On Snow and Fiction

{Written for a guest post for The MFA Years, a blog following the experiences of first year and second year MFA candidates in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.}

When I travel north from the South, the South in the winter, the South that is grey-and-brown bleary and blurred with a sleepy, grungy sort of winter, the snow is captivating. The similes have all been written: snow like glitter, snow like a blanket, soft snow, white as snow, pure and sparkling. And it is enchanting, it is, this soft, unadulterated substance that dusts the earth.

Over winter break, we drove the 14 hours north (from my school, in South Carolina, to home in Chicago). We slowly progressed towards the cold.

I let myself be enchanted by the snow this year. It’s been a while. As we neared the Chicago suburbs, I pressed my face against the glass of my passenger seat window. I giggled involuntarily at the scene.

It is magical, mystical, and that, I think, is in the soft covering. The suppression, the gentle blanketing. Overnight, in a few hours of tufts drifting down, the world is clean and new. It’s pure and sublime.

It’s not us.

While watching the evening snowfall through my window, something struck me: the fleeting nature of this enchantment. Temporary, this purity, this glittering drifting veil.

This year has been ugly. It’s been full of anger, full of discrimination and shame and ugly words and harshness. And this ugliness isn’t done. Our nation has healing to do, but it also has work to do, hard work to bring about justice and care and to fight for those who can’t fight. I don’t think what we’re seeing is a turn for the worse; I think it’s an uncovering. The exposure isn’t something to fight. We should not wish to blanket the ugly—we should embrace this uncovering, painful as it is, so that we can fight against what is ugly underneath and work toward growth. I won’t assume for a second to know how to do this, but my vote would be a return to our humanity and commonality.

What the snow does: it covers those grey sidewalks with their flattened, darker-grey gum patches. It covers the dog shit in the parks, the mucky puddles in parking lots. It covers with white, with pure, with intricate designs of crystal. If only our society had a reset like this I thought while watching this snow float down, my face pressed against the car window.

But no. Covering doesn’t heal; blanketing doesn’t repair what’s underneath. Snow is temporary, and it soon melts. It is plowed so that we can get on with our lives, so that we can get on to our jobs and our endlessly busy schedules of do-see-make. It becomes sludge, and then it is gone. We’re left with what’s uncovered.

I’ve been grappling, in this difficult year, of what the role of a writer should be in a broken world. I’m in graduate school for my MFA in fiction—to what purpose? Why write things that don’t exist, people who haven’t been born, events that have transpired? What’s the point?

Art can make an impact. Art can certainly be a catalyst for change. But when the ugliness and brokenness is deeply ingrained in society, we need more than a gentle catalyst.

In my MFA program, I’m surrounded by observers, feelers, thinkers. Writing requires examining and imagining. Within the fiction discipline in particular, my peers are habitual empathizers. We spend our time crafting voices and characters often vastly different than ourselves. We use our own experiences as insight into the human condition. We feel, we observe, and we write.

The weeks after the election, my classes were quiet, heavy, shaded by fear. Heavy with the fears of my cohort, but also heavy with the fears they observe in all of society.

Writing, to me, is about shedding light on the human condition. It’s about what we have in common, the good and the bad.

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are,” says Anne Lamott of writers. Sometimes, the understanding is uncomfortable.

In some senses, maybe we artists are a little like snow. We offer a moment to focus on something carefully created instead of what’s unpleasant and present.

This, though, like all covering, must be temporary. What I write will be likely forgotten, and that is okay. It’s okay as long as, somehow, what I write also illuminates a commonality. Humanity, all of us, we fear. We experience joy and pain and confusion. Art reminds us of that; fiction reminds us of that.

Effort will be necessary to change this splintering country, so necessary, but it’s also crucial, I think, to remember how much we have in common. As I continue my MFA, that will be my focus: the human condition and our universal ability to sympathize, because like it or not, we’re not as different as we’d sometimes believe. I think fiction proves that.

Amuse-Bouche Spotlight in Lunch Ticket

I hunt in the morning, because the world makes sense when you watch it beginning.

The woods, they wake up like my 5-year-old, Emma. Kind of slowly, fluttering, then suddenly it’s all action everywhere all at once and you can’t keep up. The trees and bushes light up from inside, and then the sun peeks up and you realize the glowing was just the light rays racing faster than the sunrise and sticking themselves to everything they hit. Then the squirrels start up trees and before you can take it all in it’s the day already.

This October morning, I bring my ten-year-old, Heathcliff, along to the woods. It’s his first time hunting. Tessa took a picture of us in front of my truck, him in his camo clothes and neon orange hat and shaking like an aspen leaf from excitement. The flash of the camera left black splotches in my line of vision for half of the drive out here, to the woods where I hunt. We didn’t talk during the drive, because mornings are a time for quiet peace, and Heath knows that, too, I can tell.

It’s a cold dark, and I can feel my breath turn wet on my lips when I breathe into my collar. Heath’s eyes are wide, probably so he can see better, and he picks his feet up high to get over the corn stalks sticking out of the frosted field. It looks like he’s got tapetum in those dark eyes – tapetum’s the iridescent pigment layer in a deer’s eye, the part that glints when they run in front of your truck and your headlights shine at them. They’re eyes like his mother’s, when they glint at me. Like when we were on our honeymoon, and went swimming in the ocean at night. Wait, she’d said when I waded away from her. Be careful. There might be a current. The moonlight had flashed off her eyes and her pale shoulders.

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Interview with The 3288 Review

I was interviewed. Couldn’t figure out how to post a live webpage, so click here to check it out.

3288 has published three of my pieces–one nonfiction, two fiction. They recently accepted another fiction piece, which will be coming in February (Issue 2.3).

[The 3288 Review is a project of Caffeinated Press. They are a quarterly literary journal focused on discovering and showcasing artistic talent from West Michigan and beyond.]

 

 

to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists of idleness

mary-oliver-2

Why don’t you get going?

I said this to myself once, twice, three times this week. Grab that computer. Pound out some fiction.

But that’s not writing. It’s not deadlines, ambition, check check check done. It’s a relationship, a lover, time spent reveling because nothing else seems worth the time of day in contrast.

Sometimes it’s finished stories. Sometimes, though, it’s not. Often, it’s just words and imaginings and grasping at truth and finding that it’s only possible to capture a glimpse of life.

“Why fiction?,” one of my literature profs asked me last week. “Why do you waste your time with fiction?” That’s a direct quote.

Because it’s art. Because it’s science. Because it’s trying to portray the human condition while telling an untruth. Because it’s indefinable, and I’ll never reach the end or exhaust of all of the words.

Because even though Ambition is tugging, I frankly don’t care to come in out of the rain.

 

USC community

I’m heading into my third week at USC, and as the youngest in the program, I’m just now shaking off my quixotic vision of my future as a writer. Grad school is going to be tough. Picture this: working a full-time job. Then add coursework. Tutoring as well. Oh, also, you’d like to dedicate hours a day to your writing. (If you didn’t catch the parallel: that’s my life.)

Who knows how I’ll juggle it. But I will. And I *hopefully* won’t forget that these three years are nothing short of a privilege.

Columbia, as a city, has yet to capture my heart. It’s hot. Oh, it’s hot. And because Columbia is the state capital, it’s had years and years to expand and seep into the area surrounding the city. Concrete sprawls everywhere, holding the vicious heat in like an oven. The streets are disjointed and sporadic; I’ve lost my confidence in my own navigation abilities. And parking at USC is terrible. Ask anyone. Faculty, in particular, love to tell you how terrible parking is.

Minor complaints aside, I’m eager for these next three years. I chose the University of South Carolina because, when I visited back during my months of decision-making, I was struck by the sense of community within the writer cohort. It wasn’t an illusion.

We’ve set out to be writers–the most difficult, taxing, perhaps ludicrous, maybe worthy thing that we could purpose to do. Without a community who has committed to the same level of insanity, I venture that we’d be lost. I’m already infatuated with the Carolina creative writers and the family that they form. They’re a fascinating, inspiring, talented group. And I’ve somehow fooled them into pulling me into their circle.

At USC, not only are English grad students on the same academic team–faculty, too, are dedicated to our professionalization and general growth. “We’re not in the undergraduate business of making it difficult for you to get a degree,” one prof said. “We think of you as future academic peers, and we’re going to work alongside you to help you achieve that.”

USC is among the top 25 Creative Writing programs, but, to be sure, it isn’t Iowa or Michener. That said, I’d personally award bonus ranking points to the program because it is, in the true sense of the word, collegial. A harmonious, united, reciprocal collective. That’s a quality difficult for Poets and Writers to rank, but one that should be at the forefront of MFA program criterion.

This writing business–it isn’t done alone. I’m not the first to say so, and I won’t be the last.

Deciding where to study for an MFA is an overwhelming and complex decision. Somehow, I landed here, where I should be. My advice to those still in the process: find a student, or two, or four, within the programs to which you’re applying. Ask them about the environment in workshop. Ask them whether they get drinks with their cohort after class. Ask them if the program feels like home.

 

Fiction’s Always Kinda True

Here’s the truth: fiction’s a lie. Here’s the other truth: it’s never not true.

Successful fiction, at the core, illuminates something real about the human condition. I can’t pretend to be an expert, not yet, but I know that much. That’s why my writing is always character-driven. I was lucky enough to be raised in an overbearing, smothering, and immeasurably loving family that also happens to be huge (we just celebrated the birth of our 100th living member, from the grandparents down, and that’s just on my mother’s side). In short: I’ve always been surrounded by characters, and I’ve always been a student of characters. All of humanity is my subject of study.

My characters are, more often than not, inspired by real people. They’re not exact replicas (that would take away any level of creativity), but there is always a hint of truth in them. Take any of my stories and point to the protagonist, and I could identify the hint of reality in them. This hunter in this story has my father’s introspection; this child in this story has the quirk of the child I nanny; this grandfather in this story smells like my grandfather did.

I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with E.J. Levy, author of “Love, in Theory.” Levy’s writing is nothing short of phenomenal; her characters are so precise, so human, so real. “Give your characters a real trait — make them look like someone you know, say something you’ve heard, do something you’ve seen — and they’ll become real to you,” she advised me, when I asked her for character-developing advice. (That’s paraphrasing. I can’t remember her exact words. A brief example of reality twisted into fictional truth.)

So this, I suppose, is a warning to everyone I interact with: you, or something about you, could become a character.

The first story that I ever wrote came more easily than any story has ever come. I sat at a coffee shop, decided to write in second person, and was finished within three hours. It’s unfair, really, that I began writing thinking it’d be so effortless. This story flowed because it was rooted in reality: the mother in this story is afraid of what, in my observation, my own mother is afraid of. I think the character developed easily because she, at her core, wasn’t fiction at all.

Mom: this mother is not you. Know that. She only shares a fear, but fears are such magnifiers of character that she feels like a biography.

How to Raise Her

When she eats her strawberry Pop-Tarts and scrambled eggs on her first day of high school, your daughter will look like you did at her age: untamable hair, nearly sweating out naïve excitement and nervousness. She’ll be prettier and more intelligent, though.

Do not cry when you drop her off at the brick building that will shape her for the next four years. Don’t envy the walls that will see more of her than you will. And don’t ask her to pose for a picture. Make a mental recording of her “You too, Mom” when you tell her you love her.

Take her side when her father questions her modified wardrobe choices. Her short shorts will remind you of Jersey Shore, too, but know that you have to pick your battles. Stay her friend for as long as possible. Explain to your husband that styles are changing.  Take her shopping at Kohl’s, where shorts are slightly longer. When she complains that Kohl’s is for old ladies, claim that you just have to use up your coupons.

While you’re at the bank, you may see a flyer from Patty’s Pottery Place advertising classes for middle-aged women. You have a high schooler. You’re middle-aged. You might take a phone number tag without really knowing why.

Watch her interact with her friends when you drop snickerdoodles off at her Homecoming pep rally. Don’t be alarmed if you cannot keep up with the dialogue speed that rivals infomercial health disclaimers.  Remind yourself that teens have to find who they are for themselves when you note that her sentences lack substance. As long as she continues to stay up late with a flashlight and a worn Charlotte Bronte paperback, know that she is still the bright girl you taught to read, curled up on her bedspread, sounding out Dr. Seuss and Franklin the Turtle.

Call Patty’s Pottery Place.  Your daughter is a young adult and needs less of your taxi service now that she has friends with cars.  And she’s long outgrown your sandwich lunches with the notes scrawled on the napkins. Try this new thing.  You liked art before becoming a parent and having your world suddenly orbit around a tiny genetic combination of you and your husband.

Her grades may slip more than you would like.  It is your job to monitor this.

Your older sister’s unsolicited advice will be practical, as usual: “You have to teach her responsibility now, before it’s too late and her GPA hurts her college applications.  If I hadn’t pushed Jack, who knows if he would have made it into Princeton?” Jack barely tolerates you, you think but don’t say.

Try to strike a balance between insisting on schoolwork and on being her friend.  You will suspect that her straight A’s set her apart in middle school and that she’s not eager to hold on to this distinction.

While at Target, you might find yourself filling your cart with a whole slew of movies in which the guy falls in love with the girl for what’s in her head, not just her face.  Beauty and the Beast, Juno, and You’ve Got Mail are a good place to start.

On second thought, drop Juno.

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One Year Ago: “All the Difference”

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote an essay for the Vienna Scholars Writing Competition. I’d just returned from a month studying in Vienna, Austria; my world had been expanded, and I had, I thought, the perspective of a world-traveler.

In the year that has passed, that excitement has been diluted. I’ve traveled more and experienced more and been molded into a different person, yet I’d still hold to much of this essay.

“All the Difference” — First Place Winner of Vienna Scholars Writing Competition

h alpsI’m sometimes troubled by how quickly we adjust. How quickly we forget, move on, proceed. We take a class about economic injustice, we cry over the statistics and the living conditions of millions of innocent victims of the system, we say I’m going to make a difference, and then we get our final grade in the course, register for another semester, and are soon too consumed by our new class load to think about third-world poverty. We read an essay that inspires and enlivens us, we declare to ourselves This is it! This will direct my life!, but then we lose the essay in stacks of papers. We see children living in Mexican orphanages who have more selflessness than we have ever mustered in our own privileged lives, and we say to ourselves I’m going to remember these kids and their hearts; I’m going to share and grant grace as they do, but within a week of being back in American we’re scowling at our sister for borrowing our car without asking.

Maybe I’m saying “we” to take some of the focus off of my own irresolution. Me. I do, have done, these things, and have committed countless similar acts of regression.

It’s been two months since I’ve returned from Vienna, and already I feel cavernously distant from the photos that I took, photos now archived at the bottom of my social media page. I look at my travel journals, at the slanted handwriting that indicates that I wrote quickly, invigorated by lessons I was being taught by inspiring individuals, and I realize how little I have done with their imparted wisdom.

Some has impacted me, surely; I have taken risks in love since returning, roused as I was by the advice of two vivacious women who followed their hearts across oceans and encouraged us, too, to follow our own. I’ve been further solidified in my higher education aspirations, encouraged by a speaker who told us to think of what we’d do if we never had to work a day in our lives and to turn that into work.

Yet I’ve also forgotten so much; I’ve also slipped so seamlessly back into my life here, with my family and my bookstore job and my friends and my young-adult baby-step attempts at planning for my future.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to change, to adapt. I didn’t struggle with homesickness when I went off to college; when friendships fade because of distance or differing personalities, I’ve accepted easily that relationships have seasons. The change of seasons always excites me – the colors of leaves, crisp snowflakes, tender flower buds. New is exhilarating.

But I sometimes fear that I move on too quickly. That I lack sentimentality, that I do not make enough of an effort to maintain relationships when distance or circumstance presents difficulty. I fear that this could result in my forgetting things, like lessons learned, that could–should–affect me forever.

When I close my eyes and breathe, I can picture the peace I felt atop the Alps, looking over the European countryside and thinking over my life, filled with gratitude, overwhelmingly thankful for my blessings and similarly overwhelmed at how insignificant any past trials now appeared at so great a distance.

I wish that this feeling were permanent, that it could imprint on my soul. But our lives, moods, interests, urges, desires–they are fluid, ever-changing.

I know this of myself. It’s why I collect–words, moments, journal entries, photos, anything to remind myself of experiences, people, wisdom that I don’t want to forget. Just as, for classes, I study subject material, I try to record and study significant moments and realizations of my life. I frame quotes, mount photos, write and write and write, attempting to archive what deserves to be recollected. I hope for impacts to last. I’m disappointed in myself when I look back and realize that they haven’t. But each time someone crosses my path who should change my life, each time I’m reminded that the human condition is my passion and I’ll be fulfilled if I strive to uncover or adequately portray it, each time my breath is stolen by a view, a glimpse of true kindness, a crashing wave, I think, this time. I’ll remember this.

I’ll keep doing this. I’ll keep seeking to be impacted, keep exploring and wandering, keep meeting new individuals and hearing their stories, keep opening my mind to be changed for the better. It won’t all stick. But hopefully enough of it will that, when this too-short life is coming to a close, I’ll look back and say I climbed a mountain, met a person, went to a place, and it changed me, and I’m better for it. I chose a path, and that has made all the difference.