Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The trouble with home...

Is that it's too easy to settle into the same old routines and to never look forward. Home is backward-looking, reminiscing about the past and reliving experiences day after day. As a writer, I feel like this is not a good thing, which is why I hope to move on as soon as possible.

It also doesn't help just being me. I'm a creature of habit, and once I settle into a habit, time goes by without me noticing. It's been a few months since I was laid off from my job as a news reporter/photographer at my local paper, but it feels like barely any time has gone by at all. And what have I done with that time? Nothing. Well, not much. I wrote a little, but mostly wandered around the house in a daze punctuated occasionally by Giada de Laurentiis saying "mozzarella" sexily from my TV and my mom asking what I want for dinner.

Don't get me wrong. Getting laid off from that job was probably one of the best things to happen recently. Again, it comes back to the habit thing. I was miserable there, but it was a good-paying, steady job. I kept telling myself I had to get out, to get on with life, but knowing me, if I hadn't gotten a kick in the butt I probably would have stayed there far longer, complaining and being miserable, but doing nothing about it.

Working there did help my technical writing skills -- for example, I've learned to tighten up my prose quite a bit and not dilly dally with flowery words or overly long-winded introductions -- but it lacked the creativity I thrive on. Sure, I could be witty or clever with my choice of headlines and introductory sentences, but other than that the writing was very standard, very by-the-book. Also, working on a computer that, in the tech world, might as well require carbon dating to assess the age of, and working in an old, drafty, dusty, smelly, leaky building wasn't much fun either.

But it just wasn't me. It was kind of fun getting to tell other people's stories, their real stories, but the limitations on creativity and imagination were too stifling for me. Now, after several months of just kind of wandering about, loafing around and generally being useless, I'm starting to get back on track, I think.

I'm in the process of sending out more applications for MFA Creative Writing programs for next fall. I feel more confident this time around, because I'm applying much more widely, and am really taking a good look at the programs themselves to make sure they're right fits for me. Also, I'm applying much earlier than I had before. Although most programs say they'll consider everyone equally as long as they apply on time, I don't buy it. I have a feeling some of them have a slight bias to applications that come in early. So, hopefully I'll have a better shot this time; not to mention that I'm using fresh (as in new) writing samples.

I'm also signing up to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starting in a week. I'm hoping this experience will help me with a couple things: one, to get over my perfectionism and just finish a damn thing instead of revisiting the same chapters over and over; and two, to get my brain juices flowing toward new stuff again. For the longest time, I was just tweaking and rewriting old stuff, but now I am actually going to follow through with one of my other ideas that has never seen the light of day.

I'm pretty excited about this idea. It's basically a family drama set in Victorian era London. It will have elements of romance and mystery, sort of like a weird mixture of Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Conan Doyle. At least, that's how it seems in my mind. I won't go into plot details here. With this one I'm not concerned so much about being totally new or original. I just want to spin a well-written, thought-provoking, page-turning tale. I'm not interested in whether people can pick apart the deep themes or layers of meaning; I just want people to be able to read it, enjoy it, and have their thoughts provoked by it.

I think, above all, with this project I'm trying to go back to a time before my Literary Theory, Advanced Composition and Literature classes to a time when, as a writer, I just wanted to be a storyteller and spin an interesting yarn. So, we'll see if any of this works. But for now, at least, I'm back in the game.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Newspaper-writing sucks

So I'm working a full-time paid internship with my hometown newspaper. I'm filling in for a young lady on maternity leave/vacation for the summer, and doing all the things she would normally do (which is a lot.) She had been in charge of the "Hometown" page, which is where things like weddings, engagements, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, local concerts/events, etc. are posted. People come into the office and drop off photos/info for me, or they call and ask if I can come do a story on some little event. Whenever I get the chance, I write up these little reports/stories for these people and fiddle around with the photos and lay everything out on the page (we use Quark to do this).

But I'm also a reporter/photographer for the front page/page 2. Since I'm new at this, I've only been writing local human-interest stories for the front (memorial gardens, etc.), nothing really big, and only once in a while. But now that I'm not so new anymore, my superiors are having me cover more things and more often.

Working at a newspaper--even a small-town one like mine--is just as hectic as you'd think it is. Every morning we rush around trying to get that day's paper written and assembled before the 12/12:30 deadline. In addition to the actual news stories that we write in the mornings, we also have to take care of less interesting reports/releases, like obituaries and such. And depending on how fast or slow the town's culture is moving, I may be over- or underwhelmed with material for my page, so I'm scurrying to get that done as well as whatever else I'm supposed to do. And there are always little things that go wrong--the coffee burns, I drop the coffee spoon on the floor, hit my head picking it up--or I get some little piece of information wrong in a report and have to re-do the whole thing 5 minutes before deadline. It can be pretty stressful.

After deadline/lunch, I spend the afternoon writing up stuff for the next day's hometown page, or scrounging for stuff if I have nothing, or going out and about interviewing people/taking photos for stories. It's a very social job, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable at times, but I know it's good for me because I'm expanding my horizons.

All in all, I like this job. I have good camaraderie with my coworkers, and it's fast-paced and just varied enough to not be boring. But one thing I cannot abide is the actual writing itself.

Now I don't know how it is at large/famous newspapers, but at least here there is a set way for writing everything--a specific formula for the most miniscule police reports to the largest news stories. And if I or anyone else dares to write or arrange anything differently than it has always been done, everyone freaks out and makes the writer change it. There's no room for creativity or innovation whatsoever, not even in feature-style human-interest stories. It's quite frustrating.

And with the long hours and hard work I put into this job, I come home utterly exhausted of all energy and at best might read a book--but I really haven't had much energy or motivation for my own creative writing, not even for revising old stuff. This is bad!

And what's even worse is the paper has offered me a full-time position: better pay with benefits. If I were like any sane, sensible recent college grad, I would snatch up this opportunity for solid employment, considering how bad the economy/job market is. BUT, I really don't want to stay here any longer than absolutely necessary, I really don't want to do this type of work long-term, and besides, I don't know if I could handle it. Way too much stress! And if I continue working like this, my drive/motivation for creative writing will continue to wane until I'm afraid I might never get the inspiration ever again.

While it's true that this job has given me new perspectives on a lot of things, as well as a plethora of story/character ideas, the truth remains that it drains me to the point of almost hating the physical act of writing--of typing words into a document or even writing a letter (which is partly why I haven't updated this in so long).

Whatever happens, I need to find some strategy, some way of getting back my creative spark, or at least gaining back some of my lost energy so I can get back on the creative writing bandwagon.  If there is a way, I haven't seen it yet. All I can do is hope!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Next?

Well, I'm now a college graduate.  I graduated from Geneva this past Monday at 10 am. I really feel like I accomplished a lot during my time there, socially, emotionally, spiritually and academically. Those were my favorite 4 years of my life thus far.  It's exciting to be done, but extremely sad that I'll never be an active part of that community anymore. There will always be alumni stuff to do, and I can always go visit my friends who are still there (which I plan to do a lot this fall), but still, a major part of my identity has been lost, or at best altered irrevocably.

I definitely grew a lot as a writer there. From actually learning the nitty gritty details of English grammar and syntax and how to manipulate those things for rhetorical/emotional effects to learning just what characters ARE and what they do and how they do it, I really feel like I've become a "writer" there. Not just a person who likes to dabble in writing, or a person who likes to discuss it, not even just a person who likes to practice the craft--I feel like I gained the title of Writer as my main identity. It's like I gained a lifestyle, not just a set of skills and competencies. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the amazing professors I had there, and my wonderful fellow writers who went through the same journey with me.

Since I won't be going to grad school till at least next year, I have some choices to make about what to do in the meantime. For the summer, I landed a nice internship at my local newspaper as a reporter/photographer ($8-9 an hour [not sure yet], 40 hours a week plus possible overtime) and living at home. After the summer I plan on getting a place with a friend back in Beaver Falls, but I don't have any good jobs lined up yet; therefore much of my summer will be spent trying to find jobs down there, preferably doing editorial/reporting work for a paper, or copyediting or something. If it comes right down to it, I'm willing to get a mundane job in something not in my field for a while.

I'll use my off-time this summer to continue writing (finish the 1st draft of a novel I started as an independent study, work on short stories and poems, and maybe start a scholarly paper I've had in mind) and to visit friends and do vacation-y things. (Like a possible trip to NYC to see Wicked on Broadway, and going to Texas for a week or so to visit my beautiful sisters, and a weekend camping trip with old friends.)

I'm still sad over my identity change. It feels like someone took the fabric of my identity and tore it up into pieces, and now I have to pick them up and try to make something new with them. I really learned to open up at Geneva; I learned to let people love me--that I am, in fact, worth loving--and I learned to love them in return, and I learned that I really do love people, and that my friends are probably the most amazing people I may ever know. I'll be writing a lot of letters to them and my favorite professors, whom I've also befriended on a personal level. Like I told my Geneva friends in a lengthy note, I don't really believe in "goodbye." Maybe "so long," "see ya later," but not "goodbye." I think "goodbye" is just an accidental byproduct of relational neglect.

Before I go off on a long rant about relationships and identity unrelated to writing (though those things ARE, in an indirect sense, related), I'll just finish by saying that I'm sad it's over, but I'm also excited about what the future might hold. As a writer, I think every experience, negative or positive, builds character and gives infinite more material for my writing. So my goal is to be open to all experiences but still be connected to everyone and everything I'm "leaving behind." Life should be like a rolling snowball: it just gets larger and larger, and everything that came before is just as much there as the new accumulation. A tree, as it grows, doesn't become hollow, or lose any of its rings--what came before is the foundation for what is to come.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Moving On

I recently emailed the English Department chair at UAF to ask again about my status, since they've been delaying like mad in getting back to me. He gave me the news that I will most likely not be accepted, since the majority of the MFA admissions committee agreed against recommending me for acceptance. The final decision lies with the dean, but since most of the committee turned me down, my chances are pretty much shot. However, he was kind enough to mention that this year's pool of applicants was particularly competitive, and that they had to turn down a lot of qualified candidates (however he failed to mention whether they deemed me one of those 'qualified' candidates--not that it really matters).

This news hurts a lot, seeing as how a lot of my time lately has been spent daydreaming about Alaska and stuff like that. But I always knew, in my head, that the odds against me were tremendous. I knew the chances of me getting in were slim to none. But my head has no control over my heart, and my heart decided to hope. The feeling when I got the news was kind of like how in some movies when, confronted face to face with the bad guy wielding a knife, a good guy knows in his head that he's going to die but he probably hopes his would-be killer would change his mind. This didn't sneak up on me and slit my throat from behind: it's been standing in front of me the whole time, holding the knife, telling me that it may or may not kill me. And now the knife has been thrust, and it struck home.

Yes, I'm incredibly upset. But I'm no starry-eyed fool. Since my head knew so well what would most likely happen, it gave thought to some contingency plans. Fortunately, I'll be able to return to my old summer job at Chautauqua, so I have something of a buffer before needing to get a more secure job. I don't know what will happen after the summer is over. I imagine myself in my own apartment somewhere in western PA (hopefully Pittsburgh), working as a copyeditor or somesuch for a newspaper or magazine. But, we all know how my imaginings tend to turn out, so it's best to ignore that vision. All I can hope for is that I'll have some sort of substantial income to allow me to pay my debts and also live, simultaneously (a tough feat for the modern college graduate, I know). 

The thing is, I really wanted to go to Alaska. I've always wanted to go to Alaska. As a nature-loving, sensitive, spiritual, adventurous, outgoing person, Alaska has always had a strange hold over my thoughts. Part of it is just because it's so alien from what I'm used to.  I love expanding my horizons, and "different" places have always drawn me in. I think every type of location has some sort of intrinsic beauty: cities and wilderness, deserts and glaciers, etc. Part of that stems from my spiritual beliefs, that God  created all of it and so all of it reflects his divine nature somehow, the ultimate reality of which lies beyond our feeble brains, but is still edifying to ponder. The faces of a crowd inching down the streets of New York; a Navajo hunter stopping to watch the sun rise over the desert; wind bending pine branches in a summer storm; all of these things and more hold spiritual and aesthetic significance to me, and I want to experience as wide an array of experiences as possible before I die. I was hoping to add to that list watching ice fog settle over the spruces, experiencing first-hand the Iditarod race and Fairbanks ice festival, writing stories in my apartment or cabin and discussing them with other like-minded artists at UAF.

But don't get me wrong, I never thought this would be easy, or even fun all the time.  I knew going to Alaska would be a challenge, possibly the most challenging thing I'd ever done. Moving around 3500 miles away from everyone and everything I've ever known, getting accustomed to the strange and extreme weather patterns, and establishing friends and connections on my own? That all sounds really hard! But that's exactly why I wanted to go. I want a challenge. I don't want the easy and familiar. If I did, I could've applied to safe, traditional places like Penn State or something. But that's not what I want for my life.

Yes I'm upset, but I'm not giving up.  I have chosen to go to grad school for an MFA so I can become a better writer and also be able to teach writing at the college level, which is something I really am passionate about. I know I could go somewhere else to get this MFA, and I know wherever I'd go I'd have fun and grow as a person.  But Alaska is the place I choose to be, and so I will reapply next year and hope they accept me. I know that it's not because I'm unqualified or something; it's just really competitive, and, I believe, it really comes down to luck.  Perhaps I'll retake the GRE and try for higher scores. I'll definitely work on writing samples and my resume.  And in the meantime, I'll attempt to obtain employment where I can use my writing skills and continue developing as a writer. And I will continue writing creatively and attempting to get published. I won't let my life stop because of one let down.

Also, as a Christian, I have to sit down and reflect on why God might not be allowing me to go to Fairbanks yet.  Perhaps I'm not ready, emotionally or socially, for that kind of move. Perhaps if I did go this year, I'd break down, or get really sick and not know what to do or who to talk to or where to go. Maybe I'd end up getting really bad grades and losing my TAship or something and then be in a whole mess of financial trouble. Or maybe He has something for me after college that will end up being even more beneficial and edifying than grad school. Maybe I could pursue my ideas of the Peace Corps, or at least gain more life experience simply by living more on my own and doing all the things graduated people do. I don't know, I can only hope, and trust.

Also, I need to look at the positives.  If I stay in the area for a while, I can still visit my friends who are still in school, and I can reconnect with old friends who still live at home but whom I parted ways with when I left for college. I could get more involved in local arts and culture by joining the community writer's guild, and I could be more involved in my church. Some friends from home are talking about trying to open an art studio, for painters, musicians and writers to get their supplies from and such.  Maybe I could help with that.  There's always something to do, something new to experience, no matter where I am, and I can take those things into myself and become more fully myself and continuously gain writing material from the real world. I've just got to stay positive.

I'm not giving up on myself or my dreams. I will keep living and not dwell on things. I will try to get into UAF again next year. I will keep writing. I will keep exercising and taking care of myself. I've inherited most of the traits from my mom's side of the family, which is a generally brooding family full of troubled artists struggling with depression, apathy and addiction.  When things don't go the way I want, or when bad things happen to me, my first instinct is to stop my personal timeline and basically wallow in fruitless misery like some kind of disgusting old pig whose legs are so weak that it can't even crawl out of the filth it's drowning in.  Well, I'm going to fight that and continue with life.  Keep writing, keep living, loving, breathing, and everything will be okay. Moving on!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome Back, Myself

It's been a while since I posted on here.  I've been extremely busy with school and life in general--so much so that I looked at my calendar today and realized I'd been so busy that I stopped marking off the days.  According to my calendar, it isn't even February 6th yet.

I've written lots of essays and research papers for school on many different topics, none of which were creative.  These projects all seemed to collide at the same time, and I struggled to get everything done by the due dates (even though I know some of my profs would be a little lax with the due dates, I decided to force myself to get things done on time, like a good student).  Also, I've been really (happily) busy with some clubs and such that I'm a part of.  Consequently, I've been run-down and exhausted.  Even if I did have the time to write creatively (I know I could have--maybe given up an hour of sleep to write, or bringing lunch back to the room to write and eat instead of eat in the dining hall with friends), but the thought hadn't much crossed my mind.  At the end of the day I was so shot that all I could do was collapse in bed. 

As a result, I've fallen a bit behind on my independent study novel.  I plan to write really hard this week (since there's a lull in projects) and get caught up.  Still, sometimes I have to question my drive/motivation.  I know I COULD have had time, in retrospect, to write creatively.  The question is, would it have been worthwhile, or would it have just been sloppy second crap, all my mental juices previously squeezed out in school projects?  Also, would it have been healthy? I'm a bit under the weather--sinus infection, cold--due in part to the changing seasons and in part to stress.  If I'd've made myself write creatively, would I have made myself even more sick?  I think I probably would have, because at that point I'd be writing from a sense of obligation, and it would really just be another stressor on top of everything else.  So, even though I regret falling behind, I think it's better for my health that I took an unintentional break from it.

It also doesn't help that the end of my time in college is in sight, and I still haven't heard back from UAF.  I sent an email over Spring Break asking if there was something else I needed to do or something, and I got a response back that I've done everything I needed to do, and that I should expect to hear something by the end of March.  (Even though I was originally told to expect a response in the BEGINNING of March.) I'd really rather not hear a rejection notice in May when I'm graduating.  So, I'm trying to work out some fallback options.  For the summer I'll be returning to work at Chatauqua Institution in some capacity, so that's at least a little buffer.  I'll either go back to my old job in the Ticketing department there, or I might get accepted onto the Daily staff (the newspaper there), which I really hope will be the case (sent my app. a few weeks ago).  Regardless of which job I work, I'm really looking forward to summer at Chautauqua again.  Among many other awesome speakers and events, I'll get to see Salman Rushdie, Roger Rosenblatt and Ken Burns, so either way it'll be a good summer.

With time moving on and still no word from Alaska, I'm really trying to explore all my options.  I've been dead set on this course of action, but if I don't get accepted I'll have to do something else, and I refuse to live with my parents longer than necessary.  I love my family to pieces, but I need to get out on my own. I've actually grown strangely comfortable with the idea of not going to grad school, at least right away...if I don't, I could try for the Peace Corps (which I really want to do someday), or any number of other things.  But I really do want to teach, so eventually I'll need at least an MFA (I want to get the PhD afterward, possibly in rhet/comp or lit).  Anyway, it's an exciting and scary time right now.

Hopefully I can get back on the creative writing bandwagon this week.  I guess we'll see what happens.  Gotta keep my mind in the present!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Steps in the Right Direction

So, a few days ago I got yet another rejection notice from a lit mag.  However, this time it was different than usual.  Instead of the form rejection "thanks, but no thanks" thing, I got a personalized rejection.  The editors told me that although they "don't have a place" for my piece in this issue, they fould "much to like" in my work, and encourage me to submit again in the future.  Upon telling this news to some family and friends, I got responses like "Aw shucks, not again," and "maybe next time."  But then I had to tell them no, no, no, this is a good thing, a very good thing!  In fact, when I read the letter I proceeded to laugh and hop around my room like a caffeinated rabbit, I was so excited.  Yeah it's not an acceptance, but it's a "we like it, send more in the future" which is like a pre-acceptance, or something.  One more step on the road to publication, and after dozens of outright rejections--followed by second-guessing my abilities and whether I'm even in the right profession--this feels like a ray of light and a heavenly chorus.

Also, all my application materials got to Fairbanks (except 1 letter of recommendation...I'm not sure if it HAS gotten there and they haven't filed it in yet [which happened with the other two letters]) and my application is undergoing the reviewing process.  I'm extremely nervous but glad that at least something went right.  I just hope the lack of 1 letter by the 1st of February doesn't discount me for consideration for a TAship :-/.  I guess we'll just have to see.  I'm excited and nervous about the outcome of all this.  Even rejection is a concrete answer, and after finding  out about it I can then (somewhat) comfortably move on without waiting  around.  Although I really really really hope they accept me. (Crosses fingers)

I've also been getting  a ton of positive feedback about my work, from peers in the major and from my profs.  This is awesome since I'm a pretty self-defeating person by nature.  I almost never take what people say at face value: if someone says they like my work or they think it's great, I automatically think they're just humoring me.  But with the positive rejection and overwhelmingly positive feedback (accompanied by protests to my self-doubt of "yes, we really mean it") I'm starting to actually think I might be on the right path after all and not making a huge mistake.  It's a nice feeling, realizing that you might not be sabotaging your own life.

My novel for my independent study is coming along nicely and I'm really enjoying what's happening.  I spent the majority of tonight revising and editing shorter stories of my own and critiquing some submissions to the Chimes, our literary magazine here (of which I'm assistant editor).  I feel I've got pretty good momentum and drive.  Now let's see how long this lasts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sources of Inspiration

I've been thinking lately about where my inspiration for certains stories or poems comes from.  Sometimes I just get a feeling and then a thought follows that, and that thought births other thoughts and then there's a big thought family that I have to excise from my brain in textual form before these thoughts commandeer all my other brain functions.  But why/when does this happen?

Well I've figured out two of my inspiration sources: nature and music.  I grew up in a nature-loving, musical family, and so--whether by genetics or conditioning or both--I grew up to love both in my own way.  I grew up going on family camping trips and hikes, and roughing around my best friend's farm: rafting down his creek, riding his horses, leaping around in the hayloft.  I came to appreciate nature in all its shapes and forms, finding beauty in all things small and large which many people would dismiss or even find repulsive.  And then once I started thinking more deeply about things, I saw connections in what I found in nature with things in real life.  And thus most of my poems were and still are formed.

My Mom was a music ed major in college.  She heads our church choir and she gives lessons in piano, guitar, and voice (and she still has a pretty good voice and piano hands herself).  My sisters both sing, and one plays piano and clarinet.  I sing and play the trumpet, a little piano, and recently picked up the tenor recorder.  Even my dad used to play trumpet, and still knows stuff about music.  All my exteneded family have some musical abilities.  It's in our blood.  I get a lot of (vague, preliminary) inspiration for stories from listening to instrumental (especially orchestral/symphonic) music.  It has to be wordless, because I'm an advocate of the old adage "where words fail, music speaks." I still love my indie rock bands and local acoustic groups for their deep, poetic lyrics and quirky sound, but that's more for entertainment's sake than deep reflection or inspiration.  When I listen to instrumental/symphonic music, I tend to hear it as a soundtrack, and a vague narrative tends to form in my head depending on what the music sounds like.  Many people experience the reverse of this: they see a movie, love the soundtrack, then purchase the soundtrack: then when they listen to certain tracks, they can "feel" what's happening in the movie even though the movie itself is nowhere to be found.  It also happens that, since I'm a pretty melancholy, pensive fellow by nature, a lot of the symphonic music I like is that way also, and so a lot of my stories end up that way.  Sort of calm, introspective and bittersweet.  That's what I strive for; also I strive to make my prose have an emotional depth, since that's what I respond to.  I can't write funny prose...it's just not in me.  When I do I kind of scare myself because it's so out of the ordinary. 

My two favorite songs of late are October by Eric Whitacre and Persis by James L. Hosay.  October is a gorgeously melancholy piece with powerful full-ensemble swells that really get at the heart of October and the Fall season...it captures (for me) the sights of autumn in sound, and on a deeper level that sort of bittersweet fading feeling of things passing away and time moving on.  Persis is one of those totally epic songs that's really long and sweeps through a huge variety of emotions, from fear/adrenaline, excitement, deep contentedness and extreme emotional distress.  It has an exciting beginning, and a sweet, melancholy oboe solo in the middle followed by a slow crescendo of building emotional intensity, more instruments adding their voice, and the middle section climaxes in this hugely epic emotional peak that never gets old.  The song ends with a fast-paced interweaving of all the musical themes that came before: you have the relentless drums, the frantic woodwinds, and the desperate brass all vying for attention and the whole ending is just phenomenal.  I want my stories someday to be able to evoke those emotions from readers.

I also get a fair amount of inspiration from people-watching.  Like yesterday, I went to the coffee shop alone to read and think, and I saw out of the corner of my eye a frantic college girl rushing out of the shop talking on the phone, and she dropped one of her red gloves and left it behind, totally forgotten.  I couldn't stop looking at and thinking about that lovely red glove, and how she seemed so intent on it before she got whatever desperate call she got and then totally forgot about the red glove, leaving it on the dirty floor.  So I made a note of it to see if I could do something with it later, and sure enough I wrote a poem about it. 

But anyway, I've talked enough.  What do you, anonymous readers, think are your sources of inspiration?