the past four years I was only able to call him, now if I get upset he gives me a hug instead of kind words over the phone miles away from each other). He helped me realize that now my thesis would be even better than if I were to graduate in Spring. I’d have three more months to make it perfect, to make it something I will be proud of.

Having a thesis I love is something very important to me. My chair knew this from the get go. My chair gives great criticism and holds me to the highest standards. This is initially why I asked this professor to be my chair. During our meeting my chair said, “It’s already good, I just want to see you take it to the next level.” That felt good. I should mention my chair doesn’t give complements out willy nilly.

I now have new deadlines. The program I’m enrolled requires M.F.A.’s to turn in a completed rough draft at the beginning of the semester they are going to graduate. Since I anticipated a spring graduation I turned my thesis in this January. Now that I’m graduating in summer my “rough draft” is due at the end of May or beginning of June. The final version is due in July and the defense is at the end of July and graduation is in August.

While this seems like a ton of time, it isn’t. Before I know it will be May and I’ll be turning it another “rough draft” which I’m hoping needs minimal revisions.

My chair was very encouraging during our meeting, pointing out my growth as a writer and easing my worries about certain aspects of my novel. Since the general concept of my novel has the potential to be cliché, I was worried this might happen, I was assured it had not.

I left my meeting almost relieved that I would have more time to write a thesis that I can be proud of and can hopefully get published. 

I have a friend from grad school who had the same thing happen to her. She turned in her rough draft and her chair advised her to push back her graduation to summer. She wrote a collection of poems for her thesis. When I was venting to her about my disappointment she told me how the same thing had happened to her. She then told me that every poem in her thesis has been published and one of her poems won a prestigious award. Hearing this made me feel better.

While my goal is to produce the best thesis possible, it would be pretty cool to have written a book that can be picked up at Barnes and Noble.

Okay I lied…

I thought I wasn’t going to write but I really needed a warm up this morning. I started to write and I have a page of crossed out sentences, which will end up in the recycling bin. Yesterday was a very productive day and today needs to be as well. Still, I’m getting a bit nervous about this thesis. While, I’m confident that with some long nights and days I’ll be able to bang out the pages, I’m super worried that it sucks.

Is this normal? To hate such a massive work. I’ve never worked on anything this big before, and as I was opening up the first chunk I realized, it’s not as big as I thought it was. I don’t know if this means I’m going to be doing a lot of revision (which is highly likely) or if I need add some more significant sub-plots.

I’ve been thinking a lot about subplots lately. I’m trying to do a lot of novel-reading since I’m writing one. I look very closely at structure since I think this is one of my weaknesses. I know what I want the major story to be about, but I never realized how important subplots were until I started to really focus on the structure of published novels. Successful novels both critically and commercially.

While, right now, my major focus is getting that main plot out, I know I’m going to have to add some more.

Every morning, when I open up the pages of this thesis on my computer I think about it the project and how much time I’ve devoted to it, and it freaks me out. I need to get over this because I’m making this project bigger than it actually is. I need to look at it for what it is: a story that needs to be told. I also need to just tell it. The rest of it will come. It will come.

Well, I feel warmed up. Happy writing!