Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why I Write: A Guest Post

I am thrilled.  I had the opportunity to write a guest post on Why I Write at Beth Hoffman's blog.  Check it out here.  Beth Hoffman is the author of Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt a beautiful novel that everyone, and I mean everyone, should read.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Check out my attempt at fiction:
“You are fiery, I can tell. Fire signs are the signs of life and action, but also the signs of danger.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just Another Firery Redhead

I like to consider myself a rationalist, someone not privy to emotional outbursts or reactionary thought.  I like to think I can balance my experience with education and make informed decisions rather than simply living through what others might perceive as my destined journey through life.  But as much as I like to say these things, I am a firey person, from my red hair and temper to my unrestrained drive toward achievement.  
When I moved to Texas two years ago, to a small apartment complex in San Antonio between two mega churches adorned with signs like "He determines your path, it's up to you to follow" I worried I would not fit in.  Only a few days in my new home, a neighbor who was drinking a can of beer as he walked his dog approached me to introduce himself (yes, a version of this scene came up in a piece of fiction).  We exchanged few words of introduction before he asked me if I had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my own personal savior, and when I told him I was agnostic, he kindly explained that I would come around, we each come around in our own time.  I nodded and said that anything was possible, and we parted ways politely as I thought to myself, "This man's head is in the clouds."  From that day forward, the dude made me uncomfortable because every time I saw him, he preached at me.
When I began working at a local community college, I met who is now one of my most valued friends.  We were both writers, which gave us easy rapport.  We began a small writing group and as we began to hang out more, she revealed her fascination with Astrology, explaining that she was a water sign, an easy friend for firey signs like myself.  She asked if she could do my chart, and when I hesitated, she said it was just for fun.
My birthday is August 16th, I am a Leo.  My firey nature causes me to act, sometimes act out, and it gives me a certain drive that I must be careful to reign in from time to time, she said.  She told me I was destined to travel and use creative expression as a means toward spiritual enlightenment.  I said, "OK..."
When I write, I don't think rationally.  I just go for it.  In other aspects of life, I try to plan and make informed decisions before I act.  In writing, I simply dive in, head first.  So, I reasoned, my chart was believable enough, though still vague enough to dismiss as blanket forecasting.  Nonetheless, I became interested--in a rational way, mind you--in Astrology, namely to figure out why my friend seemed so interested.  She seemed, I thought, a person with her two feet on the ground, and the way she studied the subject intrigued me.  
Astrology and Astronomy were not always exclusive fields.  In the time of Aristotle, there was nothing fantastical or short of scientific to the study of stars, even for the purpose of forecasting.  "There are cycles we cannot deny," my friend once said, upon returning from a weekend Astrology retreat, in which she spent two nights watching the stars and discussing the science behind Astrology in New Mexico with a group of like-minded practitioners.
"That's true, but why do you think you can predict anything based on a system that leaves so much room for error.  Astrology doesn't take into account the conditions a person grows up in, it doesn't reflect genetics or psychological shifts, evolution or even how a person's spirituality may change their way of living."  I said all this at once, the challenging statement was one that had been festering and growing since she'd read my chart months before.  I had found myself beginning to make connections (I sit in a room and no one takes the chair next to me until all others are occupied--this is not a personal thing, it's because you are a fire sign, my friend had said, people respond to your energy.  It's intimidating, even if you do not appear to be).
My friend is a water sign, one who will, according to Astrology, adapt easily to change and balance out fixed signs like fire with an open mind and easy-going spirit.  She tells me we were destined to get along.  Out of sheer rational curiosity, I have begun to study the Astrology with my friend, and although I do not fully accept it as a science, there are undeniable patterns. The fire and water, earth and air signs all have tells, and it's almost comical how often my friend will whisper a person's sign to me upon meeting them.  If the person seems good humored, she'll ask him his birthday, and maybe it's luck but she's been right each time.  
Whether or not Astrology is an outdated and often gimicky science (see your daily horoscope in the paper), there is an undeniable correlation to the patterns of human behavior and the alignment of stars.  I am not saying I'll get my chart read again, nor am I saying that I won't.  I'm not saying that Astrology should still be considered an area of science that is indistinguishable from Astronomy, but I will say that I've come to realize that rationalism is only so helpful.  In many ways, what I considered faulty about the notions of destiny and emotional drive is wrong with the stance of utter rigidity--thinking I can research any one thing enough so that it only has one side.  The world isn't that simple, and so when I see my neighbor now, who still tells me about his personal relationship with God every chance he gets, I don't feel so uncomfortable.  I just listen because their is some basis for every belief.  Whatever balance there is between fire and water, there must be between air and earth as well.  And as a person who chooses not to define my own belief system, who am I to say otherwise?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Value of Local Writing Groups

A few weeks ago, I posted a mock-plea for a mentor (mock, that is, unless anyone wants to take on the role).  A few months before that, I posted a worrisome rant about leaving graduate school and, consequently, an accountable and invaluable community of readers and writers who were guaranteed to be there.  Apparently I need writers around me all the time or I panic.

It's probably no surprise that I am part of a writing group in San Antonio, a hodgepodge of talented writers, who contribute varied perspectives and advice while also producing an eclectic mixture of submissions.  We meet every month (we all have day jobs, and even this is stretching it), but it's only after graduating that I realize how valuable this small community of writers is to my own development and literary peace of mind.

Groups like this don't always work so well.  I've heard horror stories about friends joining groups that are harsh and competitive or worse still, filled with people-pleasing hacks who are only there to stroke egos over fattening coffee drinks and scones.  So, for all my whining and worrying about not having a paid community, I've neglected to mention what I do have--a dynamic, albeit small, group of serious writers, honest reviewers, who keep me going.

If you don't have a writing group, I highly suggest finding one.  Like the love of your life, the psychologist who isn't crazier than you, the best friend or the well-behaved dog, it might take a few false starts to find that perfect group, but they're out there.  Believe me.  One place to find writing groups in your area is on Meetup, especially if you've recently moved or are unaware of the writing community in your area.  Another option is to find online writing groups, such as those on Goodreads.

My group came together slowly.  At first it was just me and a friend trading work.  When we took a writing course on flash fiction, the teacher's style intrigued me and I invited him to join.  From there, one by one, people began to show interest and just like that a writing group was formed.  But this doesn't always happen, sometimes it just doesn't work, or other members are not as invested as you, and so it's always a gamble.  But it's worth it to try.

[what does that frog have to do with anything?]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Week of Nothing -or- My Summer Vacation

I spent the last few days off of work, and although there was plenty I could have done: make an over-due dentist appointment, rearrange my apartment, clean out my closet, organize my paperwork, make a budget for the next few months… I didn’t do any of it. Actually, now that I have it all written down, I’ll probably start chipping away at the list.
But no, over the last few days, I did very little outside of keeping my living area clean, masterminding my syllabi for my fall classes, exercising from time to time, eating, reading (Nabokov's The Original of Laura, until I started feeling guilty about reading something that a dying man wanted destroyed) and bad-mouthing LeBron James for doing the very thing most successful people do when they’re from the Midwest: leave it behind.
My energy has been rather low, so inaction suited me well enough—I didn’t feel jittery or guilty like I usually do when I’m not productive. Oh, and I got a little writing done, though not enough to be proud of. I just picked and pruned and decided what I had no choice to keep. So, that was my week. Boring, eh?
Well, I thought I’d share it anyway, seeing as how I’ve been consistent with this blog thing the past few weeks, posting every Saturday. So, since I have nothing to rant about (I could go on about LeBron, but let’s be honest, I’m was never a contracted athlete, and still I couldn’t wait to leave Columbus—I can only imagine the wanderlust burgeoning in Akron, and so I’ll keep my feelings to myself so as not to come across as hypocritical), I posted about my week, which consisted of doing near-nothing. I’ll get back on my game next week.

[ Musical Chairs Plug :: The Kindle version is only $3.99 for a short time.  I've never read anything on Kindle, including my own book, so I don't know how to sell the experience, but chances are the story is similar to the one in the book, maybe even the same, so if you are a Kindle reader, and you've been toying with the idea of buying Musical Chairs, hey, it's a sale (other books are on sale as well through --this is a publisher sale, and there are some damn-good books with the press).  Wow, this turned into a really, really long sales pitch. ]

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mentor Wanted: promising new writer is actively seeking companionship and guidance...

My father has always been my artistic mentor, and he taught me how valuable a creative mind is, how important it is to respect the creative process and not bog it down with over-analysis. But when I decided to become a writer, around age twenty, and I began to study this single art exclusively, I thought it would only be a matter of time before I found a writing mentor. I waited, I grew impatient; but, much to my dismay, no one applied to this unannounced position I wanted filled.

I was sure that I would find that one established writer, someone who had reached many of the goals I made for myself, and that this one person (probably a professor) would fall so head-over-heels in love with my writing and promise that s/he would become a personal guide as I embarked on the writing life. This person would become more than a professor and friend; this person would hold my hand.

I've found many such people who fulfilled this role in the classroom. The first of these mentors and one of my good friends, Dr. Shannon Lakanen, introduced me to creative nonfiction and its masters: Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Hazlitt, and, of course, Phillip Lopate. She encouraged me to apply for a Master’s program, an idea I had already dismissed as a possibility. “You have to try, Jen,” she’d said. I only had the money to afford one application fee that year, and so I applied to my first choice, Bennington’s MFA program, and I applied here largely because Phillip Lopate was a professor there and I thought I might have a shot of working with him. Somehow, I got in. And, somehow, I even had the pleasure of working with him and he, like Dr. Lakanen, encouraged me to continue writing and continue my education, and who taught me invaluable lessons about writing and just what it would take to achieve my goals. I worked with Susan Cheever and Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts and Bernard Cooper, and for the duration of my program, I felt the pleasure of an available and all-knowing mentor at all times, a person I could always go to with questions and who would offer me much-needed criticism and encouragement.

I can’t say any of these accomplished writers fell head-over-heels, at least not to the extent I had imagined. I didn’t find my Gertrude Stein, and I wasn’t offered any agent’s phone numbers or fellowships. And so, when I graduated, I felt almost as though I had failed at something, and I wondered what I had done wrong, why I had only earned the romantic interlude of literary relationships but no one wanted to commit. I have friends and mentors, and some lasting relationships with these writers and teachers I admire, but no one offered me a room in their home or a detailed road map of the game. I still longed for such a mentorship the way I used to long for love, before I met my husband. It seemed so necessary and obtainable, but at the same time, so far from my reach.

Some writers do find mentorships that are akin to great love affairs; I know because I’ve read such accounts and they largely fed my fantasy. But, much like falling in love or finding a lasting friendship, these relationships can not be forced or planned out, they must happen naturally. What’s more, they never happen when or how you want them to. They just happen.

Since I began teaching in spring, and since I’ve been working at a writing center as a tutor, then coordinator, I began to notice the eager gaze of a budding writer, and although I work with many, many beginning writers on a temporary basis, I never really thought of myself as a mentor. I thought of my role in academia as more of a vessel; I was there to pass along knowledge that had been passed on to me. I still didn’t quite get the fact that some of the writers I worked with were hoping for the same things I was, a mentor and guide, an experienced partner who would steer them through those first rocky years of education and help them to realize a unique voice that would shake up the world, if only they found someone to believe in them.

At this point in my career, I have begun to realize the value of these temporary mentorships from the other side. The energy of students who truly believe they have a calling to write and who will do anything to figure out how to do it best is as valuable a gift as the relationships I’ve had with mentors. I’m yet to own a house with a guest room or secure the sort of literary connections that would attract the more business-minded writers that are just now breaking onto the scene. I’m still breaking in myself, but as my definition of mentorship has extended and as I begin to more fully understand the dynamic, if you will, I find I am less romanticized by the idea of that single literary shaman, I used to wait for. And I value all the more those who’ve reached out to me all the more as I attempt to reach out to my students. As my definition of mentorship has altered, I’ve begun to realize that the reality of this cycle is far more valuable than my original idea. And although I would not turn down a fellowship offered me, I realize that the opportunity sometimes comes in a less concentrated but far more rewarding and equally nurturing form. I am at the crux of this mentoring cycle, and I know that this stage of the game is exactly where I need to be right now.

Observations: Dublin Vacation

Dublin seemed the obvious destination. We would be close to various restaurants and tourist attractions. It would be easy to call a cab or...