Monday, August 22, 2016

write on

Before starting school, I wasn't sure what I was in for. I am in a low-residency MFA program, which means that we meet for a 10-day conference once a semester. The rest of my work is done independently from home, with no classroom time. I have never so much as taken an online course and only know of academics in the way I have experienced it, so perhaps I was a bit skeptical.

I left residency with a reading list of ten books. I had an epiphany at residency that I write when I read, but only when I read books which inspire something in me. What I had been reading hadn't inspired anything, and I hadn't been writing. So this list of books was exciting: fresh fodder. I was about to read books suggested by another writer specifically for me and my craft. And not just another writer: an accomplished, intelligent one who just happens to have founded this entire MFA program. Kind of a big deal.

At residency, I met friends: fellow writers who share my passion. We had long talks about books and authors and punctuation. It was my heaven. We work shopped each other: we each submitted about twenty pages of work and got feedback from fresh eyes. This feedback is not friends or family who want to protect my feelings. This feedback is from other writers who want to see me produce my best work. It has been so valuable. I immediately noticed patterns and tendencies I wanted to change. I have never liked the tedious act of revision, but I left residency excited for a fresh start on this same old novel I've been writing for over two years.

Yesterday, I submitted my first packet. Each month I submit a packet before a deadline. These packets are a collection of novel revision, new work, and critical essays over the what I have read. I hadn't anticipated writing anything except my novel during this process. But the new writing I wrote I found the most exciting. I dabbled in short stories and was invigorated by writing new characters, exploring characters, themes and epiphanies that would never fit within my novel.

I did all of this in the same month that I completed editing a large manuscript, worked a part-time job, and traveled to NYC for a week. I have a feeling of great accomplishment today. This low-residency MFA program is teaching me much more than I had anticipated. I have friends I met at workshop who look over my work before I submit it now and offer suggestions to improve it. I am progressing toward something now. But as my mentor replied in his email, just because my first packet is complete doesn't mean I stop. I have another deadline next month with the same requirements. Really, it's the momentum that I need more than anything: this force driving me to write on, no matter what.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Lessons from New Yorkers

It was only a week, but I feel it was sufficient time to learn a few lessons from the big city. New Yorkers are a different breed: resilient, tougher, with sharper edges. After my initial first day, when I was scared to death in a cab and made eye contact with a street vendor, I learned what the streets had to teach me. I even passed for a local after a couple days, giving directions to a pesky tourist.

1. Adapt quickly.
You are not in Kansas anymore. There is no grass, barely any trees and constant noise. But on the plus side, there are no squirrels, barely any bugs and bagel shops on every block. Rather than mourn what you've lost, take pride in what you've gained. Learn the streets and the subway. Find your way around. Even the pets there learn to shit on pavement, so you have no excuse.

2. Appreciate beauty when you see it
Because nature is sparse, what little there is is enjoyed. If you see a park, stop at it and enjoy lunch. If there is a place that isn't bustling with pedestrians, break out into a jog because you can. There is so much sameness (buildings, buildings, buildings), differences are magnified. We need sameness, but we crave difference.

3. Find calm amongst the chaos
The first few days in NYC, I kept thinking, "how do these people ever have time alone?"  But then I started to notice it: a delivery driver leaning against his truck taking a drag of his cigarette, a girl talking to her sister on her cell phone while she walked. People with earbuds on their commute. Books, newspapers. You don't have to be where you are all the time. You can transport yourself somewhere else when you need it. Find time to do what you love, to transport yourself.

4. Lose patience
It's a bad habit, any way. Faster is better. Decide on your coffee order and bark it out quickly, without hesitation. New Yorkers wait for nothing. Walk quickly. You will have time to stop and smell the roses that way.

5. Be adventurous
There are plenty of things to do right around you. Enjoy your options! Take in a show, or go to a museum or blow some money shopping. Whatever your flavor. Try a new flavor, too. You don't know yet what you've been missing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New York, New York

The trip to NYC started off with cramming, because my first packet is due Monday. This deadline is going to be my hardest one. The day before the trip, I finished editing a 526-page book. So now I am in full-on school mode. Well, ahem, now that vacation has ended, that is.
When the pilot announced our descent, my face was glued to my little porthole window. I didn't know then what these buildings were. I didn't know where downtown was, the upper east side from the upper west side. Looking at this picture now, it all means so much more to me, knowing.
We stayed right between Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building, which I highly recommend in case you ever travel to NYC. This is midtown and walking distance to just about everything (Central Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, United Nations). You will need to lace up your walking shoes to get to Wall Street or the Brooklyn Bridge though. Or you can figure out the Subway.  Or there is always the option of risking your life in a cab, but no thanks. One scary cab ride is all it takes for me to shy away from them.
 On Wednesday, we did a tour of Central Park. Central Park is eighty acres, so walking it all would be insane, especially in the heat of August. We paid for one of those bike tours where a guy pedals us around and tells us about landmarks. It was a highlight of the trip. I recommend that also.
 The bike pedaler took this picture, putting me to shame with his panoramic abilities. I didn't ask him to, but I was glad he offered, because hello, SATC. 
While in NYC, we had to go to some of our movie and TV spots. I mean, c'mon, it's New York. We went to the Seinfeld diner, but we were disappointed to learn that none of Seinfeld was actually filmed in New York. They send staff out to take "establishing shots" of buildings or have doubles of the actors when needed in the streets. But all of the actual scenes take place on sets in LA. So the inside of this Seinfeld diner looked nothing like the set on the show. Also, the restaurant owner shooed us out, clearly annoyed by fans of the show who peer in his place without buying anything.
 Have you met me? I love "You've Got Mail." I geeked out, sending pictures to the other movie superfan, my sister, while at these spots. I sent her a blurry picture of "The Shop Around the Corner" (now an organic dry cleaners), of the Starbucks with her favorite line, "tall decaf cappuccino," of Joe Fox's apartment. At Cafe Lalo, she texted me madly quotes from Tom Hanks, undoubtedly picturing him shaking this very same cast iron fence.
Steve is an avid soup lover. So he had to try soup from the soup man (also from Seinfeld for those of you living under a rock). It ain't cheap. People have got to capitalize on their celebrity, I suppose. The soup was good. I had the clam chowder, Steve had the lobster bisque.
Yet another scene of me geeking out to "You've Got Mail." Riverside Park is a gem. Parks in NYC are tiny usually, save for this one and Central Park. It was gorgeous and sprawling and impossibly serene.
 We took a booze cruise on Saturday and I got sun burnt. Shit don't change.
The Statue of Liberty was beautiful from the water. The couple next to me were very obnoxious though, talking about how it was a gift from France and they wondered if it was gift wrapped. I can't even with these kinds of people.
On Monday, we went to the Brooklyn Bridge. See those sweat stains on my shirt? That's six stops in a Subway train without air conditioning. It's no joke.

NYC was great. We ate tons of good food and I drank probably a dozen iced caramel macchiatos from Caffe Bene. We slept in. We day drank.

It was fun to be in a new place, but I have never been so glad to see my boys as when I returned. I could travel the world, but in the end, I would always choose home.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

tips for raising two boys

Raising kids is no joke. It's fucking brutal. Raising two rambunctious boys is doing me in. One is extremely emotional, the other is extremely violent. Neither of them sleep much. You know that phrase, "I have one nerve left and you're on it"? That's how I've felt for four years and four months. Now, I am editing and writing with any moment I get, while the two of them fight it out in the next room. I am trying to build more structure and discipline to cope.

Here's some tips I've learned the hard way:

1. Always bring two of everything. Don't bring one cup of water to the park. The other one will want his own. Don't bring one hat. Don't bring one sand toy. If there's a reason to fight, they will find it. Best to squash that by being prepared. If you have two in the same style and color, all the better. You never know when they're both going to want "the orange one."

2. Trim their fingernails, religiously. Boys are going to get black eyes and bruises and scrapes. They're going to look like they get beat (and they do, but not by us, at least). You can prevent the scratches though. So trim those talons down to nubs.

3. No tool sets with wooden hammers, for Chrissakes! Anything that could be a weapon will be a weapon.

4. Turn on the water. It always works to cool them off, figuratively too.

5. iPads are great to buy you a few minutes of solitude. 

6. Let the jump on the furniture. They're going to anyway.

7. There's no such thing as "wearing them out." Just wearing me out.

8. Expect your grocery bill to be sky high. And expect to buy a whole lot of hot dogs.

9. Have a hobby away from the kids. If your husband doesn't let you, divorce him.

10. When hobbies aren't enough, there's always booze.