Fiction: The Arc of the Plot

As Julianna Baggott said in class:

  1. Breathe in.
  2. Hold it.
  3. Hold it.
  4. Just a little longer.
  5. Release.

Funny, yes? But oh my, so true. I look at the stories and sketches I’m writing these days and they each have that basic arc. It’s such a simple lesson. One worth sharing.

 

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MFA Writing and Publishing: week one

Reading lists. Essays. Critical responses. Creative responses. Research. More essays. More readings. Editing. Writing.

Well, yes, it’s began folks and I thought you might like an inside view as to our first week at VCFA, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The campus dates back to the 1800s, huge imposing brick buildings with columns, ten foot windows, a lawn with a fountain, and steep roads leading into Montpelier, with trees, more trees and a ring of low lying soft hills and mountains. Tis idyllic.

The class is held in a basement though, overlooking the parking lot outback and I feel gypped! Why in here? When there are such great classrooms upstairs, unused with these inspiring beautiful views? We sit, all eighteen of us, around a collection of tables back to back, creating that family mealtime, all facing each other with our books and laptops spread out. First class.
Julianna Baggott is here. Our faculty director and teacher, an inspiration herself, a powerhouse of words and action. Tuesdays we have five hours with Julianna, a focused five hours with a dynamic writer of all genres, she is forward facing, industry facing, with a desire to bring us into the craft of writing wherever we each are as individuals as well as help us find our places and careers as writers. Just what I need. I’ve done as much as I can on my own, in the vacuum of a small mountain village in New Mexico, with a determined pushing and presenting my work as often as possible to the larger world, to the community out there, here. Yes, I’m here. In graduate school and it hits me this week. I’ve not felt this fully myself before. I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I can do this. I will do this.

  • 3 x33: a short fiction collection that is 1200 pages long. And yes, I’ve read it.
  • The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Story by Neugeboren
  • Forgotten Places by Johnson
  •  Three poems to be reviewed.
  • Five essays to read over for a journal I work for.
  • Owls by Norden
  • Tra Bong by O’Brien
  • My Man Bovanne by Bambara
  • Masked/ Unmasked by Hunger Mountain
  • Upstreet #13

And for my own pleasure and research for a new book idea:

  • Columbus Was Right! by Barbara Toy
  • Descansos by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
  • Solo, a collection of travel essays
  • Susan Sontag
  • Grace Perry

Forms Class with Julianna gave us three short stories to read with critical essays to write, three creative responses as essays, one on our own muse and process, a free associative writing exercise, and another on six random words and how it provokes memory.

Professional Development class gave me a smaller assignment of writing a cover letter and to research small presses, their submission processes.

Publishing Class gave me the three poems and six essays to read and review, one to copy-edit, and a mere 36 pages of a copy-editing book to read. Was there something else? Oh, I hope not.

First week. That’s all. Just a few things to take care of. So what did we all do, us students, after class on Friday? Yep, pub. We went to the pub.
And bumped into Tom. Thomas Christopher Greene that is, the President of the college.

It was all in all a good week. Now I’ve got some reading to do, forgive me. I’ve got to go.

 

Time Management for the Middle-Aged! 

Starting graduate school as a grown up is a tad scary. I have plans though. Ways to organize my days. I thought it would help.

  1. Buy black chisel tipped markers.
  2. Get paper 24 x 24 minimum. The local print shop gave me rolls of cut-offs.
  3. Tack paper to wall either near windows or under lights.
  4. List days of week and fill in deadlines for the next week. 
  5. Mind-map projects, loose tangents, ideas, questions etc. The benefits of this style of brainstorming is that it’s fluid, non chronological and you can keep adding to it. 
  6. Lastly for me, I have a list by priority of ongoing projects. It reminds me to bear in mind how important (or not) that deadline is. 
  7. The best part? I don’t need to find my bloody glasses to read these to do lists.

The Importance of Book Reviews

After about ten reviews, Amazon starts including books in their suggestions “also bought” and “you might like” lists.

After more reviews, Amazon is more likely to spotlight the book. This creates a massive increase in visibility and sales. We all want that, right?

Reviews and sales go hand in hand.
The problem for my own books is that most are sold by word of mouth, at events and the such. Then emails and FB posts/ messages tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Then that’s it. Which is wonderful to hear. Please though, can you take a moment and go on Amazon and click on Van Life or any of my books and leave a review. It only takes a moment. I need your help to find the recognition that is beyond winning best fiction with NM/AZ Book Awards in 2012 and 2016, plus being a finalist in 2014 for another. Great Northwest Book Contest awarded Van Life Grand Winner for best nonfiction.
Until I have some reviews though, Amazon ignores these books, which will stay under the radar and only appear if readers are actively searching for my name. The awards don’t help except reassure me that I didn’t waste my time putting it out there.
Seriously, I’d like to find more readers. Whether you liked the book or not, a review will get it noticed. After ten reviews then the sales hikes, the promotion by Amazon, it grows tremendously. But only after review start coming in.
So, yes, please take a moment and leave a customer review. It will make a difference.

Thank you. Thank you.

Yes, thank you.

What am I doing here?

Cold damp air washed over me, doused the happy day I’d had, that inspiration from the classes attended. The dogs ran it to the kitchen, Harold howling for his dinner, his tail thumped on the fake wooden floor, Rosie checked out the bucket. Stevie wound in and out of legs. Within ten minutes, all ran back outside into the rain. Harold sat in the front seat. Stevie sat underneath the front bumper. And Rosie? Rosie hunched on the grass in the drizzle before squeezing under the campervan. They hate it in here.

What am I doing here? I grabbed Stevie, needing to cuddle his fluffy belly. He scratched me, claw stuck in my left cheek.

What am I doing here?

Quitting isn’t an option, isn’t it? When is it time to give up? Say enough is enough and walk away? The Santa Fe speak for this persistence is that it’s meant to be, you deserve this (as long as it’s good and if not, then this phrase is quietly ignored), and the inane something better will come along and don’t ever say this to me – god wills it. The idea is that someone or something godlike has determined what will and won’t happen. A notion that confuses me, well – it pisses me off actually. Lame. Suitable for good times and not so surprisingly forgotten in the bad. Who’d say, you deserve this when you lose home, job, or worse, a parent? My parents are both dead, sorry to be blunt, though and so right now it’s just home and job. Without a job, I can’t get a home. Without a home, I can’t get a job. Funny that. Catch 22, or in my case 22 1/2:  the van, I like living in this van of mine, don’t I? But I can’t leave the pups and Stevie inside all day while working for another. Can I?

I scroll through Craigslist looking for work, for pet-friendly homes, anything but this, a dark little dungeon that is mine for another ten days. The dogs are in the camper, Harold on the passenger’s seat, Rosie on the bed in the back. Stevie hides underneath. I’m sitting on a camp stool under the eaves of the garage, staying out of the rain as being inside the basement apartment wets me down to a soggy pile of rotten leaves. Even the paperwork on the table in there curls in the damp air. The smoke alarm beeps every few minutes, the moist air short-circuting the wiring inside, well, it did until I tore it off the ceiling, ripped out the wires and threw the fucking thing into the creek downhill.

Walking along a riverside dirt track outside of Montpelier is the one time the dogs play. The one place Harold will shit. He holds it in, constipated by these changes in our life. He’s not happy. The road is empty, absolutely no-one there, a full river rushes by, and Harold and Rosie run into the trees, eat grass, poop, eat more grass and speed off ahead. Strolling along under the dense leafy greenery that suffocates me, the rain trickles down. Oh, it’s pretty, it is. The understory is chocked full of grass, shrubs, flowers, and who knows what they’re all called, I don’t care. Not really. It’s too much, too green, too dense. I crave the open space of mountains or meadows.

Mad Dog River valley appeals, just as Anne from the college had guessed. It’s wide open, with fields and flushed muddy banks deep in the flash floods from a month of rain. This rain that doesn’t stop, it drizzles and storms in both the afternoons and mornings. Mid-day, when I’m here, driving around the lanes, the sun shines and so do I. We stop in Middlesex first, leaving fliers at the cafe looking for a home, and then back onto Hwy 100B, along another smaller river and past different styles of wood-sided houses with small yards. I take note of rental signs and for sale. In Moretown, again, I stop at the General Store, drop off a flier, search for others. Nothing pops. I drive on. We stop at a picnic area under some trees, dogs run to drink from the river. The views along this valley are wide and my breath loosens. My anxiety loosens its hold and so we walk around the next town along, Waitsfield. It’s a tad too far for a commute to college and (hopefully) work. A sandwich, a soda, and then time to drive again. The afternoon was sweet, the valley open and views expansive.

College inspires me. Invited to drop in and out of lectures, I’ve found academics and writers who speak to me, remind me that yes, I’m a writer, there’s nothing else. How do I align my interior life as a writer with a lifetime of writing? How do I make this into a professional career? I’m doing my best but this, the community of writers and poets, they can help. They’re teaching me of all that I know and don’t. How else will I find my way into the publishing world and to become a better writer both? Ada Limon talks of how she found a balance as a poet and editor/copy-writer, and to mix the introvert and social sides of herself. Flexibility was a goal of hers, workwise, one that not just appeals but is necessary for me, and her lecture on personal process, making it in the world by knowing when to be the artist writer self and when she needs to step out of that, to be professional, she can do that, knowing it’s temporary yet needed.

My toes are damp. The foundation seeps and puddles in the kitchen. With a towel to two, I sop up the worst next to the fridge and stare out the highest little windows as the rain keeps coming down.  The dogs spread the dirt and mud from puddles inside, outside, onto my bedding, into the garage and into the camper van. Dog hair, those shedding beasts of mine, run through a downpour, shake it off inside the dungeon, and jump onto my bed again. Stevie steps across the table, my papers, and I admire the little paw-prints, so perfectly formed. Thunder crashes out. Lights go out. Electricity down. Nighttime. Bedtime. It’s seven o’clock. Oh, why not, it’s not like I have anything to do.

When does it become time to stop? To walk away? How do we know? Competitive I am not. Does that mean I’m a quitter? Do I give up too easily? Those friends who decided to believe another with a reputation for lying instead of me, the most bluntly honest one? What did I do? I walked away, not going to waste my time trying to remind them of the value of reputation: if they didn’t believe me why should I make them? So, no, perhaps that was giving up too early? I don’t know. I’m okay with it, in that case. This though is different. I want this. I want to be here. It’s just…

It’s just that it’s not easy. Moving across 2100 miles to a town where I have no back-up, friends, or sense of community.  The home rental fell through. I found another, paid, moved in a few things and then the landlady changed her mind. The job that’s meant to start tomorrow, there’s a technical hitch and they can’t take me on for a few months. I’ve sent out resumes, stopped in at so many local businesses, I’m tired of selling myself, or trying to. No leads. And I find it’s more lonely to be here in a town than it is to be in the mountains alone. Loneliness/ alone, they are such opposites but easily confused.

A night in Maine, the fire crackled and dogs ran free. The van doors were propped open and Stevie sat in the stoop. My laptop sat on the wooden table with notebooks, pens, papers, reviews and phone. The cookstove took over the other end of the table and a pot of soup bubbled away. The birds cackled and ravens taunted Stevie as he climbed a pine tree behind us. The 35 acre lake reflected back a growing cover of stormy clouds. Finally I could breathe deeply. With such dense forests, there was no shortage of firewood and I made the most of it. Glorious. Absolutely glorious. The words pour out and remind me that writing is why I’m here in Vermont. Tonight I’m inspired by both journey and conversations had with random people as I drove around Maine. Life is good.

Give it a chance I tell myself. I know why I’m here, trying to find a home and work in Vermont so that I can spend three years on a Writing and Publishing MFA. How often does such an offer come up? Rarely. One that is exactly what I want and need as a writer on the edge of finding herself? I’m here for all the right reasons.

What would happen if I walked away? I’d regret this, this lost opportunity to find a community, to step into a world of experienced and published writers that inspire me. I’d miss the possibilities within reach. I can see them, touch their words, and listen to their voices as they talk of how they got to this point. I see myself one day, giving such a lecture as Ada’s, talking of my process and path, with confidence and ease talking to a room full of strangers, making them laugh and hopefully inspiring them to keep going, keep writing and to trust themselves. I see myself talking of agents and publications. Process and challenges. It’s clear to me. The goal. I’m here for the right reasons. I am.
I open the door to the dungeon. A wave of cold damp air hits me, the dogs run back to the van, Stevie scratches me. Bleeding, I break down again, crying into fists, sitting on the stupidly soft mattress on this shitty little single bed in this fucking bunker. Why am I here? What am I doing here? I don’t know. It’s time to sleep, I can’t deal, unable to cook a decent meal, read or write. Fuck it. It’s seven thirty.

Through the Trapdoor.

Get ready. Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

 

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

 

 

 

 

Living The Dream: 21

 

SEPTEMBER: SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS

“Do you have a shotgun?”

“Did you kill it?”
“What happened?”
I poured the French Roast one at a time and answered, “we went to bed.”
The café broke out in laughter; all began talking at the same time. The two tables were full of locals, with newspapers, empty paper cups, plates of bagels, and the various phones and hats they all carried. Eight chairs, seven gray-haired men, and one four-year old little girl in pink. She held court between the snake stories. Mark and I’d gotten off lightly apparently. One local woman had a rattlesnake climb into bed with her. I’m glad that wasn’t me.

The guys all had different ideas as to what we could/ should do next time. No one had the definitive answer that I heard. But here goes, the ideas included but were not limited to:

Shotgun.

Rope on a stick to lasso the bastard.

Metal buckets with lids.

Cats keep away mice and rats, and therefore the snakes don’t come over for dinner.

Clean up piles of lumber and trash. (Little did they guess that I was pretty anal about that already and didn’t need any excuse.)

Wire mesh under the bus to keep out all kinds of critters.

Cat-litter spread around the perimeter.

And again, get a shotgun.
I poured coffees for the regulars and made lattes for the tourists. The café business was slowing down after my mid-morning rush. I took a breath and carried on cleaning, dusting, and catching up. I drank another cappuccino. The two glass doors had been propped open and a soft crosswind took out some of the various odors, not all were that pleasant let’s say. I wiped down the shelves and took a cloth to the shelves full of small colorful silly gifts for those passing through. I looked at my notes. Matthew, a local mechanic, had drawn a sketch for how to make a lasso out of PVC pipe and baling wire. He’d drawn a cartoon of Mark and I chasing down a posse of snakes across the desert. I wanted to frame it; he’d done such a great job. Frida was asleep outside in the back yard of the café, under the elm tree with her favorite blanket and toy near by. She’d been on quivering guard all night long and the poor thing was exhausted. I checked on her every so often but she barely moved.

The morning passed peacefully and for that I was glad. I scanned the paper, looking for jobs for Mark. He’d hate that, but he’d need to do something soon. I couldn’t support us both on what I was doing. I thought of asking at the restaurants but couldn’t face that either. I leaned against the counter and daydreamed.

 

“Hi. Is Anne around?”
Andrew, the birthday boy, stood in front of me with his hat in hands, politely letting me gather myself. He’d pulled up in the driveway in his 4Runner, the engine still running. I checked the calendar and told him she’d be back in the morning but not before.
“Can I help somehow?”
Andrew shook his head but sat down on one of the wooden stools in front of me, his truck forgotten. His long white hair hung loosely and the blue Levis and denim shirt were much more worn out than at his party the other weekend. He wasn’t in his Sunday best, I guess.

“I don’t know, Jenny. It’s my sister; I’m worried about her. Anne’s so good at all of her community outreach stuff, I wanted to ask her help.”
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?” I poured him a cup of coffee out of habit and sat next to him. I turned down the music. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking to himself before he started to talk.

“It’s the rescue. She’s drowning in debt but won’t ask for help from anyone. I don’t think she can keep going for much longer unless she gets some money together. I don’t know how. We’re all the family there is, we don’t have anyone to turn to. Mom’s ancient and doesn’t even recognize us any more.”
“So you thought of Anne? How come?”
He glanced at me. “I forget you’re still new here.”
“I’m not. I’ve been here almost three months now,” I said indignantly.

He laughed, “no offence, but that’s not so long, is it? Anyway, Anne’s put on fundraisers before. I thought maybe we could do one for the sanctuary.”
“I want to help. I don’t know how, but I’m sure I could do something. What does she need?” Ready to get involved as usual, I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm in check. I tried not to bounce in my seat.
“Mostly it’s the financial stuff, paying bills, buying supplies for the dogs, paying medical bills as they come up, maybe even making it into a non-profit.” He grinned. “Well, that’s what I’ve come up with so far.” and he tied his hair back and out of the way. His moustache drooped and dipped into the coffee.
“What’s she been doing until now?”
He sighed deeply. “Nothing. I told her to set herself up properly when her husband left, but did she listen to me? No, I’m just her older brother.”
“Mark’s been helping over there, mending fences and stuff. It’s not really what he’s good at. He’s more of a musician than anything else. But he’s good on the computer. Maybe we could do the Internet stuff for her, work on the accounts and look into some marketing?”
“Louisa doesn’t like getting people involved in her life. We’d have to get her okay first. But is it hard to get the non-profit stuff done?”
I shook my head and sipped coffee and grabbed notebook and pen. I started to write down ideas free form. “I’d think it’s probably just lots of details, setting up the different roles and that. We could do it so she has the final say on mission statements and that, but we organize how to deal with the money side of things. If Mark or someone could write some grants, then…”
“She’d be okay? I don’t want her to lose everything in the meantime.”
“Oh, right, that wouldn’t help her out right now.” I stood up and called to Frida. She trotted up the steps and lay down next to Andrew’s boots, and started to lick the one nearest her.
“Been cleaning out the stables,” he explained as we watched my dog.

I wrote down about grants, sponsors, fundraisers, and asked, “When Anne’s done other events, how does that work?”
Andrew added some more sugar and talked about the tavern hosting various shows over the years, with silent and live auctions, music all night long with the local bands each getting a set or two before the community jam towards the end of the night. “For one woman with a back injury, we raised about six thousand, and that took care of her mortgage and those kinds of expenses. The hospital covered the medical bills since she was under the poverty income levels.”

“Do you really get that much support here? There are not enough people, surely?”
Andrew laughed, “I know it seems that way at times, but there’s another four hundred or so folks living out in the mountains, and most of them are artists and writers and sculptors and woodworkers. They all bring their own creations to auction off. The musicians play with each other and with their reputations they bring in more of a Santa Fe audience, the families bring the kids, and it’s pretty incredible.” He had the sweetest smile right then.

I petted Frida. “Let’s do it, a fundraiser then, and in the meantime, Mark and I can work on the long term legal stuff, finding us, I mean Louisa, sponsors. I’m up for it. I’ll tell Mark later today, okay?”
Andrew put his hand on my arm, and still smiling, simply said thanks.

 

The four of us sat at the corner table in the tavern. Papers and pens lay scattered among pints of half-drunk beer and untouched iced water. A bowl of tortilla chips was brought over by the waiter. He left us to it after checking we didn’t need anything for a while. We all talked over each other, one idea after another. Anne took down notes as to names of artists and galleries. I wrote their suggestions for media coverage, which papers and the specific journalists to approach. Radio stations, online yahoo groups, Facebook, all the different social networks came to mind. Mark scribbled his own ideas and questions to follow up on for finding the bands. Andrew stood up after a while and stepped outside to smoke, with Mark following his lead. Anne and I took a breath and stopped talking. The calm felt good. I set the pen down. I breathed in deeply and let it out slowly.

The tavern was empty. Then again, for a weekday afternoon, I should know to expect that by now. Anne drained her first pint and ordered another round, with a plate of nachos for the group of us.
We sat in an easy silence.

The drinks came. The men didn’t.

“Cheers.” she toasted me. “Welcome to Oliver. You’re truly a part of this place if this is how you spend your time off.”
I tipped my glass and took a sip. “Yep, I feel like I can help out. I know Louisa. If it had been anyone else, I don’t know that I’d be as keen as this, to be honest. But I like what she’s doing up there. Maybe I can help set up a website, tell people about the specific dogs looking for homes.”
“She’d do well with a monthly newsletter to keep us in touch. She’s not good with people, that’s for sure, but I’ve known her with these dogs, ones you’d think should be quarantined because they’re so unpredictable. But she works with them, teaches them manners, and finds them homes. It’s such a shame her husband left her, but I reckon she’s happier without him.”
“Really? Why?”
“It wasn’t his dream, you know? The ones that don’t make it out on the land, well, usually one or the other is just going along with it to keep the partner happy. After a while, hauling water, or chopping firewood, or waking up to a raging windstorm, it gets old for some.”
“Not me. I love every minute of it. I didn’t know I would, but I do. And Mark’s been amazing too. He’s so great with the pup, and with getting his hands dirty, all the while he’s grinning and giggling and whistling to himself. I’ve not seen him this happy before. It’s pretty amazing.” I stared out the window and we watched Andrew and Mark chatting away, big smiles on their faces, non-stop back and forth. Mark pushed his curls out of his eyes and tied a bandana around the unruly mess, as he stroked his goatee absently. He finished his pint as he listened to the older man. Andrew’s faded denim shirt glowed in the direct afternoon sunlight, and his weathered skin suited him just fine, so much so that I imagined my boyfriend in his seventies looking somewhat like his new friend. I smiled to myself and turned back to Anne. She was reading her notes distractedly, fiddling with a strand of hair.

“Where’s Graham today?” I asked suddenly.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Something about the fire department, taking out a new volunteer to check for wildfires. He said they’d be back late afternoon sometime. We’ll see.”

She shook her head and focused on writing reminders to herself when Mark wandered over. He took a seat next to me just as the nachos arrived. He helped himself, humming away as he ate. I watched them both.