5/15/2019

MFA Winding Down... What's Next?

I heard from my advisor yesterday... she's happy with my thesis.

{imagine the release of a breath held for months, a breath I'd not been aware of holding}

The collection of stories that I'll be submitting to the archives and archivists at Goddard College went from 27 stories to 15; I think it's a much tighter collection, more in line with what I wanted to serve up to readers, and with the revisions all of my readers helped me to find my way to is very close to the stories I had in my head when I started each one.


More than anything, I've learned that my writing needed, and needs, more (and more thoughtful) revision than I had previously done (or even considered). I've never had a problem with writing productively, but before my time at Goddard, I was unwilling to push myself to edit my work to the degree I've become accustomed through the last two years.


This semester was far and away the most challenging at Goddard, for me. 

I found myself wallowing in fear and self-pity after a sobering review of my first thesis submission by both my advisor and my second reader. It wasn't that they said the work was horrible, far from it, but they didn't love the still-rough stories so much as I wanted them to. This was a hard pill for me to swallow and process (rationally).

Taking their advice for tuning, and in some cases chopping, my stories was a freeing process though, and one I mixed in the feedback from another collection of readers I was able to take a step back from my fear and ego and hubris and address the shortcomings of my work. 


The result is a better collection, and 15 stories that are all objectively, markedly, improved since February. Through my editing and revision process, I've considered them singly and together and played with ordering how a reader experiences them to hopefully craft a better overall effect.


With the help of my family, I was able to carve out three days to disappear into northern Vermont to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere to give the work a final read-through shortly before handing in my "final" submission (""s added because although I'm finished with the thesis/collection so far as Goddard is concerned, I'll likely give it another round of polish before either shopping it around or self-publishing it). 

The quiet and time away from (my admittedly pretty idyllic) life allowed me to dive into the stories and collection and swim around in the ideas and people I wanted readers to experience when they pick up the book... it bolstered my confidence in the work at the same time it illuminated a few more changes I wanted to make.


Starting the day I first turned in my thesis and then recommencing after the final submission, I've been shopping some of the individual stories around to various magazines... to date four of the stories have been picked up (and I'm hopeful for more in the coming weeks). 

Graduation is in June. I'm working on my CV and looking for teaching gigs in the region; in the meantime, I'll be working on my next novel as well as evaluating and polishing some of the hundred or so stories that didn't make it into No Man is an Island... Except Me.

I'm excited for what's next and grateful to all of the people I worked with during my MFA at Goddard, who helped me improve my approach to writing.





2/20/2019

My thesis will be finished. Not yet, not soon, but someday, and looking at the collection of stories I've put together in the semi-final stages makes me proud, and happy, and excited ... for what's next.



I found my way to Goddard two years ago, hungry to change my approach to writing, eager to improve and professionalize my stories and the way I produced and shared them with the world. My take on me was that I was more storyteller than writer, and what I wanted to get from my time at Goddard was to slide further along the continuum towards being a writer, while not losing the storytelling.

Goddard's been nearly perfect for that, for me, in that it gave me what I wanted as well as what I needed. The magic of Goddard exists in two areas: intellectual freedom, focused on learner desires and outcomes; and a community of people to learn with who are brilliant and engaged.

I was able to define my goals, choose my path, and make my own way, comfortable knowing that my teachers and advisers would support me and help me with course-corrections as needed along the way. Living and working and learning with a vibrant and vital community of motivated thinkers and creators only served to pull me higher and faster, along narrow paths to summits I'd never visited before.


My process has been to read and write, supported and nurtured by my peers and faculty. With their guidance, I've read and annotated an eclectic mix of books (fiction, poetry, and books about writing by writers), many of them titles and authors I never would have encountered on my own. Before, during, and after reading these dozens of books, I wrote ... and wrote ... and wrote.

Since starting at Goddard, I've written between 80 and 100 short stories ... lots of them pretty horrible. Some of them, however, were informed by something I'd read, a discussion I'd had, or a seminar or workshop I'd attended during one of the residencies; these stories are generally the ones I circled back to again and again to tweak and polish and prune and graft.

Of those many stories, I sifted and sorted about two dozen that I felt were both representative of my work and growth while at Goddard, seemed to hang together as a collection, and also meant something to me on a personal level.


One of the joking/not-joking taglines at Goddard is to "Trust the Process" ... the process of becoming a writer, or at least my process of becoming a writer, involved reading a lot, writing a lot, talking with smart people who enjoy both reading and writing, and drinking lots of coffee.

Goddard has supported me, and my growth as a writer, in all facets of this process.

For me, that process included finding the time and energy to love editing and revising my work more, much more than I had previously done. As Storyteller-Jamie I loved the creation, making something from nothing; as soon as I was done with the initial creation I'd be ready to move on to the next thing, only grudgingly editing and revising my work as a necessary evil.

Post-Goddard, more-of-a-Writer-Jamie still loves the creation, but sees, and acknowledges, editing and revision as a part of the creative process ... that the creation isn't whole until it's as good as I can make it. That probably seems like a subtle difference to anyone still reading this interminable blog entry, but it's made a big difference to my writing, and to me.


Long story still long, I picked 27 stories and submitted them to my advisor and second reader at Goddard.

The feedback is still coming in, but I agree with what I've consumed and digested so far:

  • a number of the stories don't work as well either on their own or with the collection as a whole, so I'm dropping five (my advisor lobbied for a couple more, but I know what the stories can be, and I'm trusting myself to get them there in time for my final submission)
  • I need to work to polish and reorder the remaining 22 stories to present them in the best possible light ... only then will they, and the collection be done.

I can feel "what's next" floating out there, in front of me, stories waiting to be told ... but I'm not done writing these ones yet, so I'll wait, they'll keep. 

{a detective novel, a fantasy novel, another collection of short stories, more Tyler stories, a cookbook, etc.}



Thanks,

Jamie
Westmoreland, NH

1/22/2019

MFA, Short Story Collection, and what I'm working on this morning ....


  • Why is a guy who's written and published four novels back in school pursuing an MFA?
  • Why is that same novelist laboring to produce a collection of short stories for his thesis?
  • Where is he in that process ... it's been a long time since he published anything?
  • What's next ... why ... when?
Those are all excellent questions, especially the first two, and rather than Sir Edmund Hillary-ing my answer, let me try to think my way through them in this blog entry ... if you promise to read it, I promise to write it thoughtfully.



I went back to school (yet again, some might say) to get my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College because I felt that I was more a storyteller than a writer. This may seem sophistry or pretense, and perhaps it is (I've been accused, and guilty, of far worse), but nevertheless that was the fulcrum I needed to get myself back in the classroom (on the student side of the lectern, at least initially). Over the course of the MFA program I think I've stretched and grown as a writer ... trying new things as well as getting better at things I was already doing.

I felt confident in the structure and process of the four Tyler Cunningham novels, and had concerns that while I could likely produce another novel, it wouldn't stretch me in the ways I wanted to be stretched in an MFA program. A novel is one example of a thing, one chance to practice new strategies, one opportunity for growth; I wanted dozens. To that end, I wrote a gazillion (nearer to 100 actually) short stories; two dozen (ish) of which will be in the collection that is my thesis project: "No man is an island ... except me, I'm definitely an island".


Having the luxury to write, and subsequently select from, a large number of short stories, I was able to pick both my favorites, and further, from among those was able to pick a sampling that all seem to row in the same direction when taken as a whole. The stories (including the title piece) are all about people both outside of human society and aware of that outsideness, and (I hope) explore the condition from a new, or at least interesting, perspective.

Last week, upon my return from my final residency at Goddard, I took the time to make a final  selection of the stories that will be in the collection ... final-ish, it may be that after my advisor and second reader take a look at the collection, they suggest I drop or pickup a story or two.


I printed out all of the contenders, reread them so as to climb back into the various worlds presented, and then tried to establish a reasonable order in which to offer the stories. some of the strongest works at the beginning to grab readers, an undulation of pacing and type and mood throughout, and another of my favorites with which to end the collection. Three of the stories have been published in literary journals (so far, I have hopes for a couple more being grabbed, including two submissions to The New Yorker ... why not dream big?), something I had previously thought was verboten, but have learned actually makes the collection more attractive to potential publishers.


My plan for the rest of the semester, including this morning once I've finished this blog entry, is to polish the stories and the collection within which they float. In a few weeks I'll send it to my advisor and second reader for their thoughts and guidance. I have some administrivia and paperwork to do for Goddard in the assumption that I'll be graduating in July. Once I hear back from my advisor and second reader (and any other wise eyes I ask for help with the collection), I'll spend the intervening time trying to deal with bumps in the road that is my collection. I'm a big believer (now) that editing and revisions are never done, just due.

Although I'm mostly focused on the completion of my thesis and MFA, I am looking beyond Goddard and this collection of shorts to what's next. I've got two thirds of a very rough draft of my fantasy novel, Oasis, written, and that's calling to me. Readers of the Tyler Cunningham series have been (mostly) patiently waiting for three years for the next installment; I have a couple of stories waiting to come out, possibly novellas, possibly interwoven as a novel. I've also gotten to know a new detective duo who have set up shop in the back of my head, providing an amusing distraction when I'm stuck on other projects; they have a lot to offer, and feel as though they'd be great fun to work with, so I'm tempted to open with them. A (the?) cherry on top of future projects is a cookbook that's not a cookbook, something more along the lines of a lifestyle and gadget and gift guidebook for the kitchen adventurer; I've never done non-fiction writing, never worked with graphics in a book, never formalized/organized my explorations in the kitchen beyond fun and a love of food and drink.


It should make me nervous or scared, but really I'm just excited ... I hope you'll come along with me on the next steps, and the ones after that ... I'm really looking forward to sharing these stories, and the next ones, whatever they are, with you.

Thanks,

Jamie

10/24/2018

Writers writing about writing, for writers, 5 top choices

One of the easiest things any writer, no matter their age or experience, can do to improve their writing, beyond (and in addition to) just writing, is to read.


I believe that anything you read is good for your development as a writer, even junk ... it teaches by non-example. That being said, I particularly enjoy reading the thoughts of writers I admire on their exploration of the craft, their journeys in becoming better writers, their stories about telling their stories.

I've read dozens of this type of book in my ongoing journey to better myself as both writer and storyteller, but there are five I would recommend above, and before, any others:



Read these books, one at a time, and discuss them with other writers you know; talk about what you liked about them, what you hated, what you wish there was more of ... the best way to plumb the depths of these books is by talking about them with other writers who've experienced them.

I lead a writers bookclub at the Keene Public Library, and we read something along these lines every month ... it's a magical experience, and a great way to think about, talk about, and learn about writing.

At some point in the future, I'll likely post more of my favorite titles along these lines, but for today I wanted to keep it tight, and just include my favorites ... all of these are gems.

Thanks,

Jamie



8/22/2018

Storyteller versus Writer


I tell people I'm a writer.

It's possible that I'm lying ... or at least that I think I'm lying.

I'm a student of story. I love the feel and shape of a good story. I've spent my life enjoying watching, listening to, and reading stories that other people tell; after a lifetime in the pursuit of story, I generally know which way a good one will bend and twist before sticking its landing.

It's this gift, or skill, that gave me the courage to write Here Be Monsters, my first novel. I knew that I could tell a story, having absorbed thousands (maybe tens of thousands) in my life, and knew the guy, and place, and situation, I wanted to wrap the story around.

It's a good story ... it could be written better. The subsequent novels and novellas were written better, and were still good stories.

The dozens of short stories I've got printed out and milling around in my office are all good stories ... the question I'm hoping to answer in the positive at the end of my time at Goddard is whether or not they're well written, crafted.


I think that a story being well-written goes beyond spelling and grammar and syntax ... it plums the depths of craft, along with the iterative, obsessive, practice of polish.

The concept of polish is the hill upon which my becoming a writer very often hangs, and stalls ... working the story again and again and again, then dusting it off and working it some more, until there are no bumps or snags in the flow of words or sentences, dialog or exposition, that drop the reader out of the hallucinatory trance the story has lulled them into.

I have, in the past, been satisfied with telling a cool story, comfortable in the knowledge that my ability to communicate that story through words is sufficient for transmission from my brain to my reader's ... the pursuit of my MFA at Goddard has been the pursuit of a greater understanding of the writer who lives within the storyteller I am, and to encourage the writer to work just as hard as the storyteller.

I feel that I am in the midst of a transformative process, sliding along a continuum towards the writerly end of things while hopefully still maintaining the storyteller ... I imagine the writer abides in the brain, roaming up and down the dusty shelves that line the passages of my skull, while the storyteller lives in my heart, beating and racing and rushing with my excitement each time we sit down at the laptop with an idea as our polestar.


Anyway, that's what I was thinking when I woke up this morning (which is a polite way to say "when Olive woke me up because she thought she heard a bear outside") ... I'm ready for my second cup of coffee.

Thanks for indulging me ... keep reading, I'll keep writing (and storytelling).

Jamie

8/03/2018

3 Easy Ways to Build Your Writing Community


Writing is a task best done by oneself.

Wait, that's not true ... let me rephrase that to explain how I'm right, as well as how I'm wrong.

Writing your first draft is generally best done in private; what happens before and after that first draft is best done in some form of writing community.

One of the ways in which writing is difficult, at least for me, is that dichotomy, the bi-directional pull of introvert and extrovert.



I love sitting alone for hours or days, pulling stories out of dark corners of my brain, but I need people outside of my skull to help me polish my work, and eventually, hopefully, to enjoy it.

Finding and maintaining the balance is, I believe, critical to the success of any writer ... I don't claim to have THE answers, but I have some answers that have worked for me.


Three things I've found helpful in building a functioning writing ecosystem for myself to live, and flourish, within (in addition to the lonely writer/writing thing, which I've got down) are:
  • Writing exercises
  • Reading group
  • Writing group



Writing Exercises: I like story dice as writing prompts. Roll the dice, have everyone fix on one or more of the images, write for 10-15 minutes, then everyone who's comfortable shares what they wrote. It's a great way to prime your creative pump, work on building from bare ideas, and growing your comfort with sharing material with people.


Reading Group: There are tons of wonderful books on the craft of writing, and the writing life, and getting together with a group of writers to talk about one of them once a month or so is a great way to learn about writing as well as learn from other writers. I started a writers bookclub in Keene, and it's growing each month, with each book we read and talk about amongst ourselves.


Writing Group: sharing your writing with a group aimed at getting feedback on how to improve your material can be intimidating, but it's an invaluable resource and aid in polishing your craft and your product. Finding the right group for you can be difficult, as different groups have widely varying goals and methods; you should try any given group for a couple of sessions to see how the fit feels, and then either fully invest or move on in search of a better fit.

Where? ... How?
All three of the tools I've mentioned may already exist in your neighborhood, or at least nearby. If you ask people at indie bookstores and your local library, or search FB or Google, you will likely find numerous options.

If for whatever reason, these things don't exist near you, or the configuration for some reason (time, distance, population, focus, etc.) doesn't work for you, then you're in luck ... you can start your own.

Ask the library or bookstore if they'll let you use the space to start a group for any/all of these activities, and you'll generally be pleasantly surprised at their reply.

Once you begin making regular use of these three devices to grow and nourish your writing community, you'll be surprised at the improvement in the output and quality of your writing.

JS

6/21/2018

Exploring Iceland in Relentless Daylight

I just got back from two weeks in Iceland with my wife and son. We had a spectacular time exploring the fascinating island-nation. It occurred to me on landing back at Logan at sunset the other night, driving home in the dark through legions of Masshole drivers, that we'd been living in the light for two weeks.

Although the sun technically sets for an hour or two out of every 24 at this time of year, the sky never gets darker than a cloudy afternoon. We'd flown in, rented a car, and spent the last two weeks driving Route 1, also called the Ring Route, which circles Iceland.

Iceland is huge, and although summer is the crowded season, we more often than not found ourselves alone in the spectacular countryside, which has been shaped by fire and ice over the last few million years.


The natural world feels fierce to one experiencing it through Iceland ... all sharp edges and roaring water, walls of ice and untenable heat.

The things of man skirt or drape the powerful forces that shaped, and are still shaping, the world we wandered through, a feeling of man's impermanence being one of the big takeaways from our time out on walkabout (driveabout).

Things not tended by the people living there will be swallowed up quickly.

Route 1 is at its best a two-laner, but most of the time is dominated by wild sheep, unpaved sections, blind hills/turns, and one lane tunnels and bridges ... at most any time, you can stop in the middle of the road for a picture or pee-break, and not worry about traffic from either direction for minutes (or hours).

Glaciers and rivers work tirelessly to cut through layers of volcanic rock and hexagonal crystals deposited by volcanoes over the millennia.

Although smaller in size than New York State, Iceland varies from day to day (sometimes mile to mile) as you wander along the roads men have scratched upon her surface. It would take a truly jaded soul not to be amazed a hundred times each day while exploring.

There's something about the power of the forces at work on the land, the roaring and the absolute quiet, the baking heat that comes from the ground through the soles of your shoes in places along with the chill wind that rushes down from glaciers above at all hours ... it inspires, pushing and pulling at your brain, prompting a new contemplation of your relationship with the world you live upon.

This cave gave us shelter from a cold morning, steam from the geothermally-heated water pouring in from a thousand fissures in the floor and walls forcing balance with the sleet the skies were hurling at us.

The fjords and mountains fields of lupine (a stranger, introduced and since run rampant across the countryside) threaten constantly to overwhelm the senses ... I had ideas for new stories, and for reworking stories I've already written, a dozen, a hundred, times a day, but most of them were chased away by the onslaught before I could catch and write them down.

The two-way, one-lane tunnels (and bridges, to a lesser extent for reasons I don't fully understand) forced a focus I generally tried to avoid while experiencing Iceland ... in the minutes I was involved with negotiating these I had no time or space in my head for anything but muscle-memory driving and paying attention to visual stimuli.

It was bracing, if scary, but in a good way (after the fact).

Every Icelandic horse with blond hair reminds me of Jon Bon Jovi, and I spent parts of each day humming "Living on a Prayer".

Thanks to the superabundance of both geothermal energy and water in Iceland, every town has a sundlaug, or public pool, and we stopped off to revel in most of them.

The rigidly enforced policy/practice of showering to clean before getting in the pools is at first nervous-making to body-shy Americans (or at least it was to me, especially when changing and bathing in front of young children of both sexes), but after a time it just is ... the precursor to a relaxing and enervating ritual that I came to love, and have been missing since we got home.

The picture above is of Grettislaug, a hot pot out in the wild, at the end of a rugged peninsula pointing at the Arctic ... this pool, unlike the tame ones in towns and villages across Iceland, had a healthy colony of algae growing on the bottom and a few spots in the floor where superheated water that would have raised blisters in a few seconds if not avoided kept it full, and me warm on a cold and breezy day by the Greenland Sea.

The churches, and spirituality, of Iceland and Icelanders never ceased to inspire. In places where there didn't seem to be enough people to fill a phonebooth you could always find a church in a place/position that made it clear the natural world was a part of the belief system. There was also ample evidence of a deep, millennia-old, faith in the existence of elfs, fairies, and witches.

As the sky was always light, and the summer was reputed to be the high season, we generally started and ended our days early, adjusting our clocks so that we'd be out of sync with crowds that never really materialized.

I found it bizarre to be so wedded to my watch for a sense of time during the weeks we spent in Iceland ... I have spent much of my life satisfied with looking at the sky, and knowing within a few hours what time of day it was, there was no way to do that on this trip, and I became a slave to my watch's version of time, even though I generally had nowhere to be, nothing to do, besides be.

Circumnavigating Iceland gave me a host of new ideas, new moods, new colors with which to paint my stories ... although we've been back a few days now, I can still feel it all soaking in, things finding their final form, or shape, in the parts of my brain where I store memories.

The vastness still defies imagination, the hours we spent alone on the road, or in the mountains, sheep and wind for allies, seem something made up, a dream.

I loved exposing myself to the numbing wind off the sea on this day ... in much the same way that I loved exposing myself to the tireless magnificence of Iceland every day. I could feel layers of boring, commonplace, sameness peeling away, abraded off of me by what I saw and did along Route 1.

Nobody is the same from one day to another, but I genuinely feel that my life and brains and soul and path going forward have been irrevocably altered by the counter-clockwise path I followed around the rim of this amazing country for 14 days.

Hákarl keeps bouncing around in my brain ... it's fermented/putrefied Greenland Shark t5hat captures something of the essence of Iceland for me.



Hard winters make for hard choices. Icelanders knew that eating Greenland Sharks made them sick (or killed them if they ate enough), but starving was also a bad option. Some brave soul discovered that shark they'd buried for a few months had benefited from the degradation of the overwhelming amounts of urea in the flesh into ammonia that would mostly evaporate if they left the exhumed shark hanging in the wind for a few additional months.



More than any other nasty food of which necessity is the mother, Hákarl had always fascinated me, so I made a point of stopping at the museum celebrating the "food", which also happens to be the nation's top producer of the stuff ... we all tried some, and although it's not going to replace steak or nachos in my diet, I could manage it if I had to in order to survive.

The thing that grabbed me is that these vikings who'd left their homes in Europe behind, to settle this rough and brutal island far to the north, found a way to push back at lack and starvation and death ... to shout no in the face of literal darkness (as in the summer it never truly gets dark, so in the winter it never truly gets light in Iceland).

Something in me changed when I learned about, and tasted, Hákarl.

We explored the inside of a volcanic tube, venturing more than hundred feet, through cavern after cavern down and away from the light and warmth up above. When we had reached the deepest point of our journey, the guide with us asked everyone to turn off their lights and stand quietly in absolute darkness ... the first we'd seen since arriving, maybe ever.

It was interesting to hear the drips of water filtered through a thousand cracks in the volcanic rock all around us, to feel the coldness pulling at the edges of our clothes in search of warmth to steal, to feel the dark, a solid and powerful thing, pushing at my eyeballs ... it looked the same in any direction, with eyelids open or closed, with fingers in front of or pushing at my eyeballs.

It was an unnerving experience, more so given we'd been living in perpetual light for weeks, and we all rose back into the world of the light and the living different than we'd been an hour earlier.

I'm interested to see what the new Jamie is, the Jamie who went behind this waterfall with his love, and came out the other side ... who saw the sun set on June 4th, and then not again until the 18th, who explored the fire and the ice, who was scraped and polished by wind and sand.

I feel as though I stepped off the world for a couple of weeks, and returned a radically changed man.

My writing will be, must be, altered by the changes, the miles, the nightless nights ... I'm eager to meet the new me, and to share him with the new world I've rejoined.

JS - 6/21/18