Monday afternoon the program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts announced its scholarship awards. Members of my class, the Magic Ifs, received several honors and awards and I was so, so pleased for all of them, because I knew how hard they had worked.
The last award of the day was the Norma Fox Mazer, which is awarded for the first twenty pages, plus synopsis, of a young adult novel.
Martine Leavitt presented the award on behalf of the committee of three. She said wonderfully complimentary things about the manuscript, which included something like "in the spirit of Norma Fox Mazer," and some specific details that I no longer remember because when Martine said, "The Norma Fox Mazer award goes to Katherine Quimby," all coherent thought vanished from what was not really a mind at that moment.
What I do remember:
- Feeling stunned in the best possible way. For all the good things that have happened in my life, I did not know it was possible to be this overwhelmed and overjoyed. It was a Sally Field moment.
- The warmth and kindness in Martine's smile, like she knew how I felt, when I didn't quite know myself.
- The applause, the cheers, the sheer sound that filled College Chapel. WCYA people--your support will buoy me for the rest of my writing days.
- Needing to hug Tom Birdseye as a way of thanking him for being the advisor who made that award possible (more on that in a minute)
- Martine's hands guiding me so that someone could take a photo--I did not know where to look.
- My Magic(al) Ifs surrounding me with love when I finally got back to my seat and collapsed.
While I can't say that I knew Norma Fox Mazer, I did meet her, in 2006, when she and Carolyn Coman were the YA and Middle Grade author-faculty at the SCBWI New England Novel Writers' Retreat.
Kara LaReau came instead, which was how I met Kara--Yay!)
Norma Fox Mazer gave an inspiring presentation on structure, one that will come as no surprise to those of us now at VCFA, but which was a new concept to me at the time. I found my notes today, and they are as helpful--if more familiar--now as they were then. Here's one metaphor: "Structure is the bottle that holds the wine of the story together."
From my notes, from being in Norma Fox Mazer's presence, and from knowing the high esteem in which she is held by former students like Sarah Aronson and Martine Leavitt, I have a sense of her high standards and what she valued in writing. I am truly humbled at the thought that what I was working on last semester in some way measures up to those standards.
I had so many doubts about that project--about the story, about decisions I made about how to tell it, about my ability to tell it in the way it seemed to need to be told. The beauty of being in the MFA program was that I could share those doubts with my advisor, and Tom Birdseye, to his great credit, asked the right questions and, more importantly, encouraged me to keep going as long as I felt compelled to move forward with the story.
So I kept going, except for a week or so in October, when I went back and revised the first twenty pages and wrote the synopsis so that I could enter them for the scholarship award. And then, when I went back to drafting, it took me a long time to get back into the story. In my next packet letter, I wrote Tom that it might have been a mistake to go back. Let's just say, I no longer feel that way.
Receiving this award will make a difference to my work from here on out. It's not that all my doubts have completely vanished. I think, for me at least, a certain level of doubt, of self-doubt, of questioning, is helpful. It puts consideration of the story's needs first when I am writing. But the award does tell me that any doubts I had about the value of taking creative risks have diminished. From here out I will take those risks, knowing that if they work, it will be worth it--and if they don't, "all" I have to do is try something else.
I will also continue to listen to that inner voice when it says, "try this." And if it feels right, I will continue to keep going until I reach the end, or until it no longer feels right, whichever comes first. And if it stops feeling right, after two semesters of MFA work, I have more tools to figure out where it might have gone wrong and how I might be able to redirect.
I know I have much work to do to revise the rest of the manuscript that was recognized. It is work that I was going to do anyway, because this story has not let me go--I can feel it as an almost physical presence in the left half of my body. But receiving the Norma Fox Mazer award gives me that much more faith that I am capable of doing the work that is necessary.
Finally, I have to say, we do not achieve like this all by ourselves. Indeed, this work would not have existed at all if I had not had Tom Birdseye as my advisor. Going into second semester, I was considering at least four projects and I decided I would let the advisor I was matched with determine the project I would work on. Other possible projects were a fantasy I took to workshop and a completely different contemporary YA novel.
I may have done the work, but the revisions I made were done keeping in mind Tom's specific suggestions and questions about certain aspects of the work. Tom's interest in the project made me brave enough to dare to submit.
And HH's continued faith in my abilities and his support for my work, which extends to saying "Okay," when I announce immediately after the "I'm home" kiss that I need to go back up to my office for another half hour to finish something. If we achieve, it is because others have faith in us, sometimes when we doubt ourselves, faith that encourages us to put forth our best efforts.
One week after receiving the Norma Fox Mazer award, I am still amazed, but I am more focused--focused on continuing to take creative risks, to explore and expand my skills, to do my best work, to write in a way that honors an amazing author who left us too soon.
- Current Mood: accomplished
Zarr's post reminded me of something my VCFA advisor, Tom Birdseye, said in a lecture last residency: "We get to do this work." He meant it two ways--no one is making us sit down and write stories, and we are privileged, because we have the time and skills and desire, and not everyone has those things. At least for me, gratitude comes hand-in-hand with that privilege.
And I think that gratitude can keep us writing even when editors haven't loved one of our stories enough to want to invest in it, even when the rest of the world may look at us askance, because we have no product to show for our efforts.
I don't know about you, but I am deeply, profoundly grateful that I get to write stories. I've always loved books and reading and I knew for years that I wanted to do something with books and stories, but the paths I tried--the ones that provided me with income, were never quite right. No matter what, I still had this core of dissatisfaction, this sense that there was something I was supposed to be doing, and the thing I was doing was not it. It wasn't until--in the middle of a deep, dark night that was a true deep, dark night of the soul--I allowed myself to want to be a writer, to want to write and tell stories, that dissatisfaction turned to satisfaction. At last, I felt that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt as right as I have ever felt.
There are many, many ways to describe that feeling: a calling, chakras in alignment, taking the hero's journey. It doesn't matter what the name is, all I know is that I am so grateful to have that feeling, because I could have gone a lifetime without ever finding it.
So yes, gratitude keeps romance alive.
The passing of Dave Brubeck saddens me, even if 91 years is a long time to live. As everyone commemorated his passing, I couldn't help but be reminded of what we writers can learn from the jazz greats, who mastered their craft until they didn't have to think about craft but could springboard from the basics in whatever direction inspiration led.
In Brubeck's case, so often the direction was toward joy.
Over at The Atlantic, there's an excellent appreciation: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/a
Plot summary: Every day of his life A has woken up in a different body. Now a teenager, he wakes up one day in a boy's body and falls in love with this boy's girlfriend, Rhiannon. How he works out the dilemma of being with her when he's sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes Caucasian, sometimes African American, sometimes Asian, sometimes gay, sometimes straight, makes for a fascinating story of who we are and how much we do or do not depend on our bodies.
As a reader: This novel hits on all the things that I love, because I've always been more interested in character than in plot and this novel really focuses on characters, fascinating ones. It was so interesting to watch Rhiannon react to A, as well as to see him try to figure out how to deal with being accused of being a demon by Nathan. It also addresses things like gender, sexuality, and race in interesting ways and asks us to think about some deep questions like how much appearances do matter and whether personality is something separate from the body.
As a writer: In creating A, Levithan does something very interesting. Usually a protagonist is a collection of characteristics, some physical, some mental, some spiritual. They have backstories and relationships and everything people have in real life. A has only the mental and spiritual, and a few specific memories of different people he inhabited. But for all that, he manages to come across as a distinct personality, someone who reacts in a given situation in particular ways. You might say, A is all voice.
The concept also makes for some interesting plotting questions: How do you create an antagonist? What are the plot constraints? How do you decide which types of bodies to inhabit when?
I loved this one so much I'm going to buy it as soon as I return the library's copy.
I've been reading Claudia Johnson's Writing Short Screenplays that Connect, and, like many guides to craft, she talks about choosing the telling details that will illustrate character or set scene. Like many other writers on character and scene, she advises people to choose unusual details, using words she attributes to Grace Paley: "Don't grab the first fish that swims by."
I thought about this yesterday, when I ran across a few "first fish," that I would really not like to see again:
1) Eating ice cream as a cure for woe, especially a bad break-up. Mandatory: eating straight from the pint (or quart or half-gallon) tub with a spoon. Preferably with a friend. I don't know where this one got started, but it's become cliche. I've seen it in enough so that the only time I'd want to see it again is if someone is telling me this character is so shallow she even suffers according to a script.
2) Ditto chocolate. I say this knowing full well that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who adore chocolate. I lived with one until August of this year (*waves to BD*). But like ice cream, it's so common it doesn't tell us a whole lot about the person involved unless you get really specific (Fair Trade, organic, nut-free 80% cacao, bag of Hershey's Kisses with Almond).
3) If your historical novel is set somewhere between 1950 and 1970, avoid using the plastic covers on the furniture as shorthand for conformity. I swear, I've read this more than I ever experienced it.
Have you seen any "first fish" you'd like to let pass? Leave them in comments and we'll populate a school.
Writer friends, what do you think?
So I went to find a video--you can take a look at the official one below. Man, is it ever 80s! Which means it now looks dated. But the song itself hasn't dated as much. At least, it speaks to me, even though I'm not of the same generation as either the song or the video.
It speaks because what we do as writers is so much about keeping the faith, and not only with whatever we're working on at the time. But also with where our stories come from, that place deep within where we have what Billy Joel and Eddie Izzard and all kinds of artists call "the hunger." That hunger, too, is something we have to keep faith with, though not in its trappings ("Sen-Sen" and "Old Spice"), but in the essence, ("the wild boys were my friends").
Once we have that faith, we do all kinds of things to keep it--we create playlists, read only certain kinds of books (or don't read certain kinds of books), gather experiences outside of our "normal" lives.
I hope you're keeping the faith in whatever way works best for you. If you'd like to share, I'd love to know.
And if you'd like to listen to a much better version of this song, go to the original recording. The stick work on the drums is clean, the saxes are clear, and Billy Joel pushes the vocals just enough.
I remember exactly where I was on July 20, 1969.
Sitting on the couch in my parents' livingroom, watching a black and white television. The picture wasn't the best. In addition to the grainy images transmitted from the moon, we lived in a hollow, so our TV reception, in those antenna-only days, was also not the best.
All the same, it is a moment I will never forget. When Neil Armstrong took that one small step, it truly was a giant leap for humanity. It didn't only mean that we could get from the earth to the moon. It meant that we human beings were capable of doing great things.
I remember, too, thinking about how many other people were doing the same thing I was, sitting somewhere and watching this great achievement, which really was for all of us.
Rest in Peace, Neil Armstrong. You and your comrades inspired the world.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s post “Does MFA = Publication” got under my skin.
It took me a long while to figure out why, because Laurie is one of my writing heroes and has been ever since I heard her keynote at the SCBWI conference a few years ago. (Before that, I admired her writing and her courage in picking tough subject matter.)
And I don’t totally disagree with Laurie—I am with her in finding the equation of writing degree with credentials is false (although an MFA will qualify you to teach at the college level).
Don't get me wrong, either. I know Laurie isn't saying an MFA isn't worth it. She's very careful not to. Laurie is a most rational person.
But here’s the thing: there are no guarantees. Period. Those theater MFAs that Laurie mentions, waving banners outside the pizza place, are also going on auditions. Only one of them will get a given role. Some might end up going home. Some might end up working as administrators to a town board and acting in community theater. If they are satisfied with their lives, that’s fine.
We writers in MFA programs may not end up full-time writers. We may teach, we may edit, we may be an administrator to a town board and write on evenings and weekends. We may put together a patchwork career that works for us. We may already have done that. We may have found we like a patchwork career, that doing one thing all the time doesn’t suit us. If we’re satisfied with our lives, that’s fine.
Even if we go to workshops and conferences and read and practice, there's no guarantee we'll find a publisher who wants to take us on. Even if our writing is fine and our story has a good hook, those aren't guarantees we’re going to be published, not in this day and age. And if we self-publish, there's no guarantee we'll find an audience. There are no guarantees. Period.
So here’s what I say.
If you walk into a creative writing class and the teacher wants to crush your spirit or mold you into a clone of themselves, walk out, transfer, do whatever you need to do to keep your dream intact. Find another teacher, one who nurtures you, sets your writing free.
If you walk into a creative writing class and every session turns into a hyena frenzy over a giraffe, walk out, drop the class, transfer, do whatever you need to do to keep your dream intact. Find another class where the students praise strengths, point out weaknesses and ask questions. This class will set your writing free.
If you want to earn an MFA, don’t look at the names, either of the institution or the faculty. Talk to alumni, listen to gossip, visit, see if this is going to be a supportive, nourishing environment that you want to spend two years with. If it’s right for you, it will set your writing free.
And if you decide you want to earn an MFA, don’t listen to anyone who tells you it isn’t practical or it’s not a real degree (yes, heard that) or that they heard someone had a horrible experience.
Don't let anyone--not Laurie Halse Anderson, not me, not your mother or your sweetheart--crush your creative dream. Because it's yours, you are the only one who can make it real.
*For the record, I have a B.A. in German and English from Colby College, an MA from the University of Vermont, did not finish a Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis, and am currently earning an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I am not borrowing heavily to earn my current degree, although I am not saving for retirement either. And I am lucky; I have a most supportive husband.
- Current Music:"Hold on Tight" Electric Light Orchestra