Master of Fine Arts

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This is my last night on campus.

I am sitting alone in the room I have stayed in 5 of the 6 times I’ve come to campus.  The other time was a room in the same building, but downstairs.  My roommate, Em, shared the room with me 4 of those times, but I have had it to myself since Em’s graduation.  It is a lovely room with sparse furniture in a fairly old style that has been worn down by countless residents, both from the full residency days and from this era of low-residency degrees.

Bittersweet is a word that has come up in my thoughts a lot.  Most of my time here this time has been more sweet than bitter.  I have been wrapped up in the excitement of seeing everyone again, attending workshops, and preparing for the experience of Graduation.  This hasn’t left much time for the sadness of leaving this place.  But now, as I sit alone in my room for the last time, after having said most of my goodbyes, I feel the edge of loss.

This place has been magical.  It has changed me more than I ever imagined and probably more than I know.  I came here to learn how to write and to get that piece of paper to frame on my wall.  Much of the reason I wanted a master’s degree was for the sake of the accomplishment and for the potential higher pay that comes with higher education.  I could have gotten it in anything and when I decided that I wanted a master’s, I wasn’t particular about what I studied.  Knowledge is knowledge.

Six years and 8 months ago, I sat in the Centrum of Southern Utah University waiting to receive my Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies.  As I sat and waited, I watched as dozens of students crossed the stage to receive their master’s hoods.  As I sat in that audience, waiting for my own conferral, I realized that that was what I wanted.  I wanted to cross a stage and be hooded a Master of Something.  After graduation, I dove into working as much as I could to begin my student loan payments and rebuild my savings.  I didn’t have a plan and I didn’t have time to jump into a master’s program, so I let the idea percolate and kept an eye out for possible programs, without looking too seriously.  My advisor at SUU–the one who had to sign the paperwork to approve my request to complete an Interdisciplinary degree–had said that I should only pursue that route if I had no interest in taking my education beyond a bachelor’s degree or if I had any interest in teaching, because I would not be eligible for either.  I taught for three years starting the following Fall.  In the summer of 2012–two years after completing that bachelor’s degree–I discovered Goddard.  I began the application process, hoping to be accepted for the Spring 2013 semester.  Unfortunately, I met my fiancé right around the same time and things got serious as I got closer to the application deadline.  I realized I would have to put my education on hold if I were going to continue with this relationship and it seemed worth it at the time.  In the end, the relationship delayed my entrance into the master’s program by a year.  I have been frustrated by this on occasion.  There have been times when I wished it was already over, that I had my degree, that I didn’t have to deal with more annotations, but I could never truly wish that I had been able to enter the program when I might have, because that would mean wishing away all the incredible experiences I had during the time I went and the many wonderful people I met and bonded with.

When I started my first residency, the then program director Paul Selig told us, “People come to Goddard at the right time.”  At the time, I hoped he was right.  Now I know he was right.  Had I come at an earlier time, I would not have taken away the same things I did.  I would not have grown as much as I did because–much like the characters I’ve written about–I wasn’t ready to fully accept the change I was capable of until I let go of everything I thought I wanted and opened myself to new possibilities.

I came to Goddard when I was ready to be here.  And as sad as it is, I think I am ready to leave.  There is always more that could be learned at a place like this, but I have taken in as much as I can at this point and I am ready to move on to the next chapter.

So as of today, I can officially call myself a Master of the Fine Art of creative writing.  I still can’t wrap my brain around it.  Can one really be considered a master in something after studying it in depth for only 2-3 years?  I feel like I still have so much to learn, so many places my skills fall short, but real writers feel that way too.  I am a real writer.  I have a piece of paper to prove it.  But now the real work begins.

J

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The End

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I am on campus for the last time.  The fact that I’m graduating is finally beginning to sink in.  I have my graduate reading tonight and graduation will be tomorrow.  I’ve decided what to read; I just need to get it to the right length and practice it a few times.  I still need to write my graduation speech.  It will be short and sweet, but I don’t know what it will be about.  I have a lot of people I want to thank, but I should say something inspirational too.  I’ve considered taking something from my Process Paper, but that was quite long and I’m not sure there is anything that I can be used out of context or condensed enough to be appropriate for my 2-3 minute speech that will also include thank-yous.  I have some time to think about it, and for something so short, I would prefer not to spend too long preparing it.  I’ve been thinking about what I would say in my graduation speech for at least three semesters now, and yet I have no idea where to even begin.  I feel like I should maybe do the speech before the thank-yous, but I’m not sure.  I will ponder on it and I have had a few thoughts percolating already.

Coming back to campus has been an odd experience.  Building up to this, I was afraid I’d spend the whole time crying over the ending of all this because I started welling up every time I thought about it for months before, but it hasn’t been like that.  When I got here and got into my room, it felt like I was home again.  There are two places in the world that feel like home to me: my parents’ house in Maryland and here.  Here I can be myself.

It was very quite when I first got here, but with lunch and opening session, everything got back to its usual crazy self.  I thought I would be sad, but it’s just been exciting to see everyone again and talk about everyone’s projects and catch up and everything else.  The thing that has been most weird is that now I am the Graduating Student.  I remember my first winder residency exactly three years ago.  I was new and wide-eyed and in way out of my depths and we had a handful of students on campus who were G5s and G6s and graduating students.  I remember talking to them and wondering how I would ever make it that far.  They were experienced and had all the answers.  And now that’s me.  I don’t have all the answers, but I have quite a lot of them for the Goddard experience.  I’ve offered to answer more questions and give feedback on thesis revisions to a number of people and I hope they will take me up on that so I can stay in touch with the Goddard community.

Goddard is a magical place and Paul Selig was right when he said that we all come here at the right time.  I have changed in so many ways since this all began.  I was already in a place of transition and I was ready for a positive change.  The change here wasn’t all positive here, but I am a stronger person and a better writer than I was when I came into this program.

The most asked question I’ve gotten since I announced my graduation is: “What are you going to do now?”  I’ve come up with a variety of answers for that, some specific about what I plan to do over the next few weeks and months, others very general about what I hope to do with my MFA.  The truth is: I don’t know.  I don’t know what I’m going to do now.  I don’t know what my future holds and I don’t even know where to start.  But I know I can do hard things.  I know I can get through an intense program with impossible goals and the emotional hell that was my personal life.  I learned skills for critical and creative writing, research, endurance, and organization.  All these things can translate into other areas of my life, including countless careers that may or may not have anything to do with writing.  Most importantly though, Goddard has taught me this:

I am a writer.

If I can write, I can do anything.  And so can you.

J

 

Meh.

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This week has been incredibly long.  I blew out a tire on Tuesday, which I don’t have time to do anything about until Monday.  My new computer crashed.  I don’t need it because I still have the old one which seems to be working perfectly well (despite my concerns that it was going to crash at any moment about a year ago, right before I got the new one).  My biggest concern with that is that I had a few documents on the new computer that were not saved anywhere else: one was the journal I’ve been keeping up for the past year (which was mostly me bitching about things I don’t want to think about anymore, so it might actually be better if that was gone) and the other was the Word version of the final version of my thesis.  I do have the Word version of what I submitted as my “final” manuscript in packet 4 and I have the PDF of the actual final version that I submitted for digital archive with Goddard, so I do have my most recent changes, it’s just a matter of combing through that for the handful of typos and stuff that I fixed and applying them to the older Word version.  I don’t want to do that.  I don’t really have a need to do that.  All I really need my thesis for now is deciding what to read for my graduate reading at Goddard in a few weeks, which I can do from the old version or the PDF.  On top of these major issues with my technology, I’ve also been working about double what I usually do and trying to prep for Christmas.  It has kept me very busy and in a rather non-creative mood.  With my brain not in the mood to write–and with a mountain of books still to read to meet my Goodreads goal for the year–I’ve been focusing on reading as much as I possibly can.

I have finished six books already this month, among them are three audiobooks, two manga, and a novel I’ve been very slowly working my way through for the past year or so when I’ve had free time to read for fun.  I still need to finish 11 books to meet my goal of 30.  When I first started doing the yearly reading challenge, it was my plan to start with something somewhat manageable and then increase my reading goal each year.  I’ve been stuck at 30 for the past few years and only just managed to reach it at the very last moment, so I haven’t increased it.  Reviewing my past challenges, I see now that I’ve been doing it every year since 2011 and it has been set at 30 every year.  I didn’t meet my goal the first two years, but I did 2013-2015 and I am determined to make it again this year.  Having to read for school has been both a help and a hindrance to meeting these goals.  It does require me to read a certain number of books each semester, but I’ve also gotten stuck reading a number of books I didn’t like, so I didn’t quite push myself to the end, so I would spend a good chunk of time working my way through 300 pages of something, then give up because I had a deadline to meet and once the paper was in, then I just put it book on my “currently reading” shelf and moved on to the next thing I had to read.  Those reading assignments plus all the piles of homework and the crap with changing jobs and everything else hasn’t left much time for reading for fun (and it’s left me burnt out, so when I do have free time, I spend it on Netflix or Facebook instead of reading like I probably should be).  So, now I am fighting my way through the remaining 11 books.  One of my biggest struggles with that was that I was already in the middle of two audiobooks (maybe three?) on my other computer and now that I can’t make it work, I can’t go back to my bookmarks and the biggest reason I wanted the new computer is that the audiojack on this one doesn’t quite work, so listening is hard to do.  But I’m making it work.  I found a collection of Richard Matheson short stories (previously known as Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, but now changed to The Box because of the movie by the same name which was based on the short story “Button, Button”) that I had been in the middle of, so I’m working on that, plus some more manga and a couple of new audiobooks.  I am very determined.  I have to read about one book every 1.36 days to meet my goal.  That’s not hard.  Not at all.  If you don’t hear from me this time next week, it’s because I’m reading.

J

 

The Culture is in the Details

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Now that the semester is officially over, I am taking a brief hiatus from writing to have a breather and catch up on all the other life stuff that lived on the back burner during my last year–and particularly my last semester–of my graduate program (like making enough money to pay my bills).  As such, I don’t have much in the way of new news or ideas on writing, so I thought I’d share my final (and 48th, I can’t even believe I wrote that many) annotation.  I think the information is particularly useful if you’re writing about a culture that your readers may be unfamiliar with as might be found in a historical or speculative (especially fantasy) setting.  It could also be useful for stories set in the present world that you hope will be read in the future, or set in one culture that may differ from that of the anticipated audience, to ground readers who may not be familiar with the culture of the story.

 

“The Culture is in the Details”

The Epic of Gilgamesh* is a story found written in cuneiform on ancient clay tablets discovered in Nineveh during the mid 19th century (9).  It was written in the distant past by and about a people none of us today would know anything about, were it not for the endurance of ancient writings like these.  This story is a heroic epic that, in many ways, could sound like any other heroic tale from ancient history and many modern ones as well, except for the details that ground us in this particular ancient culture.  Many of these cultural details can be found in the introduction of Enkidu, who becomes close friends with Gilgamesh, the hero of this tale:

So the goddess conceived an image in her mind, and it was of the stuff of Anu of the firmament.  She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created.  There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself.  His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn.  His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle.  He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.  (62-63)

From this, we learn that in this culture, the act of creation may be done by a woman: the goddess Aruru (62, 120).  As so many cultures are patriarchal, it is an interesting glimpse into the perception of a woman’s responsibilities and value within this society.  Aruru creates this man from water and clay, reminiscent to the creation of Adam in Christian lore.  This would suggest similar influences to those of Christianity, but it is clearly not the same culture because the creator here is a woman while the god of the Bible is a man.  In this society, women are held with a certain amount of respect for their creative powers.  In this description of creation, there is also mention of Anu, the sky god (120).  From this we understand that this culture has multiple gods.  In this passage, we can see that there is a balance of male and female influence for the act of creation, which shows us that the reality of the human experience is reflected in the gods of this people.  It is also likely that they value the coupling of men and women for the creation of future generations.

This passage brings up Ninurta, the god of war.  War must be an important to these people as they have a specific god that represents it.  We assume that warriors are valued in this society because the storyteller points out the similarity between this man and the god of war and describes this similarity as “virtue,” so we see that being warlike is a positive trait for these people.

The passage describes Enkidu as having “long hair like a woman’s.”  This gives us a better picture of the people in this culture.  Women have long hair while men keep it shorter.  It is clear that the fact that this man has long hair is unusual, because the storyteller felt the need to point it out and also describe it as being similar to a woman’s rather than a subset of men in the culture.

We learn about Nisaba, the goddess of corn.  We know that Nisaba is a woman and that she wears her hair long as do the human women of this culture.  Corn is also an important good in this culture, because there is a goddess specifically for it, rather than one for all crops or all plants.  It could be that corn is their main crop, or it could be that all the other crops have gods or goddesses as well, but this particular one was pointed out because of the hair.  This small detail shows us a bit about this culture, but also makes us wonder about the bigger picture.

Samuqan is described as the god of cattle.  These people must raise cattle in addition to their crops, so we can begin to picture what their country may look like: a combination of fields and pasture for cattle.  We can assume that these people consume meat, either cows or a similar type of animal, because this is the most common reason for raising cattle.

In the final sentence, we see the divide between civilization and the wilds.  Enkidu is described as wild in appearance and now we can see that those living among beasts can be compared to them.  Men are not born civilized, but must learn to be tame.  These people consider themselves to be properly civilized and this is valued.

Just from this one passage, we can learn a great deal about Gilgamesh’s people.  Along with introducing a primary character of the story, it shows us the religious and industrial experiences of these people.  Using techniques such as these can help ground new readers in an unfamiliar world.  By using cultural details to describe this new character, we get a clearer picture of the person in question, but it also serves to bring us deeper into this new world in a straightforward way.  Following this example in our own work will allow us to use a simple character description to serve multiple purposes and quickly immerse our readers in the new and unfamiliar settings of a new world.

*The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sandars. London: Penguin, 1960. Print.

 

I hope some of you have found this post useful.  Along with my planned regular posting, I intend to start posting some of the annotations I’ve been working on over the past three years.  I’ll try to post the ones I think are more interesting or that are pertinent to what I’m working on at the time.  If any of you readers out there have questions about any particular aspect of the craft of writing, send them my way.  I bet you anything I’ve got an annotation that will apply.  If not, I’ll write you one.

Happy reading, happy writing, until next time,

J

 

Just Do It.

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“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”

― Augusta F. Kantra

*     *     *

Also:

 

And hopefully that is the kick in the pants I need to get this finished…

J

What’s In the Box??

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The cat lives.

My manuscript passed.

It is a relief and now I can get back on track with everything else.  I went into the semester with the intention of graduating, making it clear to my adviser and second reader that I needed to graduate this semester.  When I sent off my manuscript, I was worried, but I felt good about the work I had accomplished.  I have been going about this semester with the expectation that my manuscript would pass in Packet 4 and that I would be graduating in January.  I had some brief but very strong doubts that this might not be the case, but in the end, everything I prepared for and expected worked out.

So.  I still have a handful of documents I need to finish, all of which are due in the mail on the 10th (because the post office is closed on Veteran’s Day).  Now that I put off much of that work in favor of rushing through the copy edits for the Pitkin Review, I have very little time to finish, but it is all still very doable.

With that in mind, I have a stack of work to do and it is quite late, so I am off to sleep, then a very long day of work which I hope will allow me some downtime to work on my homework, then a couple of days off in which I will dive into the last bit of work for my Master’s degree.

Even with my expectations going into this semester, it is hard to wrap my brain around The Last Packet.  But that is what I’m on.

Schrödinger and Other News

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I’ve had the feeling that the news would arrive today.  Therefore, I have been avoiding my school inbox all day.  I finally decided to be responsible to check it because I am also waiting for a manuscript I’m copy editing that was supposed to come last night and still wasn’t there this morning and I really need to get working on that.  As I feared, at the top of my inbox was an email from my adviser, subject: “Manuscript Response.”  Nothing in the subject or the body of the email that gmail previews gives me any clue as to whether or not I’ve passed.  Until I open that email and read her full response, I have simultaneously passed and failed my graduate degree.  As long as I wait, as long as I don’t open that email, I can go on believing that I’ve passed and I can hold onto hope.  But also, not knowing, not opening that email, holds me in a place of limbo.  Once I open that email, I will be forced to act in one way or another.  Once I open that email, I will know if my manuscript passed and I will know what I need to do next.  Either way, it’s going to be a difficult road.

If I passed, then I will finish out this semester.  I will finish my lengthy and emotionally raw Process Paper and the last bits of graduation paperwork.  I will go to Vermont in January and I will receive a document stating my completion of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  I will no longer be a student.  I will once again have to figure out what to do with my life, what my next step will be.  I haven’t had time to properly study for the GRE, so I won’t be starting a new program in the fall as I had hoped.  My manuscript, even passed, is no where near publishable, so I can’t jump into the world of being a full-time writer.  It’s completely open and it terrifies me.  I am a person who loves plans.  Everything is a plan.  But I don’t have a plan for when I finish this program.

If I failed, then I will be looking at an extension or a sixth semester.  I am exhausted.  As much as I love Goddard, I can’t push myself through another semester in this program and with all the work I’ve done this semester, I don’t see how any revisions I have left could require another full semester, not to mention all the paperwork I would have to repeat and the additional annotations I would have to do (I already had to do 3 more annotations than required to graduate by taking a fifth semester).  The only bonus of doing a full semester rather than an extension is that I am already cleared for a student loan to cover the semester while I would have to pay for an extension out of pocket.  Which brings us to the issue of an extension.  It’s a few thousand dollars that I absolutely do not have (I’m a starving artist on top of being a student; money’s a thing I kinda remember having in another life).  They do payment plans and I might be able to borrow the money elsewhere, but it will be tight no matter what I do.  An extension would also push of graduation.  Summer is a nice time for graduation, but all my friends will have graduated by then.  I was really looking forward to a January graduation because the last two holdouts from my original group that arrive January three years ago will be graduating then and I wanted to be able to walk with them.

As long as I don’t open the box, I don’t know.  I don’t have to move forward on one of these paths.  I can sit here in limbo and hope for an outcome and try to come up with more plans for either one, but it’s safer.  I have never been more afraid to open a box.

J

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It Is Finished

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That’s that.  My manuscript is finished and in the mail, awaiting approval from my adviser and second reader.  I expect it to be a week or more before I hear back and find out if I finally get to graduate, but in the meantime, I could use a breather.  The process of this novel has been physically and emotionally exhausting, but I’m feeling really good about it.  I know it has a long way to go before I’m ready to publish, but I made incredible progress over the course of this program.  Two full semesters of revising, three new drafts since I finished the first draft at the end of my second semester.

My final book is 314 pages and 103,734 words.

And now I take a deep breath and wait.

J

LOA *Not the voodoo kind

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Packet 5 (the last of my G2 semester) made it into the mail on Friday just as the post office was closing.  I had it all on track, but I had some last minute issues that pushed me far closer to the deadline than was in any way comfortable with.  What matters is that it made it.  I can breathe again.

Yesterday, I submitted my End of Semester Self-Evaluation.  A troublesome document accounting for all the work I did over the semester, how it meets my goals, and what I plan to do next semester.  It’s a pain and rather stressful to throw together if you’re not expecting it (I wasn’t last semester, this time I was, but not a few days early), but it’s a perfectly reasonable expectation since this program is largely independent study.  I don’t take classes, so how else do they keep track of my progress through the program?

So, with that all out of the way, my second semester of grad school is officially over.  Woohoo!

And now for the good news/bad news.  I won’t be going back to school for another 6 months.  Yup.  I will be dealing with some major life changes (new location, new employment, new who knows what else), which will make it very difficult to continue school during that time, especially with the Teaching Practicum.  In addition, I wasn’t able to finish as much as I’d hoped this last semester, so it will be very helpful to have a little extra time to work on these things on my own before I dive into my third semester, which promises to be more difficult than the last, even without moving right in the middle of it.

I am relieved to have a break from the snowballing pace of this program and excited to have a bit of time to work on my novel without worrying about deadlines or people reading over my shoulder, so the break will be a good thing.  But at the same time, I’m really going to miss all my friends at Goddard.  The community there is fantastic.  It’s just an amazingly wonderful experience to spend a week with a bunch of other crazy writers who are just as passionate about their work as I am about mine.  Residency has been one of the best experiences of my life with the intense focus on writing, workshops, readings, visiting writers, it gets me so pumped to dive into my work and I learn so much in such an incredibly beautiful location.  I seriously can’t say enough about the community and the event itself.  So I will really miss not going up for another gorgeous Vermont winter with all the writers I’ve been celebrating and commiserating with over the last two semesters, especially the G2 Fireballs and the new G1 YA writers.

Taking this Leave of Absence was, surprisingly, one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make.  I’m really going to miss everyone and I’m going to miss the energy and excitement of Residency this semester, but taking this break is what I’ve got to do at this point in my life and in the program.

I plan to keep up with this blog so everyone can see my progress without the regular deadlines of school.  Hopefully keeping up with this will help me keep on track with my goals for the semester off so I come back for my G3 stronger than ever.  And I will see everyone again in June for the next Residency!

So, dear readers, keep in touch about your writing plans and progress, because I don’t want to slip out of the loop while I’m away.  Happy Writing!

J

Halloween and other Frightening Things

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If one door opens

Packet 3 is in the mail!  I just barely made my extended due date, the work is not up to par, and it is the skinniest packed I’ve ever submitted (25 pages out of the 40 pages maximum allowed), but it is in the mail and I can move on.  This semester has been going very badly between unexpected and overwhelming demands at work and the usual struggle of working on a graduate degree.  My advisor has been flexible and generous with extensions, without which, I would probably have already failed this semester.

It all sucks and I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but sometimes life is hard and we just have to keep pushing through it.  So I keep going because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  I want to be a great writer, and right now this is what I have to do to get there.  I will be changing jobs before my next semester so that I have more time to dedicate to my studies, but for now, I just have to

Keep Calm

and

Write On

Good luck to all of you in your creative (and other) endeavours.  And Happy Halloween Month!

J