Ungrounded yet camping. Sleeping in a truck yet I’m paying for the flat in town. Essays written and needing to be rewritten. Editing. Prose and poems combined. Campfires. Sleepy foggy mornings. Cat on a pillow. Cat in a tree. Cat out and about. Cat back for dinner. Dogs play sleep nap sleep eat play nap sleep deep. Dog on a pillow. Purring cats. Guilt at not working enough. Never enough. I need to let myself take time off, play nap sleep eat come back for dinner. I’m driven. Furiously working inside my head if not on the computer. Taking in ideas, gaining momentum, hungry for conversations to help me grow as a writer and as usual wanting more than is here in front of me. Dog on a pillow. Cat on my head. Waking up in a truck by a river in the fog needing coffee wanting to write but nothing to say beyond how this summer is different when the sun shines and you have goals and you get to laugh and play by rivers with friends in the muggy heat and full belly and it’s time for a nap but instead I do laundry and think about critical theory in my sleep.
May 2017-2018: In the last year, my writing life and career has taken off incredibly. Why? It all started when I moved across country to start my MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I thought I’d list the changes here. This isn’t for bragging rights but to say thank you for all who support me, encourage me, and all that good stuff. You know who you are. So, thank you.
- MFA writing program began in Vermont and from there…
- Met so many inspiring writers, building a sense of community, peers and friends.
- My own writing has opened up in new ways and forms.
- Discovered a joy in writing short-shorts/ micro-memoirs.
- Short stories published.
- Book reviews pubished.
- Director’s Award (MFAWP).
- Vermont Book Award Fellowship.
- AWP Mentorship.
- PGWC partial scholarship.
- Merit scholarship (MFAW).
- Honorable mention – Glimmer Train – short story.
- Top 25 finalist – Glimmer Train – flash fiction.
- Top 5 finalist – Writing by Writer’s contest.
- “Headhunted” by the top US Land Rover magazine, Rovers North.
- Started Wanderlust-Journal, learning how to run an online journal, using Submittable, marketing, growing an audience, and with over 19,800 views in six months.
- Editorial work with Upstreet and Hunger Mountain Reviews.
- Developed a stronger social media presence to create a larger community of writers, especially via Twitter.
- Learned how to develop a teaching philosophy/ lessons for workshops and lectures.
- Written professional CVs and resumes, a media kit, updating regularly.
- Created a professional submissions letter which has rewarded me with many a rejection (68 to be exact) plus all the new accolades and scholarships.
- Connected with various indie presses and publishers, and I plan to stay in touch with a few of them.
- Written artist statement/ letter of intentions for applications which serves to focus my goals as a writer.
- I’ve had some encouraging conversations with literary agents who decided not to take me on saying the writing was intruiging and solid but my aesthetic/ voice wasn’t their style.
- Two new novels written and are being revised alone and in workshops.
- Over 100 short stories written and currently being collected/ revised/ played with.
- Joined the South West Writers Association and have a profile on their website.
- Reached out to the Sante Fe Writer’s Project/ Quarterly, they’re going to publish a book review in July.
- Set up a writer’s retreat at my place in NM via Wanderlust journal website and submittable.
- Pubishing on Medium.com with travel essays.
In other words, for me, the MFA has been more than worth it and I’m only just finishing the first year. I’m switching to a low-residency program so that I can live and study from home for the second year. I’ll be able to continue working freelance, writing, and putting into practice much of these new skills. My only concern is losing that sense of a writers’ community when I’m back in New Mexico and so a large focus will be for me to reach out and maintain connections and conversations with other writers and creatives.
I feel like I’m about to take off and fly. Thank you my friends. For all you have done for me, for believing in me, for wanting me to succeed.
Detoxing is never easy. This is what happened to me.
Essay: What am I doing? Why does anyone really choose to limit themselves in the name of detoxing? No different from most, I don’t like my body. I’m stressed at graduate school, and getting cranky with my dogs, self, and cohort. Something has to change. I reckon it starts with me. Doesn’t it always?
Food is energy. Funnily enough it was when I was a twenty year old at undergrad this concept really took hold. Food is energy. If I ate something that made me sluggish, tired, sleepy, then it wasn’t energy. It was taking my energy. No no no.
My energy at grad school is flagging right now. Too much sitting around on the computer, too many grey days in Vermont. I’m not doing well. I’m hoping this will help.
This morning, I took the dogs for a walk around Montpelier. Saturdays are quiet here, the traffic is light, and I can count the cars passing on one hand. Three of them. I know the driver of one, Stef; she stopped to set up a coffee date for later this week. I let the dogs off leash in the kid’s schoolyard, a big no-no probably, but they need to run. I need to hike open mountaintops, away from the sound of voices and vehicles. There are limited options here, nothing we, the dogs and I, can hike outside our back door. And so, we walk less.
Combine that with the educational pressures, a winter of sub zero temperatures, and a heavier diet of snacks and carbs, I’m not feeling great. I don’t like my body. I don’t like my low energy or the beer belly.
Stacy and I chatted on the phone earlier this week, one of my closest friends in New Mexico. She’s just finished a ten-day detox. The focus was on cutting out all sugars, grains, caffeine, dairy, caffeine, and alcohol. Blah blah blah. No, seriously, I get it. Veggies and proteins. Simple as that. It really is simple, buy fresh food, cook it yourself and avoid all those addictive extras. Can I do a week though? Ten days?
“By following my scientifically proven diet and lifestyle practices, we can reset your metabolism to function as it was designed to. You’ll lose weight without going hungry. It’s not how much you eat, it’s what you eat.”
Sounds easy, right? It’s spring break. If not now, then when?
I have no external pressures on me, no other students to be nice to, no co-workers to snap at as the caffeine withdrawals hit. I’m game. I haven’t told Stacy yet. I probably should to keep myself accountable to someone.
I make a cup of coffee. With cream.
For breakfast, I had sautéed veggies and salmon. A bottle of water. Okay, I’ve started now. I need to go to the store and buy a bunch of veggies, fish, organic chicken, and nuts. Okay, I’m doing this. I’ll let you know how it goes. Ten days. Ten days. I can do it. Well, apart from all ready messing up, improvising I like to call it, the first cup of coffee was with cream it’s true, the second black. I’m going to buy some decaf coffee and teas this morning, honest.
Knowing I’m on detox diet: I’m hungry constantly. Sheesh.
Headache. Slight cough. Low energy, but I blame that on yet another grey day in Vermont. Winter here is dull. I’d thought of snow and sunshine as in the Southwest, no, it’s snow, freezing rain, grey days, long nights, dirty sidewalks, and well, you get the idea. It’s not the best place for me. So, yes, back to the detox. Apart from the headache, I feel pretty good. It might be just that I went a whole day without gluten, dairy, or alcohol. As simple and as huge as that.
My usual daily fodder would be coffee, eggs, cheese, tortillas or crackers or sandwiches, veggies, tea, beer, snacks, stuff like that.
Yesterday was a bit of a stressful day too. The dogs ran after a doe and Bambi. I lost them in the woods. For over an hour, I walked, calling, yelling, and whistling. Finally Rosie, a normally white dog, came back pink. Ten minutes later Harold turned up, shaking with adrenelin, and his white snout was covered in blood.
I wasn’t happy.
Still, I didn’t turn to a malty beverage, no, I brought them home and fed myself a bowl of green chile stew, followed by a cup of peppermint tea.
Today’s challenge will be that I get bored in the afternoons, I do. And Sundays for some reason are the worst and usually I head out to the local pub for a beer and a burger. Big no-no on the detox. What will I do? A movie?
I’m making egg and veggie frittatas for breakfast. I stocked up on raw nuts, dates, bananas and Satsuma’s for the sweet tooth. Decaf coffee, no cream. Humus and snap peas. Stew. Carrots. Oh, yes, I baked carrots yesterday for a snack, drizzled in olive oil, a sprinkle of pepper, and a little salt, perfect treat.
My head hurts.
Did I mention the headaches? It’s a killer. I went to bed at three pm yesterday and only got back up to take the dogs out for a pee break. I couldn’t read or write or look at anything on screen or paper. Throbbing headaches, muscles aching, low energy, this is not fun.
I ate well, no cheating, more water drunk, and feel like shit. Everything shrank in the wash. My clothes don’t fit right. My head doesn’t fit right. My skin is tight. Ugh. My head still hurts. I’m glad I’m doing this now on spring break, as I’d be a shitty student if we were in class. Oh, and yes, I’m doubting myself as a writer, seeing all that’s missing in my novels, can’t face the short stories, and yes, well, one of those days. Ah shit.
The mechanic needs me to leave the truck there. I head over to a cafe to sit and read for an hour. There are pastries. I eat a croissant. I hardly notice it though. Isn’t that sad? I break the detox and didn’t even appreciate it. Oh one of those days. I did only have decaf coffee though.
Back to bed, headaches, impatient, bloated, knackered, cranky. This is great. Why am I doing this again?
The mechanic found a broken radiator. The taxes went through. The same amount, close enough, but I was up $55 and so I went to the pub for a pint and bumped into a friend and had two pints.
Ah sheesh, so much for detox. I tell myself it’s still worth carrying on. Cut the carbs, the sugar, caffeine, alcohol (hiccup) and I’m doing better than I was, right? Right.
Useless, I’m useless. I gave up today. Or my rationale is that I’m adjusting it to suit my lifestyle because I just can’t do it. Headaches, leg muscle cramps, all of the signs that I’m seriously crashing too hard and too fast. So, the plan is to not so much De-tox and Less-tox. The next week will then be caffeine less, dairy less, and gluten less. That’s enough for now. So what have I been eating? Well, I had another croissant this morning. See, I’d had to drive to Burlington for an interview, me interviewing them, and so I stopped for a decaf coffee and snack for the drive in the snow. It made me happier. Then work went well, good profile written now, and I came home to make a beef and veggie chile stew with corn chips on the side. Humus and snap peas. Bananas. A salad each lunchtime for the last week. Satsumas. Almonds. Not bad, right?
The headaches have lessened but still there a bit. The muscle cramps linger so I’m going to stretch after a good hot shower. Then read and write and go to bed early again, because I can. And it’s snowing.
A glass of malbec sounds darned tempting.
Well, that helped, taking off the pressure. So what did I eat? Have been eating? Breakfasts are made of eggs and sauteed veggies, such as onion, zuke, kale, mushrooms and a topping of green chile. Lunches are salads. Snacks are nuts and fruit. Dinners are veggie and chicken or beef stews. It’s simple food but it’s working, full enough to keep going.
But. Something is lacking in my diet. Last night I had such bad muscle cramps, in my feet mostly. The arches to be precise. Agony, the kind that throws your whole body into a tense needle of pain. Waves on and off and on again during the night. I didn’t sleep so well. I’m trying not to be a crankshaft with the pups. It’s hard work. They see me sitting down and figure, if she’s sitting, she could be walking. The static non-smelly metal thing in front of me can’t be as fun as another walk in the snow.
I’m trying to be nice. I’m glad I’m not in class this week. My natural sarcasm would have free reign. Instead, I’m on the computer, writing and revising work.
Another observation from this week of changing diet and no school or outside responsibilities, mid-afternoons are such a time of crashing. Emotionally hard on me. It’s been an issue for a long time, most of my life, but I had other things I had to do and it’s only when I’m completely self-employed does it become an issue. I’m not sure what to do when I’m in a town that isn’t where I want to be. There are no public lands for us to hike free of leashes with big views and no people. I hadn’t realised how spoilt I was in New Mexico for that freedom and headroom.
Well, the headaches are lessening finally. Caffeine is a bitch to get over. Pounding tight headaches all day long. Muscle cramps at night. Something has to change. Bananas will help the muscles, kale too as apparently it’s a lack of potassium. I need to do more research to find out what else could help. But coffee, even though I’m on decaf, and soy milk, it’s tempting to walk down the hill and buy a ‘real’ coffee. Mind games, strong stuff these addictions. Talking of which, beer, wine. Yes. I am giving myself a beer at the pub, cabin fever demands I talk to someone and the bartender’s a good fella, chatty and open and interesting. Pubs are community centres for me, the place to meet and decompress. That then is where I’ve gone to find conversation that I can leave at any point. Somethings don’t change, it’s a habit of a lifetime. I’m okay with that.
More snow. More grey days.
The atlas demands my attention. Perhaps planning a trip away would help? I did. It does. In April, I’m heading out to Cape Cod for a few nights. I’ll have to take in the truck before as the check engine light is on. In May, what can I do in May? Where can I go? Hmm. I’m not sure. Let’s see what I can do. I have to get out of here though. It’s driving me nuts.
Eating well. Sleeping lots. Writing. Revising. Editing. Reading. Walking. And super fucking depressed.
Is this part of detoxing? Less-toxing? It’s not nice. Let me tell you that, it is not very nice.
My emotions are wrecked. When I broke down at home with head in hands, Harold started whining and crying on the sofa and Rosie sprang up and got her favourite toy and gave it to me. Even Cat Stephen strolled over and sat nearby.
It’s rough. They are good. That’s about all I have to say.
IN CONCLUSION then, there is no conclusion. At least I know I’m eating well. I’m walking the dogs repeatedly each day, but even that’s not great as they have to walk on leashes everywhere here. It’s not like in NM where they could run free for miles at a time and not bump into, let alone see anyone the whole time we’re out and about. No, this is a small town in a wooded state full of people and their own dogs. It’s not the same. My energy is still flagging it’s true, and I didn’t really detox it’s true, but I tried. I’m eating better which means I’m not beating myself up for eating filler only. I’m watching and waiting for better weather to go out and camp somewhere. In the meantime, I’m home, still on the computer, less addicted to caffeine, missing my cheddar cheese, and wondering what’s next.
Some would say I’d failed. And yes, they’d be right.
Has it helped, to change up my diet? Yes and no. Would I do it again? Sure, why not? Maybe if the rest of my life is smoother, the detox will help even more? I don’t know. I’ll have a cup of ginger tea though and get back to work.
I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.
- Date of birth: when and where were they born?
- Astrology! Why not, eh?
- What do they like to eat, drink?
- Favorite clothes
- Favorite music
- What do they do on their time off?
- Where did they grow up?
- Who was a best friend and why?
- What mischief did they get upto?
- How far did they get in school?
- What are the priorities? The goals?
- What are they scared of doing?
- What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
- What is the story that can only happen to them?
- Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
- How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
- To others?
- Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
- A memory from pre-teens
- A memory from teens
- From twenties
- What will they sacrifice for dreams?
Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?
“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)
Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.
(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)
On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story.
It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.
Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.
The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.
- Trust the magic
- Let the story out
- Trust the characters
- Write everyday
- Get it out, remember?
- Drop in deep
- Fall into the spell
- Trust your intuition
- What’s the reason for living that lfie?
- Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
- Ask questions of your characters
- Follow those questions in each chapter
- Access the urgency
- Create a playlist
- What do you have to say?
- See the world through their eyes
- Trust intuitive structure
- Write what you should write, what you know
- Don’t worry about externals
- Don’t be in good taste
- Let the characters act true to themselves
- Don’t censor them
- Or yourself!
- Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
- Poignancy, find it in each character
- The story is its own editor
- Do you know enough to tell this story?
- Commit to writing two hours per day
- Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
- Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
- What are you interested in?
- Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
- Research the context, era
- Find those odd details
- Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
- Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
- What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
- What is the story that can only happen to them?
- Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
- Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
- How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?
If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.